An Introduction to Orthodox Spirituality
George C. Papademetriou
The sources of Orthodox spirituality are the Holy Scriptures, sacred Tradition, the dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Synods, and the spiritual teachings of the Greek Orthodox Fathers. Orthodox spirituality is mainly expressed through prayer, daily Christian living, and worship, which ultimately lead to union with the divine uncreated Light.
Man and His Purpose as Creature of God
Before we enter into a discussion of the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, let us see what is man's purpose as a creature of God. Man is created in the image and likeness of God. The human destiny is not to achieve mystical union with the essence of God, but rather to attain moral and spiritual perfection by participation in the divine uncreated energies. Man, according to the Orthodox Fathers, was not created perfect from the beginning. Rather he was created with the potential to achieve perfection through grace. This, of course, was not realized because of the fall. In the fullness of time, God sent our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to become man, and through his suffering and resurrection from the dead, restored man to his original state of grace and enabled him to attain perfection. Christ says: "Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect." The ultimate purpose of man, therefore, is to become perfect in God, through love. That is, to attain perfect, selfless love of God and one's fellow human beings.
The Christian Commitment
The life of moral perfection, according to our Bible and the Fathers of the Church, is a call to a life in Christ, that is, a Christ-like life. Consequently, the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian is portrayed as a life in Christ, a life of commitment to the Lord, and a complete submission to his will. One lives only to do everything for Christ's sake, as Christ wants it and as Christ would do it.
The Christian commitment to Christ must be made by an inner, free act and is not compelled by any external force, not even by God. "Man is free and able to enter into relations with both kingdoms - the kingdoms of light and that of darkness." These kingdoms, the spiritual and the satanic, are hidden, not in the mind, but much deeper in the soul - "under the mind, beneath the surface of the thoughts," as Saint Makarios asserts. This fourth-century saint already had the notion of "heart," which is strikingly close to the modern psychological concept of the subconscious.
Moral Perfection Is Life in Christ
Orthodox spirituality is described throughout the centuries as life in Christ, striving for moral and spiritual perfection. The mystical union in Orthodox spirituality is not the "devout life" that some sects claim but the communion of the person with God. In sectarian teachings, the "devout life" is a sentimental and emotional relation to "divinity." The Orthodox Church rejects this concept in favor of one, which envisions the meeting of man with the divine Person in a mystical way. Orthodox spirituality is union with Christ, with God. A spiritual person is one who purifies himself of all worldly and moral defects in order to be united with the love of Christ. The mystical experience takes place in this world, yet the cause, God, is from beyond the material world. Orthodox spirituality, as well as the whole thought of the Church, is based on the revelation found in the Old and New Testaments. Studying the Patristic interpretation of the Christian truths can see this. In the mystical vision of the divine energies of the advanced Christian, he experiences the divine presence within himself, as vision of the uncreated light and of the energies of God. It is especially through the sacrament of the holy Eucharist that we experience mystical union with our Lord.
Philosophy and Divine Knowledge
The important Orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, that is, the divine Logos who became flesh, rendered philosophy and metaphysics irrelevant to our deeper knowledge of the divine truth. Christianity offers access to divine grace for the salvation of mankind through the resurrection of Christ. We cannot speculate about the Logos after the coming of Christ, who is the divine Logos in the flesh, and who sent the Holy Spirit to the world and "teaches us all things." The mystical experience spoken of by the classical Greeks is abstract and conceptual. That is, in ancient Greek philosophic contemplation, the soul or spirit goes outside the body to be liberated. Philosophy plays only a linguistic role in Orthodoxy, lending the use of its terminology after the terms have been transformed and purified of their secular meanings, "Christianized" philosophy and culture, as Father Georges Florovsky used to say. A master of spirituality, a monk of Mount Athos, describes this point in the following manner: "Many of the Greeks tried to philosophize, but only the monks found and learned the true philosophy." The Logos became flesh and revealed to humanity the divine revelation. He is the Truth and through him we can attain knowledge of the divine will. The metaphysical patterns of the philosophic speculation of the Christian revelation distort the divine mission of the incarnate Logos.
Three Ways Upwards
The Fathers of our holy Church suggest three ways to make progress in the spiritual life and attain spiritual perfection:
- The way of catharsis or purification
- The way of illumination, and
- The way of perfection by total union with God.
These ways can bring the Christian who cooperates with divine grace to perfection. Synergy of the individual effort with the help of the grace of God brings us to our ultimate destiny of perfection. Our Lord's death and resurrection achieve for us our end in attaining the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.
The Philokalia speaks of "the increasing knowledge of God decreases knowledge of all else. In other words, the more a man knows God; he knows less of other matters. Not only this, but he begins to realize more and more clearly that neither does he know God." This point is of fundamental importance to Orthodoxy that declares the total mystery and unknowability of the divine essence.
The purpose of man is to achieve moral perfection through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In the teachings of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the Holy Spirit leads the individual through the steps outlined above in order to attain union with the Spirit of Truth.
Monasteries Are Spiritual Centers of Orthodox Spirituality
The spirituality of the Orthodox Church is best exemplified in its spiritual centers, the monasteries. The monk is a "martyr" or "witness" to Christ, the Son of the living God. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is an excellent example of this spiritual model in the person of Father Zossima. This monastic model eloquently portrays the spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Dostoyevsky distinguishes between worldly freedom and the spiritual person. He says that the worldly or secular people "maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air." But in reality the opposite is true, as is evident in international conflicts and wars. This famous Orthodox novelist expressed eloquently the Orthodox view that in spiritual subjugation, that is, in absolute obedience to Christ, one finds limitless freedom. This is especially exemplified in monasteries where spirituality is nurtured.
The Divine Energies
One of the most important aspects of Orthodox spirituality is participation in the divine energies. Briefly stated, this is an Orthodox doctrine of fundamental importance and very often ignored. In Orthodox theology, a distinction is made between the "essence" and "energies" of God. Those who attain perfection do so by uniting with the divine uncreated energies, and not with the divine essence. The Greek Orthodox Fathers, whenever they speak of God, emphasize the unknowability of God's essence and stress the vision of the divine energies, especially the divine uncreated Light. Orthodox spiritual tradition emphasizes the divine Logos indwelling in the world and our ability to attain a spiritual life and mystical union with the Holy Spirit in this world.
Christian contemplation is not "ecstatic," that is, outside ourselves, but it takes place within the Christian person who is the "temple of the Holy Spirit." The divine energies are "within everything and outside everything." All creation is the manifestation of God's energies. Vladimir Lossky says in the Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church: "These divine rays penetrate the whole created universe and are the cause of its existence." The uncreated Light and the knowledge of God in Orthodox tradition "illuminates every man that cometh into this world." It is the same light that the apostles saw on Mount Tabor that penetrates all of creation and transforms it, creating it anew. A modern ascetic says in the Undistorted Image: "Uncreated Light is divine energy. Contemplation of Uncreated Light begets, first and foremost, an all absorbing feeling of the living God - an immaterial feeling of the immaterial, an intuitive, not a rational perception - which transports man with irrestible force into another world, but so warily that he neither realizes when it happens nor knows whether he is in or out of the body." This is not a sentimental or emotional feeling or romantic fantasy. It is experience of the divine uncreated Light described by the neptic Fathers. Again, in the words of the same ascetic: "This supramental sensation of the Living God (which is experienced in contemplation) is accompanied by a vision of light, of light essentially different from physical light. Man himself abides in light because, assimilated to the Light which he contemplates, and spiritualized by it, he then neither sees nor feels his own material being or the materiality of the world."
God's act is pure light, and when the Lord appears to us, he always appears as Light. In Holy Scripture we read: "In Your Light we shall see light." Only in the state of illumination does divine grace makes possible the contemplation of the divine light. The hidden truths of Holy Scripture are not revealed to everyone, since illumination comes through the special divine gift of revelation. For this reason in the early Church, the holy Bible was read only in the Church and only by a charismatic person. In the Orthodox Church, we have never experienced "bibliolatry" or "worship of the Book," as in some sects. The Church holds fast to the unadulterated spirit of the Bible as it was delivered to the Saints, and through them, to us.
We are saved by Christ and in Christ. Yet we are still subject to temptation and to sin. Therefore, it is important to mention the fact that to acquire spirituality or moral perfection, we must wage war against the "enemy," that is, sin and the devil. Saint Makarios said: "I have not yet seen a perfect Christian man, one completely free (from the devil and sin)." And "although one is at rest in grace and enters into mysteries and revelations and into the sweetness of grace, still sin is yet present within." Consequently, as long as we live, we must be ready to fight against the dark powers of the devil. And "Satan is never quiet from warring. As long as ever a man lives in this world and wears the flesh, he has to war." The holy Bible is the most necessary means of spiritual warfare against the devil; it is also the chief means of acquiring knowledge of the divine will.
The Role of the Sacraments
We must further emphasize the role and purpose of the holy sacraments in attaining spirituality. In the sacraments, we receive divine grace, and in the case of the holy Eucharist, Christ himself, who aids us in waging war successfully against the satanic powers. As Fr. Sergius Bulgakov says: "The heart of Orthodoxy lies in its rites." All the Orthodox rites and sacraments are meant to combat the powers of evil. The sacramental life of the Church is the chief means toward the attainment of spirituality and of ultimate salvation.
The Eucharist as Expression of Spirituality
The question is asked: Is it possible without the holy Eucharist to reach the spiritual state of perfection? The answer is no, because Christ says: "Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you." Frequent participation in the most Blessed Sacrament of the holy Eucharist is the preeminent means for our salvation and spiritual perfection. Jesus said: "for my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed." Thus, Christ's statement makes clear that the "body and blood" of our Lord is necessary for our spiritual perfection. The Eucharist, therefore, is not received merely as an act of obedience to the command of God or of the Church; it is especially an antidote to sin and death. It is a necessary prerequisite for our perfection in our life in Christ. An important interpretation by Saint John Chrysostom makes this clear.
Paul does not say participation, but communion, because he wishes to express a closer union. For, in receiving Holy Communion, we not only participate in Christ, we unite in him. In fact, as this body is united with Christ, so by bread we are united with Christ. But why do I speak of Communion? Paul says that we are identical with this body. For what is this bread? That is, the body of Christ. And what do we become by receiving this bread? The body of Christ: not many bodies, but only one.
The holy Eucharist serves as the bond of unity in love. The holy Eucharist unites us to Christ and to one another. This is the makeup of the mystical body of Christ: the Church. This concept of the Church as the mystical body of Christ is very dear to our Orthodox tradition because it expresses the reality of Christ in the world and the unity of the Church, which is real only when Christ is the central figure. The Orthodox Church rejects the misconception, of sectarian origin, that Christianity is only a system of morals. It strongly emphasizes the fact that mystical union with Christ is a reality in his Church. The whole life of Saint Paul was "a perpetual system of morals in action." Only because of his personal commitment to Christ and his mystical encounter with the divine Lord, did Saint Paul attain spiritual perfection.
Father John of Cronstadt on Teaching Young People the Spiritual Way
In this brief exposition of the vast topic of Orthodox spirituality an introduction was provided only as a beginning to your own investigation of the great truths of our faith. For some this may be regarded as a spiritual discourse not profitable to the ordinary layman. I am convinced, however, that all Orthodox Christians must acquire knowledge of the Orthodox tradition of spirituality, especially those who teach young people as well as the parents. Father John of Cronstadt addressed the teaching priests, the Christian teachers, and leaders in the following penetrating words:
Do not neglect to uproot from the hearts of children the tares of sins, impure, evil and blasphemous thoughts, sinful habits, inclinations and passions; the enemy and sinful flesh do not spare even children; the seeds of all sins are to be found in the children, too; show them all the danger of sin on the path of life; do not hide sin from them lest through ignorance and want of comprehension, they should be confirmed in sinful habits and attachments, which grow stronger and stronger and bring forth corresponding fruits when children grow up.
These words set forth the mission and goal of the Christian priest, teacher and leader.
In concluding this presentation, the following suggestions can be made to those responsible for the development of spirituality in the Church:
In order to transmit Orthodox spirituality to young people, the teacher first must learn it through personal experience and through study of the spiritual writings of Orthodox authors.
Each Christian must acquire Orthodox spirituality in his or her own life by living the sacramental life of the Church and by participating frequently in holy Confession and holy Communion.
Responsible Christians ought to communicate to young people the great spiritual riches of Christianity and the importance of adhering to the Orthodox tradition of spirituality.
All of us, priests, Church School teachers, leaders, faithful Christians - young and old, and especially parents, have a responsibility to emphasize to young people the importance of their personal commitment to Christ and of their sacramental communion with Him. You need to continue your spiritual reading for your spiritual growth. Contact any Orthodox bookstore for a catalogue.