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Counsel for Daily Training in the Virtues at Home

June 16, 2012

As teachers of the Christian faith and way of life, the fathers were well aware of basic pedagogical principles such as the necessity to practice learned material consistently in order to apply it in real-life situations.  Christian virtue, like every other art, requires daily practice and the support of others. The faithful are encouraged to study throughout the day whatever they gather from the texts of the liturgical services, from sermons given by priests, or from the advice of spiritual fathers in confession. According to Saint John Chrysostom, it is fitting for the faithful to form study groups at home and
review whatever they have gleaned in church before turning to the other tasks of day-to-day living.  The saint also advises the faithful to be creative in their effort to become proficient in virtue. For example, when he encouraged his flock to refrain from saying anything derogatory about anyone else, he suggested that they work at home as a family unit both exhorting and correcting one another as well as devising ways to make this God-pleasing practice permanent. In general, he saw the home as “a training ground for virtue” [palaistra aretēs] where believers could experientially acquire the knowledge necessary for virtuous behavior in the marketplace of daily life.

Orthodox monasticism likewise emphasizes the importance of spiritual training that takes place outside the explicit contexts of private and corporate prayer. The ascetics repeatedly urge monks and nuns to practice cutting off their will [ekkopē thelēmatos] daily in order to grow in virtue, to become humble, and to acquire compunction.  Merely saying no to inquisitive thoughts about trivial matters cultivates a detachment from insignificant earthly concerns. Although it may not seem like a great accomplishment if a nun wonders what is for dinner, but refrains from asking the cook, over time this practice applied in a variety of situations establishes a proper hierarchy of values in her soul, shifting fundamental beliefs about her self and her world from the ephemeral to the eternal. Another example of patristic advice on planting precepts on virtue along the rolling hills of daily life is the practice of rehearsing in the mind how one would like to act in a troubling situation. For the fathers, this practice is scripturally rooted in psalm 118:60 (LXX): “I prepared myself and was not disturbed in keeping thy commandments,” which they paraphrase as “I reviewed in advance how I would handle a chance encounter by considering my resources, and I was not disturbed by tribulations for Christ’s sake.”

According to the ancient ascetics, this previous preparation enabled the three holy youths to enter the Babylonian furnace and hosts of martyrs to face martyrdom without being flustered. By anticipating and considering in advance what may take place, believers in the face of trials can likewise trim down excessive emotional reactions of fear or anger. For example, Saint John Cassian suggests that those who find themselves becoming impatient or angry should practice imagining that they are hindered, wronged or injured, but respond as the saints would—with perfect humility and gentleness of heart.  Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite likewise recommends that believers prepare themselves before going somewhere or coming into contact with irritating and exasperating people by imagining that others curse them and dishonor them, but that they weather it all with thanksgiving and peace of mind. Saint Theophan the Recluse expands this method to include all the conceivable encounters and imaginable feelings, desires, and reactions that a person might experience. He suggests reflecting on potential attacks at the beginning of the day and mentally planning how to react in a way that is in keeping with the commandments of Christ. This patristic practice also has classical antecedents. In the Christian redaction of Epictetus’s Encheiridion, those who desire to become virtuous are advised to consider in advance the potential difficulties and obstacles that they might come across in any endeavor.

They also prepare themselves mentally for the irritating or demeaning actions of others, so that they can remain calm and composed when encountered in real life. As an aid, they imagine how someone virtuous would behave in a similar situation. Given the Stoic pedigree for this practice, it predictably occupies a niche in cognitive therapy under the rubric of mental imagery techniques with the designation—cognitive rehearsal. In treating depression, it is used to help patients to identify potential obstacles that would prevent the completion of a therapy assignment. In treatment for anxiety, patients are instructed to imagine in advance what they would do in order to respond calmly in a particular stressful situation that they dread facing. Struggling daily to attain virtue, conversing with others about living in a God-pleasing way, cutting off the will, and mentally rehearsing Christian responses to difficult situations are simple practices, like mulching newly hoed soil. Nevertheless, they can gradually uproot core beliefs and perspectives that incite sinful thoughts, “for virtue, when habitual, kills the passions,” which is a theological way of saying that persistent, adaptive behavior dismantles maladaptive schemata. Most importantly, these exercises for righteousness’ sake help the believer to keep the commandments of Christ, the heavenly Husbandman who further illumines the meadow of the heart with the sunshine of divine grace.

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