Toward the end of September, it’s usually the maples that are among the first trees to change color. Airplane pilots report that from above, a forest in early fall looks like it’s wearing a green suit with a gold and red cap. As the days gradually get shorter, the sap within the trees flows more slowly from the ground up, which affects the upper branches first. The leaves at the top receive more sunlight, so they mature faster and complete their life-cycle before the leaves further down. Then winter, then spring and summer, then fall again.
Everything you and I do on this beautiful earth depends on cycles or rhythms that our creative God has embedded into it. Humans, plants, animals, water, air, soil—all these interact to make up and sustain these basic cycles of nature. The carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, the water cycle—these and other natural processes churn elements in various forms between different parts of the environment, working together to produce the air we breathe, the water we drink, the gasoline we use to power our cars. God has filled his creation with cycles, that when they work well together set the conditions on earth for life to grow.
It’s not just nature that relies on cycles. How many times have you seen or heard about successful people attributing their success to doing certain things every day? Each day they revisit their goals; each day they take a risk; each day they work a little bit on a big problem; each day they focus on the important things. By entering these cycles, these rhythms, they achieve their goals. Even the human body relies on cycles during every 24-hour period, sometimes called appropriation, which is eating and digestion; assimilation, which is absorption and use; and elimination, which is cleansing and waste. When these cycles are given the chance to work well together, they help resist disease, maintain weight, and keep a person in good working order.
Now if the Lord has embedded cycles into nature, where we deal with life, and into our work, where we deal with the mind, and into our anatomy, where we deal with the body, doesn’t it stand to reason that he has also embedded cycles into his Church, where we deal with the most important thing of all—the soul? Those cycles are revealed by a wise elder whom a worldly man went to see.
After a few pleasantries over tea, the man reached the point of his visit. “I am not at peace,” he said. “My life is busy, but my life is not meaningful. I am successful, but I am not happy.”
The elder replied, “My dear, you yearn for real spiritual life. Spiritual life is simple; not easy, but simple. If you want to be saved, live the rhythms of the Church. There is grace in them.”
“What rhythms?” the man asked.
“Only concern yourself with four,” came the reply. “The daily rhythm, the weekly rhythm, the monthly rhythm, the yearly rhythm. There is order to many things in nature. Night follows day, summer follows spring, season follows season. To live within these rhythms and not fight them is to accept reality. You see?”
“Yes,” the man said, “and what about the Church?”
“Yes, God has established rhythms in his Church, too. Live these rhythms honestly, with natural and unforced attention, and you will grow in holiness without great unnatural effort. As with the natural world, to live with these rhythms and not fight them is to accept reality. Live these rhythms, then do what you want.” The elder helped the man return home with a new way of doing life.
We will take the hand-off from that wise elder and describe these four rhythms, these four cycles, so that we may find our own way of doing life. As we walk through them, we will keep in mind that these are goals for which to strive and not rules to bring us more guilt. These are like a lighthouse in a storm, providing direction, as each of us grows in our desire for more of the fullness of Christ, these four cycles give us practical ways to acquire him.
First, the daily cycle. There is the daily rhythm of a personal prayer rule. Every follower of Jesus needs a brief, simple, doable way to dialogue with him. This is called prayer. Random thoughts of urgent need, shot like arrows, heaven-ward, throughout the day, is not the same as a prayer rule. Arrows of need are good—we may send up as many as we wish—but a prayer rule trains the will to be submissive and trains the body to be prayerful. It establishes some sacred space in the home. It makes our own the prayerful words of Scripture and the saints. Following the example of King David in his psalms, the saints invited the Holy Spirit into the painful difficulties of their lives, and then turned their experience of his comfort and his grace into written prayers. So when we pray the words of the saints, we’re accepting that same energy, that same spirit, that same humility of submitting to God. We’re following that same pattern, but making that same comfort and grace of the Spirit our very own.
This may be what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Roman Christians, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought.” So a brief, daily prayer rule will include both our own spontaneous words when speaking to Christ, but also the words of holy guides, who have a lot more experience welcoming him into the heart than we do.
Then after the daily cycle, there’s the weekly cycle, the weekly rhythm of a Christ-follower, the very Christ who offers himself every Sunday in the unspeakable wonder of his own body and his own blood in the mystery of holy Communion, the Eucharist. The weekly cycle involves more than partaking of holy Communion. It involves not merely partaking of holy Communion, but also properly preparing for it, just as Moses had to take off his sandals before approaching the burning bush, and this means gathering with our brothers and sisters as the body of Christ in the weekly services that purify and prepare us to mindfully partake of the Eucharist.
In addition to attending vespers, maybe on Wednesdays or on Saturdays, in preparation for this holy Communion, we also observe the weekly rhythm of a Wednesday fast, mindful of the betrayal of our Lord, and the Friday fast, mindful of the crucifixion of our Lord. The weekly rhythm helps us to be ever mindful of our sweet Lord.
In addition to the daily cycle of a prayer rule, the weekly cycle of preparation and participation in the body and blood of Christ, there is the monthly cycle of the sacrament of repentance, also called confession. Now, it’s important to note that the practice here is going to vary from person to person, so check with your father confessor or your spiritual father. But here’s a general rhythm: once for confession each month, and certainly no fewer than once during each of the four fasting seasons of the year, which fall roughly three months apart, so that’s confession once each quarter.
Maybe the important thing here, rather than establishing a strict rule here, is to address why regular confession. Why do we come to confession regularly? In the book of 1 Corinthians, the eleventh chapter, there is a small verse, little known among most American Christians. It’s little-known because it’s tucked within a passage where Paul is discussing holy Communion. Since regular Communion is not part of most American Christians’ regular practice, there may be little familiarity with it. The verse is this: “If we judge ourselves, we will not be judged.” Again, “If we judge ourselves, we will not be, judged.” The Scripture here is telling us that God does not judge twice, in the words of Sophrony Sakharov, of blessed memory: God does not judge twice.
Because it involves a bit of self-condemnation, the sacrament of confession is a practical way to practice this biblical principle of judging ourselves so that we might not be judged by God. If we accept this gentle rebuke of facing our sins now, we will escape great rebuke later. If we endure the temporary shame of our sins now, we will escape eternal shame later. Isn’t that magnificent? What a gift is the sacrament of confession! When we arrive at the judgment seat, God will not suddenly label us as sheep or goats. Rather, he will acknowledge what we arrive as: “Yes, you are a goat; yes, you are a sheep.” God does not judge twice.
Finally, to the daily cycle of a prayer rule, the weekly cycle of preparation and participation in the body and blood of Christ, the monthly or at the very least quarterly cycle of confession—or certainly whenever necessary—God gives us the yearly cycle: of Great and Holy Pascha, the Twelve Great Feasts in the life of Christ and his Mother, and the four fasting seasons of the liturgical year. Participate in these mindfully, the saints tell us, and we will grow with unnatural, unforced effort toward our Lord.
Do you recall the Prophet Moses? It was to Moses that God said, “These are my solemn feasts and fasts. Direct my people to keep them.” So the feasts and the fasts of the Church year are divine in origin, for the purpose of helping us not only to remember but to embrace with fresh vigor the facts of our salvation every time they come around.
These four cycles of the Church—the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms—form the pulse of our life in Christ. We do them first, and then we spend the rest of our time doing what we want and what we need. As the wise elder said, “Live these rhythms honestly with natural and unforced attention, and you will grow in holiness without great unnatural effort.” “You will grow in holiness,” he said.
A season of therapy or counseling outside the local church can be helpful. It can be beneficial, productive. But for the Orthodox Christian in particular, counseling may thus be called the fifth option, that is to say, a person should give themselves over to the grace of the Church first, as discovered in mindfully living these four cycles, and then supplement that, if need be, with therapy or counseling to work through the lingering issues of life that most of us face at one time or another.
The epistle from Galatians is helpful here, and the Gospel from John is helpful here, because they both refer to the holy cross of Christ. “Whomsoever believes in the cross of Christ, the Son of Man lifted up, will not perish, but have everlasting life.” In the Church, we’re given rhythms to help us without great effort. Not only live that belief, but also to handle out doubts. Those rhythms, they keep us from stagnating, structureless.
Every year we begin a new Church year in September. Before long it’s the maples that are often the first to change color. It’s helpful to remember these rhythms, the rhythms of the Church. They are not rules to bring more guilt, but goals for which to strive. They are the lighthouse in the storm, providing direction. As each of us grows in our desire for more of the fullness of Christ, these rhythms of the Church give us practical ways to acquire him, and that’s the life, isn’t it? That’s the privilege.