Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Erring on the Side of Smallness

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received regarding my spiritual life came just recently (yes, it's an instant classic with me) from my parish priest. I was talking with him, inquiring about a suitable daily prayer rule, and when I laid out what I had planned, he said something I'd never heard from a spiritual leader.

He said I really ought to consider scaling it back.

Coming from traditions within the Evangelical world where "going all out for Jesus" is expected, I have to say I was surprised. I unwittingly had been projecting the expectations (which were projected onto me by others) I had had of myself within Protestantism onto my prayer life in Orthodoxy. There is often the pressure to read a certain amount of Scripture in a day, pray for a certain amount of time...of course, ultimately these things are left up to the individual, but the examples that we were given to emulate often devote substantial periods of time to these activites, periods that, for many of us, are not reasonable to expect. I was translating that into something along the lines of, "Trisagion prayer, 'Arising from sleep,' the Creed, a kathisma of psalms, the epistle and gospel reading for the day, the litany of prayers for the living and the dead (along with others we added in), a benediction and veneration of all the icons in the corner--that was morning. Evening prayers consisted of a similarly long rule. The idea was, "this is what is laid out in the prayer book as 'Morning/Evening Prayers,' so I'm gonna do it all." Needless to say, the variables of day-to-day life with toddler made mincemeat of that expectation--we as people must be more flexible than a by the book approach to rubrics will allow--and I was left feeling as though I'd bitten off more than I could chew, or "should be doing more" to accomodate this level of a prayer life within my life.

Not so, said Father. It's interesting to hear something I never heard in my years as a Christian: that we are actually better served by doing a small amount of prayer, consistently, than we are in doing large prayer rules in what inevitably ends up being in fits and starts. Humbling, this, as I no longer am expected to see myself as immediately capable of something having to do with prayer; it has allowed me to reevaluate just how serious, how weighty a thing like prayer is, and how incapable I am of actually tackling regular audiences before the King of Glory.

Sit in the lesser seats, desire them. If God moves you, fine. But err on the side of smallness, I was told--have a "bare minimum" where you can be sure, at least, to "check in" with God--makes days like today where I actually was up early enough to do almost all of the whole aforementioned Morning Prayer shbang all the sweeter. And when these moments happen, be sure to thank God for them, like this fella did (and probably still does). Speaking of thankfulness, I was surprised after today's prayerfest when, upon pulling out from the garage today, I openly wept for the joy of and thankfulness for having a sweet, kind, playful, beautiful toddler; an amazing, loving, nurturing, radiant wife; a life that, I sometimes fear, has gone too well (Fr. Alexander attributed it to God's awareness of Fr. Alexander's weakness...probably a wise take, that)...there's a wonderful comfort in small steps with this God, where we develop our soul slowly, consistently, the way we develop our physical bodies.

Apparently growing up the way we should takes time, and God's all right with waiting...


Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post. Sobriety is difficult for those of us who have lived most of our lives being "on fire" for the Lord.

I hope to learn the lesson of smallness some day, but I've only been working on my own sobriety in the faith since 2001. Orthodoxy has opened up a whole world of "healing" medicine that is being lovingly administered to me by the Church.

Oh and thanks for the tip of the hat to our mutually precious "Lost Cause." Within this chest beats the grateful heart of a Southern man.


Anonymous said...

I was directed to your site by DebD, and as I am reading, I am hearing the exact conversation that I had with my priest last night during catechism. I wrote a rather short post about it this morning on my blog, but I am thinking now that I need to go back and write some more.

I will add you to my blogroll so that I can make sure to come back to your site again soon.

David Bryan said...

Barnabas and Michelle,

Welcome, and thanks so much for posting! Your blogs are both quite interesting (in a good way!). Consider yourselves blogrolled...

Mimi said...

(total side note, I know a Father Barnabas Powell, who is clearly not who commented - how interesting is that?)

I like his thoughts on this very much, thank you for sharing, and bringing it full circle to Father Alexander's words.

s-p said...

God help us get to the point that our LIFE is prayer, not just a time we spend during segments of it. So much of Orthodox spiritual wisdom is aimed at getting us to live Romans 12:3 "Don't think more highly of yourself than you ought, but think so as to have sound judgment." So much of our "convert zeal" is driven by self aggrandizement. I love the story of the man who went to a Geronda for a prayer rule because he was doing hundreds of Jesus Prayers and prostrations a day. The Elder told him to do ten a day. The man scoffed. He returned later and said "I need a lighter rule, I cannot do ten... why is that?" The Elder said, "In the world you did hundreds by the power of the demons fed by your pride." Yikes.

Raoul The Destroyer said...

Excellent advice, in my opinion. This was an encouraging read. Thanks.

BJA said...

"Let us be assured that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7), but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction. Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure, unless it happens to be prolonged by an inspiration of divine grace." – Rule of Saint Benedict, ch. XX