Saturday, March 21, 2009

20. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.

From Kathy in Baltimore:

This is quite ironic that I somehow got this one. Emily says she had nothing to do with it! So, here it goes.

Maybe, I received it because I thought I was getting better with all my yakking about nothing and God doesn't want me to get to settled in that comfort zone. After all, it may seem a ways to me, but He knows how little I've actually come - and how far I've yet to go! There is always room for improvement. That is what I'm constantly telling my kids - once you've mastered something, move on. Don't stop; keep going. Endure to the end! I also try to model this for them, but come short often!

In Father Gregory's homily Sunday, he said something along the lines of this: As we get older and have hardships and experience, we come to the recognition / understanding that we need God's love and wisdom. I would agree; I don't know how I would manage life without God, and the older I get, the more I see His love towards me and all of us.

Elder Porphyrios, author of Wounded by Love, says that prayer is what you should do first for your children - not talk, manipulate or force - you should pray for people. That's truly loving them. But kids need to live it, feel it and experience it for themselves - otherwise it's not deeply rooted. The same goes for adults who are questioning God or struggling. I went to have coffee with some moms from my boys' school, and two of them said they were upset with God because of their parents' deaths. They know I am Orthodox, but I said nothing. (I know, it's hard to believe that I chose silence - yikes!) I don't think they were looking for answers; they just wanted to throw that out there. Or maybe they were, but one of them had to go home, so I didn't want to start something that heavy and not have time to discuss it. Perhaps, I should have said "God knows you and your pain and will help you through it if you turn it over to Him. And this is not the end of the story; our life here is temporary!" But I think sometimes saying nothing at first builds trust - or at least good listening skills, which are a rare commodity these days. (I'm up there with the best of them.)

Sooooo, the bottom line is to think and talk no more than necessary. To accomplish that, I have found that starting out with prayer transforms hearts, and then there is no need for words at all.

Friday, March 20, 2009

19. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.

From Aster in Maryland:

The first thing that came to mind when I read my maxim was “Three Questions,” one of the stories by Leo Tolstoy. I am sure everyone knows it.

To be awake is very difficult. It is the weakest part of my life, especially when I want to pray and to be with God without interference. This is my struggle. In my daily prayer or reading, I keep redoing the whole thing again. Some days I literally fight with myself, and I think, how can I make my mind to be still and say to God what I want say? If I can’t hear myself praying, how can God pay attention to me?

I think it is important to choose our prayer time. People tell me the best time to pray is at 3:00 PM. I did try it. I couldn’t keep it up. I read about the monks in the wilderness who practiced stopping their breathing, just to stop the outer noise of life from entering to their inner lives. Sometimes I try that hopelessly. I think our compassionate God reaches to help us when we really try.

I remember that in Gethsemane, the Lord said, “Sit here while I pray,” to Peter, James, and John. He came back and found them sleeping, and He said to them, “Could you not watch one hour? . . . The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mark 14:32-38)” Sometimes even when I’m talking to someone, while that person is talking to me, my mind is thinking something else. Then I read “Three Questions,” which told me I should always be awake and attentive.

Be Attentive: it means to give care, to offer help, to be devoted and to be thoughtful. It means, “Love one another.” In our modern world, time is money, and having money is very important; family and friends are not so important. But we have to have time to see them, to write them, to ask them if they need anything. This thing called “time” stole our love for each other. Since God Himself is Love, we are created out of Love. God gave us Himself, and gave us the new commandment through his apostles, saying: “Love one another; as I have loved you. (John 13:34)” Attentiveness is love, one of the greatest gifts anyone can have.

What makes us to be fully present where we are, is attention to our family, friends and community. I believe everyone can be awake and converse with God, but attentiveness is a blessing, a sacrifice. It is giving or sharing to another person without thinking twice. We should be awake, attentive, and fully present, where we are and with whom we are, because we are needed at that moment in that place.

May we all have a blessed Lent.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

18. Listen when people talk to you.

From Kate in California:

Most people say I am a good listener. I know and naturally practice the skills involved in active listening. I maintain eye contact, I nod, I ask clarifying questions, I nod some more, my facial expressions vary appropriately, and I insert "uh huh"s and "I understand"s at regular intervals. But sometimes I think I am too good at this kind of listening. While I make a sincere effort to "be a good listener" and I certainly succeed at giving the appearance of listening well, there are certain moments when I become aware that something more foundational is missing. My spirit is not still and my heart is not open. I'm trying too hard. It's too much about me.

One online article on active listening says "You should also try to respond to the speaker in a way that will both encourage him or her to continue speaking, so that you can get the information if [sic] you need." This placed alongside Wikipedia's entry ("[Active listening] focuses attention on the speaker") alerted me to part of my problem. Too often my listening is about me. It's about getting information. It's about making myself feel useful and needed. It's about reinforcing other's positive opinions of me.

I'm grateful that I've started to be able to discern when my listening is an act of striving. Now my prayer can be that I would "cease striving" in this area of my life, so that I might truly listen when people talk to me--all people--not least of whom are the three Persons of the Trinity. How wonderful would it be if prayer itself became this kind of open, other-centered listening! I think of the passage my husband and I were trying to memorize in February: "Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves" (Romans 12:9). The kind of listening that Fr. Hopko is talking about has this sincere love at its core. A love that desires to know the other and to do them good through an act of humble receptivity.

The other day my dear friend Carla drew my attention to a story that I've been told several times. That day I heard it for the first time. It became a new picture of love and intimacy for me. Here it is: A few years ago, I saw Dan Rather interview Mother Theresa. He asked her, “When you pray, what do you say?” Mother Theresa responded, “I don’t say anything, I listen.” Dan Rather, not satisfied with her answer, asked, “Well, then when you pray, what does God say?” Mother Theresa smiled and responded, “He doesn’t say anything either, he listens.”

Oh, to be there--quietly sitting in the presence of God--listening. Who knows what I would hear? I can only imagine how beautiful the sound of God listening is!

Afterthoughts: I'm curious to know how others hear the words "listen" and "hear." How are they related in your mind? To me, listening seems active and external, while hearing seems to be an interior experience that has to do not only with the ears but with the heart and mind's interpretation. Hearing is akin to understanding. I've heard people accused of not listening, and I've also heard people accused of listening, but not hearing or vice versa. How do they differ in your mind? I think of the oft-repeated command in Scripture "If any man has ears to hear, let him hear." According to my perfunctory google search, this sentence occurs "seven times in the Greek Scriptures, and only from the lips of the Lord Jesus."

I eagerly await your comments... with a humble, open spirit and in sisterly love--by the grace of God. Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

17. Never bring unnecessary attention to yourself.

From Jeanine in Virginia:

I love attention! I enjoy being noticed and applauded and recognized. I get a kind of high from being the life of the party. I can see that praise is a subtle snare that easily entraps my soul and I struggle with it constantly. I know that holding my tongue is the better choice even when given a golden opportunity to draw attention away from another person by making a cute comment. Of course, knowing is not the same as doing and, unfortunately, I am not that successful at holding my tongue (nor at being cute, actually).

Shortly after my husband and I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, for school, I drew some unnecessary attention to myself at work one day. I answered my boss’s phone for her and found myself in a conversation with the president of our company. A few hours later my boss took me aside for a moment. During my short talk with the president, I had, apparently, used the typical American guttural grunt which usually indicates affirmation or assent: “uh huh.” This sound was not received well by my listener, so I was asked to replace it with something else . . . quickly. I learned to use a more polite sounding, “Certainly” or “Yes” and so was able to better blend in to my environment.

”When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is a reminder to blend in to my surroundings. It is not encouragement to submerge my personality or deny my individuality. It is NOT telling me to BECOME a Roman (when I lived in Canada, I developed some Canadian speech patterns, but I was still ol’ American me). However, it IS reminding me to remove small, unimportant things from my life that could be barriers to relationships. Actions that cause others to notice ME are distractions – when people are looking at me, they can’t see Christ in me.

Neither prideful grasping for attention to feed my ego nor refusing to accommodate for the benefit of others will help me demonstrate Christ’s life to those around me. At the end of my life, I would rather be able to say with Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

16. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.

From Jocelyn in Baltimore:

Frankly, this is the exact opposite of what I aim to be. To an extent, attention and accolades are necessary for what I do; if I don't work hard at making my work readily visible and continue to get more clients, I won't be able to make a living.

However, my ambitions and motives aren't always pure; more often than not, I just want to hoard the attention and use it as a way to feed my ego and feel good about myself.

And that's what this maxim means to me: examining my motives, and making sure that I'm not thinking of myself more highly than I ought. If I'm not trying to be simple, hidden, quiet, and small, you can be sure that I'm trying to puff myself up with self-importance.

And boy, I love being important. This maxim aims at my pride, which can be a tricksy thing. I can think that I'm just trying to further my business, or get more clients, but deep down I might be hankering for another ego fix.

Lord, please grant me true humility.

Monday, March 16, 2009

15. Be cheerful.

From Emily in Baltimore:

As the Lenten fast nears the halfway point, I think this is a good reminder for all of us -- I know I needed to hear it!

Our Lord commands us to fast cheerfully: "And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." (Matthew 6:16-18.)

But. But. How can I smile when I'm SO tired of hummus and vegetable soup?!

It's difficult to be cheerful, but it's such a blessing to others when you make the extra effort. Every time you interact with another human being, you have the choice between encouraging her by your cheerful attitude, or causing her to stumble by complaining. If I have to say something negative, I try to make sure it's to a close, trusted friend or family member, and that there's a good reason for saying it (I'm concerned about a situation and seeking their advice, for example.) With everyone else, I try to be cheerful -- not overly effusive, which would be insincere, but calm and sympathetic and positive regardless of the situation.

Our dear Khouria Frederica is fond of a quote from a 1st-century Jewish mystic, Philo: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." How true. I harbor the hope that, through ministering to others in a very small way (a smile or a word of encouragement) I may be helping them to gather the strength they need to minister to others around them -- and maybe even to me.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

14. Be grateful.

From Lauren in Baltimore (who is currently in Denver, celebrating her mother's birthday and chrismation -- on the same day! Many years!)

The Lord gives us an infinite number of blessings every day, from our very existence as we awaken from sleep, to the food we eat and the families we love. So often, though, I am blind to most of these blessings, wandering through my life in spiritual oblivion. I focus on things that I can't have: that car, that athleticism, that ability to be a morning person. As I was contemplating this maxim, "be grateful", I felt very ungrateful. Sure, I thank God for many things in my life, but I suspect that if I was truly grateful for even one blessing God has given me, I would never again complain about anything.

God hears our prayers, and always answers them, even though we don't always see how He works things out in our lives. How often do we pray and thank God for things? I'm more of a "foul-weather fan". When the going gets rough, I turn to God, but when things are nice, I forget that He even exists.

I hope that during this time of Great Lent, I learn to appreciate all that God has given me, both big and small, commonplace and extraordinary, easy or difficult. One thing is certain, I am very grateful to God that He answered my prayers, and led my mother to the Orthodox Church. Her reception into the Church, on the same day as her birthday, reminds me that every day is a new beginning, a rebirth and a time to begin life again in wonder of all of God's gifts to us.

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.