In his wonderful "Summa" of the spiritual life, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, St. Theophan the Recluse describes for us the attitude that we ought to have in approaching the spiritual life and the life of prayer. Amidst the "rules" given to us either by the Church or by our spiritual director; amidst our daily routine of prayer, spiritual reading, and ascetic labors; amidst our weekly routine of participation in the liturgical life and cycle of the Church, we are to maintain the attitude of a beginner. Here is what St. Theophan has to say:
"The beginner thus with fervent and speedy zeal puts everything he has into the most resolute ascetic labors, nevertheless awaiting strength and help from God and giving himself to Him, hoping for success but not seeing it. Therefore he is in a state of perpetual beginning, under the direction of a father, bounded by rules, and holding to the most humble part." (Path to Salvation pg. 217)
We see here a few characteristics that can be summed up with one word: humility. We see that the beginner throws himself into the spiritual life with a freshness and a zeal that is not always found among those who have been struggling in the spiritual life for some years. The beginner has a sense of urgency in the spiritual life. He sees that he has wasted a great deal of his life in vain pursuit. Almost in an effort to compensate for the wasted time he rushes headlong "with fervent and speedy zeal" into the work of the spiritual life. But while doing this he does not rely on his own strength. The beginner knows from past experience that he is weak and very susceptible to fall. He knows that he does not possess the requisite strength to succeed in the spiritual life. So what does he do? He awaits "strength and help from God... giving himself to Him." The beginner hopes fervently for success in the spiritual life, but does not see it - at least not in this life. He is so focused on the love of God for us that he only sees his distance from God and how much further he has to go. At the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi - often considered one of the most Christ-like of all the saints of the West - is reported to have said, "Let us begin, for up until now we have done nothing." This coming from a saint who brought thousands to Christ in his own lifetime, and who inspired future generations up until our own age to come to a love for Christ and His Church. St. Francis is one of those men who truly gave up everything out of love for Christ, even sacrificing his own self-will and self-seeking pleasure to serve the less fortunate (anyone who knows of St. Francis' aversions to lepers knows what he did, in an act of total self-defiance, to bring the love of Christ to lepers).
There is also the story of, I believe, St. Arsenius the Great. On his deathbed he was seen to be mumbling in prayer. "What are you saying," the brothers asked. "I am asking for more time," the saint replied. "More time for what?" "More time to repent," said Arsenius. "Oh, you don't need to repent," said the brothers, "Everyone knows that you are already holy and perfect." "Truly," replied Arsenius, "I don't know that I've even begun to repent."
We see such an attitude also in the great mystics of the Carmelite tradition, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Both of these great saints, while describing the various stages or ages of the spiritual life, spoke of how we ought not to gauge our progress in the spiritual life, because such an exercise inevitably leads to the greatest fall of all, pride. Instead we ought to act as humble beginners, with our eyes constantly focused on the love and mercy of Christ. This is especially seen in the writings of St. John of the Cross, particularly in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. St. Teresa, on the other hand, adds an additional emphasis; the need of a spiritual director.
This leads us to the second attitude of the beginner. The beginner in the spiritual life does not trust himself. He does not even trust his interpretations of the spiritual books he reads, but rather submits everything to a spiritual father or mother, or at the very least to a spiritual friend who can help him make the arduous journey through the spiritual life. Anyone familiar with the traditions of the Christian East knows of the very strong emphasis Eastern Christians place on the role of the spiritual director (father or mother). The director needs to be someone who has experience in the spiritual life so that they can guide us through the dense forest and fog that sin has created within us. The spiritual guide need not be a priest, monk, or nun, but simply a holy person to whom God has given the gift of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood (not every holy person, after all, has been given this gift - but that doesn't make them any less holy). A spiritual guide is not there simply to impose rules of prayer, fasting, reading, and ascetic labors on us. Any such thing that a guide imposes is for the benefit of the individual seeking spiritual growth. It is a medicine meant to cure the passions that have, to this point, controlled us. A spiritual guide is meant to lead us to the freedom of the Spirit. The beginner, therefore, recognizing his inclination towards sin, submits his will to his spiritual director in an effort to overcome self-indulgence and self-will.
This leads us to the third attitude of the beginner: submission. Recognizing his need for guidance and healing, the beginner humbly submits and is obedient to the rules imposed on him by his director. Again, these rules aren't meant to bind the beginner, but to heal him from self-will. There is a problem here, however. Many spiritual directors today are hesitant to offer any rule to their directees. Folks come to these directors for advice and guidance, but get the impression that their director is acting more as a sounding board for their spiritual struggles rather than as a guide to bring them through to freedom. I know I've encountered that from time to time in my journey. But here is the way I see it. We are so far removed from holiness and from the "age of the saints" that we need to be even more basic in our search for spiritual healing. The guides that we seek out often cannot help us because they are often not much further along the inner path than we are. They may be able to help us to a point, but only to a point. So what do we do? We must look to the Church. If you are familiar with the liturgical practice of your particular Church, then you have all the rules you need to at least make a good humble beginning in the ascetic life. Every Church has rules for fasting, including when to fast, what to fast from, and a description of the purpose of fasting itself. Every Church also has a cycle of reading found in the Lectionary as well as in the Divine Office. "Oh, but that's just Scripture. what about the spiritual writings of the great mystics?" If you're not reading the Scriptures, then the writings of the great mystics and theologians of the Church aren't going to do you much good. Remember that the Scriptures are the Word of God in human words. The writings of the mystics, on the other hand, are just that: writings of holy people, but not the Word of God. We should at the very least be reading a little Scripture every day.
The final attitude that the beginner possesses, according to St. Theophan, is that of "holding to the most humble part." We need not look for great ascetical feats to accomplish. We needn't kneel on a rock for a year straight like St. Seraphim. We needn't live on top of a pillar and have our food sent up to us in a basket. We needn't live on bread and water for the rest of our lives. We are beginners. We should choose the humble part. We need to learn to show our love for God in the little things of life. St. Therese of Lisieux - another great Carmelite mystic - expressed this in her doctrine of the "Little Way." Throughout our day-to-day lives we do little things that express our love for God and neighbor. Maybe we forgo dessert at dinner time. Maybe we help out a co-worker that we find particularly annoying. Maybe we take out the garbage without being asked by our parents or spouse to do so. Maybe we pack up the family and go to the park despite the fact that we're exhausted from a long day of work and would rather sit at home and relax a bit. It doesn't matter. What matters is that we do these simple things, the little acts of self-denial, with great love.
If we would keep our zeal in the spiritual life blazing, then we must maintain the attitude of a beginner. We must maintain that sense of newness and wonder that you find in any two or three year old child. The spiritual world is always fresh and new, it is we who allow ourselves to grow old and tired. May the wind of the Spirit always blow over us, refresh us, and make all things new in us. And may heaven consume us.