Toolkit for Spiritual Growth, written by Father Evan Armatas, carries the subtitle A Practical Guide to Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving, and it serves in this capacity quite well.
It’s a short book, with a little over a hundred pages, but it does not lack in content. This book is an informative, concise guide on three essential spiritual disciplines that, as the author states in his introduction, are the basis for the life of the believing community, the Church.
Having been a Protestant Christian for 30 plus years, I am very familiar with prayer that is, as Armatas describes, a “routine of no routine, offering up what is on our mind at any given moment. This method is so pervasive that it is all most people outside of Orthodoxy think of when the concept of prayer comes to mind (p.11).”
Armatas describes prayer as “liturgical in nature…something a Christian does and even becomes. This work does not earn salvation, but it requires the concentration of one’s heart, effort, and discipline (p.11).” Further in the chapter he mentions that “Christ did not respond by telling His disciples to pray whatever came to mind (p. 12)” rather He gave a prescribed prayer – The Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father.
He further describes how the early church members “continued steadfastly in the prayers of the Church, that is, in liturgical prayer (p. 13)” and then mentions how scripture describes both Cornelius and Peter praying at specific times, both of which are traditional prayer times in the liturgical practice of Prayer of the Hours.
The author goes on, saying “a liturgical understanding of prayer does not imply that we must completely put away extemporaneous and emotional prayer; rather, we must move this style of prayer our of its position of primacy… extemporaneous prayer cannot be our principal method (p. 14).”
Armatas expands even more with this: “Prayer is not simply the recitation of words on a page or thoughts in our heads. It is also physical – it includes the direction we face, our posture, our surroundings, what we touch and smell (p.14).”
Regarding prayer’s true purpose, the author writes “we are often at odds with ourselves because that misshapen state initiated by Adam and Eve. Our want and desires are often directed at entirely the wrong thing are in need or reordering. Prayer, then, must be about regaining restoring the importance of the immaterial aspect of the human person, which has been ignored for so long. The flesh takes so much of our resources that we must recalibrate and give space to the immaterial (p.17).” In other words, we have a disordered life, and prayer serves in the process of right-ordering ourselves.
Prayers are also not just personal. There is a communal aspect as well.
“Personal and communal prayer are linked and cannot be separated. If we ignore corporate or communal prayer, our personal prayers can become selfish and informed by our will alone, driven mostly by personal, individual desires that are often material in nature (p. 21).”
And, “communal prayer has a unity – we not only agree on the prayer but we say the prayer together. These liturgical prayers are the common expression of the people of God (p. 23).” This statement is a wonderful summary of why communal prayer is so important – they are the common expression of the people of God – wow!
The remainder of the Prayer chapter really gets into the mechanics of prayer. First, having an altar, better thought of as a prayer table or prayer corner. What is the role of an altar or a prayer space?
“Of course, one can pray anywhere and at all times – the Church has always affirmed this. But we as humans need sacred places set aside for certain purposes (p. 27).” Armatas makes a wonderful comparison to the family dinner table – having a dedicated space for eating meals together used to ensure that meal times were a special time for families, this idea of breaking bread together and having meals in communion with each other. The practice of sitting down for a meal together, the sacredness of that practice, has been replaced with the efficient – eating whereever so that you can get going to the next thing.
“When no place is more sacred that any other, the result is not that every place is elevated into being special; rather, every place is lowered to the mundane (p.28).” Having special or sacred places is IMPORTANT.
Our prayer space may include certain items, including icons – as someone coming from a non-Orthodox background, this practice has been enlightening.
“Icons represent our understanding of both the physical nature of Christ and our present reality of the physical world, while also encouraging us to venerate those who have shown us how to live this life (p.30).”
Additionally, prayer books may be part of our prayer corners. Prayer books may include prayers specific to times of the day and the year, circumstances, the church calendar, as well as fast and feast days. The Bible should also have a spot – Holy Scriptures should play a role in our prayer life.
“Separating the Holy Writings from prayer for use in study alone diminishes their impact on our lives… the Bible should never be understood or read only as an intellectual exercise, but first and foremost as prayer (p.31).”
As with our prayer life, we are not rightly ordered regarding charity and compassion. “Compassion is crucial to our place in His Kingdon (p.54)” Armatos continues to say, “if our religious pursuits do not lead us to help those around us, then we have fallen short (p.53).”
Most of us need to become more loving and compassionate, but we do not seek to develop these virtues. We are likely not aware of the essential role they play in theosis.
“The first step is to understand that we are conditioning ourselves either toward compassionate almsgiving or away from it. We create environments in which giving alms is either part of our reality or it is not (p.56).” So we need to condition ourselves towards compassionate almsgiving, meaning we need to put ourselves in a position to have these encounters, where we are able to give sacrificially. This requires effort, especially in society today we have many buffers that keep us from interacting with others in any relational way. This is true even within families.
“The hyperindividualism of modern society enables us to live day to day without ever encountering the poor or needy…Individualism has also affected the relationships closest to us. Being charitable even to our family and closest friends has become increasingly difficult (p. 58-59).”
Armatos suggests we pray and think about what we can do for others as a love offering. We can use our talents and strengths in a multitude of ways, and starting off small can help – do small things with great love. We should not think there is a narrow selection of ways to help others.
“The Lord has not taught us to give alms in a certain way; He gives us options based on where we are and what we have (p.63).” We should use our talents and not feel confined to give in one or only a few ways. We should not be intimidated by what we imagine charity and almsgiving should look like. Almatos offers practical advice to start off at a small level that a person can consisitently accomplish, and that their capacity for almsgiving will transform from that effort.
To many of us, fasting seems archaic. But part of God’s first command to man and Jesus’ first activity after His baptism was to fast.
Why? Fasting affects the human body and so in turn affects the soul. Fasting puts body and soul into right relationship. Fasting helps align body, mind, spirit with God’s purpose.
“Fasting builds our spiritual muscles so we become able to conquer the tougher passions (p. 71).” Fasting enables us to see a connection between our physical and spiritual selves.
Armatos goes into more details regarding the fast days – specific days of the week, fast days through the liturgical year, as well as some of the rules of fasting. He closes the chapter with this:
“Our physical nature is important in our relationship with God. Fasting from food and not being a slave to our appetities are disciplines that should not – or cannot – be ignored in our spiritual development. If people believe they can simply grow without fasting and that their spiritual selves are wholly independent from their physical bodies, they are, quite literally, trusting in a phiosophy that even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself did not adhere to (p. 106-107).”
Armatas closes the book with this statement – and it is a great summary.
“What we do matters. Our physical actions, our giving of alms, and the way we treat our bodies affect not just our own lives, but the lives of those around us. Our physical reality is important, because it is deeply connected to the spiritual (p.115).”