Practical Instructions in
Below follows an edifying letter to one of our parishioners,
which we thought would be of profit to you all.
Greetings in Christ from Dormition Skete. Glory to God Who has brought you to the threshold of His Kingdom! May He complete the work which He has begun.
The Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church which our Lord Jesus Christ founded through His Apostles, and which has been transmitted throughout the ages through the bishops who have been faithful to His teachings. As you must know by now, Christ did not found over 2,000 different “Christian” Churches, each proclaiming its own version of what Christ taught. He founded one Church, which has one Faith and one teaching. This is the Orthodox Church. It is the living repository of all the mysteries which God has revealed to man.
The more you grow in Orthodoxy, the more spiritual joy will fill your heart. As a convert myself, I know the difference clearly between life with Christ, and life without Him. But your spiritual journey is only beginning, for once you receive the grace of the Holy Spirit through holy baptism, your whole being will begin to be transformed, into that which is in accordance with God’s will. A person before holy Baptism is tyrannized by the devil, in such a manner that he can be forced to commit sins which he doesn’t want to. The reason for this is that the devil resides in the heart of the person outside the Church. But once he is baptized, the devil is cast out of his heart, into the outer recesses of his soul. The devil is still there, and can tempt a person, but he cannot force him any longer to commit sins he doesn’t want to. In baptism, freedom which you have never known is given to you, and it is truly a wonderful gift.
But I am speaking of something which will happen in God’s time, when you are ready. Now what you must do is learn about the Faith and begin to attempt to live an Orthodox life. You must learn to acquire virtue. That includes the external virtues of fasting, praying with your voice, being obedient, reading spiritual books, and the internal virtues, such as love, compassion, humility, patience, and prayer only with your mind, silently within your heart, etc...
The path of the monastic and layman are not that different. Both follow Christ as much as they are able. The monastic life is called the glory of the Church, for it is the perfect fulfillment of the commandments as much as is possible for the earthborn, nevertheless, the layman follows the same path as the monk, as much as he is able. I mention this because I would like to offer you some practical advice, which is advice that Father Gregory has given me over the years. Although some of it is advice for a monk, you will still find much benefit in it.
Each day an Orthodox Christian begins by thinking of God, and beseeching Him to help him live a life pleasing to Him. Let each morning that you rise begin with the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”, while you make the sign of Cross. Ask God to grant that no temptations befall you or your family this day, and ask Him to grant you the strength to do His will. During the day, try to say the above prayer, Lord Jesus Christ....as much as you can, without being distracted from your work. When you get into your car, say it. When you begin washing the dishes, say it. While you chew your food, you can say it in your mind in rhythm with your chewing. If you take to heart these simple admonitions, I can’t tell you what kind of happiness God is going to put inside you. You will find out for yourself.
The idea behind saying this prayer, called the Jesus Prayer, is for you to come to realize that God is a living being, and He is continually looking right at you. First, we must learn to fear God, because He has the power to send us into everlasting torment. In this state, you are like a slave of Christ. You do His will, because you don’t want Him to punish you, either now, or later. After this, you come to the state of an employee, or servant as the Fathers teach, for lack of a better word. You do God’s will because, like the hireling, you know that He will reward you for your labor. Finally, though, you come to the state of a son, where you do His will, simply because you love Him and know that you are loved, and you want to do everything you possibly can to make Him happy. You don’t think about Him punishing you, for perfect love casts out fear. Nor do you think of the rewards He will grant you, for simply serving Him is more happiness than any man can ask for.
There is one thing which you have to understand from the very outset of your spiritual contest: you are embarking on a very long journey, and there are many, many pitfalls along the way. You will fall into some of them, but don’t be afraid, this is all a part of the journey. The acquisition of the virtues is not something we master in one week, or one year, or even 10 years. You’re in this for life. Keeping that in mind, you have to resolve to be exceedingly patient with yourself, realizing that you are only a babe, and are not capable yet of even walking. And you need to have this kind of discernment with your husband and children, too. If you are just beginning, they are also, and it takes time to assimilate these things. I can’t overemphasize this for a person such as yourself, who truly loves God and wants to do His will, but at the same time is prone to melancholy. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time.
Let’s talk about another very important thing, which will help you greatly: Humility. Humility is something so beautiful, so holy, so near to God Himself, that I cannot even begin to describe the blessings that come to us through it. Let me ask you this: Do you know why Lucifer (Satan) fell from heaven and became a devil? It was because of one sin: pride. Lucifer thought that he was more glorious than his Creator, God. Can you imagine?! So, it was through one sin that Lucifer fell to the depths. Well, guess what? Man can be saved by one virtue alone: Humility. Yes. The Fathers of the Church (I’ll explain who they are in a moment) have taught us throughout the ages that a man can enter into the spiritual life, even if slowly, by simply being humble. Isn’t that marvelous? How can we be humble, you might wonder? Well, the ways of humility are many, but I will give you a few to start you off.
The first thing to keep in mind is that when you want to acquire a virtue, you have to ask God to help. This is humility. When we realize how weak we are, we turn to Him for help, and when we ask with humility, He helps us. Asking your spiritual father for advice is also a good way to acquire humility. “Ask your father, and he will tell you”, exhorts the Holy Spirit in the book of Proverbs.
Saint Dorotheos of Gaza, one of the Fathers of Church who lived in the 4th century, has a lot to say about humility. Quoting one of his superiors, he says, “Before anything else we need humility: a being ready to listen whenever a word is spoken to us, and to say, ‘I submit’, because through humility every device of the enemy, every kind of obstacle, is destroyed.” He says that even if we acquire all the other necessary virtues, they will not set us right without humility. On the other hand, as we said above, humility alone can save us, even if slowly.
Even if we are very weak, we cannot fast very much, we cannot make many prostrations or bows, we cannot stand very long in prayers, we can still be humble, which is one of the objects of all those other ascetical activities. So, let be set on humbling ourselves.
Here is another way to be humble. If someone blames you for something, we should take the blame without becoming angry. In fact, anger should be something foreign to us. If a person blames himself, rather than his neighbor, he will go on his way untroubled, unaffected, happy, and advancing in the commandments. This is actually the reason why Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, and Eve was put in subjection to Adam: neither one of them was willing to accept the blame for their actions. Adam blamed God Who gave him Eve; Eve blamed the serpent. Since no one was able to show a shred of humility, they were both expelled into our present pitiful condition. So, we should always blame ourselves for everything.
Here’s something else: a person riding in a limousine has quite a different mind set from someone who is riding down the street in a wheelchair, does he not? A person wearing a tuxedo thinks quite differently about himself than a beggar in rags, does he not? So, one way to acquire humility is to wear humble clothing, eat humble food, drive a humble car... you get the idea. But when you do these things, do them with our Lord in your mind, thinking, “O Lord, for Thy sake I will endure the shame of this or that thing.” This is beautiful, for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Thus far on humility. Now lets talk about prayer a little.
Prayer is the Mother of the all the virtues and is inseparable from humility. When we pray, even if we aren’t asking for a specific virtue, our souls are being cleansed of all the filthiness of the passions, which gives birth to the virtues. Prayer is the direct converse of man with God, which is something very special. How often should we pray? Without ceasing, as the Apostle Paul commands us. Just like a fish will die without water, so the Orthodox Christian will die without feeding his soul with the milk of prayer. For someone like you, who is far from the monastery, or even a church, prayer is extremely important. It is your life and you should come to love it with all your soul.
As we mentioned above, prayer and humility go hand in hand. A person who realizes how weak he is and how much he needs God’s help, will not cease from asking Him for His aid, lest his own inherent weakness come forth. Thus, through prayer he cleaves to God, which increases the humility in his soul.
As you grow in Orthodoxy, that growth will be inseparable from prayer. Think of that person to whom you are closest: this is how we must come to know our Lord, and this will come about through prayer.
Prayer is not always easy, for sometimes God withdraws from us, just like a mother might leave her baby alone, and let it cry a little and then come to it, so that the child’s attachment to her becomes very strong. The same happens to us with God. But don’t be discouraged: rather, be humble, and bless God and thank Him for whatever He allows to happen to you, since He certainly knows best. In doing this, you won’t become frustrated with your spiritual progress, and simply because of your patience, you move forward. One thing you should know, in the spiritual life you never stay the same, either you go forward, or you fall backward, so one has to compel oneself to go forward. Its not always easy, but this is the life that God demands from us. Keep in mind though, that progress is not always what we think it is. When a person goes to do his prayers, he desires it to be without distraction, and compunctionate. This doesn’t always happen. As we’re saying above, if a person endures whatever God sends during prayer with patience, he is going forward.
Let’s write now a little about family life for your benefit. An Orthodox household is like a sanctuary in this world of sin. An Orthodox home is full of love and concord. It is peaceful, as much as possible. When you receive your catalogue, and pick out the icons you desire, you should set aside a special place in the house where you all pray together in front of your icons. That’s your icon corner. People usually keep their holy books, their holy water, holy oil, and of course, their icons there, but, there should be at least 1 icon in every room of the house, except the bathroom, so that in whatever room you are in, you have a constant reminder of God. When you get up in the morning, you shouldn’t just walk by the icons, you should cross yourself and kiss them. And its good for us who haven’t been raised Orthodox to look at the icons, and rejoice in their beauty. Look at them as much as you can. Simply by looking at them, your soul becomes holy. Isn’t that wonderful? In the Church, God gives us so many ways of becoming close to Him.
The father is the leader of the house, and his wife is his helper. She isn’t his slave, and she is expected to voice concerns if there is danger, either spiritual or bodily, in some matter. But, the wife should learn to reverence her husband, and respect him out of love for him. In our culture this isn’t easy, since there has been a movement for many years to “liberate” women. This in fact enslaves them, sad to say. Of course, these rules are somewhat different if your spouse is not Orthodox.
Saint John Chrysostom gives a wonderful exposition of Orthodox marriage, truly founded on Christ, and blessed by Him. He says that the foundation of an Orthodox marriage is for each spouse to fulfill his/her duty before God, regardless of whether or not the other member does. Thus, it is the husband’s responsibility to love his wife, and it falls to the wife to be obedient to her husband. One thing that I found surprising in St. John’s writings is that the husband should never refer to his wife by her first name, but always with some affectionate name. The wife, for her part, should strive to be humble. Marriage, he says, is not a democracy. A democracy engenders discord and confusion. Rather, the family must advance in the commandments by fulfilling their own individual responsibilities, in the fear of God.
An Orthodox Christian should be modest. An Orthodox woman should wear dresses, not pants, and blouses that cover her arms. Pants are the clothing for men, and the rules of the Church forbid women from wearing men’s clothing and vice versa. The most God fearing women cover their heads with a kerchief whenever they go in public out of modesty. Although not many women do this, it should be your long term goal to accomplish this. Also, makeup is frowned upon, as St. Paul says in his Epistles. We should not strive to destroy the natural beauty which God has given to all women. The same can be said about earings that are not in the ears, but are put through the lips or nose. Many earings in the ear is too much also. People take things to excess, and try to justify it by saying, “This is beauty.” Imagine a beautiful icon, painted by a master. Suppose some novice painter came along and said, “Hey, I can make that picture better!” and then proceeded to destroy it. Well, this is how we are: God has made each one of us the way He wants. For us to paint or disfigure ourselves is an insult to Him.
The family should be taught modesty. In a good Orthodoxy family, the father and mother are modest even in front of their children, so as to teach them chastity. I don’t mean that couples shouldn’t be affectionate, but there should be a measure in front of others.
Now that I’ve mentioned children, here is what a good Orthodox child is like. First, he is obedient to his father and mother. He is diligent in his studies in the fear of God, and he also takes into his heart our Lord Jesus Christ. Just like his parents, who are his living model in everything, he should fast, unless he is below the age of 7, should pray, and in general be a good boy or girl. Sounds wonderful, but I know, being the oldest of 7, that it doesn’t always work that way. Once sin begins to manifest itself in the child, the parents are obliged to combat it, in whatever way they deem necessary. Spanking the child is not out of the question in an Orthodox family.
One thing which not many American families have, which I have noticed in several Orthodox families, is a lot of affection between parents and children. Affection is good, where the parent kisses the child at special times during the day. This is a simple thing, but it does have a wonderful impact on the children. It makes the whole atmosphere of the home holy, and gives the children the strength they need to maintain their Orthodoxy in a world of paganism.
What is the purpose of a man and woman being united in marriage? It is for one reason: their mutual salvation, and that of their children. If you keep this in mind, as the goal of what you all are striving towards, then life will become very, very beautiful, even if difficulties arise. When you stand with your husband before Christ at the dread Judgment, whether or not your children have been saved will be one of the big questions asked of you. You must do everything you can to instill within those children the love of the truth, which will plant in their hearts the love of Orthodoxy at the same time. This is your duty. You don’t have to worry about converting anyone else, or anything else, as much as your own family. I will answer, not for you at the Judgment, but I will be questioned as to whether I fulfilled my monastic vows or not. You, on the other hand, will be judged if you have been diligent to instruct your children to the knowledge of their Creator. How, pray tell, will you do your duty towards them? By doing what is right for your own soul, that is, all we have been discoursing on. Telling them is good: showing them by your actual deeds what they should do is far greater.
Well, after four pages of typed material you’ve probably got enough to think about and work on. Keep in mind that the Church is the sole reason why this earth exists, so that souls seeking God will find their salvation.
With love in Christ,
By Bishop John of Dormition Skete, Buena Vista, Colorado, when he was a young, simple monk.
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
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