Last post, I addressed some things that we can set up in our lives in place of Christ. We looked at the temptation we might have to reduce the spiritual life to feeling a certain way, to doing religion the right way, or even to simply believing the right way.
We saw how even good things can become idols if we allow them to take precedence over our relationship with Jesus Christ.
I’ve been reading along each day with Y2AM to finish the Orthodox Study Bible in a year, and I’ve been reflecting on the “idols” in my own life. Over and over again, we read in the Old Testament that the people of God chose to worship the gods of their own making rather than to submit to God’s will. When they repented and returned to God, it was always by coming back to the community.
The remedy for our individualized spirituality is to return to the spiritual life of the community.
Last week, Father Andrew Stephen Damick wrote a great post entitled “Christianity is Not About Your Spiritual Life.” Fr. Andrew argues that even the Orthodox faithful have turned the spiritual life into a private matter where the individual Christian is a consumer and the priest is elevated to a “religious professional.” Our purpose, as baptized Orthodox Christians, isn’t our own salvation, but the building up of the whole Church. As he writes, “Our faith is indeed personal, but it is not private. And there is nothing more personal than when persons are in communion with one another.”
So in light of this, how can we practice an authentic, Orthodox spiritual life in the world today? How can we cultivate this sort of personal, yet not private, spiritual life the Church calls us to?
Here are three things to keep in mind:
1. Private and communal prayer work together
Our private prayer should reflect and build upon the prayer we experience in community. Remember, when we’re in the liturgy, orthros, vespers, or paraklesis, we’re more than a bunch of disconnected individuals praying separately (while happening to be in the same room). We are there to join as one voice in our common prayer. But to truly experience the fruits of this unity, we need to be praying our private prayers at home. Because both private and communal prayer, when done together, are personal: they work together to bring us into relationship with both God and neighbor.
Setting aside time, not only for silent meditation but also for praying the words that have been handed down to us, helps us to align ourselves with the rest of the Church. Private prayer helps keep us connected not only to God, but to the saints and the rest of the Body of Christ, as we all pray together for God’s mercy and salvation, no matter where (or when) we may live.
Being strengthened in our prayer at home, and nourished by the sacraments we receive in the Liturgy, we will then have the strength to live out this faith in community.
2. Parish life extends beyond Sunday morning
If we only came to Liturgy, did our prayers, and then left, we would certainly be approaching our faith as a private affair. Instead, the Church calls us to grow in community, to grow closer to Christ together. Getting involved in parish life and in the ministries of your local community are an important part of a lived out spiritual life, one that’s easy to forget when we make faith private rather than personal.
What gifts and interests has God given you and placed on your heart? How can you bring those to the service of His Church?
Fellowship is an important part of community, but we are called to be more than a social club. Saint Paul reminds us that we are given gifts to assist with the building up of everyone in the Church; it’s not about our private spiritual lives (Ephesians 4:11-13). Additionally, when we are involved in ministry, it reminds us that the role of building up the saints is not only in the hands of the parish priest, but of all baptized members of the Church.
And besides formal parish ministries, we should look for new ways to support one another.
The Holy Spirit makes His home not only in us individually, but in a special way when we live in community. Like Saint Paul says, “Don’t y’all know that y’all are God’s temple, and that the Spirit of God dwells in y’all? (1 Corinthians 3:16, my Southern translation). In other words, God lives in us when we are together.
And that togetherness even extends to those we don’t live with.
3. Monastics are part of the Church, just as much as we are
Everyone needs to set aside time for retreat. I once heard an abbess compare monasteries to the inn where the Samaritan took the injured man (Luke 10:25-37). The monks and nuns recognize that, while they are not the Doctor (only Christ can heal us), monasteries can be places to regain our strength and encounter Christ.
In addition to finding some solitude in our busy world, we go to monasteries to remind ourselves that the Church is much larger than our local parish community. The monastic lifestyle is counter-cultural and demonstrates that the Christ transcends the expectations of the world. It’s a good reminder for us to see Christians who put Jesus first in their lives. Monks and nuns have committed their whole lives to the service of Christ and to pray for the world. Even if we take just a bit of this spirit of prayer with us when we leave from our visit, it will be easier to remember to pray throughout the week.
Do you have Orthodox monasteries within driving distance? This directory can help you find out. Check out what their visitor policy is and see if you can stay for a night. Most monasteries have rooms available and a prayer schedule that is open to visitors. Usually, visitors can help with chores too. Depending on the monastery practice, meals may be held in silence while listening to a spiritual reading. Even a short visit to a monastery can help those of us in the world to reorient our vision back to Christ and motivate us to get more involved in our local parish community.
The Orthodox spiritual life is never just about my private relationship with God. But it is about an intimate personal relationship with Christ, rooted in a community. This community helps us break out of our own heads, to encounter the people around us and see that our Church extends even to the counter-cultural monastic communities around the world.
The truly refreshing thing about Orthodox spirituality is that it doesn’t rest in our isolated abilities and efforts. Our spiritual life is about letting go of our need to do things alone and reaching out to the rest of Christ’s Body.
How are you connecting to and cultivating Orthodox community? What can you do to reach out to others and to live Orthodoxy today?
Sam is the Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.
The Sick Man by Vasili Maximov (1881)
Sam with Sister Soulamitis