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Discerning and Doing God's Will by Remembering Him in a World of Distraction*

by Mother Dorothea, St. Xenia Skete (Wildwood, CA)

What follows is an informal talk given by Mother Dorothea to parishioners of St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ Serbian Orthodox Church in Redding, CA during the summer of 2004.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and with help from the Holy Fathers, I would like to speak briefly tonight about a few of the basics of the spiritual life—our life in Christ. Most, if not all of this is probably already known and familiar to many of you, but it is good to remind one another, to encourage and be encouraged, towards the one thing needful.

In the midst of today's complex of seemingly endless choices between consumer products, activities and entertainments, the underlying simplicity of life can easily become obscured—that is, that before us the real choice is simple and fundamental. The choice before us in each moment of our lives is between doing God's will or our own fallen will or the will of the devil.

The holy commandments of Christ are the chief measuring stick for doing God's will. Oftentimes, however, we are so caught up in what we are doing that we forget to use this rule. We need to ask the Lord for His help before making decisions. A disciple of St. Joseph the Hesychast said: "We observed that the Elder never embarked on anything without first praying. We would ask him about something in the future or for the next day, and his reply was that he would tell us tomorrow. He would do this so that he could pray first. So, when you want to find out the will of God, abandon your own will completely, together with every other thought or plan, and with great humility ask for this knowledge in prayer. And whatever takes shape or carries weight in your heart, do it and it will be according to God's will...." [1]

St. Pimen the Great said, "Our will is like a wall of brass between us and God, preventing us from coming near to Him or contemplating His mercy." To truly submit our will to God and others, takes real humility. St. Silouan of Mt. Athos makes some acute observations about this:

"The proud and self-willed do not want to surrender to God's will because they like their own way, and that is harmful for the soul.... The proud man likes to be his own master, and does not see that man has not wisdom enough to guide himself without God. And I, when I lived in the world and as yet knew not the Lord and His Holy Spirit, nor how the Lord loves us—I relied on my own understanding. But when by the Holy Spirit I came to know our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, my soul submitted to God and now I accept every affliction that befalls me, and say to myself, 'The Lord looks down on me, what is there to fear?'

"Life is much easier for the man who is given over to the will of God, since in illness, in poverty and persecution, he reflects thus, 'Such is God's pleasure, and I must endure on account of my sins.'

"Look at the man who likes to have his own way. His soul is never at peace. He is always discontented—this is not right, that is not as it should be. But the man who is entirely given over to the will of God can pray with a pure mind, his soul loves the Lord, and he finds everything pleasant and agreeable...."

"If you are distressed over anything, it means that you are not fully surrendered to God's will, although it may seem that you are living according to His will." Also, "If we seem to ourselves to be greatly afflicted, it means that we have not surrendered to the will of God.

"It is impossible to escape afflictions in this world, but the man who is given over to the will of God bears affliction easily, aware of it but putting his trust in the Lord, and so his afflictions pass....

"The man who is discontented with his lot and murmurs against his fate, or against those who cause him offense, should realize that his spirit is in a state of pride, which has taken from him his sense of gratitude toward God. But, if it be so with you, do not lose heart but try to trust firmly in the Lord, and ask Him for a humble spirit, and when the lowly Spirit of God comes to you, you will then love Him, and be at rest in spite of all afflictions."

We see, then, the importance of giving ourselves entirely over to God's will. But let us back up just a bit, because in order to be submitted to God and do His will in the moment, especially in difficult times, we must first be practicing the remembrance of God in our lives. Remembering God with consistency has always taken great toil, and this is especially so in today's world where noise—visual, audio, subliminal and emotional—continually bombard and can distract one from devotion to God.

What is the remembrance of God? More than calling God to mind now and then, it is the continuing awareness that He is ever with us and knows us—our heart, mind and soul. Remembering God brings help and consolation to our souls: "I remembered God and was gladdened (Ps. 76).

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote much about this:

"The recollection (or remembrance) of God is mentally standing before God in the heart.

"Everywhere and always God is with us, near to us and in us. But we are not always with Him, since we do not remember Him; and because we do not remember Him, we allow ourselves many things which we would not permit if we did remember.

"The more firmly you are established in the recollection of God, the more quiet your thoughts will become and the less they will wander.

"Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soul. But the soul must force itself to persevere and to toil. Work, making every effort to attain the unceasing remembrance of God, and God, seeing how fervently you desire it will give you this constant remembrance of Himself.

"To succeed in this remembrance it is advisable to accustom oneself to the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,' holding in mind the thought of God's nearness, His presence in the heart. [If one prays the Jesus Prayer when one is idle for a time, while driving, doing dishes, etc., will help greatly in building prayer in the heart and mind.]

"To pray does not only mean to stand in prayer. To keep the mind and heart turned towards God and directed towards Him...this is already prayer."

St. Macarius of Egypt said that we must first remember God in order to love Him.

The more one strives to do this—to remember God in one's mind and heart—the more one becomes aware of those things in oneself that keep one from this remembrance.

So let's look now at some of these obstacles to remembering God. One of the most common is worldly cares. Yet, it is not our actual duties or responsibilities that hinder remembrance of God, but carrying them out in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, or with an incorrect attitude.

First of all, we need to humbly ask God's blessing upon our work [2], and if there is any doubt whether we should do something we need to pray about it or seek counsel. St. Silouan said, "A soul that is troubled about anything should inquire of the Lord, and the Lord will give him understanding. But this is primarily in times of calamity and real bewilderment. As a general rule, we should be advised by our spiritual father, for this is a humbler way."

With God's blessing, we should do our work with zeal and prayerfulness—and without worrying. Worrying brings forgetfulness of God and darkness to the soul. If we find ourselves worrying, we must force ourselves to remember God and ask Him Who is Light, Love and the Sustainer of all, for what is needed. The root of worry is often the pridefulness of feeling that we ourselves are doing something and so perhaps it won't turn out as it should, rather than remembering that God can do all things, and it is He Who brings forth fruit in His time and way.

In St. Luke, chapter 21, the Lord tells us, 'Take heed to yourselves lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness and cares of this life, so that day come upon you unawares. Watch ye therefore and pray always, that ye may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass and to stand before the Son of man."

Here the Lord puts being overly concerned with the cares of this life on the same level as drunkenness. And truly, just as in being drunk one is out of control and unable to discern accurately, so in being overly bound up with the cares of life one becomes controlled by them rather than being in that rightful place of the wise and prayerful steward for the Lord. The Lord warns us that being too concerned with worldly cares causes one to be unable to stand before Him, if he does not repent.

Another block to the remembrance of God, and an aspect of pride and egotism, is the habit being self-absorbed, of continually looking at the world from the vantage point of one's own desires and needs (or what he thinks are his needs), rather than seeking God at all times and trusting in His unfathomable Providence. How much needless trouble we would spare ourselves and others if we would only have that little grain of faith and trust in God's care for us.

The Holy Fathers tell us that in order to be able to remember God we should be striving at times to keep our conscience clean. When we get angry with someone or say or do something that wounds another, we should repent of this as quickly as possible, ask God's forgiveness and apologize to the person we offended. Arguing and judging come from pride, and pride immediately cuts us off from remembrance of and communion with God. St. Silouan said, "A cloud blows over and hides the sun, making everything dark. In the same way, one prideful thought causes the soul to lose grace, and she is left in darkness. But, equally, a single impulse of humility—and grace returns. This I have experienced and proved in myself."

St. Silouan expresses here the simplicity of our life in Christ. One bad or prideful thought and we are separated from God, and one humble one and we are with Him again, which is why must keep ourselves from indulging in bad thoughts, especially judgments of people, if we want to be with God.

Keeping our minds and hearts in the Goodness of God is not easy since so much in the world and our own bad habits pull us away from this. The Holy Fathers spoke of the importance of making a firm resolve to hold to Christ and to walk His narrow, uphill path. As soon as the soul does this, however, the demons, who never sleep and see this change, arm themselves against the soul, bringing out their guns and artillery. And if one gun or tactic doesn't work, they bring out another. Yet, the soul remains unharmed if she cleaves to Christ Who is All-Powerful. If she wavers, however, in fear and lack of faith, she falls. But—glory to God—this is not the end of the battle or the war. If a soul falls, she must quickly get up, without discouragement, since "All things work to the glory of God to those who love Christ." Our falls teach us faith and humility, and "a contrite and humble heart God will not despise." The power of repentance is exceedingly great, for as soon as we say, "Father, I have sinned," He runs to meet us and embrace us. And these embraces, these consolations, increase our love and longing to be ever with Him, Who is boundless Love.

Well, I have almost reached the end of this little exhortation. I want to conclude with three verses which express in a concise way much that I have been trying to bring forth:

"Rejoice evermore.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." (I Thess. 5:16-18)

And may God bless us—each and all—to remember Him with love, to direct our hearts and lives to the fulfilling of His holy will, that He—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—would make His abode with us, now and always. Amen.

Endnotes (Added by the Webmaster)

* The original title of this talk is "Remembering God in a World of Distraction".

1. Similar guidance is found in Letter 173 from St. Macarius of Optina to one of his spiritual children:

As to this girl who has so much impressed you, why not marry her? You say you seek neither beauty nor riches but gentleness, intelligence, and devotion to the faith. The lady in whose house you met confirms your impression that she has all these qualities, and says she is well educated too. No mean advantage in a wife.

But, not daring to influence you in so important a matter, I can only recommend you to God. Pray that you may learn to read His will, and that, having read it, you may accept it.

If this marriage is agreeable to Him, your eagerness will increase after prayer. Then have a molieben said, requesting the special blessing of our Lord and our Lady, and tackle the business straight away.

But if after prayer your eagerness wanes, accept this as a sign that God does not approve. Then drop the matter.

And this related excerpt from Counsels for Life: From the Life and Teachings of Father Epiphanios Theodoropoulos:

A certain one of his spiritual children, who was undecided as to what path he should follow, marriage or celibacy, asked him to tell him what to do.

"My child," he answered, "I cannot tell you what to follow. Pray a lot to God and He will answer you."

"But Elder," retorted the youth, "I am not holy for God to answer me!"

"God answers His children through events," the Elder clarified. "Go and you will see God's hand..."

2. Here are some helpful prayers before the beginning of any task:

Bless, O Lord (or in Greek, Evlogimenon)

Or

O Lord Jesus Christ, Only-begotten Son of Thine unoriginate Father, Thou hast said with Thy most pure lips: For without Me, ye can do nothing. My Lord, O Lord, in faith having embraced Thy words, I fall down before Thy goodness; help me, a sinner, to complete through Thee Thyself this work which I am about to begin, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Or

Almighty God, our Help and Refuge, Fountain of wisdom and Tower of strength, who knowest that I can do nothing without thy guidance and help; assist me, I pray thee, and direct me to divine wisdom and power, that I may accomplish this task, and whatever I may undertake to do, faithfully and diligently according to thy will, so that it may be profitable to myself and others, and to the glory of thy Holy Name. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

After the completion of any task:

Glory to Thee, O Lord

Or

Thou, O my Christ, art the sum and fullness of all that is good; fill my soul with joy and gladness, and save me, for Thou alone art all-merciful. Amen.

Published with the blessing of Mother Dorothea.