September 29, 2020

For Advent — Fr. Thomas Hopko: 55 Maxims


The Hunters in the Snow, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Father Thomas Hopko (1939–2015) was a prominent teacher, speaker, and theologian in the Orthodox Church of America. Recently, I came across his list of “55 Maxims” and found them interesting and instructive. I think simple lists like this can be useful in penitential seasons like Advent. They help me focus and reflect on my life before God. They give me simple “hooks” I can remember as I seek to love God and my neighbors.

In one of the editions of his podcast, “Speaking the Truth in Love,” Fr. Thomas explained how this list came to be.

A few years ago, I was asked: “Father Thomas, if you summarized, in the shortest form, what a practical life of a believing Christian, of a human being who believes in God and believes in Christ, what would it be like? What kind of maxims or rules would that include?”

And in response to that request, I made up a list of what I called “55 Maxims,” 55 things that a believer, very simply, would do if they were really a believer and were really obedient to God and wanted to live the way God would have us live.

Here is the list:

  1. Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.
  2. Pray as you can, not as you think you must.
  3. Have a keepable rule of prayer done by discipline.
  4. Say the Lord’s Prayer several times each day.
  5. Repeat a short prayer when your mind is not occupied.
  6. Make some prostrations when you pray.
  7. Eat good foods in moderation and fast on fasting days.
  8. Practice silence, inner and outer.
  9. Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day.
  10. Do acts of mercy in secret.
  11. Go to liturgical services regularly.
  12. Go to confession and holy communion regularly.
  13. Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings.
  14. Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly.
  15. Read the scriptures regularly.
  16. Read good books, a little at a time.
  17. Cultivate communion with the saints.
  18. Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.
  19. Be polite with everyone, first of all family members.
  20. Maintain cleanliness and order in your home.
  21. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
  22. Exercise regularly.
  23. Live a day, even a part of a day, at a time.
  24. Be totally honest, first of all with yourself.
  25. Be faithful in little things.
  26. Do your work, then forget it.
  27. Do the most difficult and painful things first.
  28. Face reality.
  29. Be grateful.
  30. Be cheerful.
  31. Be simple, hidden, quiet and small.
  32. Never bring attention to yourself.
  33. Listen when people talk to you.
  34. Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.
  35. Think and talk about things no more than necessary.
  36. Speak simply, clearly, firmly, directly.
  37. Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
  38. Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.
  39. Don’t complain, grumble, murmur or whine.
  40. Don’t seek or expect pity or praise.
  41. Don’t compare yourself with anyone.
  42. Don’t judge anyone for anything.
  43. Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
  44. Don’t defend or justify yourself.
  45. Be defined and bound by God, not people.
  46. Accept criticism gracefully and test it carefully.
  47. Give advice only when asked or when it is your duty.
  48. Do nothing for people that they can and should do for themselves.
  49. Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice.
  50. Be merciful with yourself and others.
  51. Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.
  52. Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin.
  53. Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.
  54. When you fall, get up immediately and start over.
  55. Get help when you need it, without fear or shame.

I question a few of these maxims that and I would love to ask Fr. Hopko to clarify them were he still with us.

For example, #37 — “Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.” As stated, I find this much too broad to be helpful. We have discussed many times how imagination is a key to a vibrant and fulsome faith, and as for “analysis” and “figuring things out,” well it seems to me that this is one of the great gifts our Creator has given to us, to be used wisely of course. Perhaps Fr. Thomas is warning us against those flights our minds can take which keep us from staying grounded or attentive to the life that is right before us, and if so, he has a point. But I often find that being imaginative and analytical help me do that too.

I would also be careful about #38 — “Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.” Again, this is sound advice when one knows that such things lead to temptations that distract and attack us. However, to many ears (including mine) this can sound like an old religious cliché arising from false teachings about the body and “earthly pleasures.” For those who are married, this counsel needs to be clarified. And in the context in which we live, with overly-sexualized images and messages everywhere you turn, what does “flee” mean? As the Apostle Paul reminded us, we cannot go out of the world.

But I accept them and will think of them as small points that simply require clarification.

Some of these maxim I embrace as great treasures, for example:

#18 — Be an ordinary person, one of the human race.

#34 — Be awake and attentive, fully present where you are.

#53 — Endure the trial of yourself and your faults serenely, under God’s mercy.

And, in line with our emphasis on mercy this year, #50 — “Be merciful with yourself and others.”

Much to meditate on here. Thanks to the late Fr. Hopko for providing the material for my Advent contemplation this year.

I hope it will help you too.


  1. Interesting list. Like you, I question several of them; several others I don’t agree with or don’t find applicable to my own walk and life. But many of them are kinda cool and indeed keepers, and maybe a good for my own list.

  2. No disrespect intended, CM, and this may just be my inner Gen X curmudgeon talking, but I am really suspicious of “lists for moral and spiritual improvement”. First, I had more than my share of such lists dumped on me during my non-denominational megachurch phase. Second, such lists almost invariably reflect what the listmaker’s spirituality is shaped like – which is not necessarily how another person’s is or should be. Third, as a good Lutheran, you of all people should know that lists like this are Law, not Gospel. 😉

    This is not to say that he doesn’t say some true and useful things in that list – but a subject like this should be handled on a personal, case-by-case basis rather than a laundry list of attempted universalities.

    And lastly… ““Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out”?!?

    Tell Fr. Thomas from me that he can have my D&D rulebooks when he pries them from my cold dead fingers. 😛

    • > inner Gen X curmudgeon

      My inner Gen X curmudgeon has the same reaction to the dismissal of Disciplines. Disciplines are as important, if not more so, to psychological, moral, and civic health as the equivalent is to physical health. That much of my own generation dismisses this makes it no less true.

      I have also seen laundry lists, but this one seems respectable to me. Some of them bug me, but a *key* aspect of a Maxim List is that each Maxim *must* be read not in isolation, but in the context of the List, in relation to the other Maxims.

      > ““Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out”?!?

      I agree that one is a real clinker; it is hard to think of an affirmative reading of that.

      I’d also take issue with:

      > Be always with Christ and trust God in everything.

      Too Vague, by a mile. This sounds like Spirituality [yuck!] to me; is it merely culturally required that his be #1? It provides no useful instruction. This is something church ladies and christian college freshmen repeat to each other ad nauseam.

      > Flee carnal, sexual things at their first appearance.

      Too easily goes over to Fundamentalist readings; it denies to in-carnality of our lived existence. The heart of the Maxim is good; sexuality is a dangerous force, but not an evil one. I’d prefer a different phrasing.

      Otherwise I think it is a good list; some of the them are vital to a happy existence.

      • I’m generally not fond of lists but I also know that a list like this, coming from an Orthodox teacher, comes with a context that sets it apart from mere Law or contemporary evangelical moralism. As I said in the post, I will use it as a tool for reflection, not as a ladder I must climb.

        • > I will use it as a tool for reflection, not as a ladder I must climb.


        • The list makes perfect sense from within the Orthodox tradition, even the sex and fantasy ones. I think Fr. Thomas was emphasizing the necessity of facing life as it is without excessive abstraction or escapism. Orthodox sexual ethics are easier to understand if you remember that even married couples are expected to be continent abut 40% of the year. Orthodoxy is unapologetically ascetic.

          It might be helpful if we remember that Fr. Thomas also responded to inquiries about lay sanctity (non-monastic) with a much smaller list:

          1) Go to church
          2) Say your prayers
          3) Give away at least 1/10 of your income

          • 40% of the year? FORTY PERCENT? Are you freaking kidding me? There went the last shred of a possibility that I would ever seriously consider Orthodoxy. 😛

            On the brighter side, if you’re in one of those marriages where that would represent some sort of improvement, then perhaps Orthodoxy is for you. 😀

            I’m all for facing things as they are, but that is simply very unrealistic. I’m willing to wager as many Orthodox abide this as Roman Catholics practice private confession before mass.

          • Bingo.

            It isn’t well observed. The fasts aren’t well observed either really, but they do make abstinence easier. The difference between Orthodoxy and other expressions of Christianity is as Fr. Philotheos pointed out, when you are confronted by a massive neglect of the commandments, you can either pretend you are keeping them or you can edit the list to include only the commandments that don’t pinch too closely. Our Roman brethren have been good at doing the latter, so that the ancient fasting practices have been whittled down to practically nothing. Orthodoxy changes nothing. The rules remain in place.

            Once again, you would think that the austerity of Orthodoxy would cause widespread neurosis and existential angst, but that has not been my experience.

            Oh yeah. I know we’re all boutique religionists these days, but I got into Orthodoxy because I thought it was the truth, not because I am by nature an ascetic, and it is “my cup of tea”. But you know that.

          • When religion is nothing more than letting someone else make up the rules for your life…

            I want to ask why doesn’t anyone stand up and say this is stupid and fix things, but…having lived in fundamentalism, I get why.

            I had an observation to myself the other day. His yoke is easy, his burden is light. But guess what: it’s still a yoke and it’s still a burden. There is no true freedom in Christ. It may be easier, but it’s still a yoke, and it’s still a burden.

            What is true freedom then?

          • My wife talks like you lot all the time. “religious rules”, “freedom in the Spirit”, yada yada

            If I ever become really Orthodox it’ll be because of the grace of God. Nobody seems to be interested in making it easy for me, except Father is a pretty good confessor when I bother to go.

            it just seemed to me I might be better off following some guidelines that have been road tested for at least 1700 years rather than listening to internal voices.

            I remember some Chinese proverb, maybe Chaung-Tze, who said that the sage doesn’t do what is expedient, but what is necessary. I can imagine that freedom is wanting to do the right thing with all your heart.

          • What is the right thing?

            What is truth?

            I don’t know anymore. But I know no one can tell me the answers either.

          • I think in the Western world we think freedom is freedom to do what I want. I think that is an illusion. I think that there is a strain of Christian thought that would say it is the freedom to do what is right. And I wonder if it is what Edmund Burke spoke of?

            ‘Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites,—in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity,—in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption,—in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.’

        • I see your point, and I can view the list as very helpful suggestions rather than demands. But still, I got tired just reading it. Some points did inspire me to want to try harder, but it ain’t gonna get me far. I mean, some, like 46, are really not that hard or don’t require a ton of effort. But the contradiction: #2 and 3: don’t bite off more than you can chew. Right. But this list is simply more than anyone can chew, helpful though it may be.

          Some points, like 48, though, are kind of the opposite of demands or burdens; a simple guide that actually makes things easier.

          I guess I don’t have a problem the list, it just seems a bit Zen for Christianity, and I think it would be more effective if it were shorter and more memorable/attainable. Perhaps if it were broken down and different sub-groups assigned to portions of the liturgical year, it would be something easier to get a handle on over time rather than be overwhelmed with all at once and forgotten about before it has the chance to do us any practical good.

          • Yeah, it’s long. That’s why I’ll keep it with me throughout the whole season, glance at it now and again, perhaps look at it when I pray, and just think about a few at a time, depending on what the day brings.

            This is not Jonathan Edwards 70 resolutions. Here are a few examples of those:

            Resolved, never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life.

            Resolved, to inquire every night, before I go to bed, whether I have acted in the best way I possibly could, with respect to eating and drinking.

            Resolved, never to say anything at all against anybody, but when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor, and of love to mankind, agreeable to the lowest humility, and sense of my own faults and failings, and agreeable to the golden rule; often, when I have said anything against anyone, to bring it to, and try it strictly by the test of this Resolution.

            Resolved, when I feel pain, to think of the pains of martyrdom, and of hell.

            Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.

            On the supposition, that there never was to be but one individual in the world, at any one time, who was properly a complete Christian, in all respects of a right stamp, having Christianity always shining in its true luster, and appearing excellent and lovely, from whatever part and under whatever character viewed: Resolved, to act just as I would do, if I strove with all my might to be that one, who should live in my time.

            Talking about wearing a person out!

          • Imagine if Jonathan Edwards had had access to OCD medication…

          • This is not Jonathan Edwards 70 resolutions.

            They’re less wordy, but apart from the whole Orthodox milieu (which I am not sold on) that’s the only major difference as I see it.

          • I agree with you, Eeyore. I don’t see the big difference, other than in the perceptions of people here who have been burned by evangelicalism, but not by Orthodoxy (or Catholicism, or etc.). This generates a mystique around statements and lists issued by an Orthodox leader that would be dispelled as mere fog if made by an evangelical leader.

            • Evangelicals have no ecclesial or traditional context to make lists like this other than moralism. Most of them don’t even know the difference between law and wisdom teaching.

          • I lived within Catholicism (not Orthodoxy, admittedly, but having certain close family resemblances, I think) for the first twenty years of my life, and not once in my years of religious instruction was any mention made of a difference between law and wisdom teaching. I was catechized, rather, with all the things I was supposed to believe and practice, lists upon lists of instructions and moral laws. The threatened outcome for failure to do so was not that I wouldn’t be a “good Christian”, but that I would burn in eternal hell under the weight of my own un-confessed mortal sins. I was threatened with hell for the grave sin of so ordinary an act as chewing the bread when receiving Communion; nor was my tongue to touch it: anything other than letting it slowly melt in my mouth, and swallowing it whole, was an irreverence worthy of hell, according to my teachers. This and other equally appalling things were impressed upon my mind with an evangelical zeal by my instructors; I have struggled for decades now to free myself from the long reach of their “wisdom”. I’ve only partly succeeded. I doubt that my instructors were versed in the difference between law and wisdom teaching; if they were, it did them no good.

            • I understand, Robert. But please don’t make your experience the absolute measure by which you judge Fr. Hopko’s statements. We’ve heard from plenty of others today who have heard them in a much different way.

  3. Very good list; #32 is my clunker: never bring attention to yourself. hard to do that and by a free human being at the same time, but in an age of endless “selfies”…. I do kind of get it. Very good list nonetheless

    • There are a couple of items on the list that if taken too ‘literally’ would render both professional and civic life next to impossible.

      > Never bring attention to yourself.
      > Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out.
      > Don’t try to convince anyone of anything.
      > Don’t defend or justify yourself.

      Several of those are exactly what people are paid to do [ironically a Priest engages, hopefully, in at least the first three]. On the other hand numerous items on the list facilitate professional and civic success.

      Perhaps part of meditation includes contemplating the inapplicability of something in a given context; when is something applicable or not, it is probably best to have thought about that before encountering a context – that is kind of what Discipline is about.

      • It seems to me that stating things in stark black/white, absolute terms and using exaggerated language is common in moral teaching.

        Jesus, after all, commanded us to pluck out eyes and cut off limbs.

        • “You read and interpret the Bible literally? Really? No you don’t. You’re all men, and you all have two eyes.” -Rob Bell

          • Great quote from a guy who pointed out to many that reading the Bible literally requires us to reject the concept of hell we’ve come to believe in.

            So, again, really, no you don’t, lol.

  4. things that a believer, very simply, would do if they were really a believer and were really obedient to God and wanted to live the way God would have us live.

    For me, this raised up a red flag the size of the Bayeux tapestry. These can all be useful advice in certain times and places, but as maxims?

    • I think CM’s advice is about the only thing to be done with these: Use them as a tool for reflection, not as a ladder.

      Rather reminds me of Pithless Thoughts’ comic about how to do Lent: on one side was a bottle of medicine with prescription info on it, labeled “RIGHT,” while on the other was a pair of stone tablets engraved with “Thou shalt set no meat or cheese before thee” and the like, labeled “WRONG.”

      • > Use them as a tool for reflection, not as a ladder.

        Isn’t that what a Maxim is? It is a Maxim, not an Axiom, and not a Law/Rule.

        • “rule” sometimes in religion means more like a ‘way of living’ . . . not carved in stone, but more of a friendly guide for a community of faith that enhances and encourages real community and yet is deeply respectful of the individuals therein as persons to be treated as possessing dignity before God

          • > “rule” sometimes in religion means more like

            It *should* mean that; but we have a serious cultural problem with the notion of Rules. We have a tendency to go black-and-white on things.

            Really, that is a problem with us. But careful use of language is a valid way around it.

    • I read it a little differently, turnsalso.

      As a Lutheran I am taught to be wary of any teaching that says, “Do this and live” (Law).

      I read Fr. Tom’s list as: “Here is what I imagine life looks like.”

  5. Mike,
    I’m glad you noted #37 about imagination because that was the first thing that caught my eye. I like the list. Some really sound and interesting things there.

  6. I found this statement a bit confusing. “For those who are married, this counsel needs to be clarified.” Fr. Thomas, may his memory be eternal, is survived by his wife of more than 50 years, five children, sixteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. I think too much can be read into his statements.

    Others require context. Orthodoxy is at its heart a very concrete and practical approach to faith. Don’t imagine God. Experience him. Pray the Jesus Prayer and consume his body and blood. That’s how I understand that maxim.

    Of course, as I’m sure Fr. Thomas would acknowledge, any list requires context and his maxims are rooted in an Orthodox context. I’m not sure how much meaning they retain outside that context.

    I listened to all his podcasts from the time he started doing them until the end. I wish I had had the opportunity to meet him and that’s not something I say about many people. You can’t help but get the sense that he genuinely liked people and loved interacting them.

  7. Randy Thompson says

    I am sad to hear about Fr. Hopko’s death.

    I had the privilege of knowing him in my younger days, and he made a lasting impact on me. He was one of the best speakers/lecturers/preachers I’ve ever heard. I remember him with deep fondness, even though our paths have diverged for the past decade or so. He was a wonderful, wonderful man. His whole life witnessed to the vibrancy of Orthodoxy. To meet him was to learn to take Eastern Orthodoxy very seriously indeed.

    Some of you have issues with “lists” and “rules” and the like. And, you are probably right in having such issues. I share them, to a point. But, remember, one person’s “rules” is someone else’s discipline. I don’t think much of rules, but I value godly disciplines.

    When someone is offering wisdom, who indeed is wise, take the wisdom that’s offered, even if it comes in forms that have bad memories associated with them, like “lists,” or “rules.” Don’t let the jerks who gave you bad memories still run your life. My memories of Fr. Tom are so positive, I’m happy to receive his list!

  8. Oh, thanks for sharing this. For the critics, I would just say: if a list of guidelines like this doesn’t help you (at this stage of your life) become more like Christ, then ignore it. But some of these are really good ways of putting things that I desperately need to remind myself. Especially the last 6.

    • All I’m saying is that when you’ve been handed lists as sanctification tools your whole Christian life, you start to get tired of them, even if they are less fundamentalistic.

  9. I was with him through # 2, “Pray as you can, not as you think you must.,” then lost him when he contradicted himself in # 3, 4, 5, and 6.

    Most of the others could be useful if we don’t see them as Law and become enslaved. That’s an evangelical problem too.

    • Ted,

      In the Orthodox Church, a person formulates a “prayer rule” with his/her confessor. This can consist only of numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6, and usually not much more if one is not a monastic. Those are actually doable for just about anybody. The point is not for prayer to be onerous, or be restricted to only those things. The point is to pray consistently, because that’s where we encounter God.

      Despite all my best intentions, I could never maintain a consistent daily time of prayer until I began a “rule of prayer” based on the monastic hours, with help from The Northumbria Community and P. Tickle’s “Divine Hours.” Took me about 10 minutes or so, but I was doing it 4 times a day. This was 10 years before I entered the Orthodox Church. My prayer rule since is different, but still pretty consistent. I’m also able to pray more easily spontaneously throughout the day. “Lord, have mercy” (“apply the healing of your loving, caring activity in this situation” is the sense of the Greek eleison) works really well and doesn’t require me to intellectually ascertain how to ask God to do what **I** think he ought to do…

      There is immeasurably less “law” in the Orthodox Church than I’ve ever encountered anywhere else.


      • Thanks, Dana. I’m not opposed to a structure in one’s prayer life, as long as we don’t feel bound to it as by Law. It seemed that Fr Hopko was contradicting himself.

        Matter of fact, I miss the Lord’s Prayer from my earlier days. At my present church we probably recite it fewer than once per year. It’s thought to be “vain repetition.” But I hear the phrase, “Lord weejus” a lot.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          And always ending “In Jesus’ Name”?

          It’s the prayer version of 7/11 CCM — seven lyrics repeated eleven times.

  10. I made up a list of what I called “55 Maxims,” 55 things that a believer, very simply, would do if they were really a believer and were really obedient to God and wanted to live the way God would have us live.

    Really? The obvious and unavoidable implication of Hopko’s statement is that, if you don’t follow his list, you’re really not a believer, really not obedient to God, and you don’t want to live the way God would have you live. Now, that’s incredible, and I’m incredulous. I have no problem with people making lists like this, and using them if they’re helpful for them, but that statement is way over the top, and just plain untrue.

    • Robert,

      Fr Tom was responding to a questioner who put those parameters to him.

      Again, context. It’s nearly impossible to overstate how often Orthodox Christians are admonished not to judge other people, especially their standing before God, but rather to pay attention only to one’s own life and path – and don’t judge that either, because we don’t always know the reality of our own lives, and we won’t know the whole truth of our life until we stand before the throne.

      The maxims are for each person to take and do with according to his/her own spiritual life. Orthodox priests are not to coerce people; if they are asked for a word – a bit of wisdom based on their experience with God – they will give it, and then it’s up to the person to decide what to do with it. While on a hike with another priest, my own parish priest was asked for a word – by a couple of fellow hikers they met on the trail, who were Protestants. Your mileage with individual Orthodox may vary; some do have an uncharitable attitude toward other believers, but they don’t get that from Orthodox spirituality.

      I hope that relieves your incredulity somewhat.


      • That is the spirit in which I read and presented them. Thank you.

      • Dana,
        My comment was not a criticism of Orthodox spirituality, but of Fr. Hopko’s statement. I understand that he was responding to a question that framed his response. I also understand that he may have reflexively answered within the framework of the question at the time it was asked, as we are all prone to do.

        But the quote is from a podcast that was done years later, into which he would have put more careful thought. Surely he could easily have re-framed his answer so that it didn’t play into the assumptions of the original question. That he didn’t indicates that his answer years later, after thinking it through more carefully, accepted the parameters of the question as it was originally asked, and that the implications of his statement were intended.

        Still incredulous,
        Robert F

      • Hi DANA,

        I was very moved by these words: ” . . . It’s nearly impossible to overstate how often Orthodox Christians are admonished not to judge other people, especially their standing before God, but rather to pay attention only to one’s own life and path – and don’t judge that either, because we don’t always know the reality of our own lives, and we won’t know the whole truth of our life until we stand before the throne”

        as I look at fundamentalism with its strident judgement and ease of pronouncing condemnation and doom on ‘the others’, I wonder how it is that they missed that thing about ‘grace’ that refuses to throw stones at fallen people but extends a word of mercy instead . . . how could they miss something so precious in the example of Our Lord Himself when He was among us? . . . how could they get their witness of Christ so wrong ???

        One of my favorite of Father Thomas’ rules is number 50 ‘show mercy to yourself and to others’, and your quote speaks volumes of meaning as to the reasoning behind that rule

        Chaplain MIKE wrote ‘ As a Lutheran I am taught to be wary of any teaching that says, “Do this and live” (Law).
        I read Fr. Tom’s list as: “Here is what I imagine life looks like.”

        In that light, the list become a source of hope to cling to rather than a ball and chain to drag one down to the bottom of the sea . . .

        once in a drug rehab for boys 13 to 17 where I worked as a teacher, a boy asked me ‘Mrs. Smith, why TRY’?
        and it came to me to say this: ‘well, you can ask yourself that question, but if you do, you owe it to yourself to ask the other side of that question: why not try?’ He thought about that for a moment and he said to me that I sounded like one of the counselors (for which then, I thanked the powers-that-be that inspired the response I had given him).

        sometimes ‘wisdom’ is even knowing how hard it is to expect of others that which we ourselves struggle to attain when we finally do have the courage to try . . . and having learned by trying and not succeeding perfectly, we can then examine, with greater patience, the failures of ‘the others’ to be as perfect as we had thought our own untried selves to be . . . I can see ‘the list’ as an exercise in needed humility, yes 🙂

    • As I said before, Robert, I didn’t read it that way.

    • It’s easy to imagine the reaction that would occur on this blog if this statement was made by an evangelical leader as an introduction to a similar list that he had assembled, even if he was one of those evangelical leaders that the many frequenters of iMonk hold in high esteem.

      • That is a good list even if Tony Jones, Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Doug Wilson were the source. To be honest, I can imagine any one of them creating this list. People are surprising and have hidden depths that they seldom show.

        • If you read my comment again, you should see that I’m not talking about the list; I’m talking about the statement that prefaces it.

      • In an early comment today I mentioned that this list should be understood in the context of Orthodox spirituality, which allows us to read it differently either than as Lutheran Law or evangelical moralism. Several comments from our Orthodox friends today have fleshed that out rather well, I think.

        • I’m afraid that I’m not starry eyed for either Orthodoxy or Catholicism. There are noises made from within both camps that are no different from evangelicalism, and the statement made by Fr. Hopko prefacing this list is one of them; the mystique of having it said by an Orthodox priest instead of an evangelical pastor makes no real difference.

  11. While there are a small number of these that are particular to followers of Jesus as Messiah, most of them would be good advice for believers in other faiths, perhaps with slight modification, and even for non-religious of good will. Speaking only for myself, I find #1 to cover all the rest of them. “Be always with Christ” could be interpreted in many ways, and is, but for me it echoes Paul’s admonition to pray without ceasing, and the Lord’s prayer in his final night that we might be One with him and the Father.

    To be always with Christ is not something you check off and move on to the next step. It is, in my view, the whole deal, the point to why we are here, the basis and end point of Christian religion, and other religions as well taken to their ultimate, whether recognizing Jesus as Messiah or not. However this turns out in reality, I figure a good guess is that I have something like 16 years to get my act together. To be more accurate, to get my life together as best able in whatever time I have left on Earth.

    To be always with Christ. I’m giving this my best shot, but my best shot ain’t always so good, and I don’t really have a lot left over to worry about the other 54 maxims. Number 8, “Practice silence, inner and outer” is part of this, as is number 9, “Sit in silence 20 to 30 minutes each day”, and for me are pretty much redundant. I realize most people do not have this understanding.

    Mule’s observation that this list is more intended for folks committed and dedicated at a monastic level, if not formally so, is helpful. His observation that the same list for ordinary folk consists of 1) Go to church 2) Say your prayers 3) Give away at least 1/10 of your income seems to me a better list than that provided by the Jerusalem church way back when, don’t eat idol meat, don’t eat blood, don’t dabble with sex, et cetera, My observation of the church I am currently attending is that even Mule’s bottom line is too much to expect. Lord have mercy.

    • Well said, Charlie. I think Fr Tom would agree with you, actually. Take care, dear-to-Christ.


  12. Here is Fr. Hopko’s expansion on the Maxims. Here also is the link–there is a talk and a transcript of the talk:

    A few years ago, I was asked: “Father Thomas, if you summarized, in the shortest form, what a practical life of a believing Christian, of a human being who believes in God and believes in Christ, what would it be like? What kind of maxims or rules would that include?”

    And in response to that request, I made up a list of what I called “55 Maxims,” 55 things that a believer, very simply, would do if they were really a believer and were really obedient to God and wanted to live the way God would have us live. And I will just now, read these maxims to you.
    1.Be always with Christ. Trust God in everything. Never forget God.
    2.Pray as you can, not as you think you must. Pray as God inspires you to pray, not as you want to, but as God gives. And for a Christian, that would mean in one’s heart, in one’s room, and in one’s Church.
    3.Have a keepable rule of prayer that you do by discipline. You can’t just pray when you feel like it. You have to pray by discipline, the times of day where you would remember God and say your prayers.
    4.Say the Lord’s Prayer several times a day—just as one is getting into one’s car or walking into one’s office or into one’s classroom or before eating a meal, when waking in the morning, when going to sleep at night. Just say the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the prayer that the Lord gave, a short prayer, but it contains everything that a human being needs to pray if Christ is crucified, raised, and glorified.
    5.Have a short prayer that you constantly repeat when your mind is not occupied with other things. This short prayer could simply be “Lord have mercy” or “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” The person just might say “Jesus.” A person might say “God,” but just some short prayer that fills the mind when the mind is not working in order to have the remembrance of God in one’s life, in one’s heart.
    6.We, Orthodox, would say make some prostrations when you pray. Kneel down. Bend over. Bow down. Use your body. As St. Ephraim, “If your body is not praying when you’re praying, you’re not really praying.” Prayer is not just an activity of the mind and heart. It’s an activity of the whole person.
    7.Eat good foods in moderation. Fast on fasting days, and of course during Lent that’s an entire fast. But eating good foods, not the kind of foods that could harm you and eating in moderation and when fasting, fasting in secret.
    8.Practice silence, inner and outer. Just sit for a few minutes everyday in total silence. Turn off all the appliances. Open one’s self to God. Don’t think about anything. Watch the thoughts that come, and turn them over to God.
    9.Do acts of mercy in secret. Just do some good things that no one knows about.
    11.Go to liturgical services regularly. Go to Church. Stand there. Listen. Pray. Don’t pay attention to the people—oh yes, be attentive to their presence. But be there for the sake of the service itself.
    12.Go to Confession and Holy Communion regularly. Participate in the Church’s sacramental life.
    13.Do not engage intrusive thoughts and feelings. When feelings come upon you, when thoughts come upon you, don’t engage them. If you accept them, they’ve got you, and you will sin. So you’ve got to cut them off, right at the very start.
    14.Reveal all your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person regularly. Normally, that would be one’s pastor, or one’s Spiritual Father or Mother, one’s elder. But every human being, every Christian, must have someone who knows everything about them. And that we regularly report to them about what is going on in our life.
    15.Read the Scriptures regularly—not reading them to fight with others, not reading them to show off quoting, but reading them as fuel, as food. Because if we don’t read the Scriptures regularly, we die. It would be like trying to live without eating or to drive a car without putting fuel into it.
    16.Read good books, a little at a time. Don’t gobble them up. Don’t read through it to say “I’ve read it.” Slowly read books. Sometimes, read the same book two or three times over again—trying to put into practice what it says.
    17.Cultivate communion with the Saints. Learn who the holy people were in Christian history. Learn who they were who taught, who suffered, who died, who lived a Christian life. And emulate them. As St. John of the Ladder said: “Anyone who does not emulate the Saints is a fool, but also a fool would be someone who tried to imitate another person in the details of his or her life.” You can’t do that, but we must learn from the holy people.
    18.Be an ordinary person. Be one of the human race. Don’t ever say: “I thank you God, I’m not like other people. Try to be like others as much as you can. Be ordinary. As the Russian writer Chekov said: “Everything outside the ordinary is from the Devil.”
    19.Be polite with everyone—first of all, the members of your own family. Sometimes we feel, we could be rude with our own family members but nice to people outside. No, we must begin with kindness to those closest to us first.
    20.Maintain cleanliness and order in your home. God doesn’t live in clutter or in filth and dirt. Yes, we don’t have to be fanatics about having everything prissy clean, but we have to have a Sophianic order, at least in some parts of our house where we live and eat and where we pray especially.
    21.Have a healthy, wholesome hobby. Have something where you exercise your brain just for the pure joy of it.
    22.Exercise regularly—got to move around.
    23.Live a day, and even a part of a day, at a time. Don’t be in the past, and don’t be in tomorrow. St. Benedict said: “Do what you’re doing. Be present where you are.” What does God want me to do, right now—not later tonight, not tomorrow morning, not yesterday, but right now?
    24.Be totally honest—first of all, with yourself. The greatest sin is the lie, and the greatest lie is the lie about God, and the lie about me and God. Be totally honest.
    25.Be faithful in little things. Jesus said it. “He who is faithful in little, inherits much and is put over much. And those that are not faithful in little, lose the little they have.” In St. Luke’s Gospel, the Lord even said: “lose the little, they think that they have.” Fidelity in small, ordinary things.
    26.Do your work, and then forget it. Don’t carry it around with you. Be totally attentive to what you’re doing, but don’t carry it in your mind. Have your mind focused on what you’re doing at the present moment.
    27.Do the most difficult and painful things first. We tend to do the easy things, the things we like, and put off the things we don’t. We should try to reverse that and do the most difficult and boring things first.
    28.Face reality. Don’t live in fantasy. There’s a Russian saying: “God is everywhere except in imagination and fantasy.” Face the realities of your life.
    29.Be grateful. Be grateful in all things.
    30.Be cheerful. Act cheerful, even if you don’t feel like it, especially in the presence of others.
    31.Be simple, hidden, quiet, and small. The Holy Fathers say: “If you want to be known by God, seek not to be known by people.” And again, it’s simplicity, hiddenness, quiet, smallness.
    32.Never bring attention to yourself. Never, consciously, bring attention to yourself. Wherever you are, do what the other people do. That’s especially important in Church. When you go to Church, do what the people there are doing. It’s what St. Ambrose told to St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, when she asked: “What should I do when I go to Rome?” He said: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Fast as the Romans fast. Stand as the Romans stand. Sing as the Romans sing.
    33.Listen when people talk to you. To be attentive to others is one of the greatest gifts. Keep your mind awake and pay attention when people speak to you.
    34.Be awake, and be attentive. Be fully present where you are—wakefulness, watchfulness, attentiveness.
    35.Think and talk about things no more than necessary. We should speak only when it’s necessary to speak. In fact the Scripture says: “We should speak only when spoken to.” The Fathers say: “We often repent of idle talk but very seldom have to repent of maintaining silence. Sometimes we do, because we have to speak. But we should talk and think about things no more than absolutely necessary.
    36.When we speak, speak simply, clearly, firmly, and directly—nothing superfluous, not putting on airs. Again, simplicity is the rule.
    37.Flee imagination, fantasy, analysis, figuring things out. Once and for all, we have to stop trying to figure things out. God can illumine our mind and give us insight into the nature of things, but we can’t figure it out. We don’t have the equipment to do it, and we should stop trying.
    38.Flee carnal, sexual, things at their first appearance. You can’t dialogue with lust and pornea and immorality of the flesh. It always wins. It always has the arguments on its side. Flee it at its first appearance.
    39.Don’t complain, grumble, murmur, or whine. Complaining, thinking, looking at the faults of others, we work during Lent and all our life to stop doing that. We pay attention to ourselves.
    40.Don’t compare yourself with anyone. The Last Judgment is not on a curve. God doesn’t compare us one to another. Each one of us stands according to who we are, what we have received, what we have been given, and what our vocation is.
    41.Don’t seek or expect praise from anyone or pity from anyone. I and my friend Paul Lazar used to call it the “PP.” No praise. No pity. We always want to have people to think: “Oh, how wonderful you are” or to say “Oh my, how hard you work or how much you suffer.” We seek to flee the pity and flee the praise of others.
    42.We don’t judge anyone for anything—no matter what. This doesn’t mean we just say “Everyone’s fine and good.” That’s not true. But we don’t condemn them. We don’t get in to what makes them tick. We don’t tell them always what to do. What they do, we do. And we show people what we believe by what we do. But we don’t judge anyone for anything, and if we do, then the Lord judges us the same way.
    43.Don’t try to convince anyone of anything. Once and for all, we have to stop trying to teach other people. I’m not trying to teach you now, I hope. I’m just trying to tell you what I think is true. Then you can do with it, what you want. But it can’t be my desire to convince you and to win in an argument. I can only, to use a Scriptural word, “bear witness” or “make testimony.” But I can’t have as my goal to convert the other. And that’s even true with evangelization. We’re not out there to convert people. We’re out there to bring them the joy of the victory of God in Christ. What they do with it is between them and God.
    44.Don’t defend or justify yourself. The Saints say: “Those who try to justify themselves commit suicide.” We don’t need to justify ourselves. God will vindicate us. We don’t need to defend ourselves. God is our defender.
    45.Be defined and bound by God alone and not by people. We don’t let anyone define our life. God defines our life. And even the closest people to us should not be defining our life—our parents, our spouses. No, only God is defining who we are, and we’re only bound to his definition.
    46.Accept criticism gratefully, but test it carefully. We are not obliged to put into practice every criticism that’s given to us. Sometimes the criticism is false. But we certainly must welcome it, be grateful for it, test it. And St. John Chrysostom said, even when we’re accused of something, even if we think it’s not true, we should accept the criticism as true and put it into practice then we’ll never go wrong. Because if our accuser is right, we have repented, and we have pleased them. If they’re not right, we put them to shame.
    47.Give advice to others only when asked to do so or when it is your duty to do so. This is very important. You don’t go around giving free advice or counsel. If people ask us, we tell them. I was asked, “Father Tom, say some things on Ancient Faith Radio. I say: “Okay, cause you asked me.” So when we’re asked, we can answer. If it’s our duty, if it’s our job—like a parent or a pastor or a supervisor in operation or a teacher—then we must do it. That’s our work. But we never give counsel or advice, unless we’re asked or unless it’s our duty to do so.
    48.Do nothing for anyone that they can and should do for themselves. It is not charitable to do things for others that they should be doing for themselves. We rob them of their life when we do that. So we should help people to do what they have to do themselves and not do it for them. Now there’s plenty of people who can’t do for themselves what they need to do. Then, we help them. But we should never be helping people to do things that they should be doing for themselves.
    49.Have a daily schedule of activities, avoiding whim and caprice. Again, the Holy Fathers teach us that idiorhythmia, capriciousness, whimsicalness is the cause of all of our downfall. We have to be disciplined. We have to have a rule for ourselves, and try and follow it. Of course, the rule is not some kind of iron law. In a sense it’s made to be modified or broken, but we have to have it. Each night when we go to sleep, we should tell ourselves what the next day should look like, and then try to keep that rule. Things will happen, but we should try to keep the rule.
    50.Be merciful with yourself and with others. Of course, we’re to be merciful to others, but we must be merciful to ourselves too. We cannot judge ourselves more harshly than God does, and the worst sin is despair. So we should be living by the mercy of God all the time—taking responsibility for our life, but not berating ourselves or beating ourselves up. God does not want that. There is no merit in that. Repentance is what God wants, not remorse or some type of self-flagellation.
    51.Have no expectations, except to be fiercely tempted to your very last breath. St. Anthony said it. He said: “A truly wise person knows the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, true and false and clings fiercely to what is good, true, and beautiful, but fully expects to be tested, to be tried, and to be tempted til his very last breath.” He said that without being tempted, no one can enter God’s Kingdom—without temptation, no salvation. The whole life of a man on Earth is a trial, according to Scripture. Job said it. So we are being tried every moment, we should expect it. We should never expect the trial to go away. We don’t ask God to take our crosses away. We ask for the power to carry them. God doesn’t tempt anybody. But in the providence of God, we are tested all the time so that our salvation can be ours, and that we could be victorious by the victory of Christ.
    52.Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.
    53.Endure the trial of yourself and your own faults and sins peacefully, serenely, under the mercy of God. This is very important. St. Seraphim of Sarov said: “To have the Holy Spirit is to see your own wretchedness peacefully, because you know that God’s mercy is greater than your wretchedness.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a Roman Catholic saint who died at 24, she wrote to a friend: “If you are willing to bear the trial of your own wretchedness, serenely, then you will surely be the sweetest dwelling place of Jesus.” We have to bear our own faults, serenely. St. Paul said: “Where sin has abounded, grace has superabounded.” And we cannot let the devil rejoice two times. Pythagoras said: “When we fall, the devils rejoice. When we stay down, the devils keep rejoicing.” And nothing puts the devils more to shame than having fallen, we stand up again. So we must bear peacefully, calmly, our own weaknesses, our own failings. Expect them. Don’t make them happen, but expect them. We are not God.
    54.When we fall, get up immediately and start over. As often as we fall, we stand up again. And we will fall. It says in Scripture that the wise person, the wise man, falls seven times a day, that means a lot, but he gets up again. The fool does not get up again, and the fool doesn’t even know that he has fallen. The wise person knows when he falls, but he gets up again. In fact, the tradition says: “It belongs only to God, never to fall.” It belongs to demons to fall and not get up again, but it belongs to human beings, certainly to Christians, to fall and to get up again, to fall and to get up again. One Desert Father even described human life, according to Christian faith, in that way. When he was asked by a pagan, what does it mean to be a Christian, he said: “A Christian is a person who falls down and gets up again, who falls down and gets up again, who falls down, is lifted up again by the grace of God to start over.” And you can start over every moment anew.
    55.And finally, get help when you need it, without fear and without shame. We all need help. A Russian saying is: “The only thing you can do alone, by yourself is perish,” is go to Hell. If we are saved, we’re saved with others. So we must have counsel. We must have friends. We must be with others. And sometimes, we need specific help, like if we’re caught on drugs or alcohol or sex. Then, we have to go and get that specific help, like we would go to a doctor when we are sick. Sometimes, we don’t know what to do, so we need help. We have to go to an elder person, a more experienced person to give us guidance. But we should never, ever, be ashamed or afraid of getting help. It’s just a normal part of the human race. In the Lenten Season, as a little a mini-life, it’s a time when we take advantage of all the help we can get. We take the help of the Scripture writers. We take the help of the Saints. We take the help of the services. We take the help that God provides in all the various ways that he provides it—for the sake of our life, our healing, and our salvation. So the last maxim, 55, get help when you need it without fear and shame. Be a human being. Be a Christian.