St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
872 N. 29th St. Boise, ID
an American parish of the Russian Orthodox Church
The Heart of the Spiritual Life is to Fulfill Christ's Commandments - Metropolitan Gabriel of Lovech

—Your Eminence, how can an Orthodox Christian lead a proper spiritual life?

—The Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church say that the spiritual life is the science of sciences. Therefore, it seems to me, the most important thing for an Orthodox Christian is to approach the spiritual life with great humility—not to rely on his own strength and not to trust his reason, but to find a good confessor whom he can trust, to sincerely confess to him, seek his counsel, and be guided properly on the path of salvation. Since true eldership is very rare in our time, we must read the Holy Fathers and especially those who write about our way of life. Venerable Abba Dorotheos says, “If you see someone fall, know that he was following himself.” The heart of the spiritual life is to fulfill Christ’s commandments.

—How should we deal with the various trials we face? What should be our guide?

—Trust in God and humble awareness of our sins and infirmities. And along with that, diligent prayer and patience. Because trials in life are usually a consequence of our sins, and the Lord allows them with a certain providential purpose: to call us to repentance, to heal us of our sinful passions, to teach us, to make us wiser, and to perfect us spiritually. Through trials, even more than through the happy moments of life, God’s love for us is manifested—by allowing us to suffer, the Lord acts with us as the greatest Physician, the wisest Teacher, and the most loving Father. He desires our eternal salvation and helps us to attain it.

Therefore, let us trust in God and leave ourselves to His saving will and guidance. Then every sting will be dulled; and trials, no matter how severe, will not be tragic for us, but the words of the holy Apostle Paul will be fulfilled with us: Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby (Heb. 12:11).

It is very important for a person to understand why a particular trial has come to him. Usually, when we find the cause of our trials and difficulties, that it is within us, and we try to overcome it, repent, and ask for forgiveness from the Lord, then God’s help comes and the Lord delivers us.

—We often hear about love and affection for others. But how is this unconditional, Christian, sacrificial love expressed?

—The answer is contained in the question itself. True love is precisely Christian, because only good deeds done in the name of Christ and for Christ’s sake can be the fruit of true love. True love is also unconditional; it is not weak, partial, love only to some extent, but rather it is ready to give all its strength and itself.

True love is sacrificial—it expects no recompense, gratitude, or praise, but forgets about itself, true to the words of the Lord: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13).

True, Christian love, however, must be learned, acquired through spiritual effort and work. And this is done through almsgiving, prayer for others, comforting and actively helping the suffering and needy, and forgiveness. You have to start with your own family, from those closest to you, every day sacrificing something of yourself, your strength, rest, pleasures, for others. “The main thing in life is always to do good to people. If you cannot do great good, try to do at least a little,” says St. Luke of Crimea. And through these small acts of kindness, you can imperceptibly cultivate true Christian love within yourself. As the ever-memorable Elder John (Krestiankin) says, “Good deeds are needed to accustom a man to the higher life, to the bright will, to the desire for good, to a just and pure heart, to unhypocritical love. It is through these small daily actions that all this can imperceptibly take root in a man.”

True love is the crown of all virtues, of all other commandments of God. The path to achieving true love is steep and difficult, but it brings us true joy, true happiness, and makes us partakers of the Kingdom of God here on earth.

—How can we see others as our brothers and sisters?

—By remembering that every person is the image of God, that is, an icon of God. This icon may be soiled, damaged, aged, faded, or darkened, but it remains an icon—a sacred thing to be treated with reverence and love.

Let us cover the infirmities of our neighbors and pray for them. And this can happen by striving to see their virtues, not noticing their faults, and having, as St. Paisios the Athonite says, good thoughts about them. And especially by making an effort to see our passions and sins and asking the Lord to give us this saving self-knowledge. “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see mine own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”

—Is prayer present in our lives today? What are your observations in the spiritual life?

—Unfortunately, life today seems to suffer more than ever from what I would call a prayer deficiency. Even among some churchgoers, there is a lack of awareness, or at least the zeal, that prayer should be the center of our daily lives. On the contrary, there are not a few cases where due to negligence, prayer rules are often replaced with short and distracted rules, or a prayer rule is said in passing. And here are the lofty words of the Holy Fathers about prayer, teaching us that it is the ministry of angels and without it there is no success in the spiritual life: “Prayer and service to God are the signs of all righteousness. They, as a sort of divine and spiritual garment, give great beauty to our thoughts, guide the life of every one of us, preventing anything bad or improper from dominating the mind, persuade us to honor God and respect that honor which is given to us by Him, teach us to remove every cunning of the wicked one from ourselves, drive away shameful and indecent thoughts, and bring the soul of every one of us into a state of contempt for earthly pleasure” (St. John Chrysostom).

—How can we learn to pray correctly, and what should we say?

—Of crucial importance for prayer is to approach it with the right attitude. The Christian is obliged to cultivate in himself the humble feeling that he means nothing on his own. But there is Someone Who loves us infinitely, and through Whom we have the opportunity to become true human beings and even become like Him. The ever-memorable Schema-Igumena Maria said that in our prayers to the Lord we should be like a baby before its beloved mother.

The Holy Fathers of the Church also teach us that it’s very important for a Christian to have a prayer rule that he fulfills regularly and that is blessed by his spiritual father.

There is no one-size-fits-all here, but the spiritual father could assess and guide the believer according to his time, strengths, and commitments, according to the level of his spiritual development. The elders say that it is better to have a shorter prayer rule but to fulfill it every day, than a long one that we often skip. And in the remaining hours, we can mentally repeat the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” or the abbreviated version: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

The Holy Fathers also advise us that in prayer, we should first of all give thanks and praise to God.

It is useful for a man to take a few minutes every day, reflect, and list some of God’s favors to him and say to the Lord, “Lord, thank you for all your favors to me.” But let us also give thanks for the trials, sufferings, and persecutions with which God has honored us and through which he purifies and prepares us for the future life. Then we must ask forgiveness for our sins, repent sincerely, humble and reproach ourselves before God. Here again, we can address the Lord in our own words, sincerely revealing to Him the sinful inclinations and passions that torment us, asking Him to enlighten our mind and soul, to give us strength, courage, and inner peace, to transform us and enlighten us. And finally, we ask the Lord for what we need for our earthly life.

—Finally, Your Eminence, how can we change our lives for the better, both personally and socially?

—St. Seraphim of Sarov says: “My joy, acquire a peaceful spirit and thousands around you will be saved.” And a peaceful spirit can only be achieved through the grace of the Holy Spirit, especially in the Sacraments of the holy Orthodox Church. Then light, peace, and joy will begin to pour out and onto others. You see how around the saints everything turned into Paradise—wild beasts became tame, the forces of nature obedient, an indescribable fragrance filled the air, peace, joy, and strength filled the souls of those around them. The key to the transformation of the whole of society is precisely in the inner, gracious transformation of every one of us.