What it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition

Due to space limitations, I can only offer here a glimpse into the profound and boundless glory of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition—a path of belief and practice that’s been followed with remarkable consistency by millions of Orthodox Christians through twenty centuries.  The spirituality, doctrines, liturgical life, and the conciliar/hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church have remained unchanged at their core, beginning in the Apostolic age, with more “rings” of amplification and enrichment being added to the same “tree” through the centuries.

So in the Orthodox understanding, the way to follow Jesus that’s been faithfully passed down to us is a truly time-tested, proven path.  More importantly, it’s a path that’s God-inspired and God-directed, confirmed through the prayer—and all the spiritual experience—of countless people of every social, political, and economic background in every era, in a great number of cultures.  Yet within the guidelines provided by the Orthodox Tradition for how to follow Jesus, there is flexibility for each person to do so uniquely, depending upon one’s unique needs and abilities.

Christians who are recognized as premier examples of this way of life are the Virgin Mary and the Saints—those men, women, and children who most faithfully, fervently, and fully lived in vibrant communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, many of whom gave their lives for Him in martyrdom.  Numerous Saints are commemorated in our Church every day of the year—the day we particularly honor them, asking for their prayers and being inspired by the holiness and fruitfulness of their lives.

Of course, not every Orthodox Christian follows Jesus with the same degree of faithfulness, fervency, holiness, and fruitfulness as the canonized Saints have done.  But there is, nevertheless, one basic way of following Him that is the ideal, the hope and expectation for every Orthodox Christian—the path of aspiring to live in ever-closer, direct communion with Him; being filled with His Love, Joy (John 15:11), and Peace (John 14:27); striving to live in purity of thought, word, and deed; and ever trusting in His limitless mercy in anticipation of His Second Coming (Rev. 22:20), the Resurrection of the Dead, the Last Judgment, and eternal life in Heaven, our true home (Phil. 3:20-21; cf. Phil. 3:7-14).

For this endeavor, the Orthodox Church provides many resources for spiritual growth, including daily study of the Holy Scriptures, being guided by the Church’s long-standing interpretation of them; time-honored prayers for many occasions; rich liturgical life, replete with psalmody, and including hymns filled with devotion and sound doctrine; the Sacraments—especially the Eucharist, celebrated at every Divine Liturgy, and the Sacrament of Confession; celebration of the many great holy days (Feasts) of the Church Year; the writings of the Church Fathers; the Lives of the Saints; the doctrinal proclamations and canons of the Ecumenical Councils—especially the Nicene Creed; veneration of the Holy Icons; the sign of the Cross; the connection with one’s Patron Saint and Guardian Angel; and the spiritual direction of one’s spiritual father.

Even the great numbers of monastics through the centuries, who have, generally speaking, most entirely given their lives to following Jesus in direct service to Him and His Church, do not follow Him in a way that’s substantially different from how everyone else follows Him in our Tradition—except that, most likely, they pray, fast, and attend services more, and live more simply than the rest of us!  And, of course, they live in sexual abstinence, while the married enjoy their God-given marital relations.  But in both cases, we’re called to live in sexual purity—total abstinence for the monastics, and total faithfulness to one’s spouse for the married (with marriage understood as between one man and one woman, mirroring Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church – Eph. 5:23-32).

To say a bit more about particular features of the Orthodox way of following Jesus:

Worshiping Him “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24)—participating regularly in the prayer-filled and Scripture-filled liturgical/sacramental life of the Church; entering with humility and awe into the majesty and beauty of the communal worship of God in church services; participating in the alternating rhythms of feasting and fasting according to the patterns designated in the Church Year.

Being in vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified (those canonized by the Church as Saints): “God is wondrous in His Saints” (Ps. 67:36, Septuagint); “I believe in . . . the Communion of Saints” (the Apostles’ Creed); “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1; Heb. 12:23); being surrounded by the Saints in their grace-bearing icons (“windows to Heaven”) in Church and at home (particularly in the icon corner); asking for their prayers; reading their Lives and their writings.

Endeavoring to live without sin in thought, word, and deed, in purity in mind, soul, and body, including sexual purity (Matt. 5:48, Heb. 12:14, 1 Thess. 4:3, 1 Peter 1:15-16, Lev. 11:44-45).  Growing in communion with Jesus is accomplished in large measure through keeping His commandments (John 15:10; also 15:14 and 14:15).  And we remember that avoiding sin requires careful attentiveness to the voice of our conscience, ongoing ascetical effort to control and properly direct our passions, and repenting for our sins.  We endeavor to be watchful over our thoughts and feelings, trying to be quick in rejecting deleterious thoughts and feelings (called logismoi) that disrupt our relationship with Jesus.

Endeavoring to surrender our own will to His will (Luke 22:42); this includes surrendering our own will appropriately as we self-sacrificially serve others, placing their needs and desires ahead of our own.

Endeavoring to maintain our trust in Christ no matter what happens—no matter what cross He may ask us to bear in terms of personal hardships and the hardships of those close to us (Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23).  We offer our hardships, sufferings, and sorrows to Him, linking them with His suffering on the Cross, knowing that He often allows them as a means for us to grow in faith and trust in Him, and for us to grow in virtue (James 1:2-4, Romans 5:3-4, 1 Peter 1:6-9).  Yet we also pray to Christ for deliverance from afflictions, mindful that miracles often happen, but always concluding with asking that His will be done.

Endeavoring to maintain a regular rule of prayer, developed and sustained, ideally, under the guidance of a spiritual father/director (often the priest of one’s parish), before whom one confesses one’s sins to God regularly in the Sacrament of Confession, and from whom one receives spiritual counsel during that Sacrament; praying, as appropriate, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (this has been—and still is—the principal devotional prayer of the Orthodox for many centuries; cf. Luke 18:13); and being alert in spiritual warfare (James 4:7), ever aware of the possibility of demonic delusion (2 Cor. 11:14; 1 Peter 5:8).

Endeavoring to be engaged in self-sacrificial service to one’s fellow human beings, with deep respect, love, and compassion for each one, all “made in the image and likeness of God” (cf. Gal. 6:2; Romans 12:15).

Endeavoring to live in respectful, awe-filled harmony with Nature; seeing everywhere our Creator’s miraculous craftsmanship and providential care; understanding that the innate goodness of Creation undergirds our entire sacramental world-view; being always thankful for, yet not being overly attached to, the good things of this world.

Witnessing to others about Christ and the glory and richness of life in His Holy Church, especially through living an exemplary life of faith and virtue—through the holiness, quiet joy, and peacefulness of our Christ-filled lives; and through inviting people to Church services.

Every endeavor to follow Jesus more closely is accomplished through synergistically joining our will with His will (Phil. 2:12-13), and with the grace of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).

Key elements of the Orthodox ethos and way of life are conveyed in the prayers normally prayed in preparation for receiving Holy Communion.  For example, from the Prayer of St. Basil the Great (Archbishop of Neocaesarea, central Asia Minor; later 4th century):

“Receive me, O Lord Who loves mankind, as You received the sinful woman, the thief, the publican, and the prodigal son.  Take away the heavy burden of my sins, O You Who takes away the sins of the world, and heals our infirmities, and calls to Yourself all who are weary and heavy-laden and gives them rest.  O You Who came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance, cleanse me from all stain of body and soul, and teach me to fulfill holiness in reverent fear of You, so that with the witness of my conscience pure, I may receive a portion of Your Holy Gifts, and be united to Your holy Body and precious Blood, and may have You, with Your Father and Your Holy Spirit, dwelling and abiding in me.”

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