This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some.
The title of this series is an allusion to two statements of Saint Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Holy Spirit and a thousand around you will be saved.” And “the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” Saint Seraphim, an early nineteenth century Russian hermit has come to be seen as a true spirit-bearer whose life and teaching are reminiscent of the early desert Fathers and sum up much of the Orthodox understanding of Christian life. (This teaching can be found in his On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit).
To begin, it may help to clarify two things about what I mean by an Orthodox understanding of the Christian life.
Firstly, the Orthodox Church, for those who are unfamiliar with her, understands herself as being the one Church of Christ which has continued the faith of the Apostles and of the early Fathers. Battered somewhat by the vicissitudes of history, she has sought to preserve the truth of the faith and has resisted attempts to change this. In one sense, for us, to speak of Orthodox Christianity is simply to speak of Christianity, and hopefully other Christians will recognize something of our common origins in what I present.
Secondly, I am deliberately using the words “Christian life” in an attempt to avoid speaking about “spirituality” or the “spiritual life” – something that I’m not always successful at doing. This is partly because I have a life rather than a spiritual life, and it is the whole of that life that needs to be transformed by the Gospel. And it is partly because the vocabulary of spirituality is part of a later western development – a consequence of the divorce between theology and spirituality in the later Middle Ages – that is foreign to the ethos of the Orthodox Church. We cannot separate life from dogma, or prayer from theology. In the oft-quoted words of Evagrius of Pontus: “The one who prays is a theologian and the theologian is the one who prays.”
Prayer is fundamental to this life. Vasilii Rozanov writes: “There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. The soul of Orthodoxy consists in the gift of prayer.” Prayer is not an add-on extra, but is rather a gift that we are called to integrate with all of life’s struggles. Yet there are many misconceptions about prayer in our world and while we may agree that it is important, we have often been wounded by modernity’s emphasis on the cerebral, which makes it difficult for us to really appreciate the importance of prayer.
Moreover, for Orthodox Christians, prayer is part of an all-embracing vision of reality. Taking bits and pieces from different religious traditions that appeal to us has become common in our society, but it is also dangerous and can distort them, as well as leading to more dislocation and uprootedness. This is something that Orthodox Christians are often confronted with today. People often want to use things from our tradition – icons, the Jesus prayer, bits of the Liturgy and music – in a way that distorts them, emptying them of their integrity and making them into something that they are not.
Therefore, in introducing an Orthodox understanding of Christian life, I begin with the “big picture” or the backdrop against which all of our practices occur and in which they are integrated. This is the big picture of Christian revelation, of our understanding of salvation which is coming to share in the Divine Life. (2 Pet 1:4) It is ultimately the Mystery of the relationship between God and human beings.
To be continued…