Below is transcript of a talk I gave at the 2015 Orthodox Young Professionals Retreat held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The title of the event was “Sanctifying Time and Space: Privilege and Responsibility as an Orthodox Young Professional”. To my surprise someone took the time to write out a transcript of my talk for Ancient Faith Radio. I could post the written version I initially prepared, but the transcript includes more than what I planned to say. Enjoy!
Thanks for having me. It was a long trip, but it’s very beautiful here. The only thing it lacks is the ocean, because where I live, it’s all ocean! Mountains, but ocean.
The topic tonight is “Work as Prayer: Uniting Our Divided Selves”: Creative ways to employ prayer and watchfulness in our everyday work lives. As Valerie said, I’ve lived in Greece for a number of years, and while I lived there, I would frequently visit women’s monasteries, not only for spiritual respite, but because I loved working alongside the sisterhoods. They work a great deal to sustain their monastery, sometimes all hours of the day if need be. And I was more than happy to work with them to the point of exhaustion. Once, after a long day in such work, we were sitting with the abbess in the courtyard, enjoying the cool evening air, when she commented, “Work, when combined with prayer, becomes prayer,” and it is to this idea, this principle, that I wish to speak with you tonight.
St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite says Christians should regard their occupations and handiwork as sidelines and not as vocations, for the sake of earning their livelihood, and that they should regard prayer and piety as their work and occupation. When the cunning Pharisees, wishing to entrap Christ, asked him whether or not they should pay tax to Caesar, Christ responded with a question: “Whose image is depicted on the denarius coin?” And the Pharisees responded that Caesar’s image was on it. And Christ’s answer was, “Pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” What did he mean, “Pay to God what is God’s”? Well, just as the denarius was imprinted with Caesar’s image and therefore belonged to Caesar, so we are imprinted, we are created, in the image of God, and therefore we owe him our very selves. Perhaps this is what Christ meant by that. Thus, as St. Nikodemos states, prayer and piety must be our primary occupation, because it is by means of these things that we give to God what is God’s.
Being made of dirt and clay, however, I think it is easy to make man earthly cares his primary priority. No matter what our occupation, whether we be a corporate lawyer or a talented barista, the temptation is there for us to become so occupied with our job that we forget our first love, as St. John the Theologian says in Revelation, that is, the spiritual life. When we are busy and tired, the first things we let slide are usually our prayer life, the reading of holy Scriptures and godly books, and, worse still, church attendance. Work, however, maintaining a job or being a professional, are just the context within which we are called to live, move, and have our being in Christ as Orthodox Christians. So just as the sisters, when employed in prayer, create an environment of prayer and watchfulness in their work, so we can employ practical tools enabling us to watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation in our everyday work lives.
Now, I’m going to share with you some helpful tips, or at least things I find helpful. As I’ve said, the primary work of a monastic is prayer, and although monastics work a great deal, their work is always, or ought to be, combined with prayer. We, too, can accomplish this by becoming creative in our workplaces. Wherever we are, at all times, we can struggle to say the Jesus prayer. All prayer is good and beneficial, but the Jesus prayer is our most prized possession as Orthodox Christians. The holy saints of our Church have given us a treasure. Through their ascetic struggle to acquire the Holy Spirit by means of unceasing prayer, they have passed down to us this perfected form of prayer.
The prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” is a confession of faith, my professor of dogmatics theology once told a classroom full of students. It is a confession that God became man; the person of God the Word, that is, Christ Jesus, became incarnate. With this prayer, we ask for his mercy. Mercy, according to patristic theology, is the compassion of God which is expressed as the kingdom of God. So when we say this simple but theologically profound prayer, we are in fact supplicating Christ to bring us his kingdom. As Orthodox Christians, we know the whole goal of our earthly life is to attain and transcend to the heavenly kingdom. So we also know that this prayer is the best and most simple way to keep our focus on Christ and constantly seek his mercy, his compassion, and his kingdom.
Now, you may tell me, “But I can’t focus on my work if I’m constantly saying the Jesus prayer!” Well, there are two perspectives. One is that we should struggle to pray in all circumstances, regardless of how much concentration our job requires. And the other is that we must make a concerted effort to take the time to stop what we are doing to offer God our attention.
I’ll give you an example of the first perspective. There’s an abbess whom I love with all my heart who reposed in 1995, so I never had a chance to meet her, but I have read her books that are written in Greek, and, God willing, this book that she has will be translated into English, and she has helped many, many people, not only in Greece but also in North America. Her monastery was located in a village outside of city called Volos in Greece. She was the spiritual daughter of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. I’m sure some of you or many of you know of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, and for those of you who don’t, I supplicate you to run as fast as you can to acquire his books, because he is amazing.
So Gerontissa worked from the age of nine, because her parents had both reposed and she had to take care of herself and her brother. At the age of 12, she had found work in a tobacco factory. Her job was to count all of the cigarettes to make sure that there was always, I think it was 25 in each cigarette packet. But after some time she grew tired of this, because she thought, “If I’m counting and my mind is occupied with counting, I cannot pray freely.” So finally she just said, “Panagia”—which is a Greek term of endearment for the Mother of God; it means All-holy One—“Panagia, you count; I’ll pray.” After that she stopped counting, and there was always the right amount of cigarettes in the packet.
Alternatively, if we can’t say the Jesus prayer continually like Gerontissa Makrina did, and not only Gerontissa Makrina—there are people in the world who have acquired this prayer of the heart, this unceasing prayer—but if we are not able to or if we’re not able to yet, we should at least make a point to stop what we are doing, let’s say every ten minutes or so, to at least say one time, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. O Most-holy Theotokos, save me.” We could at very least say, “Lord, have mercy” or “Glory to God.” Think of all the small talk and chatter we engage in throughout the day. All we need to do is engage in small talk with God. Take the time and make the effort to keep his name on our lips as much as possible. The whole point is to constantly direct and redirect our hearts and minds toward God, to have remembrance of God in all we do.
I’ll share another story that will hopefully elaborate on what I’m trying to get at. So my professor again, who himself is a huge example for me—he was married, had a family, worked a regular job: he was at this Aristotle University in Thessaloniki—he would often tell us, even though he’s a professor of dogmatic theology—not “even though”… He was a professor of dogmatic theology, and in order to teach us dogmatic theology, he would often employ his own lived experience of the faith. He had a very close relationship with the newly canonized Paisios of Mount Athos, and he did this in order for us to understand that dogmatic theology and all theology, but dogmatic which particularly I think is easy for us to assume is academic, he did it in order to show us that it isn’t an academic: it is the lived experience of God, and it’s the common lived experience. He would often, in his lectures, go into these amazing little stories that would really help us.
He told us this story of how he and a friend of his had gone to a monastery. They had attended the Divine Liturgy. Afterwards they went to greet the elder that was there, and the elder said to my professor’s friend, “Where were you during the service?” And my professor’s friend said, “I was here. I was in the church.” He said, “No, you weren’t.” So my professor comes to his friend’s defense, and he says, “No, really, Geronda! He was here. I was with him. We were together.” And he says, “No, he wasn’t here. He was out serving the land he wants to buy, thinking about what he wants to build there.” The man, of course, was dumbfounded by the elder’s prophetic words because he understood that, while his body was in church, he was not in church, because his mind wasn’t and his heart wasn’t.
Christ said, “Where your heart is, there will your treasure be also.” So where is our heart? Where is our mind, our attention, our desire? We must struggle to have remembrance of God, to offer him our attention, our prayer, throughout the day. If our mind strays, we shouldn’t become distraught. We should just call it back, even if it happens a thousand times, the point is to struggle. Our thoughts have such strength that, as we saw in the above story, they can carry us away from God. Conversely, they can carry us toward God. In that way, even when our bodies are in secular work environments, our minds and our hearts don’t have to be separate from God.
There’s another story: St. Nicholas Planas, who was a saint in Athens. He also… There’s a similar experience, where there’s a woman who was present in church, but when St. Nicholas Planas went with the censer, and he was censing the people, he skipped over her, and he went to the empty seats and he censed the empty seats. Afterwards, the woman asked him, “Fr. Nicholas, why did you miss me and cense the other empty seats?” He said, “Well, I didn’t cense you because you weren’t here; your mind was elsewhere. And I censed the empty seats because so-and-so who’s sick at home couldn’t come but desired to be here. This is where her heart was.”
When we’re at the photocopier or we’re walking through the office, when we’re going about our work, we can pray. We can think over the Scriptures, books we’ve read. We can sing psalms or hymns—obviously inside ourselves. There is so much at our disposal to turn our heart and mind toward God. This is what watchfulness is: to be guarding our senses by means of occupying our mind with remembrance of God. Christ taught us a good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart, but guarding our senses and occupying our mind with prayer, our heart will not only have the evil expelled, that is, become purified of the passions, it will become an abode for the Holy Trinity, a dwelling-place, a room for God to lay his head. It will, in other words, store up good things.
And by practicing watchfulness, our conscience becomes more sensitive, and this conscientious state of mind begins to seep into our actions and re-actions, in the way we speak or the types of conversations we avoid. We don’t need to isolate ourselves in the workplace to the point of scandalizing others, but we can be mindful of what interactions we engage in and what kinds of conversations and activities we avoid, purposely avoid, in order to avoid displeasing Christ. When we make this watchful effort, when we are mindful of guarding ourselves, our senses, then we will feel the grace of God more acutely, and know intuitively when we engage in God-pleasing activities, or, alternatively, when we have displeased God. This is the spiritual state we are striving to attain: to become temples of the Holy Spirit. This is sanctity.
The saints, both old and new, living and reposed, see despite obstacles, they work miracles, and their prayers have great effect because they have boldness before God on account of this perpetual state of prayer and watchfulness, a state attainable by all Christians, whether monastic or lay, whether working in a bakery or in the middle of Times Square. St. Silouan the Athonite wrote:
My soul yearns after the Lord, and I seek him in tears. How could I do other than seek thee? for thou first did seek and find me, and gavest me to delight in thy Holy Spirit, and my soul fell to loving thee. Hadst thou not drawn me with thy love, I could not seek thee as I seek thee now, but thy Spirit gave me to know thee, and my soul rejoices that thou art my God and my Lord.
We, too, can have this radical, all-encompassing love and experience this radical and all-encompassing love in our everyday work lives, in our everyday lives, if only we make the smallest of efforts. And the more effort we make, the more God’s grace enlightens and strengthens us, and, alternatively, the more progress we make in the spiritual life. All that is required is to seek first the kingdom of God.
Something else that is beneficial and will have a positive effect on our personal and work lives is to pray for those we interact with throughout the day, whether in person or over the phone, or even if we’re just doing paperwork. I know of people who, when reading or recording someone’s information or listening to them speaking, they will pray for that person. Just a simple, “Lord, have mercy on your servant,” is all that is necessary to unite us to others through prayer, and this is the work of a true Christian: to love one another, and through this love to grow and cultivate our love for God even more.
St. John the Chrysostom says, “God created trades so that our life might be held together by them, not so that we might detach ourselves from spiritual concerns, but so that we might serve one another.” In this way, we acquire God’s blessing for ourselves and for those we pray for, work with, and serve. We should pray especially for those co-workers or individuals who bother us, upset us, or wrong us. In all these circumstances, God is giving us a golden opportunity to make great spiritual strides, if only we accept being wrong with a humble heart, which of course is very difficult to do. But this is what it means to love those who hate us.
When Christ was teaching the apostles these things, he was not only speaking about the physical torture that they would come upon and the hatred that they would come upon when they went out into the world; he was talking to us, too, in our own particular circumstances. The truth is people often experience great turmoil at work and conflicts with co-workers. It is here that our spiritual battle exists. Will we struggle to show love to those who make our life challenging? Will we sacrifice ourselves, our wills, our opinions, our “I know best” kind of attitudes in order to be Christian examples to those around us? This is what we are called to in our workplaces: to actively love one another. This is what we’re called to do in our life.
The spiritual arena we do battle in as Orthodox Christians living in the world is this kind of arena: how we interact with and react to our co-workers, bosses, managers, clients. We must employ watchfulness in this spiritual arena. We must pay attention to our thoughts and feelings. We must ask ourselves: Where is my mind: wandering all over the place or concentrated on the task at hand? Am I struggling to keep the Lord’s name present in all I do? Am I being honest in my work? Am I being fair?
Above all, we must pray for God to enlighten us, to grant us the great virtue of discernment so that we know what it means to truly work as Christians, make decisions as Christians, and to balance virtues of humility with our particular job. People often worry that being humble would result in them being treated as doormats. Namely, if they are not assertive enough in the workplace, people will walk all over them. We need to pray for God to enlighten us so that we can do our job well and with appropriate assertiveness and confidence, while never relinquishing our personal commitment to humility and love. It is not an easy struggle, but it is our struggle, our spiritual arena.
And we mustn’t think that sporadic prayer throughout the day is the only method of prayer we ought to employ. Prayer throughout the day is the bare minimum. We must also remember Christ’s admonition: When you pray, enter into your room, and when you shut your door, pray to your Father who sees in secret. We need to make a regular… We need to make time for a regular rule of prayer that we commit to and faithfully complete every day. Personal rules of prayer are essential, not only for growth in the spiritual life, but for our everyday well-being.
So now I’m going to read an excerpt from a story that I wrote in my second book that, God willing, will be published sometime. But I have a feeling that my editor will want me to explain that this is not a polished version, so it’s a rough draft, let’s say. But I really wanted to share this with you. For me it’s a very important topic. This story is called, “Drink of This, All of You: Keeping a Prayer Rule.”
It is a custom in the Orthodox Church for the faithful to keep personal rules of prayer, some form of set prayers said daily, whether it is praying the matins or compline services, a set number of Jesus prayers, or making prostrations—it varies from person to person. It is usually given to us by our priest or spiritual father. Sometimes the individual Christian chooses it, but it ought to always be taken on with a blessing. Our prayer rule is our unique and personal connection to Christ. Similar to a medical prescription, our prayer rule is a spiritual prescription, particular to our illness, to our soul, and to the needs of our soul.
When we miss our prayer rule, especially if we miss it frequently, not only do we not become healthy, but we in fact become more ill. As the ever-memorable Abbess Makrina taught:
This is the same Makrina that I spoke of earlier. So she says:
Many times we neglect our prayer rule, saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow or the day after tomorrow,” and they pile up. The soul weakens, just as the body weakens when we don’t give it the necessary calories, and it begins to break down, and we are darkened, because we consider everything that we must be careful of to be insignificant and unimportant. The body begins to become fat while the soul collapses. Later we say, “My mind has become dim. I don’t remember God. I am darkened. I am not able to pray.” It is because the soul is hungry. It is not being fed and nourished by the body. In this way, the body is not given strength, and the soul becomes ill.
There was once a nun who was lax when it came to her prayer rule. Although she had dedicated her life to monasticism, she had forgotten her first love and neglected to complete her prayer rule every day. At the end of her life, while [she] lay dying on her bed, she struggled greatly, unable to take her last breath. Her fellow nuns observed this and asked the abbess why it was that their sister and co-struggler was not able to give up her spirit. After praying, the abbess discerned that this was a result of the nun’s failure to faithfully complete her prayer rule. So the abbess advised the sisterhood to begin praying to make up for the prayers the sister ought to have completed. Once the sisterhood had fulfilled the necessary amount of prayers on behalf of the negligent nun, she took her last breath, and her soul departed.
When we keep a rule of prayer with a blessing, we are not only protected from spiritual delusion, but prayer does not becoming something we really do when or if we feel like it. For this would make our spiritual life subject to our ever-changing and fickle will—the last thing we should put our trust in—whereas, with the blessing from our spiritual father or priest, we approach our prayer rule the way we would a medical prescription. By taking the prescribed dosage on a daily basis, we gradually become healed of our particular spiritual illness. However, this spiritual medication cannot have an effect if we do not make an effort to take it regularly.
Once, when I had the opportunity to speak with a holy abbess about prayer, she told me, “We can sit down and say the Jesus prayer for hours every night, but if our mind is wandering all over the place, there is no profit in that. The purpose of a prayer rule is to offer God our attention, morning and evening, to focus on him.” There is no such thing as a small or large prayer rule, the abbess went on to tell me. There is just a personal rule of prayer. We need to make sure we keep it faithfully every day, no matter what. We shouldn’t try and take on too much. We should just do those prayers our spiritual father prescribes for us. If we take on too much, we’ll end up not being able to do that which was first given to us. The abbess not only taught me that keeping a prayer rule consistently is of extreme importance, no matter the size, but her simple words that evening opened my eyes to the reality that a prayer rule is like a medical prescription. However, it’s up to us whether we become healthy.
So let’s look at a few more practical tips that help us employ prayer and watchfulness in our everyday work lives, on top of keeping our prayer rule. Years ago I heard a homily by a Greek priest who lived in Athens. His name was Fr. Andreas Konanos. I don’t know if anyone knows of him, but his homilies are very beautiful, and in this particular homily, he talked about spiritualizing things, everyday, mundane tasks. Some of the examples he gives are domestic, but it just gives an example of how, when we’re creative and when we are really seeking to live a spiritual life, then we can find… we can look at every opportunity as an opportunity to become holy.
Fr. Andreas described, for example, how when we are in our kitchen cutting an onion, and our eyes begin to water on account of the vapors, we should use this for our own spiritual gain. Even though the tears are not proceeding from a contrite heart in actuality, we can use them for our own devices and reflect on our sins, “cry for our sins,” as Fr. Andreas said. He mentioned using simple things as opportunities for prayer, like taking off our coat. When we take off our coat, we can say an internal prayer, “Just as I take off this coat, so remove my sins from me, O Lord.”
Similarly, I once heard a talk by a spiritual daughter of the newly-canonized St. Porphyrios, who said the elder once asked her if she did prostrations as a part of her daily rule of prayer. Prostrations are when we make the sign of the cross, and we bow down and our head sort of makes contact with the floor or close to it, and we get back up. So this is what the elder asks his spiritual daughter, and she says, “No, Geronda! I thought prostrations were just for monastics and clergy.” And he says, “I know you did. That’s why I asked you! You should do prostrations, because they’re an external posture of humility,” he told her. “Even when you are cooking and your fork falls on the floor, instead of becoming irritated, you should kneel to pick it up, make a prostration, and thank the Lord.”
In his commentary on the Gospel passage concerning the mammon of unrighteousness, St. Kyril of Alexandria says the following:
The Lord of all, therefore, requires us to be thoroughly constant in our exertions after virtue, and to fix our desires on a better and holy life, setting ourselves free from the distractions of the world, that we may serve him continually and with undivided affections.
This, in that sense, is what Fr. Andreas’ and St. Porphyrios’ advice is directed at: fixing our desires on a holy life in all circumstances, that we may serve the Lord continually. This is the whole idea—when we’re driving in our car, when we’re walking into work, when we’re eating our lunch or interacting with our co-workers—to constantly seek after the virtuous life. I’m sure anyone who’s ever done a Great Books program or the foundation year, you all know how important the virtuous life is. As Orthodox Christians, we have actually found the perfected form of it.
Again, St. Porphyrios says, “Look on all things as opportunities to be sanctified.” It’s not about where we work; it’s about the disposition of our heart that makes keeping Christ’s commandments possible. I know it’s difficult out there in the world in a secular environment, with a great deal of distractions and negative influences, but it is possible, as St. Porphyrios said, and as he himself did, to become a saint even in the middle of the city. This is because it is not about where our physical bodies are, but where our heart is, our attention, our desire.
There’s a story, there’s a tradition that says that some of the Fathers who lived on Mt. Athos, which is a peninsula in Greece of thousand-year-old monasteries, that some of the Fathers who lived on Athos but their heart and mind were occupied with the world, that during the general resurrection when we’re all resurrected, that these Fathers’ bodies will actually be resurrected in the world, and that those people who lived in the world but their heart and mind were on Athos, that their bodies will be resurrected on Athos. So this is the idea: it’s where our mind is and where our heart is that matters. It’s not about where our bodies are.
Reading the lives of the saints on a daily basis will also help us greatly in our spiritual battle, or as often as we can; it doesn’t necessarily have to be on a daily basis, but it’s wonderful if it can be on a daily basis. We can learn from their example. We can apply certain elements of their way of life to our own. It takes a great deal of discernment, but we will be praying for God to enlighten us, and we will put our trust in him to guide us on the straight and narrow path. St. John the Russian, for example, became sanctified by faithfully serving his Muslim master. For those of you who don’t know St. John’s story—forgive me if you do know it—he was a Russian soldier who went to battle against the Turks, with other Russian young men. They were captured, and many of them were killed; many of them were killed for their faith.
St. John was not killed. He instead was taken into slavery by a Turkish agha, so, “master” is what it is. So although he was enslaved and he lived in a stable, he exhibited such virtue and commitment to serving his master that the agha and his wife gradually grew to love their meek and humble slave. From morning until night, the saint served his Turkish master, fulfilling all his commands. He performed his duties in the winter cold and in the summer heat, half-naked and barefoot. Other slaves frequently mocked him, seeing his zeal, but St. John never became angry with them. On the contrary, he helped them when he could, and he comforted them in their misfortune.
When not laboring for his master, St. John labored for the Master of all with prayer and good works—or I should say while: even though he was laboring for his master, he was also laboring for the Master of all with prayer and good works. He would always make sure to go to church and receive holy Communion. Over time, his agha actually grew very rich, and he made no qualms about attributing all of his wealth and good fortune to his faithful Christian servant, John. They even actually offered him to move into a better living quarters, but he refused, because he preferred the humble stable, because it reminded him of our Lord and Savior who also was born into this humble abode, a stable.
So St. John is just one of many saints that we can look to. Like St. John, we should love our bosses, our managers, our co-workers, and we should serve them with a happy heart, striving to keep the commandments of loving God and our neighbor. It’s not always easy and it’s a struggle to love, but it’s our struggle to love everyone and to work with them by employing all Christian virtue. We should look at our boss as a microcosm of Christ, our manager as a microcosm of Christ, regardless of how he or she lives. It doesn’t matter how they live. For this relationship that we have with them is an opportunity for us to serve Christ through serving them. That is what St. John the Russian did. He was entirely devoted to serving his master, because he was a Christian, and Christians work, act, re-act, and interact with Christian virtues of obedience, humility, and love.
Another particular method of employing prayer and keeping in mind the example of saints is to have small, discreet icons and written prayers throughout… strategically placed at our desks. Now, if we are able to, we could have large icons. I know a doctor who keeps a relic of St. Panteleimon in his office. If we’re able to, it’s wonderful, but if we’re not able to, we can keep little, discreet things. I, for example, really would keep this little icon of the Protection of the Mother of God at my desk at work and St. Gregory Palamas. I had underneath my keyboard a Post-It note with the kontakion of St. George written on it, because, for me, St. George is a perfect example of a Christian working a secular job. In retrospect, I probably could have had the kontakion somewhere obvious, but I’ve always liked keeping things hidden, in secret. A great deal of our spiritual striving should be done in secret. So let’s just say that I hid his kontakion underneath my keyboard out of this desire to serve God secretly rather than out of vainglory or out of concern for what other people would think.
Another practical tip is for us to remember the saints of the day. Let’s say, for example, that we’re taking notes or making a list. If it’s for our own personal use, when we write the date, we can also write who the saint of the day is. For example, today is October 16, so I think it’s the martyr Longinus, the centurion who was the one who put the spear in Christ’s side and then the water and blood that came out actually healed his eye ailment, and he became a Christian. He went back to his native Cappadocia and preached Christ.
Let’s say I’m going to write—I don’t know—in my journal tonight. I would write: October 16, and above it, I would write: St. Longinus the Martyr, because I always feel like it’s really important for me… These people lived and served Christ perfectly. That is why they’re called saints. They acquired Christ in themselves, whether it was through a life of asceticism or it was in a moment of martyrdom. I feel like I have a responsibility as a Christian and as a person who I say and I pretend at least, if I don’t do it authentically, to live as a Christian, I have a duty to remember these people, to call upon them to help me, and for me to actually try to model my life after them.
So let me go back to St. George for a minute, though, and his kontakion underneath my keyboard. He was a soldier, and because he applied the Christian virtue of not fearing death to his work, that is why he was such a great soldier and everyone loved him. That is why the emperor was extremely grieved to hear that he was a Christian, because George was known to be a very brave soldier. He applied his Christian virtue to his work, just like we are able, in our own particular circumstances, to apply Christian virtue to our work. He didn’t fear death because as Christians we shouldn’t fear death; we don’t fear death. We only fear being separated from God in this life and in the next.
So every morning when I sat down at my desk, I would turn my computer on, I would lift my keyboard, and I would pray St. [George]‘s kontakion. St. George worked in the world. He maintained a job, and he kept the commandments of Christ. There came a time, of course, when he needed to confess his faith, and it resulted in his martyrdom, the event which single-handedly confirmed his high position in the kingdom of heaven. But until then he was no different [from] you or [I]. He was a Christian, working and praying and loving Christ.
Even great monastic saints borrowed from the example of faithful Christians living in the world, so we have no excuse. We’re not going to be able to go to the Judgment and plead innocent because we were busy with our jobs or we were too tired to make an effort, because we know that there are people who, even though they lived in the world, acquired this kind of state of sanctity. So listen to this following story that perhaps some of you or many of you know that illustrates that the Gospel isn’t just for monastics; it’s for everyone.
St. Anthony the Great, the father of monasticism, once prayed, “Lord, reveal to me how a faithful person in the city, among the noise, can reach the spiritual level of an ascetic who dwells in the deep desert.” St. Anthony hears a voice that says to him, “The Gospel is the same for all men, Anthony, and if you want to confirm this, how one who does the will of God is saved and sanctified wherever he is, go to Alexandria to the cobbler’s store who is simple and poor.” So St. Anthony travels into the city and he visits this cobbler, and he questions him as to how he lives and how he spends his days. The cobbler tells him, “I, Abba, have never done anything good. I only struggle to keep the holy teachings of the Gospel, and furthermore I try never to forget to never overlook my shortcomings and my spiritual fruitlessness. Therefore, as I work during the day, I think and say to myself: O wretched man! All will be saved, and only you will remain fruitless. Because of your sin you will never be worthy to see God’s face!”
Hearing this, St. Anthony responded, “Thank you, O Lord!” and he embraced the cobbler with love and said, “And thank you, O holy man. Thank you, for you taught me how easy it is, with only a humble mind, for someone to live in the grace of paradise!” All the way back to the desert, St. Anthony contemplated the great virtue of humility, and said to himself, “Humility—this therefore is the quickest path to the gate of paradise. Humility is the robe which clothed himself with and came to earth as man.” So in discussing prayer and watchfulness and how our whole life can become a living sacrifice to Christ’s love, if we make a little effort, we should never forget the great role of humility in this our effort.
Perfectly capturing the whole essence of this virtue of humility, the New Martyr Fr. Daniel Sysoev says the following. I just need to pause for one second because Fr. Daniel, he reposed in 2009. He was a missionary priest in Moscow. He did… He taught so much. He converted, for example, 200 Protestants in the city of Moscow. I don’t know where he found them, but he converted them. They were baptized Orthodox Christians. He did a lot of work with the Muslim population. He was asked to publicly debate imams, and so he did. He was a bold teacher, and he was a true follower of Christ, and because of this the fruit of his work is testified to by the fact that God made him worthy of martyrdom. On November 19, after he had served the Divine Liturgy, a Muslim man entered the church, and as Fr. Daniel turned from the royal doors there in the center of the church, the man shot him dead. So this holy person who not only taught but lived this kind of life, he says the following about humility. I think it’s so sweet and so funny.
I’ll tell you this. If you want to be proud, go right ahead, but be proud of the things you’ve done without your soul, for your soul was given to you by God. Be proud of what you’ve done without your hands, because your hands were also given you by God. Without your legs, without your head, without your torso—everything that’s left is all yours, but what’s left? Nothing is left. It’s all very simple. You can be proud of what you did before you were born, for your birth was also given you by God.
So we watch, we pray, and we do all of this with great humility so that we not only attract the grace of God, but we safeguard it and we grow in love and knowledge of God.
I entitled this talk, “Work as Prayer: Uniting our Divided Selves,” but what I’m trying to convey is this division is not only unnecessary but is in fact counterproductive to our spiritual life. There should be no division between my work self and my Orthodox Christian self. In all we do, if we employ prayer and watchfulness, then this perceived division that oftentime hinders us from advancing in the spiritual life is obliterated. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and to the ages. That is how we should be constant in our exertion after virtue, as St. Kyril says. At your work, whatever it may be, you can becomes saints, St. Porphyrios says. Through meekness, patience, and love, make a new start every day, with a new resolution, with enthusiasm and love, prayer and silence, not with anxiety.
So regarding this Christian concept of making a new beginning every day, a holy elder who lived just outside of Thessaloniki, whose name was Elder Symeon, I just recently found out a few days ago that he reposed actually. I think it was September 30. He says the following about this making a new beginning, and this is what’s so important because humility doesn’t allow us to become discouraged when we don’t do what we had wanted us to do. Humility allows us to say, “Of course I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, because I cannot do it unless God gives me the grace to do it.” Elder Symeon says this:
The Fathers of the Orthodox Church feel the need to make a new beginning, namely, to start living rightly at each moment, to start the spiritual life at every instant. Every day the saints made a new start and without realizing it they reached the ultimate destination. Therefore, while making a beginning, someone appears to be at the start, and yet doing this, he finds that he has reached his ultimate destination.
And he gives an example:
A small child desires to climb the staircase which leads to his house. He raises his little foot to the first step and tries to raise his other foot, too. He doesn’t manage to, and falls. The little child tries again, and again doesn’t manage. And again he tries, and again he falls. He continues his effort without considering that he failed once, twice, three times. This reality of failure does not bother him at all. The child’s mother watches him from the upper landing without him noticing. Seeing her child’s effort and that he isn’t at all bothered by his failure, she descends, takes the child in her arms, and the child ascends the staircase upright. We could say that somewhat this resembles man’s attempt to live the spiritual life. Man needs to show that he wants to spiritually progress and to attract God by his labor.
I just think this is an awesome line:
For if man doesn’t do that which he can, God won’t do what we as human beings choose not to do. Man is unable to create a spiritual life on his own; rather, the spiritual life is a gift of uncreated grace. All we have to do is make an effort, guard our senses, and struggle to pray continually with attention, placing our trust and hope on Christ, and we will ascend outright, as the elder says.
I want to leave you with this simple but profound exchange found in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph, and he said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office. I fast, I pray, I meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else am I to do? What else can I do?”
Then Abba Joseph stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, “If you wish, you can become all flame.”
Truly, brothers and sisters, if we wish, we can become all flame, even in the midst of our workplace. Work, when combined with prayer, becomes prayer. It’s the practical application of our obligation to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, and all our mind. It is the means to becoming all flame for the love of Christ. Then we will experience a perfect union with God, and no longer feel any kind of internal fractured vision, because perfect love casts out confusion and division and allows Almighty God to enthrone himself in our heart. Thank you.
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