If one enters into the prayer life of Orthodoxy, you will find a great emphasis on keeping Christ on your heart and mind at all times. The monastics and many laypeople strive to attain “prayer of the heart,” in which their heart speaks the name of Christ or what is known as the Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” at every waking and sleeping hour.
Entering into this realm of life is exciting and transformative. It requires two things: first of all is grace from God. Without His grace, everything else is worthless. Secondly, it necessitates a readiness on our part to receive him. If our hearts and minds are full of the cares, attachments, and desires of this world and our flesh, then there is no room for grace within us. Of course, it takes the grace of God to remove these things, but we must make ourselves available and take the tiniest step of effort toward Him.
Releasing the desires and attachments of the flesh is a slow process. The more we dig around inside of us, the more we will realize needs cleansing. The command of Christ “Be ye perfect” begins to sound quite daunting if we have spent any time in honest introspection.
St Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that we can never reach that final resting place called “perfection.” God himself is perfection, and God is infinite and limitless. Therefore, if our goal is infinite, there is no stopping place where we will finally say, “Yes, I have arrived.” Instead, we move from glory to glory, and the very journey itself toward Christ is the perfection that has been commanded of us.
HOW TO BEGIN PERFECTION
So, where does one even begin their journey toward perfection? One place that most people start is attempting to keep Christ in mind at all times. Working toward receiving prayer of the heart is an excellent place to begin.
However, there is another place too, that perhaps for some of us is an even better place to begin. Today, I read about venerable Sisoi the Great who was a disciple of the well known Anthony the Great. I came across the following story:
To the question of one of the monks as to how he might attain to a constant mindfulness of God, the monk remarked:
‘That is still not of much consequence, my son, but more important is this – to account oneself below everyone else, because such disparagement assists in the acquisition of humility’
WHAT IS HUMILITY?
I’m not sure I know what humility is. I’ve read about it, and I recognize it in the lives of the saints, but I am unable to offer an experiential definition. Elder Porphyrios teaches that it is impossible to be a Christian, much less attain to the Kingdom of Heaven without humility. In Wounded by Love, he states “The heart gives life to the body and humility gives life to the soul.”
St Theophan the Recluse teaches that when one begins to very purposefully work with God toward the Kingdom, the enemy will attack in one of two ways: either he will lash out with everything he’s got, or he will completely back off and allow the person to feel like they are rapidly excelling in their spiritual life.
This second tactic is extremely dangerous for us because it so often leads to vainglory in those who are pursuing constant remembrance of God and prayer of the heart. Without a foundation of humility, the person who is practicing great spiritual disciplines will easily think of himself as being superior to those around him. He will have feelings of affection toward others, but it will be in a condescending way.
For this reason, Sisois the Great taught that monks should first practice thinking more highly of everyone else than themselves so they can begin to acquire humility, and then worry about the spiritual disciplines.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF HUMILITY
From Wounded by Love* (Elder Porphyrios):
Within us there is a part of the soul called the ‘moralist.’ This ‘moralist’ when it sees someone going astray, is roused to indignation, even though very often the person who judges has strayed in the same way. He does not, however, take this as an occasion to condemn himself, but the other person. This is not what God wants…
In this way we do harm, not only to our neighbor, but also to ourselves because we distance ourselves from the grace of God. And then we pray and our prayers are not heard…
It is a kind of self-projection of our own when we insist on other people becoming good. In reality, we wish to become good, but because we are unable to, we demand it of others and insist on this. And whereas all things are corrected through prayer, we often are distressed or become outraged and pass judgment on others.
On teaching and correcting our fellow Christians, St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) writes in The Arena**,
He who acts in his own strength, acts for vainglory; he offers both himself and those who listen to him as a sacrifice to Satan…
We will observe that the Fathers forbid us to give advice to our neighbor of our own accord, without our neighbor’s asking us to do so. The voluntary giving of advice is a sign that we regard ourselves as possessed of spiritual knowledge and worth, which is a clear sign of pride and self-deception.
Elder Zosimas, a desert father, was one of the first fathers that I ever read when venturing into Orthodoxy. His teachings began to turn my world upside down because they resemble the teachings of Christ,
Who could ever persuade a humble person to weave thoughts against someone else? For, no matter what a humble person suffers or hears, that person will see this as an opportunity to insult and shame himself…
For, a person that longs for the true and straight way will rebuke himself harshly when troubled by something like this (being insulted). That person will always practice self-examination, saying:
“My soul, why have you lost your mind? Why are you troubled like those who are insane? It is precisely this, which indicates how unwell in fact you are. Had you been healthy, you would not have been troubled. Why do you neglect to blame yourself and begin accusing your brother for revealing to you your illness both in deed and in truth?
Learn the commandments of Christ: ‘When He was abused, He did not return abuse; when He suffered, He did not threaten ’ (1 Pet. 2.23). Listen to Him, when He says and when He shows us in reality : ‘I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who beat me. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting’ (Is. 50.6).
Yet, you, wretched soul, just because of a single insult and dishonor, sit there and weave thousands of thoughts, ultimately conspiring against your own soul in the manner of the demons. After all, what more can a demon do to such a soul, that it has not already done to itself? We see the cross of Christ, we read of His passion each day, what He suffered for us. Yet, we cannot endure the slightest insult. We have indeed deviated from the straight way.”***
All of this can be a bit overwhelming when I realize my lack of humility. But as St Gregory says, perfection is being on the journey toward Christ; that is all that is requested of us…that daily, little bit by little bit, we allow God to transform us into the image of His Glory.
*Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love. Published by Denise Harvey, copyright Holy Convent of the Life-giving Spring (Chania, Crete, Greece), 2005.
**Brianchaninov, Ignatius, The Arena. Holy Trinity Publications 2012.
***Chryssavgis, John (2008-06-06). In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (Treasures of the World’s Religions) (Kindle Locations 2170-2171). World Wisdom. Kindle Edition.