"God will not judge us about psalmody, nor for the neglect of prayer, but because by abandoning them we have opened our door to the demons." -- St. Isaac the Syrian
The Church has taught us to discipline ourselves through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three are really categories of disciplines that the Church recommends to us as means to “acquire the Holy Spirit”; that is, to be continually full of the Life of God. Any particular practice may be more or less helpful depending on our personalities, maturity, and circumstances in life (it’s pretty hard to chant akathist hymns while cooking and cleaning and minding several small children). The important thing to remember is that all such practices are not ends in themselves. As St. Isaac says, God will not judge you on whether or not you did or didn’t do your prayers, etc. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are exercises—you might even say weapons—by which we close the door to demonic delusion in our lives and through which we begin to see Reality more clearly. Consequently, by means of the disciplines we are able to repent, to change, to cease following the “old man” of the flesh and passions, and come to let the “New Man” reign in our hearts and minds. It is this transformation that is important.
Since it is repentance (i.e. transformation) that Christ has called us to and the spiritual disciplines help us to repent, spiritual disciplines are very important. However, repentance does not mean feeling sad (although sometimes sadness can lead to repentance). Repentance means change, change from all the many forms of selfishness, pride and egoism, to the Life in the Spirit, manifested by certain qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness, meekness and self control. Spiritual discipline that does not produce this fruit of the Spirit but rather is accompanied by frustration, anger, or self satisfaction (a sense of accomplishment), is probably evidence that you are practicing a discipline that is not right for you (at least at this point in your life) and that you need guidance in your spiritual life. For most of us, growing in the fruit of the Spirit can be likened to a city dweller’s first attempt at a garden: without advice we are likely to kill the plant before it actually starts to bear fruit. There are just so many variations of plants and their needs for various amounts of water, sun and soil nutrients. The spiritual life is similar; there are many disciplines, but only one goal: the fruit of the Spirit.
Prayer includes the whole array of techniques (or better yet, opportunities) to commune and develop communion with God. On the most basic level, prayer includes “just saying the prayers,” whether in Church or at home. It includes disciplines such as morning and evening prayers, repetitive prayer such as the Jesus Prayer or just the repetition of “Lord have mercy,” and long chanted prayers such as akathist hymns or canons. Prayer includes the misty mountain top experiences of “prayer of the heart” or wordless prayer—experiences that most of us may only glimpse from the valley of our beleaguered lives, but which our spiritual athletes, the monks, may come to experience often, even normally. Prayer also includes the reading of spiritual books, most importantly the Bible, but also the writings and the lives of holy men and women whose words open a window in our hearts and mind to the heavenly Reality. Prayer includes contemplation on these words and confession of our shortcomings (first to ourselves and then also in the Mystery of Confession) and participation in all of the Divine Mysteries offered in the Church.
Prayer in any of its forms, however, requires our attention; and this is where fasting comes in. Fasting is the voluntary limiting or focusing of ourselves and our actions. It is the practice of saying “no” to our selves. On the most obvious level, fasting includes not eating what we want to eat. And so that fasting does not become an exercise of self will—as in, “I think I will give up liver for Lent”—the Church provides guidelines for when and how to fast. It is important to remember that these are guidelines, not laws (Church fasting is not a revived form of the Old Testament dietary codes). Each person, under the guidance of a spiritual father and within the general framework of the Church’s calendar, must find a level of fasting that works for him or her. But fasting is about much more than food. In fact, you might even say that food is merely the icon: in fasting from food we learn to fast from needless speaking, from coarse jesting, from time-wasting and often sin-enticing entertainments. Abstaining from food manifests outwardly an inner abstention from selfish thoughts, fantasies, self pity, and the judging of others. Fasting can also include temporary abstinence in marriage (for a season of prayer; see 1 Cor. 7:5) and any other way we may limit our comforts and pleasures such as sleeping on a hard surface or wearing uncomfortable clothing or standing, kneeling or prostrating for long periods in prayer. All of these are kinds of fasting. It must be remembered, however, that the purpose of fasting is the same as any spiritual discipline: to produce the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. If such practices do not produce Life and Grace and the fruit of the Spirit, but frustration and friction in your mind and in your relationships with others, then you need to reevaluate your practice in consultation with a spiritual father.
A word here about spiritual fathers. Unless you are a monk in a monastery—and even then, many monastic fathers warn one to be careful and discerning in submitting to a spiritual guide even in a monastic context (see, for example St. Iganatius Brianchaninov The Arena pp. 43-47)—you should never blindly obey your spiritual father. We go to our spiritual father with our eyes wide open. Our spiritual father (or mother) is a human being subject to passions and delusion and misunderstanding just as we are. Not everything our spiritual fathers advise us will be as helpful as everything else. Sometimes his insight will be bang on and his recommendations “work” for us—that is, we are able to put them into practice and they produce the fruit of the Spirit, not frustration, anger or friction in our relationships. However, sometimes our spiritual father misses the mark. Maybe he’s having a bad day, or maybe it’s a matter that requires a more experienced spiritual guide, or maybe it is a matter that requires more perseverance on our own part. Whatever the case, if you think you need to speak to someone else about your spiritual life, you are free to do so. You do not have to ask permission first. It is like finding a medical doctor who is able actually to help you get better. Some doctors are good at general practice, some are better at certain areas of specialty. Common courtesy, however, requires that you tell your current spiritual father what you are doing. Especially if he is your parish priest, he needs to know that you are being cared for spiritually.
The third area of spiritual discipline is almsgiving. Most obviously, this involves giving money to those who need it. This includes giving money to poor people (or organizations that support poor people), but it also includes supporting the Church. Almsgiving, however, is about much more than money; it is about giving our selves away to others. Hospitality, volunteering, tutoring, encouraging, cooking, cleaning and all of the ways we find to take care of the needs and support the weaknesses of others can be thought of as kinds of almsgiving. Often, almsgiving is done in secret without making a big deal of it—seeing a job that needs to be done and doing it, seeing a need that needs to be met and meeting it. Here, as in the other spiritual disciplines, not every form of giving produces the same spiritual fruit in everyone. Each must find a way to give that brings Life; however, all must serve, all must give alms. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that just because one finds Life in one particular kind of service (let’s say teaching Sunday school), does not mean that he is off the hook when it comes time to wash the dishes. Work is a part of life, even work we don’t like; but when it comes to going the extra mile or giving beyond what is expected, this is where we find Grace and the fruit of the Spirit in serving in ways that bless others and manifest joy and peace in our own lives.
Before I wrap up, a few words on tithing are in order. Under the Old Covenant, there was a system of tithes (totaling about 30% if you add it all together, not counting freewill offerings), but under the New Covenant, tithing is superseded with the New Commandment that we “sell all and follow.” Just as the law forbidding adultery and murder were superseded with the New Commandments that we not even look on a woman to lust after her or even be angry with a brother (see Matt. 6), so tithing has been replaced with a commandment to give it all away. Now God has given each of us different callings. Some of us “give it all away” up front by entering a monastic community. Others “give it all away” by managing their resources as stewards for the Master. However, just as the New Commandments “do not look at a woman to lust after her” and “do not be angry with your brother” include the Old Commandments “thou shall not commit adultery” or “thou shall not murder,” so giving it all away includes tithing. It has often been said, and it has been my experience, that sometimes the most spiritually engaging exercise (discipline or ascetic practice) that people encounter in a month is writing their tithe check. Holding the pen in my hand I must ask myself again who owns the resources that I manage. The tithe, like the prostration in prayer or even scrubbing of floor in the kitchen of the fellowship hall, is the concrete way I manifest a spiritual reality: that all the things and wealth and resources that I manage really don’t belong to me but to God.
But we must never forget that God will not judge us based on our tithing or lack thereof (or any spiritual discipline for that matter). God will judge us by our repentance, by the Life of God within us, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, by the fruit of holiness and love of God and neighbor that is produced in our lives. Tithing is a tool: it destroys the delusion that we have given everything to God when in fact we cannot even let go of ten percent of our income. It closes the door to the demons of greed and love of luxury. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are our weapons to acquire the Life of God and destroy the demons’ strengthless presumption. They are how we actually put on Christ.