I didn’t expect much from How To Live A Holy Life, a compact 150-page book written by Metropolitan Postnikov in 1856, but it turned out to be one of my favorite books on the Orthodox faith, offering practical advice that is hard to find from modern authors.
How to get up in the morning
If the time at which you woke is the time at which or near which you should get up, then without any delay say, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” while making the sign of the cross. And then, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Right after this, or at the same time, get out of bed. Getting out of bed quickly is often very unpleasant for our flesh, because our flesh, like a lazy servant, always likes to lie and sleep or to luxuriate and remain idle. Every single morning act against the base desires of your flesh. Let this opposition to the flesh be your first sacrifice to the Lord God. Among other reasons, quickly getting up in the morning is very beneficial for the soul because (as all those who fervently strive for salvation have long observed) when we lie in bed for a long time after waking, impure tendencies very easily arise in our bodies, and impure thoughts and desires in our souls.”
It has been a lifelong struggle for me to get up in the morning. Recently I have tried a tactic that has been working: I position my alarm clock on the other side of the room. When it rings, I get out of bed, turn it off, and forbid myself from getting back into bed. The only concession I allow myself is to sit down on a chair until I gather enough strength to put on my clothes and start the day.
Give thanks upon waking up
Each morning thank Him with all your soul, like this, for example: “My Lord God and King! I thank Thee that during the past night Thou hast preserved my life and that Thou hast again granted me time for repentance and amendment of my life. Many, many people have been deprived of their earthly lives in the past night. The day that is beginning is not an inevitable day in my life. It is beginning only because Thou art giving it to me because of Thine unspeakable mercy. I could easily have died in the past night. But Thou, O All-good One, hast saved me and hast given me a new day, that I might save my soul. I thank Thee with all my heart, O All-merciful One.”
Upon waking I like to give a short prayer before my main prayer: “Today is the day that the Lord hath made. Let us be glad and rejoice in it!”
How to treat other people
It is unpleasant when people react to you poorly and suspect you of some evil doing. Therefore do not speak poorly of anyone, and without sufficient cause do not be suspicious of anyone. ‘Love thinketh no evil (I Cor. 13:5).
It is pleasant for you when people speak well of you. Therefore you should speak well of all your neighbors. Be especially careful not to slander your neighbor. Slander is the work of Satan, let it belong to him alone (Rev. 12:10). You speak only good of your neighbor.
When someone speaks poorly about someone outside your circle, try, if at all possible, to defend or excuse him. Besides this, never repeat that which you have heard. For it frequently happens that things are said about people because of malice or our of revenge, and to repeat that which was said can cause enmity. Enmity is described in the Word of God as one of those vices which can prevent one from entering the Kingdom of Heaven (Gal. 5:20).
…come to the assistance of those who are especially in need, that is the ill and disabled. Even if you cannot give them what they specifically need, then at least visit them, serve them in some way, and comfort them. Act in this way even if they are totally ungrateful to you, for ‘Love does not seek its own’ (I Cor. 13:5), and the Lord will reward you.
‘Why may I not judge?’ The passage, ‘that ye be not judged’ tells us why. ‘What is the reason for this?’ We are not told this, but of course there is a reason. ‘What is the reason?’ This, for example, is a reason: whoever loves to look at others and keep an eye on what they are doing almost as a rule forgets himself, and in forgetting himself, usually does not see his own faults. And not seeing his own faults, he always deems himself better than others.
I confess that I judge people daily. I eagerly hunt for their flaws to mock them in my mind. I ridicule them, their habits, and their way of speech. I have practiced foreign accents in order to elicit the laughter of others. I dwell on the weaknesses of all races and gleefully share them in my live streams. All these things I do out of pride, and hope God can cure me of this malformed habit.
What to do during a disagreement
If it happens that because of an offense you became angry with your neighbor, then say nothing, for immediately your anger will flame up, and in an impassioned state you are likely to consider it necessary to say something that later sorely regret, but will be incapable of correcting. While angry say nothing but wait until you have completely calmed down. If your neighbor is for some reason very angry with you, do not attempt to talk him out of it, even if it seems very necessary, for while he is in the heat of anger the passion is in control of him and not his reason, therefore you must not try to dissuade him—it is impossible to speak convincingly to someone out of his mind, your words will only make him more angry and force him to do something possibly harmful to you.
If I had followed this advice in the past, I would have avoided unseemly and degrading fights with just about everyone in my life. Instead, I felt an attack of anger within me, poured my passions into it, and then lashed back at my target for a temporary moment of victorious pride or exuberant satisfaction, yet I only bred enmity. I’ve realized that it takes two to three days for an episode of anger to fully die down. In the future I plan to wait that length of time after any disagreement before airing my grievances. More likely than not, after that time is up, I will have to air apologies instead of demands.
Giving spiritual aid
…each of us, when we notice that a Christian is behaving in an improper way, should look for the right time in order to privately and with love bring him to his senses and direct him on the right path of salvation. ‘Now we exhort you’ (not just ask), ‘brethren, warn them that are unruly” (I Thess. 5:14).
As in offering physical help, in offering spiritual help we must also follow a special rule mainly: before helping others we should heed the needs of people that God’s Providence has closely bound us with, such as our children, relatives, friends, benefactors, employees. He who strives to instruct, correct and awaken the conscience in strangers while his own children or employees run out of control and fall into sins and error, does not fulfill the commandment of love for his neighbor.
All my attempts to give spiritual aid to those who haven’t asked for it have failed. I see a relative who needs God, I give them a word about God, and they reject it. It turns out that giving unsolicited advice does not work, whether on matters secular or spiritual. I remember back in my game days when I had “beta male” friends who needed help with women. If I gave them advice when they hadn’t asked for it, they raged and our relationship became strained.
Compare these failures to people who voluntarily visit my website. I did not implore them to read a Christian book review like this one, but they do it of their own volition. For those who have ears, let them hear! My relatives know that I am walking with Christ, so if they ever wonder about how exactly I changed my life without doctors or medicines, or what happens to their souls after they die, I’m not hard to get in touch with. I will wait patiently for them to do so, and love them as Christ loves me. After all, He waited nearly 40 years for me to open my heart to Him.
Continually give thanks to God for all that you have
When you are happy, that is, when everything in life is going according to your wishes: you are healthy, your wife, your children, and your family is healthy, your neighbors like you, all your affairs are going well, you are satisfied and do not feel need, then every morning and every evening thank the Lord God from your whole soul for all of this and be very careful not to be ungrateful to Him. Everyone recognizes as vile those who are ungrateful to other people; even more so should we acknowledge as vile those who are ungrateful to the Lord God. The holy Apostle numbers the ingratitude of people among the vices of the people of the last time (II Timothy 3:2), that is, of the most depraved time.
Never think, as many foolish people among the rich do, that you owe your wealth to your intelligence, your cleverness, or your energy. Although you, perhaps, really are intelligent, clever, and energetic, never attribute the acquisition of your wealth only to these attributes; for consider: who gave you your intelligence? Who gave and gives you health and strength, so that you can work? Who bless your labors with the success you desire, while many other people no less intelligent and hardworking than you are hardly able to get their daily piece of bread? And who looks after your wealth, which you could lose at any moment from any number of circumstances? Is it not God, your Creator, Who does this?
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” —John 15:5
Every moral and good and truthful thing that we have done and will do comes solely from God; He should receive all the credit, because at that moment you did good or spoke the truth, you allowed the will of God to flow through you as He intended with your creation.
But how about when an atheist speaks the truth? Or when a homosexual does a good deed? Or when a Jew cares for his neighbor? God made us in His image, and so we are made to do good deeds. God loves His creations to such an extent that He has mercy on us all, even those who hate Him, and allows them to participate in His good by serving as a light of some luminosity to the world, no matter how faint, but I must insist that it is far easier to do good when you are in direct communion with God, when you worship His Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, who you will have to pass through on the way to the Father. Performing the occasional good deed is not enough to go to heaven. Being a “good person” is not enough to enter Paradise. Until then, God will do all he can to block your heart from becoming enveloped in total darkness.
How to handle misfortune and hatred from others
…when any misfortune befalls you, and you feel guilty of something, then immediately imagine the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross and cry out to Him with all your heart, ‘All-Merciful Lord, double, triple, or increase my grief tenfold, but do not allow me to perish in sin. What do all my temporary misfortunes matter, compared to eternal torments?’ Or, ‘My Lord and God! You suffered incomparable more for me than I can suffer, but You, being Most Pure, suffered completely innocently and suffered moreover without the slightly complaint or ill will, but I have merited much more misfortune, so can I grumble at my present misfortune? Have mercy on me. Teach me. Grant me zeal to correct myself, and strengthen me in this zeal. Have mercy on me and save me.’
Act [with faith], no matter whence your misfortune may come: from hostile people or from the elements, from wild animals or from livestock, and so on, because your misfortune really comes not from them, but from God. Nothing ever happens to use without God’s will or without His consent.
If in your poverty some other burdens oppress you, again do not lose your spirits, but comfort yourself with holy thoughts. For example, people hate you or despise you. Think: ‘What does it matter? My Lord and Savior was God, but they hated and despised even Him. He was not at all diminished because of this. Should I not endure hatred and scorn, when the Lord also says, ‘Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you’ (Luke 6:22). Do they oppress you and insult you? Think: ‘What does it matter? Who did they oppress and insult more than the Lord Himself?’
Every day, I receive negative comments from people on the internet. Some are particularly nasty, even attacking members of my family, but that does not even approach 0.1% of the attacks that Lord Jesus Christ received while He was on Earth. When you bring the truth to the world, when you hold up the light that Jesus Christ has given you, you are becoming Christ-like, and so you will be hated, slandered, and persecuted. If it happened to Christ, and you follow Christ, or if you merely speak the truth, which comes from Christ, the persecution will happen to you, though remember that Christ endured much worse than you.
Beware of receiving praise from others
What does praise from people matter, when we are unworthy of praise from the Lord God?
Remember well that what is worthy of praise in you is not yours, but God’s. It was, indeed, something we acquired because we tried to acquire it, but who gave us the disposition, ability, strength, desire, and opportunity to obtain it, if not God?
I don’t only receive hate—I receive many more compliments. Most are generic enough that they don’t stroke my pride, but every now and then, I receive a compliment so detailed, so targeted to my ego, that I can’t help but feel a brief moment of ecstasy. And then when I snap out of it, I force myself to reject it as a message from Satan. All credit goes to God. If you desire to compliment me, I insist you first thank God for allowing me to do what you seek to praise.
Some of the insults hurled at you are correct
When you hear that others are speaking badly of you and ascribing to you vices of various sorts, bad intentions, and so forth, then immediately subject yourself to the strictest examination to see whether the vices they ascribe to you are really there. Perhaps they say you are proud, a liar, an idler, a spendthrift, a drunkard, a sluggard, a debaucher, or whatever else. Examine yourself very closely: don’t those vices actually lurk within you, if only to a small degree?
If impartial examination of yourself shows you that others reproach you justly, that one or another vice indeed exists in you, then quickly offer repentance, fervently pray to the Lord God to deliver you from that vice, try zealously to correct yourself of it, and then everywhere show the most sincere friendly disposition and gratitude towards the one who spoke evil of you, regardless of his intentions for doing so, because without his reproach you perhaps would never have seen your vices, would have died without repentance and correction, and would have perished forever.
A while ago I got into an argument with my mother. I wrongly fed my anger and said things I shouldn’t have. One of the things she said, which I immediately ignored, was, “You don’t listen when I speak!” Several days later, I examined all the things she said about me during the argument, at the height of my anger. Was she at all correct? Yes, actually, it’s true that I don’t listen to her. When she talks, I begin to zone out, focusing only on key words so that I know when to nod in agreement or give a “Hmm” of sympathy. If I want to avoid future arguments with my mother, I must listen to her more intently, even when she talks about things I’m not interested in, like mothers are apt to do.
I take critiques of my behavior more seriously than in the past. Either the critique is true, and I’m in need of correction, or the critique is not true, and I can discard it. So why get defensive or upset about the critique? If the critique is correct then you should thank the critic, and if it’s incorrect then pray for humility that you do not get offended or feel aggrieved at a falsehood.
Thank God for any illness that befalls you
If some illness befalls you, first of all thank God for it, for the Lord God sends every illness for our salvation. Illnesses have always been of the Lord God’s most powerful motivators towards salvation. Without illness, many people would not have come to love God, would never have begun to pay less attention to the temporary, and would never have come to so highly value the eternal, as they do now.
God knows how to bring people to repentance—this is why human history is full of the same patterns and cycles of hardship and tribulation, both on the individual level and societal. I believe that illness is God’s best tool in waking someone up to the folly of their ways. In my case, it was the illness of my sister that brought me to repentance.
Take your work seriously
Whatever work you have to do in accordance with your position and profession, whether it is to hold the reins of some government organ, to judge someone, to teach someone, to write something, to engage in some kind of art or handiwork, to plow the fields, to so grain, to reap or to thresh, to mow and gather hay, and so on, do all of this, for whomever you do it, whether for yourself and your family, or as a duty to others, do all this as if for the Lord God Himself, that is, do it because the Lord God demands it from you, and because that work is God’s work—do it and say in your soul to God: ‘O Lord, You assigned me this work: I am doing it in obedience to You and to please you.’ Or: ‘O Lord, bless my labor. It was not without Your will that I found myself in the position in which I live, and the work that I do or should do is the work demanded by my position. You assigned it to me, so bless me and help me.
I’m very lucky that I can serve God directly through my writing, but even regular jobs will give you opportunities to praise God. When I worked in construction in Alabama, I would recite the Jesus Prayer while painting or sweeping the floor, knowing that I was not only working for my human boss but also for God, that how I conduct myself in work was a reflection of my faith. Even if I come upon hard times and have to labor as a dishwasher in a restaurant, I would make those dishes sparkle and present them not only before the manager of the business but also God Himself. How else could I hope to be a good servant of God if I’m not a good servant here on Earth to a mere human who has far less stringent demands of me?
Do not overeat
St. John Chrysostom gave an excellent rule for observing necessary moderation in food: ‘Eat just enough to alleviate your hunger.’ Another holy teacher said ‘You should not eat whatever you want, but eat what you have, and in a way that after eating and drinking, you still feel an urge for food.
Satiety is extremely harmful for the soul. Whoever overindulges in food or drink is incapable of spiritual exercises and can never pray nor reflect on anything divine, because excess in food draws a person into laziness, sleepiness, idleness, idle talk, ludicrous behavior, and a great multitude of impure thoughts and desires. And for inflammation of anger and love of pleasure it often plays the same role as oil poured onto fire. In general, whoever overeats does not have the true God, but his own flesh and its desires. Therefore, whoever overeats is capable of violating even the holiest obligations and is prepared to commit the most vile acts.
This is one of my current stumbling blocks. Sometimes when I start eating, I become so lost in the pleasure of tasting, chewing, and swallowing that I ignore signals from my stomach that it’s full. I keep going until it’s overloaded and soon begins the bloatedness, lethargy, and sloth, all of which make prayer excruciatingly hard. I’ve reduced my cravings for carnal pleasure in other areas of life so it will be with food that I must make a grand stand against temptation, for I understand that the idea to eat an additional bite of food beyond my body’s need comes from Satan himself.
Reflect at the end of the day
After dinner, just as in the morning after breakfast, occupy your heart with spiritual thoughts. For example, you may properly say to yourself, ‘I have gotten a whole day closer to death. What if it is the Lord God’s will to call me during the coming night before His righteous Judgment Seat? Would I pass the test? In the morning I intended to pass the whole present day in a holy way, but did I? Have I somehow angered the Lord God?
If you have trouble sleeping
‘If I had to stand before the judgment seat of God in this present night, what could I expect, I who am so unworthy in God’s eyes. Now I lie in bed and find it annoying that I have not been able to fall asleep for a long while; but how hard it will be to lie in hell if I go there because of my sins. In hell there is never any sleep, not even for a moment. There are very many entrances to hell, but there is not a single exit!’ Occupy your mind with these and similar reflections until you fall asleep.
It amazes me how, upon waking in the middle of the night, my mind wants to immediately activate as if it had never been sleeping. It wants to focus on trivial concerns and judgements, mull over plans for the next day, or dive into inappropriate fantasies. The only way I’ve found to shut the mind up at such inappropriate times is to grab my wooden cross and recite the Jesus Prayer back to sleep: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It turns out that sleep is primetime for spiritual warfare against those demons who couldn’t cause you to fall during the day.
Overall, How To Live A Holy Life is an excellent book that covers practical day-to-day matters that probably wasn’t covered in your catechumen instruction. It’s easy to teach the broad outline of the faith, scripture, prayer, and so forth, but it’s often the little things that allow us to be a Christian not only during prescribed periods of the day but throughout the whole day, just like the monastics. This is a must-read book for all those who are pursuing Orthodoxy.