Monday, September 30, 2013

Spiritual Life of a Couple

A common issue in a couple relationship is about their spiritual life. One can be very spiritual following the way of life prescribed for Orthodox Christians and the other not making any attempt to follow the practices of the Church. If not dealt with carefully this can become a source of great conflict.

The advice that is most commonly given is to first of all have love and do not judge.  With love, pray for the one who is not now interested in spiritual matters.

Here is advice from Elder Paisios when asked about this by a woman concerned about her husband:
Entrust him to Christ  and pray that his heart be softened. Eventually little by little, Christ will descend in his heart, and he will start speculating. As soon as his heart is somewhat softened, then she can ask him, for example, to drive her to church. She shouldn't say to him, "Come to church with me," but "Can you please take me as far as the church?" If he takes her all the way to the church, then he might say to himself, "I've come this far; why don't I go inside and light a candle?" In this way, little by little, he may make progress.
With prayer and kindness coupled with patience you can lead your spouse to open their heart to a more spiritual way of living. If you do not approach this with love and tenderness then their heart will be hardened and your relationship potentially damaged. By seeking to discover the little nudges you can provide you can lead your spouse in the right direction. But you have be clever so that your nudges do not become nagging.

Your spiritual father can also be of help. He can help you develop your own spiritual life so that your goodness will be transferred to your spouse.

Elder Paisios points out that women tend to be pious by nature. But once a man becomes interested in his spirituality, not even his wife can keep up with him. Then the wife must be careful not to become envious of his progress. If she begins to complain about all his spiritual endeavors and calls him a monk or priest in protest, then the man needs to tread very carefully. The aim is to grow together, but you will not always be on the same step.

If a difficulty arises in this case here is what advice Elder Paisios gives to the husband,
To keep the family from falling apart I advise the husbands, "When the right moment comes, tell your wife: 'If I go to church and pray a little and do some prostrations, or if I read a spiritual book, I'm not doing this out of an abundance of devotion, but only as a means of self-restraint, to keep me from being led astray by our wretched society and getting involved with bad company.'" If the husband handles it carefully then the wife will be happy and may even go on to outdo her husband spiritually. But if he is careless and insensitive, he'll crush her...
For many years in my own life it was my wife who was interested in spiritual matters and insisted on going to Church regularly. I would find excuses to not go. But, thank God, she was patient and prayed for me. Eventually Christ got hold of me and I could not get enough. I read everything, I went to church regularly, I prayed daily, I sought counsel from a spiritual father frequently. Then I became worried that my wife was not showing the same interest as I now felt. Somehow God gave me the insight to understand that we must walk this path together and that we would not always be on the same step along this long path. So instead of going my own way, I sought ways to involve her in my efforts and was careful not to judge, but to appreciate how she led me to what now gave me great inner joy. Through God's guidance we have continued to walk a path together. We pray together, we go to services together, we share what we are reading. We have found that an active spiritual life nurtures our love for each other. We still have our arguments but they do not last long.

The challenge for all couples is to seek a shared path realizing that this may take many years to achieve  but with sincerity on the part of either one of the couple, the other will be brought along with them and may eventually surpass them. It then becomes a beautiful dance where each leads the other at different times.  This is the way we have been able to grow old together.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Prayer in the Family

The power of prayer cannot be underestimated.  Often we think of prayer as an individual activity. But for Orthodox Christians there is an emphasis on the prayer of the whole community. This should also apply to prayer in our family life. A family should pray together.

If you are a family of two its quite easy to arrange for prayer together.  Currently this is my situation and my wife and I always pray together both evening and night.  But when you have a family of four with varying ages it is a bit more difficult.

We have in the Church the morning and evening services which are available as reader services which can be read in the home without a priest. The idea taught by Elder Paisios is to have the younger children participate in part of these prayers.  

He writes,
They should read the evening Compline and say to the younger family members, "You can stay with us for a little while, if you want." If the children are somewhat older they can set up a rule; for example fifteen minutes for the older children; two to five minutes for the younger children; and after that, as much as they want. If the parents make them stay for the entire Compline they will just end up resenting it. We shouldn't pressure them because they have not grasped the power and value of prayer.
Prayers are something that should be done every day, both in the morning and evening. The evening prayer is an especially important one for the family because it is a time when the entire family is together. Even when sick or tired you should have your evening prayers even though you may have to cut it short.

The morning prayers can be shorter depending on the nature of your family schedule. You can find shorter prayers in the many Orthodox prayer books that are available. It is best to at least stand in the front of your home icon stand together with your children and spouse, light the vigil lamp if its not already burning, and read together a few prayers before everyone heads off to their activities for the day.

By engaging the whole family in your daily prayers the unity of the family is nourished. Family life involves many small conflicts which can lead to larger ones and separations of members of the family. Divorce has become a major issue. If you are praying together it is much more likely you will not face this traumatic destruction of the marriage bonds.

Elder Paisios tells a story about family prayer,
I remember once, when my younger brother got sick, my father said, "Come, let us pray and beseech God to either heal him of the take him so he will not suffer." We all prayed and he became well again. Even at mealtime we all gathered around the table to pray before we began to eat. If anyone started eating before the meal was blessed, we would say, "He committed fornication." You see, we viewed the lack of restraint to be a form of prostitution. It destroys a family to have each member come home, any time they like, and eat alone without good reason."
As the elder points out meal time is a natural time to pray. Unfortunately today many families no longer eat together. This should be avoided if at all possible.  There is something sacred about eating together. To give thanks to the Lord for the abundance of blessing He provides for us is important for our well being and our relationship with God and the unity of our family.

Seek out ways that your family can pray together. If you are a couple you have an easy task. For those with children still at home it's a bit more difficult to get a common prayer time established. But once you do, you will be surprised at the benefits it will bring to your family.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pp167-168

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hesychia in Daily LIfe

Hesychia means silence. This is important as it is in silence that we commune with God most easily. Silence is not just about being in a quiet pace, but having a mind that is empty of worldly thoughts. Elder Paisios tells us that silence is very helpful in spiritual life.

He writes,
It's good for one to set aside some part of the day in which to maintain quiet. He should examine himself in order to recognize his passions and struggle to overcome them and thus purify his heart.
Now the challenge is how to do this in the busy world we live in each day. First you need a place where you can become calm and not be interrupted. It is in silence that you can carryout your spiritual duties of prayer and study. Some, like Elder paisios, recommend that you engage in spiritual reading prior to prayer and this warms the soul and lifts the mind to a spiritual realm. This is especially helpful if you live a life with many distractions during the day, constantly multitasking. Just two minutes of study of a spiritual message is enough to lift you mind towards things spiritual. Once you feel the warmth of the spirit in your soul then you begin your prayers based on a rule you have established with your spiritual father.

Many people say, this is only possible for monks who leave this busy world. But his is not true.  There are many lay people who live very spiritually.  You will find many in any Orthodox parish who fast, attend the prayer services, say the Jesus prayer, go to Church on Sundays, take Holy Communion regularly, even though they may have children or grandchildren and a busy job. They make time for silence each day and give priority to worship. They try to live a simple life focusing on the basic needs of themselves and their family.

Paisios writes,
How simple spiritual life is! If one comes to love God, if one comes to recognize His great sacrifice and His good works, and if one exerts himself, with discernment, in imitation of the saints, he will be quickly sanctified  It is enough that he be humbled, that he be conscious of his own wretchedness and his tremendous ingratitude towards God.
See Daily Prayer Basics
Also Ten Points for Living the Orthodox Way of Life

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pg 166.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Opportunities to Practice Patience

How does God teach us humility and Patience? Our daily life is filled with such lessons.  Just take a look at your last frustrating moment. It probably wasn't to long ago. 

For me, my lesson this week involved a malfunctioning AC unit in our house. I call the repair man who I have known for many years and he comes out quickly, makes a diagnosis of the problem and replaces a part. He leaves, but shortly thereafter I find the unit is still not working properly, dripping water with no way to stop it. OK, so I calmly call him back. Patience right? But his time he tells me he cant fix it because it takes to long to call the tech people at the AC company and find out what is needed and that he will not waste his time any longer in this unit. He says to me, "You can call them and figure out the part needed!" I pleaded with him like a little kid, please come and fix my unit, I depend on you, I have paid you for all your work. Underneath my breath I wanted to call him some bad names but at least resisted. He then grumbles that maybe he will have time next week. "Next week!", I am thinking. Now my blood pressure has risen and I feel let down and betrayed by someone who I thought was a friend. 
What to do? I thought, patience, reflecting in his impatience and my brooding impatience. After a few days I calmed down and got on the internet, found the tech support number and called them. They answered quickly, no wait. They gave me the solution to the problem involving one or two parts. Should I call him back or try to find someone else? I decided to call the service man back and told him the information. He says, "Did you get the part number?"  I said, "No, but he told me which of two parts need to be checked. Can yo come out and determine which one I need?" He called to his partner, "Can we go our to Joiner's Fri?" Its now Wednesday.  Then he tells me, "We will be out their Friday" in his normal tone of voice. Surprisingly, this time I was relieved.

In the interim I wanted to scream, to call another repairman, to find someway to get even for him dumping me and leaving me hanging with this problem on a unit he initially installed less than a year ago.

So why all this anxiety over such a small incident? Where is my patience. This was my lesson in patience for the week. The repairman was obviously busy and frustrated not knowing how to repair this unit without technical help. It was easy for me to make a phone call to get the information for him. I could have easily said to him when he first told me about his difficulty, "Ok, I will call them today and let you know what they say. This will take a burden off your shoulders and I know how difficult it is at times to get to various corporate offices for help when you need it." If I had done so, I would not have and any anxiety and I would have relieved him of the frustration dealing with this problem.

The point here is that it is in these mundane events in our life that we can progress spiritually. God is trying to teach us humility, kindness and patience all the time. Life is a training ground teaching us how to become more Christ like.

Elder Paisios tells us,
Generally speaking the difficulties faced by people nowadays compel those who wish to live spiritually to be vigilant. It's just as when, God forbid, war breaks out and people have to be in a state of alert; those who are attempting to live spiritually have to do the same thing--be on alert. Just look at how difficult it is for young children who wish to be close to the Church today! In a way, the war waged against them by the horrible environment in which they live helps them to be alert. You see, in times of peace, where there are no difficulties, most people slack off. But that is when they should take advantage of the peace and use it for spiritual progress; that's when they should try and prune away their shortcomings and cultivate virtues.
If we can accept that it is "wartime", we will then become always vigilant: Practicing patience, trying to understand the other person's needs and frustrations with life, and helping make it easier for them, and in turn helping us to grow spiritually from all our interactions in the world.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, pg 164.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Anxiety and the Simple Life

Why is it that there is so much anxiety in daily lives? Usually anxiety arises when things are not going the way we think they should. To take a very simple example, we were troubled by a new refrigerator that made some loud and unusual noises. The old one worked fine but we wanted more space. We had spent a good sum of money for this new device and expected it to make our lives better, but instead, it became a very annoying device. We called the repair man and he came out and told us the noise was a normal one. Well, we knew it was not normal. So now, with a bit an anxiousness, we think  about what to do. Did we make a big mistake in this purchase? What can we do to resolve this new irritant in our lives? We call the person who sold it to us to see what recourse we had to correct this problem. In the meantime this issue lingers in our mind about how we are going to resolve it. For us the noise was unacceptable, and we felt it was unfair to expect us to accept this kind of performance from a new refrigerator. But how were we going to get a company like GE to do something about it? To make a long story short, eventually we did resolve the problem but there was a lot of  energy put into getting it resolved. Plus many idle conversations were had over this. 

Our lives are filled with much more serious events than this one that cause anxiety, but they all add up and we feel like we are suffering from something we cannot quite describe. When we are anxious, our demeanor suffers and our relationships with others suffer which adds to our anxiety. Also, and most importantly, our spiritual life is degraded and we lose site our our true purpose. We find ourselves focused on ourselves and mundane issues of a material world trying to get everything around us to go the way we want it. 

This is the basic problem with our materialistic way of life coupled with our self-centeredness. We want everything to obey our commands including mother nature.

Elder Paisios says the following:
People today have made their lives difficult, because they are not satisfied with a few things, but are constantly chasing after more and more material goods. 
So how do we deal with this fact of modern life? We can't all go off to a monastery and escape. The key is to not set such high expectations out of this material world and set our hopes instead on the life to come. We can learn to strive less for material well being and begin to strive more for spiritual well being.

Elder Paisios says,
Those who would like to live a genuine spiritual life must first of all be satisfied with a few things. When their life is simplified without too many concerns and nuances, not only will they be liberated from the worldly spirit, they will also have plenty of time available for spiritual things. Otherwise they will tire themselves out by trying to follow the fashion of the times; they will lose their serenity and will gain only great anxiety. 
All the fancy things we pile onto our life adds to its complexity. You can do something as simple as install a new carpet and then find you begin to worry about it getting soiled and start tormenting all who come through your house. Just because of a carpet! 

We can learn to seek simple and practical material goods, things that make our life easier with less hassle. This is not a simple task but one worthwhile pursuing. Keep life simple and you will find you have more energy for the spiritual life which will bring you great rewards and joy instead of anxiety.

Identify things you do not really need. Seek a smaller house rather than a large one. Identify at least one activity that you can withdraw from to make more free time in your life. Identify one relationship you need to sever. Make time for and build a habit of daily prayer. Simplify your daily menu and follow the fasting guidelines. Repent continually and participate in the life giving sacrament of Holy Communion. With a little effort you can begin to change your way of life towards one that demands less rather then more. The monetary surplus that emerges you can use to help those who are disadvantaged and who cannot meet the minimal material needs of daily life. This is the right path. This is the Orthodox way of life.

Ten Points for Living an Orthodox Way of Life.

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, p 160

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Have you noticed how some people are always grumbling?  I have a good friend who always begins his story about his latest trip by telling me endlessly about all the problems he had with the airlines.  Now, I have traveled a lot and have not normally had any particular difficulties other than an occasional delay or a lost bag, but generally I am thankful that the flight gets me from point A to point B in a very short time without much to be concerned about. But why is it that this person always has such dire troubles when he travels?  My only conclusion is that he is simply a grumbler. It's the way he looks at the world and therefore experiences it an a negative way.

This attitude can be very dangerous for our spiritual well being. Negative thoughts can fill our minds and corrupt our view of the goodness that is all around us. We are not able to see and experience God's grace for us. 

Elder Paisos tells a story about this issue.
I knew two farmers in Epirus. One of them was a family man who had a couple of small fields and who entrusted everything to God. He worked, as much as he could, without anxiety. He would say, "I'll do as much as I can manage." Occasionally, some of the hay bales would spoil in the rain because he didn't gather them in time, while other bales were scattered by the wind; and yet for all things he would say, "Glory to you, O God!" and everything went well for him. The other farmer had many fields, cows, and so on, but no children. If you asked him, "how are you doing?"; he would invariably respond, "Forget about it; don't even ask!"  He never said, "Glory to You, O God"; he was always grumbling. And so that  you will see -- sometimes a cow of his would die; sometimes one thing would happen to him, sometimes something else. He had everything, but he made no progress.
So what is the spiritual message here? If we are bound up with negative thoughts all the time we will never recognize God's blessings. We become separated from God. As Elder Paisios puts it, "How are we to taste God's blessings, if He gives us, for example, bananas and we're thinking of whatever better things some ship-owner might be eating?" Those who accept what God's gives them with thanks, develop a spiritual sensitivity and are able to know and experience God's love for them. Those who continually grumble miss His energies that are always their to comfort and guide them. They live blind to God bound up by their own negative thoughts.

As the Elder puts its, "We don't understand that happiness is in eternity and not in vanity."

Reference: Elder Paisios of Mount Athos Spiritual Counsels IV: Family LIfe, p 158