Careful Devotion to Christ

nikolai_bogdanov-belsky_in_churchIn writing about monasticism, I recently made mention of what I called “careful devotion to Christ.” In turn, a reader asked me to write further on “careful devotion.” 

In many ways the great problem of our age is the two-storey universe (which is make-believe) in which we live as religious people. We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God.

This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced. In time, those who live in this manner will either cease to believe in God, or will find that their children have abandoned Him, or left the faith to find Him elsewhere, having concluded that Christianity is bankrupt.

The intention I had in writing about monasticism and its importance – was the resurrection in young hearts and minds of the belief in a one-storey universe. Young hearts need to come to the fixed conclusion that God is everywhere present – is more real than the things they think of as “real” and is deeply and utterly committed to our transformation into the image of His beloved Son.

Monasticism with anything less remains a disciplined life – but without such a conviction of the heart would remain as powerless as the two-storey Church. It would be a monasticism that lacked God in anything other than an abstract sense. Such a life would be madness.

The great ascetics of the Church, throughout its history, believed with all their heart that fasting, prayer, repentance and tears, obedience and radical forgiveness of everyone for everything, were tools given us by God for our cooperation with His work of grace – and that such “spiritual labors” yielded fruit – “some a hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold.” They hungered for the Kingdom of God and believed with all their heart that it was possible to enter that blessed state to some degree in this life-time. 

Orthodoxy is not faith in abstractions, or about a reward, up-there, someday. It is as real as the Incarnation of the Word. It is as real as the leprosy healed by Christ. It is as real as the storm He calmed from the boat. It is as real as the nails which held His flesh on the cross. No abstractions. Christ’s resurrection is not the victory of abstraction over reality, but the victory of Reality over the delusion of death and all its kingdom. It is the union of earth and heaven, created and uncreated. In such a union there cannot be two metaphysical floors of reality. 

It will sound somewhat silly for me to suggest that we learn to pray to God as if He really existed. Of course, God really exists. But the habit of the heart in a two-storey universe has deep and secret doubts about that very reality. True asceticism hungers for the Kingdom of God above all else, knowing that it is the only proper ground of reality.

Of course, such devotion is not meant only for monastics. I simply look for them to help lead the way. In the last analysis, every Orthodox Christian must learn a “careful devotion to Christ.” We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment – and never as an abstraction. Compared to God, we are the abstractions. But God has become man, and in that event the abstraction of our schismatic existence was overcome. In the life of the Church we are now united to Reality. Why do we settle for less?

Why are our enemies more important than God? They must be or we would forgive them.

I could take this question and apply it across-the-board of our Orthodox lives. God is less important to us than many things because we believe in the reality of those things more than the Reality of God. It is two-storey thinking. 

Some suggestions (all of which are aimed at overcoming the false sense of God’s distance):

1. Recognize that though “God is everywhere present and filling all things,” you often go through the world as if He were not particularly present at all and that things are just empty things. When you see this, make it a matter of confession.

2. Always approach the Church and the sacraments (where we have an even more specific promise of His presence) with awe. Never treat the building or things that have been set aside as holy as though they were common or empty. Do not divide your life into two – now He’s here, now He’s not. Syrian Christians traditionally believed that the Shekinah presence of God left the Temple and took up abode in the cross – every cross – and thus had extraordinary devotion to each and every cross. We should never be indifferent to the icon corner in our home. Cross yourself whenever you pass it or come into its presence.

3. Make careful preparation for communion. Always read the pre-communion prayers if you are going to receive communion (and perhaps even if you are not); pray Akathists that particularly focus on Christ and His presence, such as the Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus. The traditional Western hymn, written by St. Patrick, known as his “breastplate” is also a very fine hymn to know. Find it and keep it with you and learn it.

4. Lay to heart Psalms of presence, such as Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and Psalm 91, “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High,” and any others that strike you. Repeat them frequently through the day.

5. Throughout the day – search for God. He is everywhere present, and yet our searching helps us to be more properly aware. In searching, expect to find Him. He delights in sharing His presence.

6. More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

The vast majority of us are not monastics and will never be. But we need not abandon ourselves to a Godless world, dotted by oases of His presence. The careful devotion to Christ recognizes Him everywhere (not as in pantheism) but in His goodness and His sustaining of all things, and in His person. We can be bold to overcome the “demons of feeble impertinence.”

24 Responses to “Careful Devotion to Christ”

  1. Katia Says:

    Fr. Stephen Bless,

    Glory to God for all things!

    Thank you for this beautiful words!

    If i may add this for the glory of God:

    “…. St Chrysostom is particularly emphatic on this point: “You greatly delude yourself and err, if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities… Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence” 7. Referring to the observance of particular commandments in the Gospels, he says: “Whoever is angry with his brother without cause, regardless of whether he is a layman or a monk, opposes God in the same way. And whoever looks at a woman lustfully, regardless of his status, commits the same sin”. In general, he observes that in giving His commandments Christ does not make distinction between people: “A man is not defined by whether he is a layman or a monk, but by the way he thinks”

    orthodoxinfo.com

  2. elizabeth Says:

    Father Bless!

    Thank you. I will seek to ponder these things.

    I am so happy to hear your encouragement about icon corners and crossing ourselves. To understand that this is important and not just a “pious act” is really helpful.

    I really appreciate your words that speak of practical application of how to begin to live as Christians.

    Please pray for us as we seek to learn to live in God’s presence.

  3. Zoe Says:

    Dear Father Stephen,

    Thank you for this post and the timely reminders on keeping a “careful devotion to Christ”. As a new convert, it is very easy to revert back to old habit, God Forbid, may this not happen to us (new converts). I appreciate your continued prayers for us and providing guidance through your posts and the life you live.

    May God Bless us all and help us to devote our lives to Christ and pray without ceasing.

  4. coffeezombie Says:

    I really appreciate the posts where you give suggestions for how to “play out” the ideas you write about in our lives. I am reminded a common Protestant homiletic, that every sermon should have teaching and application.

    A friend of mine was saying a while back that one thing my parish lacks is cradle Orthodox. People who have grown up in the Tradition, who have developed a matureness in the faith. People who don’t even realize, perhaps, that they cross themselves when they pass a church (one example she gave).

    I can definitely see what she means; these people can, simply by their lives, provide us with a practical example of living out the Faith “in the world.” In a parish that is made up almost entirely of converts, this really can be a lack.

    And so I find it very helpful to see the “mundane” things spoken of, because it seems to me it is the little things we do, which eventually become habit, that reinforce for us the teachings of the Faith throughout the day.

  5. Subdeacon Eusebios Says:

    Fr. Stephen,
    Father Bless!
    Thank you for this reminder.

  6. Meskerem Says:

    Thank you father for this post. All points taken.

    Item 6…
    More than anything else, give thanks to God for all things. There is no better way to acknowledge His presence. I Thess. 5:18 (a much neglected verse) says: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

    I just remembered in growing up, we always start conversation with thanking the LORD. When you greet any Orthodox, they will greet you back by giving thanks to the LORD. When you say “how are you doing” or just “hello”, always the response is… (and translates to) “Thanks be to the LORD, I am well” . This is in everyday conversation, and follows through as well. You ask “How are the kids?”, and the response is the same “Thanks be to the LORD they are well”. And goes on like that. There is no conversation I would say without the calling GOD. This also makes it easier to sin less. Once you have the LORD’s name called out, you commit less sin as your have called HIM and filled your mouth and head thinking of HIM. Even if things are not well they will response back “GOD Willing…..” and present their hope and prayer.
    This is why ORTHODOXY is “a way of life”.

    Thank you Father for the reminder.

  7. Cheryl Says:

    Father bless,

    Thank you so much for this post. It is one of my favorites so far.

    Cheryl

  8. coffeezombie Says:

    @Meskerem Here in the American South we have a common phrase, “The Good Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise.”😀

    I also recall hearing occasionally the phrase “God forbid” when speaking of something bad that may happen (for example, “Be careful while you’re out there, because if–God forbid–something were to happen, no one would know where you are”). I’ve noticed many Orthodox people will cross themselves in a similar manner (see? another way Orthodoxy and the South go hand-in-hand!).

    Anyway, some time ago, after thinking about St. James’ epistle, I decided to start saying, “God willing” more often (and also “God forbid”), but a friend told me that when I do that I sound “too pious,” so now I’m a little more self-conscious about it. At the same time, it seems right to me to say it, so I’m confused.:-/

  9. coffeezombie Says:

    Oh, btw, my confusion is whether to say those things or not. On the one hand, they seem right to say; on the other, I don’t want to cause undue offense.

  10. Fr Mark in Baton Rouge Says:

    Thank you for this.

    It provides a much needed mid-Lenten reorientation – a six rung ladder in the spirit of St. John Climacus!

  11. Sean Says:

    Meskerem wrote:

    ‘I just remembered in growing up, we always start conversation with thanking the LORD. When you greet any Orthodox, they will greet you back by giving thanks to the LORD. When you say “how are you doing” or just “hello”, always the response is… (and translates to) “Thanks be to the LORD, I am well”’

    That is very common in traditional Orthodox places. Sometimes the response is just “Thanks be to the Lord” and the rest is omitted, meaning that everything that comes in our life is by God’s consent and thus we are happy with it and thank Him for it.
    Also a common thing for many faithful Orthodox here is, apart from any prayers they offer while awake, there are two things they say just after they wake up and just before the fall asleep: When they wake up “In Your name, my God” [I dedicate this day], before they fall asleep “Glory to You, o Lord” [for what You have provided the day that just ended].

    Further reflecting on the remarks of Father Stephen, please let me share a story, a real one, that, in my opinion, shows how correct Father Stephen in saying that God is always and everywhere present:

    There was a poor man, a faithful man who worked in the docks, some 60-70 years ago.
    That man had a family, his wife and three children and lived in a city called Piraeus.
    Every day, on his walk to his work he would enter one of the churches that stand near the harbour, light a candle, venerate the icons of the Saints and last of all he venerated the icon of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator on the Iconostasis and said “My Christ, I came to visit and wish You a good day and ask for Your help for this day”.
    He then would go to his work.
    Every evening, when he finished his work , and on his way back home, he would enter the same church, venerate the icons again, last of all that of Christ and he would say “Thank You my Lord, for the help You have offered me today. I came to wish a good night”. Then he would head back home. That was his daily routine.
    That man was heavily struck by fate. He was poor, there were times when we would not be able to find work to provide for his family, and worst of all, both his wife and his three children died of tuberculosis.
    Despite all this suffering, the man never ceased paying his daily visits to Christ.
    He got old and alone and sick. He suffered a stroke that he survived because he was found quickly by a neighbor who had brought him some food.
    He was brought to hospital and taken care of until he finally recovered from the stroke’s coma.
    He recovered his senses at the crack of dawn, was visited by the night-shift doctors and remained awake, praying and asking for forgiveness for not being able to go and venerate the icons.
    The morning nurse came in to check on him and announced a visitor, although visiting hours where in the afternoon.
    The old man wondered when he saw a young man enter, whom he had never met. He asked “Sir, have we ever met?”.
    The young man got close sat on chair next to the bed, patted him on the hand and said, smiling: “Yes, actually we have. You come to visit Me in My House everyday. So, knowing that you are unable to come to Me for the time being, I came to wish you a good day…”

  12. Katia Says:

    Hi Sean,

    Thank you for the story, you made me weep

  13. Chocolatesa Says:

    Thank you for this. Remembrance of Christ, or having a “one-storey” mentality is very important, I hope to learn to do that some day, God willing. I’ve posted a quote by Mother Gavrilia about that in my blog here: http://kyrieeleison2008.blogspot.com/2009/03/christ-is-here.html

  14. Zoe Says:

    Very touching story, indeed! Thank you Sean.

    Meskerem, thank you for the reminders that it helps us to include and remember God in greetings or interacting with others.

    “Once you have the Lord’s name called out, you commit less sin as you have called him and filled your mouth and head thinking of him.” How true this is. Sometimes during my visit with a neighbor (non-Orthodox), she starts telling me things she does not like about our other neighbors, all I say was “Lord have mercy”, for I’m praying for both me and her; for me,
    that I may not sin in getting involve with gossip and at the same time not be judgemental. I don’t want to offend her by saying I don’t want to listen to this type of conversation (it sound too self righteous). I probably should have

  15. Lana Says:

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for these wonderful posts. I am soaking in everything you write. Thank you, thank you , thank you!! Apparently I have not sufficient words…..

    Katia,
    Thank you for your comments. I can’t stop thinking about what you shared the other day about monks being the lungs of the earth! Wouldn’t it be something if each exhale in the world would be a prayer for our world! With God’s grace and love ….

  16. Theodora Elizabeth Says:

    What I have found to be particularly helpful for me, especially during Great Lent, is to have a little volume of the NT & Psalms with me at work each day. On my morning and afternoon breaks, and at lunch, I’ll read some Psalms or a Gospel chapter.

    Coffeezombie –

    Your mention of your parish being almost entirely converts struck a chord with me. The parish I was chrismated in (spent five years there) had people who had been Orthodox mostly less than 10 years, a few who had been Orthodox 10-20 years. One of the “oldest” (in length of being Orthodox) women lamented to me more than once that the parish needed a babushka or two – for the stability of a mature faith.

    Current parish has 2/3 cradle, 1/3 convert. Our priest is cradle (the differences between him and convert priest in previous parish are interesting), and his father was a priest, too. The converts have been Orthodox for a while. I’ve found that while the cradles in current might lack the almost overwhelming zeal of the converts in my previous parish, the it’s calmer and quieter once you get past the initial “conversion experience.” I know all convert parishes are different, but my previous one was extremely intense. That was not good for me spiritually – calm is good, but I didn’t realize how much a difference it made until I switched parishes.

  17. handmaidleah Says:

    “It provides a much needed mid-Lenten reorientation – a six rung ladder in the spirit of St. John Climacus!”

    Amen! The Mid-Lent Step-Ladder! Thank you!

  18. Theologic Pantheism « ULTIMATE TRUTH Says:

    […] We live in a secularized atmosphere, where “reality” means the hard stuff around us, but generally does not include what we believe religiously. We live in the neutral zone – the first floor of the universe where only a suspension of the natural law will yield contact with God. This, by no means, is the dogma of the Church. Instead, it is the legacy of the history of the late years of Western Civilization, a by-product of the Reformation and the popular response to its ideas. It is, or will be, the death of Christianity as taught by Christ unless it is resisted and renounced.  from Careful Devotion to Christ […]

  19. Damaris Says:

    As I read Sean’s story, it struck me how much I miss having churches standing open during the day. The episcopal church I went to thirty years ago had a prayer chapel open 24 hours, but i don’t know of a single church in a fifty-mile radius to me that is always open now. That may just be my ignorance, but maybe not. I treasured those stops and moments of quiet prayer in a holy place, as the Greek man did.

    Thank you for this and many of your recent posts. So much sanity and health — an antidote to the craziness of the world.

    Damaris

  20. Katia Says:

    Father Bless,

    This has been sent to me, may bring some joy (smiles) to all

    KIDS IN CHURCH

    > 3-year-old Reese :
    >
    > ‘Our Father, Who does art in heaven,
    >
    > Harold is His name.
    >
    > Amen.’

    +++

    > A little boy was overheard praying:
    >
    > ‘Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it.
    >
    > I’m having a real good time like I am.’

    +++

    > After the christening of his baby brother in church,
    >
    > Jason sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car.
    >
    > His father asked him three times what was wrong.
    >
    > Finally, the boy replied,
    >
    > ‘That preacher said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home,
    >
    > and I wanted to stay with you guys.’

    +++

    > One particular four-year-old prayed,
    >
    > ‘And forgive us our trash baskets
    >
    > as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.’

    +++

    > A Sunday school teacher asked her children as they
    >
    > were on the way to church service,
    >
    > ‘And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?’
    >
    > One bright little girl replied,
    >
    > ‘Because people are sleeping.’

    +++

    > A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin 5, and Ryan 3.
    >
    > The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.
    >
    > Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson.
    >
    > ‘If Jesus were sitting here, He would say,
    >
    > ‘Let my brother have the first pancake, I can wait.’
    >
    > Kevin turned to his younger brother and said,
    >
    > ‘ Ryan , you be Jesus !’

    +++

    > A father was at the beach with his children
    >
    > when the four-year-old son ran up to him,
    >
    > grabbed his hand, and led him to the shore
    >
    > where a seagull lay dead in the sand.
    >
    > ‘Daddy, what happened to him?’ the son asked.
    >
    > ‘He died and went to Heaven,’ the Dad replied.
    >
    > The boy thought a moment and then said,
    >
    > ‘Did God throw him back down?’

    +++

    > A wife invited some people to dinner.
    >
    > At the table, she turned to their six-year-old daughter and said,
    >
    > ‘Would you like to say the blessing?’
    >
    > ‘I wouldn’t know what to say,’ the girl replied.
    >
    > ‘Just say what you hear Mommy say,’ the wife answered.
    >
    > The daughter bowed her head and said,
    >
    > ‘Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?’

  21. Meskerem Says:

    DAMARIAS, as I read about how you miss having an open church, I want to say about ours here and how blessed we are. Our Chapel, is open everyday. (The Chapel is located behind our church). There is service of Matins and Vespers everyday during Lent and every other day through out the year. We also have a key access and we can get inside anytime 24, 7.

    Maybe it is good to give it a thought as parishioners. We need to pray everyday. Like Father mentioned here ….”We must fast, pray, weep, repent before God, and seek to remember Him moment by moment…” Of course, for the services priests are needed, more than one as there are other church duties that need to be accomplished as well.

    Also coming from mostly Orthodox Country, it was common to stop by at any of the Churches step into the fence (Most are fenced), and cross yourself, and take your time to talk to the LORD. It is different when you live where everyone around does not even pay attention, as it is something normal. If you do not step in you just cross yourself bow and pass by. It is a very normal habit to quietly give thanks to the LORD. It is funny because since people are so used to Thanking quietly and it is in their head constantly, you sometimes hear some unknowingly saying it aloud. But when you hear it, you also follow.

    If there is no church around I think we can still make it a habit in calling him quietly.

  22. Damaris Says:

    Meskerem —

    Thank you for your words of encouragement. I wish I were near your church, either in the US or in Ethiopia! But God is always near, as you remind me.

    May God bless you richly.

  23. coffeezombie Says:

    @handmaidleah You are just full of neat phrases lately. First there’s Orthodoxy flourishing like kudzu, and now the mid-lent step ladder! I’m loving it!😀

  24. Yudikris Says:

    Father bless!

    Thank you Father Stephen for this wonderful thought. I am really struggling here in my campus with the mindset of two-storey. And I am personally really blessed with this message. I want to copy it and print it out and looking forward to ponder more on it.

    Glory to God for all things!

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