The editorial office of Foma journal (after Thomas the Apostle) received a question from a reader:
“Hello! I can’t feel faith with all my heart. I try to observe the fasts, take Communion, read the morning and evening rules, but the feeling is that everything is external, shallow. I just know that this should be done, and that’s all. I try to confess carefully, but also only in words: at the moment of confession I do not feel anything special. Of course, sometimes I feel shame for some things, but not as often as necessary.”
Archpriest Pavel Velikanov, Rector of the Pyatnitsky Metochion of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, Head of the Department of Theology of the Moscow Theological Academy, the first vice-rector of the Sretensky Theological Seminary, answers the question.
It often happens that fasting, prayer and worship (external church rules) do not find a response in the soul. There is a kind of dissonance between what we do and what we feel.
Archimandrite Victor (Mamontov) said: “In order to come to faith, you should come to yourself, feel silence within yourself, and realize the importance of your spirit”. The main thing that needs to be done is to overcome heart petrification and fill mechanical actions with meaning.
First: do not try to identify or measure your sense of faith.
A Christian is not the one who feels that he is a great ascetic, but the one who longs for Christ, loves Him and wants to be like Him. Moreover, it would be even strange if you said: “I am a true Christian, because I am no different than Christ.” When a person feels that he has already achieved something in the field of spiritual life and no longer needs spiritual growth, they say that he fell under the delusion.
But God does not reveal to us the state of our sinfulness so that we constantly felt guilty and became discouraged. Understanding how far we are from ideal, on the contrary, should be a source of movement forward for us.
However, this reader, speaking of “faith with all my heart”, sets an a priori unattainable goal. You can, of course, demand from a child trying to paint for the first time, to depict a picture of Van Gogh, but this will be meaningless and will only push him away from art. A good teacher will start with something small, what the child is already good at. Only in this way you can arouse his desire to draw further, and only then the student will move from the smaller to the larger.
The same case is with faith in God. You cannot say: “Until I believe with all my heart, I will not become a Christian.” Faith does not have a “cutoff threshold” on the basis of which we could define faith as real or, on the contrary, not strong enough. The Church has not yet developed a scorecard for the spiritual state of the believer and, I hope, this will never happen.
The only indicator of faith that we have is expressed in the apostle’s covenant: “Give thanks for everything and always be rejoicing”. When a person begins to see and praise God in everything he comes into contact with, he begins to live by faith. And this is the main token of “faith with all one’s heart.”
Second: learn to live in a state of prayer.
If a person believes and leads a correct spiritual life: he observes external rules and monitors his internal state (and this state is the exact opposite of sadness, anxiety, despondency and fixation of a person on himself), one thing will sound inside him: “Glory to God for everything!”.
When we say: “Glory to God!” we are not at all trying to satisfy some kind of “vanity” of the Lord. These words mean that everything beautiful that exists in our life – whether it be the outside world, relations between people or social processes – all this is a reflection of the Glory of God. And if a person inside himself is in the right mood, no matter what he does: great feats or worldly deeds, he will see the reflections of divine glory everywhere.
When a person acquires a steady skill in this, he goes into a state of unceasing prayer. This prayer does not have to have any specific form, it becomes a prayerful state: a person constantly feels the presence of God. In this state, it is easy, pleasant and joyful for him to engage in spiritual work, whether it is a feat of fasting, prayer or helping others.
It is a mistake to believe that praying means to simply stand in a corner, cross yourself, and begin to read the rule. Ideally, the evening rule should be the climax, the pinnacle of the prayer path that a person has been walking during the day. And the Sunday liturgy is the apogee of the whole week, the whole weekly gathering of the spiritual fruit with which a person comes to Christ.
So, if a person touches God during the day, he comes to evening prayer tuned to it. And prayer for him, both in meaning and mood, will not be something diametrically opposite to what he has been doing before. On the contrary, he will be eager to pray and will see this not as an obligation imposed from outside, but an opportunity to remain in silence, alone with God dear to his heart.
Third: take it for granted that our feelings may become dull.
Naturally, we do not always succeed in the feat of prayer, and we are not always joyful. Man is not a mechanical doll that responds equally to the same stimuli. In addition, in the monotonous rhythm of life, feelings can become dull.
So if at some point something what was appealing to you has stopped to appeal, you should not start digging into yourself and look for a flaw, compare your feelings with others. No one except you can know how your heart should respond to certain events. This is your life, your personality and your exclusive way of knowing the divine. On the contrary, you should cherish this: be attentive to yourself and follow the movement of the heart.
If you start praying and at this moment you do not feel anything, your feelings have become dull, but faith has not run out. The Lord accepts you in this state, too.
It is like in a relationship of loving people: if one is in a sour mood, the other will not reproach him at this moment or require attention and care. This would be consumerism, a manifestation of non-love. But if people truly love each other, they are ready to accept each other’s bad mood.
But if a person is in a state of insensibility for a month, without inspiration and response in his heart, then it’s really worth looking for ways to awaken the movement of his heart again.
Fourth: find ways to warm your heart for prayer.
When your heart is silent, you can continue to pray mechanically and hope that the heart will warm from this. Perhaps that will happen, because in the church a person is immersed in a special atmosphere of worship that warms the hearts. But this does not happen always and with everyone: you can read prayer rules for decades and never learn to pray.
If during prayer you still do not feel a response in your soul, try to overcome this insensibility.
First, before you start reading the rule, remember what warmed your heart and made you pray earlier.
Secondly, read the prayers in the translation to your native language. In order that the words do not go by, you need to understand their meaning. Therefore, it is extremely useful to learn to recognize ideas and images embedded in the words of prayers. Only then can they penetrate the heart, touch a nerve and move the heart layers in motio. And when you open the Church Slavonic text again [the reader is a member of the ROC which uses Church Slavonic in church services – Pravmir], it will reveal to you the beauty of its wonderful and rich language.
Thirdly, understand the essence of the prayer that you are reading, do not slide on its surface. Sometimes, when we read a familiar prayer, we stop paying attention to its meaning. Although in fact every time you can find something new in its text.
Fourthly, I advise my parishioners to radically change sometimes the very form of the home rule so that it does not become formal. For example, one day you can read the rule not at home, but go for a walk for 15-20 minutes and try not to think about anything at all, but just feel the life, the breath of the Divine Spirit, which pervades the entire universe. This helps someone a lot, and people begin to hear and listen to silence, to sensate and feel the divine presence in this world.
Fifth, instead of the rule, you can say your favorite prayer for some time. Thus, in the monasteries, the Psalter was memorized: a book of prayers coming from the depths of the soul, when reading which the human heart cannot but respond. As soon as a monk became discouraged, he began to read a psalm that instilled hope and confidence in him: and he felt better.
If you learn to read prayers with cordial participation, one day it will begin to seem to you that these prayers are written by you: they will become so close, dear, coming from the depths of the soul. And the explanation for this is very simple: we are all created in the image and likeness of God, very similar things inspire us and upset us. Therefore, Pushkin’s poetry became universal, and the words of prayers warm almost anyone thanks to their depth. When these words penetrate our hearts and become consonant with our inner state, a real, heartfelt, meaningful prayer appears.
Fifth: take care of the inner filling.
To overcome the petrification of the heart, you should be attentive to its response: try to notice it, write it down, keep a diary.
Art helps many people to cope with a deficiency of fullness. Architecture, music, painting appeal to the senses having a direct impact on the human heart. That is why the priest Pavel Florensky called the temple ordinance “a synthesis of the arts”.
But the warming up of the heart occurs not only in the church. I know people who go to the Tretyakov Gallery to a specific picture, near which they can stand for hours to feel the touch of God to their heart. Someone goes to a concert of a symphony orchestra, which becomes for him the point of entry of the divine into earthly life. And someone likes ballet, the action where you can reveal the beauty of the human body created by God. And this will also be a part of prayer, knowledge of God.
The state of insensibility, spiritual emptiness is also familiar to me. But I developed a toolkit which helps me again feel this inner movement. This is music and movies that “shake” me, and, of course, meetings and communication with people that inspire me. Books, poetry, certain psalms and quotes from the Holy Scriptures also help to get out of the state of “short circuit” in myself.
When I see that one method does not work, I try to use another one. At such moments, I like to be alone, take a walk outdoors, feel the silence and harmony of the universe. The fact is that God, in our usual view, in our too human coordinate system is silent. But in reality we ourselves do not want to hear Him, to let Him in. We don’t want Him when our self is swollen like a great balloon filling the whole universe. But as soon as this “balloon” is at least a little bit deflated, the God’s world begins to be seen, and it is beautiful!
So if one door is closed, look for another one through which you finally let the Heavenly Father into your life.
Translated by Alyona Malafeeva