Pray without ceasing? (really?)

Scripture urges us to pray without ceasing. But how are we to do this?

Do not forget that as Orthodox Christians we have the ancient Jesus Prayer.

“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.”

We can use this prayer in any place and at any time to talk with God, to combat the passions, and to find the peace and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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An Icon? What’s an Icon?

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When we go off to college and begin to encounter new people and new ideas it can be easy to forget the spiritual practices that are so important for us as Orthodox Christians.

And, it may be surprising to realize that other students know nothing of our spiritual traditions and practices. We may even find ourselves feeling self-conscious about these things.

For example, we may feel shy about displaying icons in our dorm room or apartment where other students may see them.

But icons are a reminder of who we are and what we believe. They call us back to prayer. They provide us with a firm foundation for our faith as we prepare to go out into the world each morning and as we end each day.

Moreover, an icon is a witness. When other students ask about your icons you then have the opportunity to share your faith.

Three steps forward…

Parents and professors sometimes forget that college students have a lot on their plates besides school work. The college years are a time for personal growth – and growth is always challenging and sometimes painful. And, sometimes we make mistakes. But, that’s okay – it has to be, it’s life. We only make it harder for ourselves when we insist that we must be perfect. We can’t be. All we can to do is to do our best. When we stumble, we need to remind ourselves that growing into mature adulthood is generally a “three steps forward, two steps back” process. We may get tripped up at times, but we never lose that third step. And, slowly but surely, we grow. As the Orthodox monastic said when asked what the monks do in the monastery: “We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up. We fall down, we get up…”

Here is a little ditty from a famous and funny old psychologist who recently passed away:

The road to wisdom?
Well, it’s plain
and simple to express.
Err and err and err again,
but less and less and less.

How should we pray?

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As Orthodox Christians, we know that it is important to pray. Prayer heals. Prayer gives us the firm foundation that we need to face each new day as we negotiate the world of young adulthood and college.

But, sometimes, prayer can be intimidating. How can I talk to God? What words should I use? Will God hear my prayer?

“Pray simply like a child, and God will hear your prayer.” – Elder Siluan

“The highest form of prayer is to stand silently in awe before God.” – St. Isaac the Syrian

“Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” – St. John Climacus

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Words

The life of the college student is full of words. Lectures, books, papers, guest speakers, syllabi, gossip, debate, quarrels and late-night arguments, and the constant stream of words, words and more words that comes to us over the internet (like blogs, for example?). And, sometimes, that’s how it should be. College is a time for thinking and learning. But, it is also important to listen and to be silent. Indeed, as Orthodox Christians we are told that the highest form of prayer is to stand humbly and in silence before God.

Here are some more words…

“Not every quiet man is humble, but every humble man is quiet.” – St. Isaac the Syrian
“Let every man be swift to hear and slow to speak.” – James the Apostle
“There is no public entertainment which does not inflict spiritual damage.” – Tertullian
“Where is the wisdom lost in information?” – T.S. Elliot
“When the mind is open, there is no need for long speeches. Truth is like that.” – St. John Chrysostom
“…do not desire to be listened to and you will have peace.” – St. Poemen
“Intelligent men have no need to listen to much talk…” – St. Anthony the Great
“To a silent tongue and a contemplative mind you draw near, O All-Holy Spirit… You avoid a talkative tongue as a swan avoids a stormy lake. Like a swan you swim across the quiet of my heart and make it fruitful.” – Prayers by the Lake
“The language of God is silence.” – Gerontissa Gabriella

What do you think?

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church have known and taught that “our thoughts determine our lives.” In other words, the way that we think shapes how we feel and behave.

For example, if I fail a test and I say to myself, “I’m stupid!” I will probably feel depressed and ashamed, and perhaps start skipping class. Or go out and drink too much. Or just crawl into bed. And I’ll probably feel very anxious the next time a test rolls around – and perhaps do even worse.

On the other hand, I might say, “Well, that’s pretty disappointing and frustrating. But, it does not mean that I am a stupid.” Perhaps I need to study more. Or change my major. Or ask for more help. If I can think about the test grade in a more reasonable and adaptive way I probably won’t feel so bad, I’ll bounce back faster, and I’ll make better decisions.

Do I engage in mind reading? We often convince ourselves that other people are thinking about us – and of course it’s NEVER something good. We seldom stop and ask ourselves just exactly how we know that others are thinking about us. And why do we always assume it’s something bad? And, even if they are and it is – does that mean that it’s true? Of course not.

Do I waste time with “what-if worrying” and “fortune telling”? (“What if she breaks up with me?! I know she’s going to break up with me!”)

Do I engage in catastrophic thinking? (“If he does break up with me I’ll never find anyone else to love me and I’ll always be alone!”)

Really terrible things do sometimes happen in life. But, often we tell ourselves that things are horrible, horrible, HORRIBLE! – when they are really just unpleasant.

Do I label myself? I’m “BAD.” I’m “ugly.” I’m an “idiot.” I’m a “failure.” Do I engage in either-or thinking? I’m either beautiful or ugly. Smart or stupid. Good or bad. A total success or a complete failure. The reality is that the truth is usually somewhere in between. I may not stop traffic, but some people like my looks. There are others who are more intelligent than I am, but so what? – that does not mean I’m “stupid”. I’m not all good or all bad. Like other people, I sometimes do the right thing and sometimes I don’t. With God’s help, I’ll just keep working on it.

Do I make myself miserable with lots of “shoulds” and “musts”? As in: I SHOULD be able to do that. I MUST get my way. Other people MUST treat me the way I want. Life should be FAIR!

No. It would be nice if I could do that and, with practice, perhaps I can. It would be nice if the world was fair – but it’s not, it’s fallen. I will not always get my way – and that’s just life. And I’m not going to wait until I get everything my way or I’ve reached a state of perfection before I decide to be happy.

By the way, you might notice that much of this problematic thinking involves the passions of pride and despair.

Remember…our thoughts determine our lives.

What did you say?!?

While you are in college, you will no doubt encounter many new ideas – some that may seem very strange to you, or even troubling. You will sometimes meet people who think very differently from you – both students and professors. You will certainly meet many people who do not understand or accept the Orthodox world-view.

But, that’s okay. You should expect, and even want to be challenged while you are in school. (If you’re not, you are not getting your money’s worth!)

When we encounter new ideas that trouble us, or opinions that differ from ours and from what we’ve learned at home and in the Orthodox church, we are given the opportunity to really think through what we believe and why – and that’s how we grow. And, if we are going to remain true to our values and beliefs, it forces us to really think about what we believe – and pushes us to learn how to articulate and defend our beliefs.

In fact, as Orthodox Christians, we know that we are called to defend our faith, even if others don’t like what they hear – while still respecting others’ right to disagree.

Orthodox Christians have never been afraid of thinking. We don’t need to be.