When I began my spiritual struggle shortly after converting to Orthodoxy, I felt frustrated. I had joined a church that felt too demanding: fasting every Wednesday and Friday, pre-communion prayers Saturday nights, an expectation to actually change and live a holy life, morning and evening prayers, feast days and periods of fasting. It all seemed like too much.
There is a rhythm to the life of the Church; entering into it takes time. But I wasn’t used to that. My Protestant upbringing and the American culture made me want instant results, even for sinful habits that were deeply entrenched. In charismatic circles, we would always pray for instantaneous miracles and deliverances from evil. To expect anything less could mean one had weak faith.
At a few points, the temptation entered into my mind: “This is too much for you, and for anyone except the most saintly. You know you can’t settle for mediocrity, and you’re certainly not a saint, so just give up on Orthodoxy. Don’t keep pushing yourself into a lifestyle that is simply too pious for you.”
Fortunately, I did not give into that temptation. However, as my struggle deepened, and time gradually passed, I learned a few things.
WHEN IT FEELS LIKE THERE’S NO PROGRESS
In his book Spiritual Struggle, Elder Paisios describes how some Christians will go their entire lives and feel like they do not have any visible progress in the spiritual life. He states that what they do not realize is that with every step of progress, the enemy of our souls increases his attack.
He goes on to say,
Being able to recognize which thoughts are not pure, being troubled by them, and struggling to dispel them, is progress in itself.
When I gave up on the idea of being able to measure my progress, I began to find a sense of peace in my soul that had been lacking. Similarly, Abbot Nikon provides this encouragement:
…some falls and relapses of the former sinful life are inevitable. Do not let this disturb you, do not despond. Rome was not built in a day. Everything takes time. It is through many trials and great struggle that we each enter the Kingdom of God…
Sometimes this process of rising proceeds quickly, at times it slows down…Do not be discouraged when you see no improvement. One thing is needful: try to live according to the Gospel commandments…
If you do succumb [to sin], repent before the Lord, ask forgiveness, and rise to fight again. And so until death.
I WANT IT ALL AND I WANT IT NOW
There is this funny idea of instant success that we Americans deeply desire in all areas of our lives: our careers, practicing the arts, making dinner, having a successful marriage, or whatever else. This mentality of instant gratification carries into our spiritual lives as well. For that reason, religious services that are full of hype and emotionalism can be dangerously addictive as we finally “feel” that change in us we’ve been longing for…even if the warm fuzzies dissipate by the time we leave the parking lot.
But true, deep change comes from slow, steady progress. And that requires much patience in us. St Theophan the Recluse teaches that the older we are when we decide to take up the spiritual struggle, the more difficult it may initially be. That is because we are more deeply entrenched in the ways of the world and our wicked habits as we age. Like firmly established weeds, these sinful tendencies will take time and effort to uproot.
MAKING EVERY DAY A NEW DAY
For those who find themselves in this situation, struggling and feeling flustered, there is most certainly hope. The very fact that someone wakes up each day and decides they will attempt to struggle draws them closer to God, even if they can’t feel it. The fact that one still falls into a habitual sin, but is deeply grieved by it, is a sign that they are pursuing the path of salvation.
He also said concerning Abba Pior that every day he made a new beginning. (Abba Poeman, Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
Instead, we must choose to bring a fresh start – in our Lord Jesus Christ – to every single day. With his help, we will most certainly make it through the spiritual struggle. He is with us and desires us to be victorious!
Thou knowest the multitude of my evil:
Thou knowest also my wounds.
Thou seest my scars
Thou knowest also my faith,
Thou seest my intentions and hearest my sighs
(St Symeon the New Theologion)