On Spiritual Life in the Church

Greatmartyr Nicetas the Goth

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

(Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America)

It has become commonplace to decry the spiritual and moral decadence in which we live. It must be said, however, that times in the past have been as bad, if not actually worse, than the time in which we live. What is new is not spiritual and moral decadence, but the greater complexity and deeper confusion of our time as compared with times past. Never in the history of mankind have Orthodox Christians been confronted with a spiritual world as broken and fragmented as the present. Never has there been a period in man's experience in which there have existed as many possible teachings and ways of life available to as many different people as there are today.

In times past the believer's world was fundamentally a Christian world, with heresy, apostasy and sin as the enemies of genuine Christian spiritual life. In times past men and women naturally considered themselves as heirs of a tradition, participants in a culture, members of a church and nation with relatively clear principles and ideals, against which they could dissent if they wished, but to which, in the first instance, they recognized their basic belonging. Today this is no longer the case. Today there are no such fundamental identifications for many people who identify themselves simply as citizens of the world, free agents in a global society, unfettered consumers in a boundless marketplace of opinions and ideas and styles of life emanating from all corners of the universe. Today, in the West generally and in America in particular, the majority of people are given the possibility of picking and choosing the way of life which most pleases them and is most suited to their individual needs, desires and fancies at any given moment.

Thus, in times past when a time of spiritual decadence came upon Christian society; when there was a falling away from the Truth of Christ and a deadening of the forms of spiritual life and a drying up of the fountains of grace; when there was a loss of perspective and direction due to new human developments and old human sins, there yet remained within the faltering society the seeds of renewal, recovery and restoration. Today this is not the case. Today the forms of Christian culture and tradition remain while the substance of Christian Truth and life is being lost. A mighty rushing wind of a multitude of alien doctrines comes pouring in to fill the vacuum. While we bless the opportunities presented to us in our time, certain that the inscrutable Providence of God Who loves us has brought us to this moment, we must be aware of the immensity of the difficulties with which we are faced and arise to meet them with courage and strength. In order to do this with the help of God's grace, we must recall the fundamental principles of the Christian way of life and strive to understand the unique temptations with which we are presently confronted.  In view of this task, we the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America offer to you, our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, the following considerations.

Fidelity to the Tradition of the Church

We believe, first of all, dear brothers and sisters, that now more than ever is the time for us all to immerse ourselves in the Holy Tradition of the Church. It is the time not to escape from the trials and temptations that surround us, but to rise up to meet them fortified by the Spirit of Wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and the fear of God given to us by our Lord in His Church. Now is not the time for spiritual adventure, speculation and experiment. Now is rather the time for a humble and sober examination of ourselves and our society in the light of Christ's teaching, the time for calm and careful analysis in the spirit of contemplation and prayer and spiritual self-control.

Our first and fundamental task is to remain faithful to what God has given us through Christ and the Holy Spirit in the Church. We must study the Holy Scriptures, participate in the Sacraments, follow the holy Fathers, imitate the Saints. We must strive for humility and wisdom, obedience and courage in our steadfast adherence to the Faith once and for all delivered to the Saints. We must avoid every exaggeration and every extreme. We must resist every novelty which is presented to us as superior just because it is different. We must flee every alien spirit and close our ears to the many strange voices that call to us saying of our Lord: Lo, He is here! Lo, He is there! We must be firm in our faith and stable in our judgments, steadfast in our devotion and constant in our prayer. We must stand fast in that which is given by God, without prejudice or pride, discerning the spirits and reading the signs of the times in order to determine that which is indeed proceeding from God.

To accomplish our task of fidelity to God in the Church, our primary and essential duty is the practice of prayer. If we are not successful in our prayer we will not be successful in anything, for prayer is the root and ground of everything in the spiritual life. This is the teaching of our faith...

When we look to the Orthodox Tradition of personal prayer we find the following essential counsels. First we are taught that we must pray simply and humbly, in secret, without ostentation or pretention, without using many words and without looking for the praises of men. We are taught to pray briefly and frequently, regularly and constantly, using the words inspired by God and revealed in the Holy Bible and the prayers of the Church. We are taught to have specific times of prayer, and to pray without ceasing by having the remembrance of God continually in our minds and the Name of Jesus constantly on our lips and in our hearts, doing all things to the Glory of God for the good of others. We are taught as well to use the Lord's Prayer and the psalms and the prayers of the Saints in order to learn how to pray, for what to ask and thank and glorify God. We are taught to do this in order to be liberated from the narrow and petty interests and concerns of our own limited experience and be freed from the vain imaginations of our own minds and hearts which so often consume us, even in our prayer.

Following the rule of prayer established by the Lord in the Church, and using the traditional prayers of the Holy Scriptures and Saints, we are taught as well to pray to God in our own words, and even in silence with no words at all, opening ourselves in all things to the will of our Father in heaven, and being guided by His Holy Spirit within us from Christ. We are strictly warned to be always aware not to make our individual prayer the result of our individual blindness and our individual desires, but to be always conscious of the fact that the sole purpose of prayer is to raise our minds and hearts to the greatness of God in order to accomplish His will in the details of our life in the ways that He desires for us.

The purpose of prayer is not to attain any particular emotional feelings or psychological states. It is not to have visions or hear voices. It is simply to accomplish the will of God in our lives. It is to be able not to sin. To love God with our entire being. To love our neighbor, and even our enemy, as ourselves. To have the Spirit of God in us. To be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ the Son of God by loving obedience to the Father even unto death.

In prayer, we are to strive for sobriety, for simplicity and silence, for quiet and calm, for the perfect integration and harmony of body and soul in joyful union with God through Christ by becoming one spirit with the Spirit of God. This is the purpose and goal of prayer: to be one with God in order to do His will. This is the meaning of prayer: union with the Blessed Trinity in adoration, thanksgiving, petition, lamentation and perpetual service.

In the spiritual life our personal prayer should be the foundation of our corporate prayer in the Divine Liturgy of the Church. People who pray only when they go to church will be very weak in their prayer and will receive very little from the common prayer of the Church in its liturgical gatherings.

The liturgical prayer of the Church is performed according to the traditional rule of worship which we have received from God through the Saints. The psalmody and hymnology of liturgical prayer is the breathing of the Holy Spirit in the Church. It is the Word of God given to us for God's own glory. Every parish and every family and every person should be immersed in the liturgical prayer of the Church. The liturgical worship of the Church should be the context of our lives, the content of our spirits, the atmosphere in which we think and speak and act. As such it should be conducted simply, decently and in order without any needless adornments and embellishments which detract from its divine purpose and power.

(To be continued. Next, The Sacramental Life of the Church)



The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George