Christian spirituality is precise and focused. We are oriented to God the Father and Creator through discipleship and faith in Jesus Christ and by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Community of Faith. Anything less or other than this is not Christian spirituality. We are guided more by scripture than by feelings, and our spirituality is traditional before it is innovative.
Secondly, Christian spirituality begins with common activities shared by all: church attendance, prayer at home, keeping the ascetic disciplines of fasting and almsgiving. These external activities inevitably affect us internally and lead to greater freedom within a structured life.
Here is how the Catechism says it:
“The life of an Orthodox Christian is based on Holy Tradition and may be summarized in the following precepts:
- Observe the ecclesiastical Holy Days.
- Attend Church Services on Sundays and Holy Days.
- Keep the Fasts prescribed by the Church.
- Confess our sins and receive the Holy Eucharist at the very least once a year, during the Great Fast, but preferably a minimum of four times a year, during each of the Church’s fasting periods.
- Abstain from holding marriage feasts or parties during days of fasting.”
(Prayer Book of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, p. 390)
Many of us would emend point # 4 in light of the emphasis on frequent communion that has taken hold in most Orthodox Churches in the last forty years. Strictly speaking, if you are “a member in good standing” you may approach the table. To be a member in good standing, you fast before reception, have partaken of confession within a reasonable length of time, participate in the liturgy and the prayers before communing, and approach the table in a spirit of love and reconciliation with others.
The Catechism goes on to list the seven bodily acts of mercy, which are:
- To feed the hungry.
- To give drink to those who thirst.
- To cloth the naked.
- To give shelter to the traveler.
- To visit the sick.
- To visit the imprisoned.
- To bury the dead.
And the seven spiritual acts of mercy, which are:
- To convert sinners to the path of righteousness.
- To instruct the ignorant.
- To advise the doubtful.
- To comfort the sorrowful.
- To bear personal wrongs patiently.
- To forgive offenses.
- To pray for the living and the dead. (Prayer Book, p. 393)
Spirituality in Orthodox understanding is active, not passive. We are called to a way of life, not just a way of thinking. The great teachers of prayer in the church were and are well aware that we are involved in spiritual combat with the forces of darkness. Combat involves training and discipline; these lists from the Catechism are guidelines, not rules or laws in the common sense of the term. By aligning our lives with these guidelines we prepare to enter a deeper level of spirituality, but these acts remain basic to our spirituality for our whole lives. They are the threshold for that joining of mind and heart that leads to the transformation of our whole personalities over time.
These actions are, quite simply, basic and elemental and we cannot circumvent them. Much of what passes for spirituality these days is just woozy thinking and sentimental feeling. Orthodox Christian spirituality is neither; it is practical and unromantic, but it is God’s way toward the Kingdom that is marked by the Beatitudes we hold so dear and sing at every Divine Liturgy.