Orthodox observance: what this series is not.

Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Observance | 7 comments

This series of blog posts is about Orthodox observance. And, to say it again, by “Orthodox observance,” I mean the how of Orthodox discipleship: how to live an Orthodox Christian life, day in and day out. It is not primarily about Orthodox spirituality or about the purpose of observance: salvation through repentance, or deification. There are any number of good books on Orthodox spirituality that are available in English that you can read to learn more about these things. Maybe we can talk about good books on Orthodox spirituality in a future post, but that is not our main concern here.

What these blog posts do concern themselves with however, are the ordinary, normal things that Orthodox disciples of Christ do that underlie our spirituality and which Orthodox spirituality presupposes. Authentic spirituality will not succeed without regular observance. Without observance, it is a house built on sand. Salvation involves the whole person, not just the soul or the spirit. This is an important point, especially for those who may be new to Orthodoxy, who, in their zeal, are often captivated by the loftiest aspects of Orthodox spirituality: the Jesus Prayer, the Philokalia, and hesychasm.

“Prayer corresponds with way of life.” –St. Isaac of Nineveh.

Father Thomas Hopko is reported to have said that some people who are interested in the Jesus Prayer are not interested in Jesus or in prayer. This is the very situation we’re trying to avoid. As a contemporary monk once put it to me, “you must learn to be Orthodox plain before you can be Orthodox fancy.” That is, we all need a good foundation in the basics.

Our bodies have to become obedient to Christ just as much as our minds do, and self-mastery in the practical, active life precedes the way of deeper prayer or contemplation. “Indeed, prayer corresponds with way of life,” says St. Isaac of Nineveh (On the Ascetical Life 3.41 [SVS Press, 1989, p. 55]. All of the Fathers agree on this point. If you want to advance along the path of salvation, you cannot skip the “easy part,” but “dull” part, the (seemingly) boring, gritty practica of daily Orthodox observance. They are the foundation for a life of service to the Lord.

If you don’t mind sharing, please comment below on the kinds of things you do to live your Faith daily.


Isaac Syria, Orthodox observance“Indeed, one who does not have the labors of the body does not have the labors of the soul. For the latter are born from the former, as an ear of corn from a bare grain.” — St. Isaac the Syrian, On the Ascetical Life 4.6 [p. 63].

“A man who offers to teach rhetoric and philosophy to someone who is only learning his alphabet, far from doing him any good, will only distract him from what he is learning, and make him forget what he has learned, for his mind will be unable to cope with these subjects. In the same way, a man who discourses about the last degrees of perfection to beginners, and especially to the more lazy ones, far from bringing them any profit will only make them lose ground. For as soon as they look up at the heights of virtue and see how far they are from the summit, they will think it impossible for them to reach it, and will give up even the few useful works they had already begun, as being useless, and be plunged into hopelessness.” — St. Symeon the New Theologian, Practical and Theolo­gical Precepts 160, in Writings from the Philo­kalia on Prayer of the Heart, trans. E. Kadlubovsky & G. E. H. Palmer (London: Faber & Faber, 1973), 135-36.


  1. Well, on most days – morning starts with prayer – including the prayer request list from church, all members (by name) and future members of our parish, prayers for my country, for Israel, for the protection of the souls of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. Then the scriptures for the day, a chapter of Proverbs and the psalms for the morning.

    Throughout the day – the Jesus prayer as it comes and prayers to be a blessing and not a curse for others. Vespers and liturgy are a given.

    Fasting before liturgy is a problem but 1 large teaspoon of peanut butter seems to coat the stomach enough to avoid the acid pain.

    Now come on the rest of you. Don’t be afraid!!!

  2. My ‘Orthodox discipleship’ (high-falutin’ phrase, Fr!) is pretty mundane, and probably not much of an inspiration or good example. I try to make the sign of the Cross and invoke the Holy Trinity when I drag myself out of bed at 5:15, and try to keep the presence of Christ in my mind as I make the lunches, kiss my wife good-bye, and shout the children up and out the door to school, then run for my bus. Throughout the day, I try to remember that Christ is in all things, even accounts, as I work. When the day is through, tea made and the kids in bed, I try to use my rule of prayer before sleep; half the time it’s just the sign of the Cross and ‘Into thy hands…’ as I collapse into bed at 11:00. I try to invoke the Holy Trinity before meals, if only in my mind, and to remember her who is more honourable than the cherubim afterwards. As my priest reminds me, it’s my duty as a reader to read at least the epistle each day, so I usually do that. As he also reminds me, I should try to pray in a way that I can, not a way that I can’t – in other words, be realistic in what rule I set for myself.
    I try to keep the fasts – sometimes, I must confess, on a Wednesday or Friday it’s just being aware that I should be fasting, and making sure I sing the apolytikion to the Cross.
    There are certain rules of prayer that have been intense at times of special need; singing the akathist to our Lady the inexhaustible chalice of our Lord during that frightening time when I had to admit I had lost control of drinking, for example.
    The main way I try to practise my Orthodoxy, though, is by trying to be patient, by giving those wierdos who don’t agree with me (and there are many – they are all wrong!) the benefit of the doubt, to take time for those that need me, and to be at peace with all men (especially those wierdos). It’s been a hard on-going learning process, during my 30 years of being in the Church, that my brothers are not only those of the household of faith, but the community of every human being and the whole creation that Christ made and came to redeem.

    • David,

      I don’t mean to be high-falutin’ in my terms. It’s hard to come up with a word that describes “how we do” Orthodoxy, and “observance” seemed to work the best.

      It’s helpful to know how people are actually living their Faith, whether it’s inspiring or not. I want to help people live their Faith concretely, and when that’s done in the midst of all that life throws at us, you’re right, it ain’t always pretty. But if helps us to get through the day, then it’s practical and it’s real. For myself, I can see several different seasons in my life which altered my ability to lead an observant life: being single allowed me the greatest freedom to do what I wanted to do. Getting married opened up a whole new set of considerations, and having children changed things the most. There have been years when I couldn’t keep the fasts well, years when I couldn’t pray or read the Scriptures and the Fathers the way I wanted to, years when I had to work weekends and missed services. But through it all, I stayed faithful to Christ and tried to do what I could. Life changes, but Christ remains the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. He has been faithful to me, and I hope I have been faithful to Him.

      Thanks for sharing.


  3. This is a really great, simple introduction. Thank you, Father.

    I actually blog regularly about my observance (or aspirations thereof), but I can say, for the most part, it tends to look like this:

    – Morning and Evening Prayers
    – Fasting on Wed and Fri and other fast days (I always try for vegan but usually just manage vegetarian)
    – Fasting from alcohol on these days as well (unless they overlap with a special occasion)
    – I usually sing at least one hymn when putting Brendan, my 19 mo. old son, down for the night, sometimes it takes more though :)
    – Jesus Prayer also at night when putting Brendan down (I usually stay with him until he falls asleep) and when lying in bed
    – We don’t have much to give, but when we can and we see a need, we try.
    – We currently drive a car at the edge of death, which I also consider an ascetic practice :)

    Regarding the Jesus Prayer, I would affirm the dangers you have highlighted, but I did wonder: are you recommending against new converts practicing it right away, or just against them doing it wrongly or to the neglect of other more fundamental practices?

    In particular, I have in mind the following from St. Theophan the Recluse: “we should from the very first give full instructions on the practice of the Jesus Prayer to everyone who repents or begins to seek the Lord.”


    • Dylan,

      Thank you for your kind words and the description of your observance.

      I think that driving a car at the edge of death can be highly ascetical, especially as an incentive to constant prayer (at least while riding in it) and (God help you if it’s so) a remembrance of death.

      In answer to your question in re: the Jesus Prayer, two things. First, since I don’t know your heart that well and you do not confess to me, my comments here can only be offered as superficial and general. Any suggestions I give should be taken as just that–suggestions–to be weighed in your own heart for truth and applicability and confirmed by your own Spiritual Father/Father Confessor.

      Having said that, in the second place, there are two schools of thought on saying the Jesus Prayer. One is rather conservative and would restrict the use of the Prayer pretty much to monastics, that is, to those who have the time, supervision and a fully-supportive environment to practice it. The other is represented by the quotation from St Theophan that you mention. I tend toward the latter view myself. Anyone and everyone can say the Prayer, and there is certainly power in the Name before which the demons tremble. The dangers, I think, are primarily with people who want to do something “special,” but who don’t want to build a foundation in observant living, in practicing virtue, in overcoming sin and vice, in regular participation in the services and the Mysteries of Confession and Communion, in daily prayer, regular fasting and the like, what I’ve called the ordinary, gritty practica of living an observant life, day in and day out. There is certainly an “aura” around the Prayer (and not in a New Age sense, of course), and some people get fascinated by it, or think they’re doing something special (leading to a sense of holier-than-thou spiritual pride or elitism), or go looking for some kind of mystical “state” or spiritual “feeling” or some other kind of “experience”. There is real danger in that sort of thing. Down that path lies frustration at best and delusion at the worst. No, all we need to do, and the most that we should do, is call upon the Name of the Lord and pray simply. If we do that, we should be fine.

      I have a story about just how whacked out people can get over the Jesus Prayer. This happened in Dallas some 20+ years ago, shortly after I was received into the Church at St Seraphim Cathedral there. During a Vespers service one Saturday night, we heard a very loud motorcycle pull up outside the church. Presently a man in his late 20’s came in and stood in the back of the church with obvious impatience. He was a distraction to everybody, shifting around from foot to foot and putting his hands in and out of his pockets, rattling his keys. As soon as the service was over, he came into the church hall with the rest of us, and finding the bookstore, he began rummaging through the books. “Where do you keep your higher wisdom?” he asked. What did he mean? Oh, he had heard about some book that the Orthodox had that taught “higher states of consciousness” through some prayer. Did he mean the Philokalia and the Jesus Prayer?, I asked him. Yes, that was it. No, we didn’t have any volumes in stock at the moment, I lied. Well, maybe he would stick around and become Orthodox, he said. This man came to church three or four times over the next month. We found out that he was a drop-out from a graduate philosophy program at a large state university. He had colorful (and often shocking) stories about the professors he had studied under, which he freely shared with any who would listen. The last we heard of him he was riding his motorcycle to Seattle, where he hoped to sell it, buy airfare to Japan, and take up Zen. God only knows if he ever did.


      • Ah okay. That is clarifying. Thank you, Father.

  4. Thanks for starting this series, and (finally – ha) getting some of your pastoral thought out into circulation. :) I appreciated reading the responses here, and your follow-ups. (David’s description especially resonated.)

    For our adult Sunday School class this Fall I’m teaching through a book on “spiritual disciplines”… rather, using the book as a springboard for bible study and discussion. (I’m not always sticking too close to the author’s emphasis in a given chapter.) Your series of posts here are providing a helpful parallel stream of teaching for me to think about. Perhaps I’ll have more to comment about or respond to as things go along.

    As far as my own “Orthodox observance”, well, since I’m not Orthodox, I don’t have any. 😛 Seriously though, growing up in the Mennonite (with Evangelical frosting) world, there were basically two things to do in daily practice: read your bible and pray (that is, in your own words, not saying someone else’s written prayers – because that’s vain repetition). In reality, I rarely managed even that in any structured or regular way. Learning about the daily (and weekly, and yearly) cycles of Othordox practice over the past few years has been both enriching and frustrating… the latter in the sense that it is foreign (sometimes literally!) and distant from what was enculturated in me since childhood.

    Perhaps you could include some thoughts in one of your posts for folks in similar situations – coming from a different church “culture”, with deeply engrained expectations and practices (or lack of).

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