So often, with great expectations, we will renew our commitment to the Orthodox Way of Life by making significant changes in our life and how we spend our time. We will increase our time in prayer, participate more regularly in services and sacraments, begin to read Scripture and the lives of the saints daily. Yet, we find we are still confronted with the same desires and distractions that keep us separated from God. We expect instant success and we do not find it. We grumble that we followed the instruction from a wise elder yet do not experience any improvement in our relationship with God. Why do we expect such instant success? Why is it so difficult?
Saint Theophan says speaking to one of his spiritual children,
“I cannot in any way suppose that your success to have been complete as soon as you began, that your thoughts would be pure, and feelings and desires holy. This is because it never happens like this to any body. The thoughts will be pacified, the passionate impulses of feelings and desires will become less frequent. All the same , however, they will erupt and sometimes wit great force.
As he says our thoughts are not pure and desires not holy. We also have unreasonable expectations. We are only beginning to overcome our passions and must be patient and persistent. One thing that is very important is to be humble and remember it is God’s will that is to work through us and not just our own efforts. To often we think we are the doer rather than humbling ourselves to the truth in the work of His grace. Our task is to follow Grace and not try to force and direct it as our will demands. We must strip ourselves of all pious pretenses and self-will.
Saint Theophan advises,
Do not try to conceal yourself, covering your nakedness with a fig leaf and hiding in the bushes from the Lord, who comes to you in the conscience and exposes you. Blame yourself completely, and ask forgiveness without placing blame on anyone else.
The essence of a true spiritual life is humility. This involves a life where we are continually recognizing the dominating power of our own will and our limitations in doing what is God’s will for us. Jesus calls us to be perfect, but too often we assume we are already perfect when we are far from what he has taught us to become. Then we too often make the mistake of thinking we can do it through our own power by saying these prayers, or fasting in this way and so forth. Our spiritual practice is only an aid for us to open our heart to the reality of our condition so that we will fall down in front of God and ask for His forgiveness and help and allow His grace to flow through us. In this way our thoughts can become pure and our desires holy.
Our spiritual life involves daily effort. Saint Hesychius says,
At every hour we must weigh our daily affairs attentively, and as much as we are able, without fail lighten their burden through repentance, if we want to overcome the passions with the help of Jesus. It is also necessary to examine whether we carry out all our outward actions through God’s will, before God and for God Alone, so that the feelings (passionate) do not deceive us like foolish people.
Keep up your spiritual practices as called for in an Orthodox way of life. But do it with complete humility and a spirit of repentance.