Tuesday, March 11, 2008

2. Pray, fast, and do acts of mercy.

From Khouria Frederica:

These are the "big three" in the Sermon on the Mount; Jesus says, "when you pray...", "when you fast...", "when you give alms...", and so clearly expects that we will do these things. I am so grateful to be at home in Orthodoxy, where I don't have to figure out for myself what these instructions mean and to what extent they're to be done. I just join in the community.

You must pray, and not just when you are in church. The Didache (a Christian text written about the same time as the Gospels) says that you should say the Our Father three times a day. Do that, at least. I found that my spiritual life really took off when I began to observe several brief prayer times in the day, rather than just one "devotional time" alone.

And sometime long ago I heard it suggested that a good time to have that devotional time is in the middle of the night, when there are no distractions and you don't feel rushed. I have been getting up to pray since I was pregnant with Megan, over 31 years. It is wonderful. (I go back to bed again afterwards! When I was interviewed for a Christianity Today video and mentioned this, they had the idea that I got up at 3:00 am to pray and just *stayed up*).

I sprinkle the other elements of my prayer regimen around the day. At the midnight rising I say the midnight / morning prayers, the Nicene Creed, Psalm 50, and 100 Jesus Prayers. In the morning, I pray in our icon corner, and do my intercessory lists and read the synaxarion. At sunset 3 days a week I'm at vespers, and the other days I am trying to form the habit of Trisagion prayers and the church prayer list. At bedtime, I say the evening prayers and try to go to sleep while praying in depth for someone; I have a 300-knot prayer rope, and do 100 each for 3 different people, if I last that long without falling asleep. My spiritual father, Fr George Calciu, had told me to spend a half hour daily "thinking good things about someone" and I have never found a way to implement that; this is the latest attempt.

"Acts of mercy" includes the tithe (10% of gross income to the church), almsgiving (some other amount to charities and the poor), and in general showing kindness. Charity is the Latin word caritas, love; in Greek it's agape. Love is the test of whether your other spiritual disciplines are working. If your prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy are being done "right", you will find that you feel more love toward others.

"Fasting" is the one I feel like I still don't get. I can do it--as long as I know what the "rules" are, I can meet them. I don't cheat on the fast (but with my hypoglycemia the dietician said I should take some milk and yogurt daily, and I don't fast strictly when I travel). But I sure don't feel like I get any benefit from fasting. It's like any other chore--you do it, and then it's over. I have the impression that most other people get something from it--a sense of self-mastery or victory perhaps. For me, its just trudging along. So I sure can't teach anyone else about fasting, because I don't really understand it myself. But I trust the Church, which is wiser than I am, so I do it.


Emily said...

Khouria, this is so helpful! I love the Orthodox idea of grounding the day in prayer, rather than having one big "devotional" time, which can be harder to fit in. Ten minutes a day, a few times a day, is manageable. (In fact, from a piano teacher's perspective, this is the best way to practice anything!)

I just wanted to comment right away on what you said about fasting. For me, Great Lent is a lot easier after having done it a dozen times; the increased time at church and solidarity with the community really helps. What's hard for me are the other fasts, especially the Advent fast. As Orthodox, we are so at odds with the rest of the world in this regard: while we're fasting in preparation for the Nativity of Christ, everyone else is partying like crazy! It's hard to know how to avoid these situations and how to participate when they're unavoidable (when invited by relatives or close friends.) Even Great Lent can be that way when it's almost a month removed from Western Lent, as in this year. It would be great if we lived in an Orthodox bubble, but we don't, and I have a feeling part of what we're meant to learn through fasting includes dealing with this aspect of our fallen world.

Ina said...

I am with Frederica in having to trust about fasting...I am sure the problem is my own perception of my approach to the discipline. I found the article on the Holy Cross website. The Meaning of the Great Fast by Kallistos Ware to be revealing for me. Even though I had heard it before, this year it rang a new tone for me. “Such is the function of the hunger and the tiredness: to make us 'poor in spirit', aware of our helplessness and of our dependence on God's aid. “ “Even if the fast proves debilitating at first, afterwards we find that it enables us to sleep less, to think more clearly, and to work more decisively.”

ButI ask myself, 'What is going on when I fail to attain this lightness and spiritual energy?' In the same article he quotes Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, “If it is not accompanied by prayer and an increased spiritual life, it merely leads to a heightened state of irritability.” I have certainly found this is the case with me. However, it also seems to be a concept easier to acknowledge than to practice. But Kallistos’ warning makes it sound like renewed efforts to find increased spiritual life is a must…he says “Fasting, then, is valueless or EVEN HARMFUL when not combined with prayer.”

meg said...

I have a Catholic friend who once told me how she loves to leave tempting food out where she can see it. "It makes me feel so spiritually powerful to just walk right by a candy bar and resist the temptation!"

I feel more like an addict who daily faces my worst temptation. Like a recovering alcoholic who works in a bar.

My struggle is to struggle. It's too easy not to struggle at all.

But I think of my fiend and I try to think of fasting as a way to become spiritually powerful. I strive to one day feel closer to God when I pass by a candy bar and sucessfully resist it. But for now I'm the recovering addict. I'm in no way powerful.

This way of looking at fasting is simplistic compared to the richness of the Orthodox tradition, I suppose, but it's where I am at right now. :-)

jocelyn said...

I admire your prayer life, Frederica. For me it is so much easier to be disciplined about food than with my time. (And that's not really saying much.) I spend so much of my day being task-oriented that I have a hard time leaving room for God... and if I do it's easy to make my relationship with God a task instead.

Em said...

A wee thought:

It's Christ's blood that is shed for the salvation of our souls and bodies. We are asked to avoid the life-giving forces of any other creature so that the pulse of Christ's life, His mercy, His love and His peace is what we begin to long for. Like the ark, where for 40 days all living creatures were slowly drowned, may our 40 days of Lent destroy in us the desire to be buoyed by anything else but Jesus. The fast helps me realize what is in my heart -- what do I truly long for?

Carla said...

I, too, struggle with task-orientation in my life, where somehow I feel better about myself when I accomplish tasks, and where the tasks seem so all-important. It is puzzling that on the one hand I know that drawing near to Christ is sooo much more fulfilling and important than getting any one of those tasks done and yet....

The Forty Maxims

  • 1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  • 2. Pray, fast and do acts of mercy.
  • 3. Read the Scriptures regularly.
  • 4. Read good books, a little at a time.
  • 5. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  • 6. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  • 7. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  • 8. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  • 9. Be honest, first of all with yourself.
  • 10. Be faithful in little things.
  • 11. Do your work, then forget it.
  • 12. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  • 13. Face reality.
  • 14. Be grateful.
  • 15. Be cheerful.
  • 16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  • 17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.
  • 18. Listen when people talk to you.
  • 19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  • 20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  • 21. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  • 22. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis.
  • 23. Flee carnal things at their first appearance.
  • 24. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  • 25. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  • 26. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  • 27. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  • 28. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  • 29. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  • 30. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  • 31. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  • 32. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  • 33. Be strict with yourself.
  • 34. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  • 35. Do nothing for people that they can do for themselves.
  • 36. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  • 37. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  • 38. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  • 39. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  • 40. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.