To be a Christian does not mean to only know the Creed, not only to go to church on a regular basis, to go to Confession and to receive Holy Communion, but also to live as a Christian. And to live as a Christian means not to live according to the standards of “this world,” but according to other rules and laws. This requires readiness to swim against the current, it demands spiritual heroism, and in situations of direct persecution — confession and martyrdom. Jesus was the first to travel this path, and He did not show His followers any other kind of path or way.
Try to read the Gospel every day — a chapter or at least a few lines. Place the Gospel in a visible and prominent place (on the desk, bed side table) and turn to it as often as possible. Through this reading Christ will absolutely be present in your life. His living voice will cry out in your ears and respond in your heart. The Gospel — the school of the spiritual life. Even if you have read one or another Gospel story many times and even know it almost by heart, it can still unexpectedly reveal something new to you.
I would like to give you some advice based on the experience of many people: if you have a copy of the complete Bible, don’t try to read it in its entirety all at once. Begin with the New Testament: first read the four Gospels, then try to read the Book of Acts and the epistles. Before reading the epistles of the apostle Paul, turn to the Old Testament and read the first two books of the Bible — Genesis and Exodus. Then return to the Gospel and reread it over again, and only then turn to the epistles of the apostle Paul.
Reading the Bible in that order will help you get used to it, to feel its inner rhythm, and to perceive the interconnection between the Old and New Testaments. Later on you will already be able to independently traverse through the Bible, choosing those books which you find interesting.
Try to read the Psalter every day — at least one or a few psalms. In this Biblical book are the most diverse prayers — prayers of grief, prayers of joy, short prayers and lengthy prayers. The entire gamut of prayerful feelings are expressed in it, and no matter what kind of spiritual, emotional or physical condition a person may be experiencing, he can always find something in the Psalter which is relevant.
Begin every day with prayer and end every day with prayer. For this use the “Orthodox Prayer Book.” It contains morning prayers, evening prayers, the special prayers which are read before and after Holy Communion, as well as other prayers for various life situations. But don’t shorten the prayers which are printed in the book: don’t forget to also pray in your own words. Along with praying individually it is important to pray as a family: it cements the family together as one whole, and helps its members feel like a “house church.”
If you are married, but your “better half” has not yet joined the faith and the Church, remember that “the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband” (1 Cor, 7:14). Don’t try to force your close ones to believe in God, don’t forcefully drag them to church, do not try to convince them with admonitions or reproaches. Simply live like a Christian, do good, go to church, share with your close ones the grace which you receive there, and they themselves will be drawn to faith and to the Church, when they see what a beneficial effect faith has on you.
Share with every one what you learn, including your children. Don’t be afraid that something concerning the faith and the Church may be difficult for them to understand, or may frighten them. There is nothing that will not be useful for them by participating in the life of the Church. During their entire life they will thank you that you raised them in the faith, and gave them that which is most important: God.
Try to be in church no less than once a week at the Divine Services, and don’t omit the Great Feasts of the Church. Study the Divine Services, try to penetrate their meaning, don’t use the excuse of a lack of understanding of the language of the Church (Church Slavonic, the exclusive language of the Divine Services in Russia ~ trans. note). Let the church be a spiritual home for you and for your children.
Try to go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on a regular basis. Cleanse your soul and heart from accumulated evil, do not be afraid to reveal your soul to God and to the priest. With the fear of God and with faith approach the chalice of Holy Communion, and receive within yourself God Himself. Cherish the holy Body and Blood of Christ: do not let earthly cares and worries swallow up that special trembling feeling of closeness to God that comes through Holy Communion.
Keep the fasts, which have been established by the Church, as much as your strength permits. The Church did not establish them in order to torture and torment you, but for your physical and spiritual health. But just remember that fasting is not a goal in and of itself, that improving your health is not an end in itself. The main thing is that spiritual health cannot be replaced or substituted by anything. The entire system of the life of the Church is directed towards this, including the fasts.
Life in the Church should not be a burden but a joy. Again and again remember the words of the apostle Paul: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Let these words be your motto. Don’t look for joy where it does not exist: in entertainment, in money, in vices and in sensual pleasures. Look for it where it really exists: in God, the source of all joy and happiness. Earthly joys quickly come and go, but joy in God — this is one that “no one will take from you” (Jn. 16:22).
Life in the Church does not deliver us from problems and griefs, but gives us the strength to peacefully and joyfully endure sorrows and to solve problems that arise with confidence. It will not make you more successful than other people, but will give meaning and content to your whole life, including suffering, which is the inescapable fate that falls on everyone. These sufferings and trials will not break you, because the solid core of faith will always keep you from falling into despair and despondency.
During difficult moments the Church always comes to help. The Church will help you to peacefully endure illnesses when they visit you; comfort you in your sorrow when someone who is close to you departs into the next world, will help you to preserve a living connection with him through prayer and memorials for the departed; will bless you with all of your good beginnings, will strengthen you to do good; and will teach you to recognize dangers and temptations and to distinguish good from evil.
The Church is able to turn your whole life into a feast day if you want it to. Do not forget about God. Live in Christ: feed your soul and body with His Body and Blood, draw from Him grace-filled strength, learn from Him wisdom, patience, humility, meekness and mercy. Hurry to do good, fight evil, be a Christian man or woman not in words but in deeds.
And may the Lord always be with you!
(Excerpt from “Catechism” by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev))
Translated from the Russian by Archpriest Peter Olsen