God does not need our prayers or praise. But we as His creatures, made in His image, must return to the Source of our being in order to become fully alive and filled with love. Two of the most important steps toward developing inward and outward prayer are realizing the great love of God and then putting our faith and hope in that love.
St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain states, “God Himself wishes and is ready to give you all that is needed for you to serve Him rightly, and to bestow upon you every blessing you need.”
Holding that fast in our minds, let us also remember one of the most important tips that St Nicodemus provides us is that we should not attempt to develop every virtue all at once. Doing so will prove just how weak we are. Instead, pick one that stands out the most to you and work on that. After falling and standing back up many times, if you feel that you are beginning to see some progress, begin to focus on the next virtue.
The lives of the holy fathers show that with even a small amount of zeal and determination, these things can be accomplished. The Lord is with us, who can be against us?
The following wisdom comes from the 52nd chapter of Unseen Warfare.
- Perhaps the most difficult yet important advice that St Nicodemus gives us is the following: “Keep your body strictly disciplined in food, sleep, and rest. Do not give it anything simply because it wants it; as the Apostle says: ‘Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof’ (Rom 8:14). Give no respite to the flesh.” In American society, where we are told that it is our God-given right to pamper ourselves with rich foods and every sort of comfort and entertainment, this ancient path of Christianity seems austere. But if we indulge the flesh, it will continue to be victorious over the spirit. This can be approached in small ways at first by cutting out things like some desserts and treats, particularly on fast days; waking up 10-30 minutes earlier than you normally would to create time for prayer.
- “Reduce your external contacts to the most inevitable…Especially guard your senses, above all, eyes and ears; also tie your tongue.” Few reading my blog are monastics, unlike the original target audience of Unseen Warfare. However, that is not an excuse for us to be lax in this area. While our jobs may require us to be around people all day long, refraining from needless chit-chat will help us keep our minds clear and more focused. If a particular person creates temptation for us (such as idle talking or intense physical attraction), we should limit our contact with them as much as permissible. Otherwise, Satan will steal our hearts and minds through them, even if all interactions are seemingly innocent. We will have difficulty with inner prayer while talking with the person, and their impression and conversation will stay with us while trying to pray later. This is not instruction to become recluses, but to be more cautious of how we spend our time.
- We can create a surprising amount of free time simply by turning off the TV, phone, or computer in order to read a good spiritual book that will help us deepen our spiritual lives, even if it is for only ten minutes a day. I’ve got several recommendations in my Resources. Additionally, one can get apps for the smartphone that will provide daily scripture reading and biographies of the lives of the saints for that day. This will allow you to be spiritually edified during a slow part of the day.
- Attend church services as much as is possible. “Merely to be present in church will envelop you in a cloud of prayer. What then will you receive if you stand throughout the service in a true state of prayer?” Truly, beginning a habit of inner prayer deepens the meaning of every service.
- Prayer and developing the virtues both go hand-in-hand. One cannot be perfected without the other. With that being the case, a Christian may notice a desire to go to confession more frequently as the Holy Spirit, through prayer, creates a heightened awareness of the spiritual state. In addition to reading the prayers of repentance in the prayer book at the end of each day, it is good to make a quick prayer of repentance as soon as we realize we have fallen into sin, wherever we are. The only unforgiven sin is the unconfessed one. God knows we’re going to mess up frequently; we just need to make sure that when we fall we do not stay down. Staying down is far worse than falling. Frequently remind yourself of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the loving Father who joyfully receives his son back. Sin which we have not confessed to God will act as a barrier between us and developing intimacy with God through prayer.
There are several other tips that St. Nicodemus gives in this chapter, but I think this is an excellent starting place for beginners such as myself. Let us remember that God desires intimacy with us, which is accomplished through following his commandments and prayer. In fact, intimacy with God is the purpose of our existence.
We are able to do that by learning the commandments of God through reading scripture and the fathers, and by purposely setting aside time for prayer in the morning and evening in addition to keeping our thoughts on short prayers throughout the day.
Heaven, in the Orthodox sense, is eternal union and intimacy with God. Our lives here help prepare us for such a state of being. The aim of everything in these last few articles is to reveal a path that the fathers have shown us to draw closer to God. It is a difficult way in a culture that throws every lie, noise, comfort, convenience, and distraction at us as is possible; but the journey is full of grace and love. God will be here for us if we press forward.
Through prayer, He will help us to control or overcome the passions that destroy intimacy with Him, and such victories will serve to draw us even closer. There is no “end,” there is no arriving at the place we’re supposed to be. God is infinite, so the beautiful gift of journeying into His love is also infinite. We start today and continue forever.