by Fr. Deacon Charles
Those you spend your time with influence your thinking and behavior. If you associate with those who share your values, then they will be reinforced. You want to develop a circle of friends that lifts you up to higher ideals and to avoid those who negatively influence you. You need to look for the goodness in others when choosing your friends and consciously choose who you spend your time with on a regular basis. When you find others who share your spiritual values then you should find ways to spend more time with them.
When you are engaged in making changes in your way of life, you need the support of friends with whom you interact regularly. Seek out those who are also trying to live an Orthodox way of life, meet with them, read the same books and discuss them. Share with them in your times of entertainment as well.
A good way to develop a strong relationship with such people of like mind and values is to work together for a selfless goal. This may be a project such as reducing hunger, or working on a Church function. When you work with others on a project that does not involve any expectations of reward or recognition you will find that your energies are multiplied and the synergy of different people is maximized.
This is the value of the Church community. It is a place where we all share the same ideals. We come together at least once a week for common worship. We can participate in Bible study and Sunday school where we can continue to learn together. We can interact in social activities as well.
In your spiritual growth you are like a tree seedling. At first a new seedling needs to be protected in a safe environment and even fenced off to protect it from the grazing animals. When it matures, however, it can survive on its own. In the beginning you too need a safe environment; your emerging Orthodox way of life needs protection. As you mature spiritually you can then enter into any company and not fear being uprooted. As your relationship with God grows, you will have less need for this protection, as you will have the Holy Spirit supporting you. You then can become a source of protection for a new emerging seedling.
The Apostle Paul sees our spiritual path as one that involves struggle and requires endurance. He says, “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” He explains that we are involved in a struggle with our desires and the Spirit, “The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” He then shows us that we need to be involved supporting each other in this struggle. “Therefore, brethren…, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us… Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.” Our spiritual companionship should be of such a nature that we can strongly encourage each other.
Who you spend your time with makes a difference. If you choose wisely, you will get the encouragement you need. If you do not, you will find you are encouraged to give up the struggle and instead seek a life of pleasure and self-satisfaction. It is a common saying that you are known by the company you keep. If you associate with those who share your values, then those values will be reinforced. When you associate with those who are also involved in this struggle, their experiences will give you knowledge and strength. They will help you expand your vision and you will profit from their experience. Since they are also spiritual aspirants like you, they will inspire you, strengthen your resolve, elevate your aim, and enable you to progress more surely on this difficult path.
In addition to spiritual companionship, the Orthodox tradition suggests that Christians should have a spiritual father to guide them on their spiritual journey. This goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Saint Paul points to the relationship between a spiritual guide and his spiritual children. “For though you might have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.
Therefore I urge you, imitate me.” He points out that this relationship involves the imitation of life and character of the spiritual father. Later in the 4th century St. Basil the Great encourages each person to find a spiritual father “who may serve you as a sure guide in the work of leading a holy life” and warns that “to say that one does not need counsel is great pride.” To risk directing your own way is risking that you will fall prey to the most powerful of all sins: pride. We can all easily be misled by our own direction and be tempted to think that we are making great progress, when we are only building up our own ego and our pride.
Each person needs a spiritual father if he or she is are sincere in their seeking to do God’s will and growing in faith. The role of the Orthodox spiritual father is leading seekers along the spiritual path, helping them conquer their passions, guiding them in ways of prayer, ascetic disciplines, and participation in the sacraments and leading them to ultimate union with God.