What is “Spiritual Life”?
Spiritual life is nothing other than “life in Christ.” In the words of a contemporary Orthodox lay theologian, spirituality consists of “the ways which … lead to sanctity, to sainthood.” A Spiritual life, then, is about salvation, and salvation is about understanding, growth and struggle, among other things. It is hard work, for no one is “born” a saint. By contrast, the average Orthodox layman today seems to think that he is leading an exceptional spiritual life merely because he attends church regularly, receives Holy Communion (sometimes ithout any proper preparation), and contributes to the support of the Church. This, however, only shows that he is a member of the Church, not that he is leading an active spiritual life.
“By definition, an Orthodox Christian is one who strives to be obedient to the Commandments and, at the same time, obediently tries to fulfill the requirements of an Orthodox way of life, as revealed by Scripture and Tradition. Thus, [regular] attendance at Divine services, frequent reception of the Mysteries, observance of the seasonal fasts, the giving of alms, etc. — all of these, and more, constitute the bare minimum expected of those who follow Jesus Christ. This … is, however, only the beginning for anyone who wishes to call himself Christian; these are the ‘first steps’ in spiritual life …. Yet … they represent the patient, hard work of actually beginning to ‘walk’ the narrow path to the Kingdom of Heaven.’
Active spiritual life, then, is much more than “minimalism.” It is, in fact, nothing less than a sincere attempt to fulfill the Lord’s command, Be ye perfect, even as your Father Who is in Heaven is perfect(Matt. 5:48), so that at death we might be presented to God, holy and unblamable and unreproachable in His sight (Col. 1:22). The Church, in all of her grace-filled manifestations (the Sacraments, the Divine services, and even parish life itself), is the proper school for spiritual life, for the Church possesses abundant wisdom and experience, and this is the primary purpose — to lead us to sainthood by showing us how to unite our will to God.
What is Spiritual Direction?
Since the essence of spiritual life consists “in healing our impaired will, uniting it with the will of God and sanctifying it by this union,” and since “in order to do the will of God it is necessary to know it,” spiritual direction is a areful process by which we first learn and then apply the principles of spiritual life, thus coming to know God’s will for us with assurance. Some very few saints and righteous ones, finding themselves in circumstances where healthy and genuine spiritual direction was not available, were able to do this for themselves through a very patient, prayerful, and life-long study of sacred texts. Such, for example, was the great Saint Paisius Velichkovsky, the eighteenth-century Russian monastic reformer and teacher. Most of us, however, must imitate the Ethiopian in the Book of Acts -How can I understand unless someone guides me?
Spiritual direction consists not only of learning ancient techniques of prayer, but it requires detailed instruction by the director, as well as guided reading and study and learning inner attention. But it also has an important dimension of asceticism — that is, certain kinds of bodily practices that, in Orthodox spirituality, go hand in hand with prayer and learning. Such practices may include learning how to live a quieter lifestyle, adopting (with the permission of one’s director) additional fasting and abstinence exercises, and more frequent attendance at Divine services — all of which are calculated to slightly challenge and tax the body and its natural energies, putting it under additional discipline and control.
In most cases, a spiritual director will take his spiritual child “from strength to strength,” beginning with the simplest and easiest “ABC’s” of spiritual striving. He will first inquire to know at what level the student is in his spiritual life — and it does not matter how basic or even primitive the student may be — and the director will also want to know in some detail about his state in life — married or single, with children or without, what kind of job, and what the student does for entertainment. Slowly but surely the director will introduce the student to certain hallowed principles and ideas. He will assign reading and will carefully discuss that reading with the student.
The director will expose his spiritual child to various methods of prayer which are time-honored in the Church (for spiritual life is in many ways as much a science as an art). He will also assign a Prayer Rule, very simple at first, and then gradually more complex, and he will carefully supervise the student’s progress in prayer. He will also act as confessor to his spiritual son or daughter, for in this great Mystery of Repentance the director is most able to act as a spiritual physician. In this context, a spiritual father strives particularly to show his spiritual children the way to repentance, which means “a change of mind that is accompanied by deep regret over one’s past life or over some particular act which one has committed,” so that “there is a profound change of orientation, a sudden shift of the center of gravity of one’s total being from the material to the spiritual, from the physical world to God, from concern for the body to concern for the soul.”
Not least, a spiritual father will be available as a sympathetic ear and a healthy and objective “sounding-board” when his spiritual sons and daughters are in need of this.