Holy Spirit


Something I’m reading at the moment that seemed worth sharing:

Holy souls are led and guided by the Spirit of Christ, who directs them wherever he wishes them to go. Sometimes he leads them by his will through heavenly thoughts, sometimes through the body. Wherever he wishes, there they minister to him. Just as the feet of the birds are the wings, so the heavenly light of the Spirit takes up the wings and thoughts worthy of the soul and leads and directs the soul as he knows best.

Therefore, when you hear such things, look to yourself and see whether you really possess these things in your own soul. These are not mere and empty words, but we are dealing with a work that truly goes on in the soul. And if you do not possess these very important spiritual goods but you are lacking in them, be moved to sorrow, grieve and be continually in mourning as one who is still dead in regard to the Kingdom. And as one lies wounded, continually cry out to the Lord and ask with confidence that he may deign to give you this true life.

And so God, who made your body, did not give it life from its very own nature nor from the body itself, nor from the food, drink, clothing and footwear that he gave the body, but he arranged it that your body, created naked, should be able to live my means of such extrinsic things as food, drink, and clothing. (If the body were to attempt to exist only by its own constituted nature without accepting these exterior helps, it would deteriorate and perish.) In a similar way, it is so with the human soul. It does not have by nature the divine light, even though it has been created according to the image of God. For, indeed, God ordered the soul in his economy of salvation according to his good pleasure that it would enjoy eternal life. It would not be because of the soul’s very own nature but because of his Divinity, of his very Spirit, of his light, that the soul would receive its spiritual meat and drink and heavenly clothing which are truly the life of the soul.

As, therefore, the body, as was said above, does not have life in itself, but receives it from outside, that is, from the earth, and without such material things of the earth it cannot live, so the soul, unless it be regenerated into that “land of the living” (Ps 27:13) and there be fed spiritually and progress by growing spiritually unto the Lord and be adorned by the ineffable garments of heavenly beauty flowing out of the Godhead, without that food in joy and tranquillity, the soul cannot clearly live.

Saint Macarius the Great, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 10-11 (pp. 42-43).

This seven(?)-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. (Continued from here).

This lifelong process of repentance involves an active struggle or ascesis, in which we cooperate with God’s grace as we try to live according to His commandments. This is not simply a matter of outer observances, but rather of using the means that the Church gives to us to grow in purity of heart. For the commandments ultimately lead to a life according to the Beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12) Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos writes:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the Lord’s commandment that we should look for our spiritual poverty, that is, that we should experience our wretchedness. “Blessed are those who mourn” is the Lord’s commandment to weep over the passions which we have in us, over our desolation. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” is the Lord’s commandment to hunger and thirst after communion with God. “Blessed are the pure in heart” is Christ’s commandment to purify our hearts. When He says “blessed” it is as if He said: “Become poor, mournful, thirsting for righteousness”, and so forth.*

Rooted in the Scriptures and in the teaching of Christ, the Church has developed ascetic practices that help us to live according to the commandments of Christ and to bring our wills into conformity with His. These include vigils, study, prayer, self-control and hesychia. However, how we apply these will vary from person to person. We are all different and have different needs. Moreover, we are saved not as isolated individuals, but as members of the Church. Orthodox tradition therefore emphasises the importance of accountability and of seeking the guidance of a trusted spiritual father who can serve as a physician of souls, for on our own we are capable of great self-deception. It also emphasises – and the liturgical texts for the first week of Great Lent make this abundantly clear – that heroic acts of asceticism are of no use if they do not make us more loving towards our neighbours.

Asceticism is a difficult topic to address in some contemporary Christian circles and misconceptions abound. It may help to say what asceticism is not: it is not suffering for sufferings sake, as if that will somehow help us, or please God. It is not an attempt to win favours with God. It is not rooted in some dualistic hatred of the body. On the contrary, asceticism, which comes from the word for struggle, is rooted in the recognition of the importance of our bodies for our salvation. By curbing our appetites it enables us to break through the mental images we may have of ourselves and to face up to who we really are and to the things that matter to us. And it enables us to learn true freedom, for we may think that we are free but we do not realise the extent to which we are really controlled by our desires.

This recognition of the importance of the body is also found in the Orthodox approach to prayer. Prayer is not simply a mental activity, but one that involves all our senses. The traditional Christian posture for prayer is that of standing – the posture of the Resurrection –, although kneeling and prostrating have their appropriate times and places as well. This use of our bodies is expressed in other ways – gesture, icons, incense, music, colour, light and so on. These are not simply arbitrary or a form of decoration, but are conveyers of meaning although often at a very subtle level.

What we do in our bodies affects the whole of our lives. Many western converts to Orthodoxy find that we need to get over a certain threshold before we are able to do things like kissing icons and making prostrations. Yet in doing so a whole world opens up for us as we come to realise, not simply in theory but in reality, that Christianity is not simply about what we believe with our cerebral minds, but what we do. And through the “doing” we are gradually led to the place of the heart, the place where true transformation can occur.

To be continued…

* Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos), Orthodox Psychotherapy, 48.

This six- seven-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. (Continued from here).

We have seen something of the “big picture” of what we believe Christian life is all about. Created in the Image of God, our whole life is a journey towards the restoration of that Image in us, in which, through cooperating with the work of the Holy Spirit we may become Spirit bearers who radiate the Light of Christ. The question remains, however, how we are to do this, for we need to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit, actively struggling to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12)

This process of transformation is what we understand as a life of repentance. Sin and repentance can be difficult topics to address in our contemporary society, for too often people associate them with a crippling guilt which would seem to deny our God-given dignity, making us feel like worthless sinners who cannot do anything good. Yes, sin is a reality in our world, and we need to acknowledge that. But, more fundamentally, sin is something that Christ comes to save us from and repentance is not about feeling guilty but about changing our lives so that they might become transparent to God.

In an Orthodox understanding, sin is not seen so much in legal terms as having broken laws and thus incurring God’s wrath, but rather as having missed the mark, of being aware that our lives are not what they were meant to be. There is a fundamental brokenness that runs through our lives which we are not able to put right on our own. Repentance means learning our need for God and our dependence on Him. It is recognising that we are sick and in need of healing. It is to pray, as Saint Macarius teaches us, “Lord, as you will and as you know, have mercy!” or simply, “Lord help!” And we are able to do this because, no matter what our sins, God does not abandon us.

A soldier asked Abba Mius if God accepted repentance. After the old man had taught him many things he said, ‘Tell me, my dear, if your cloak is torn, do you throw it away?’ He replied, ‘No, I mend it and use it again.’ The old man said to him, ‘If you are so careful about your cloak, will not God be equally careful about His creature?’

Repentance involves coming to acknowledge the truth about ourselves – a gradual process as we grow in self knowledge and are able to begin to recognise the ways in which we have become adept at deceiving ourselves. This is no purely intellectual exercise, but is rather about getting in touch with what Scripture and the Fathers call the heart, that centre of our being that is the core of our consciousness and desires. As Saint Macarius the Great wrote:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

Repentance involves mourning for our sins, but the Fathers speak of it, if it is genuine, as a joyful mourning, for it is a mourning that liberates and frees us, enabling us to move forward to greater knowledge of God and of ourselves. At the beginning of Lent we commemorate the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and in the Lenten texts we identify ourselves with them, recognising that our human life is in many ways an experience of exile, for we have lost our true home and our true identity. And yet this very recognition is the beginning of a desire to return home, and our whole journey to Easter is a journey to that home, to the victory of Christ, the New Adam, who in his own flesh conquers death.

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. (Continued from here).

Central to the transformation involved in Christian life is learning to see, for our vision has become distorted by the fall, and salvation involves learning to see aright. Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of “The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything” and St John of Damascus writes that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” writes St Irenaeus and he is often quoted as saying that. But he continues immediately: “and the life of a human being is the vision of God.” This is a vision that we need to learn.

It is common to speak about the importance of beauty for Orthodoxy. Sometimes the example is given of the conversion of Russia when the emissaries of Prince Vladimir were sent out looking for a religion. After visiting the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, they wrote: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

We see here that the Liturgy is profoundly revelatory, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Within the Church we are able to see a new way of being – even if in a fleeting and fragmentary way – that we recognise as fundamentally true, and as that around which we wish to shape our lives. But this is not given to us in any final way, for our vision remains blurred, our hearts remain divided and Liturgy requires hard work and commitment.

It is also common to speak about the importance of icons for Orthodox Christians, and they are indeed important. However, there is also a danger in this, and I have found that many people do not actually find them attractive at the first encounter. They jar with our expectations of what art should be, they are not necessarily comforting and can feel somewhat strange. Like the beauty of the Liturgy, theirs is a demanding beauty, one that asks us to be open to another way of seeing. They are not ours to “use” but they ask us to be receptive and open to change our own perceptions.

Thus, learning to see and the purification of our vision is of fundamental importance. The Fathers of the Church used two mountain top encounters to speak of this experience. The first was that of Moses on Mount Sinai in which he had to let go of his own ideas and encounter God in darkness, realising that God is far beyond all the ideas that we have of Him. The second was that of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, in which the Apostles Peter, James and John were enabled to see His true glory. In the liturgical texts for the feast of the Transfiguration we are told that that they were able to see it “insofar as they could bear it.” The vision is open to all, but our task is to learn to see with the eyes of faith and to seek the purity of heart which the Gospel tell us will allow us to see God so that His glory may shine through in our lives.

To be continued…

 

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. (Continued from here).

Central to the biblical understanding of the human being is the affirmation that we are created in the Image and Likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and this affirmation became fundamental to the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. Creation establishes a relationship between God and humankind. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the true Image of God was the model according to which we were created, even before His Incarnation. We are images of Christ and therefore images of the Father, although not in the absolute way that He is. This is what gives human beings their true worth.

Central to our being created in the Image of God is the freedom and royal dignity that we have as human beings, and this freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom. However, instead of using this freedom to stay close to God and to continue to grow in relationship with Him, human beings used their freedom to drift away from God. The early Fathers developed this understanding in various ways, but they were aware that the Image of God in us has been affected by the entry of sin into the world. This Image is not destroyed, but has become tarnished and corrupted. Some of them spoke about having kept the Image and lost the Likeness, but, whatever the vocabulary, there was a recognition that we are no longer able to reflect the divine likeness as we were created to do.

The Christian answer to this state of alienation from God came in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the Image according to which we were created, and by assuming our human nature, He restored what had become corrupted, and by His death and Resurrection destroyed the power of death. Through this He opened up the way for us to recover the Image and Likeness of God according to which we have been created. It is, fundamentally, about the restoration of our original beauty, a beauty that resides deep within us but which has been covered up and distorted by sin. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Evil, however, overlaying the Godlike pattern, has made the good useless to you, hidden under a curtain of shame. If, by conscientious living, you wash away once more the filth that has accumulated on your heart, the Godlike beauty will again shine forth for you.

The reference that Saint Gregory makes here to the heart is central to the understanding of the Fathers of the Church. What is called for is not simply a moral response, nor is the heart about something emotional. Rather, in the biblical and patristic tradition, the heart is the centre of the human person and the seat of all consciousness and desires. What is required is the transformation of “the inner person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) – and we should note that the word “nous” that is translated mind is far closer to the biblical “heart” than it is to the modern idea of the cerebral mind. Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this transformation as follows:

When iron is stripped of rust by a whetstone, what once was dull itself shines as it faces the sun and gives forth beams and shafts of light. So also, when the inner human being, which is what the Lord calls “the heart,” has wiped off the rusty filth that has spread by evil decay over its form, it will again recover its likeness to its model and be good. What is like the good is surely good.

This salvation is a life-long task. It can be said to be both Christological and Pneumatological in that it relies on the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom St Irenaeus describes as the two hands of God, and who work together in a reciprocal relationship. We are fashioned and refashioned after the Image of Christ who shares and renews our human nature. But it is also accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for the whole purpose of our life is to become a Spirit-bearer, to live and breathe in the Spirit of God whose task it is to refashion us into the Image of the Son, enabling us to return to the Father and to become partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Pet 1:4)

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…

I have recently been exploring the world of social media a bit (with some mixed feelings, but that’s another matter) and have had some interactions on Twitter that were both interesting and frustrating, the latter mainly because of the very limited character of Twitter. I’ve sometimes wanted to follow up on those discussions by blogging, but usually my intentions, as with many other blogging intentions, have come to nothing.

But this week I had another one. This one was actually sparked by a blog post by Mark Penrith and I should probably have responded on his blog. But the topic that he was addressing just struck me, from an Orthodox perspective, as really, really weird. While he seems a nice enough person, and while I agreed with him in this instance, Mark is a Calvinist and our theological world views are, well, galaxies apart. But in this instance I agreed with him, for he was reacting to people who argue that one shouldn’t pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Now, given the quote from Saint Seraphim of Sarov which is the title of this post, and given that this pretty much sums up an Orthodox understanding of the whole point of Christian life, this struck me as rather difficult to relate to, although I suspect that that is because of the rather different theological galaxies we inhabit. For at the beginning of virtually all the services we pray:

O Heavenly King,
Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
You are everywhere present
and fill all things.
Treasury of blessings and Giver of life:
Come and abide in us,
Cleanse us from every impurity,
and save our souls, O Good One!

Anyway, our brief conversation on Twitter did remind me of a talk I’d given earlier this year which took Saint Seraphim’s words as it’s departure point in outlining how we Orthodox understand Christian life. It is fairly basic and could possibly do with reworking but seeks to set our beliefs and practices in a broader context which is nothing other than a lifetime’s work of transformation by the Holy Spirit in order to regain the Image of Christ according to which we were created. And so I thought that I’d post it here as a six-part series in the hope that it may be helpful to some.

MesnilPentecot

Let us drink waters out of our own cisterns and out of our own springing wells. We drink of living water springing up into everlasting life. But this is what the Saviour said of the Spirit, which those who believe on him should receive. For observe what he says: “He who believes on me – not simply this, but – as the Scripture has said – here he sends you back to the Old Testament – out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” These are not rivers perceived by sense that merely water the earth with its thorns and trees. But these are rivers that bring souls to the light. And in another place he says: “But the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of living water springing up into everlasting life” – a new kind of water living and springing up, springing up to those who are worthy.

And why did He call the grace of the Spirit water? Because by water all things subsist; because water brings forth grass and living things; because the water of the rain showers down from heaven; because it comes down in one form but works in many forms. For one fountain waters the whole of paradise, and one and the same rain comes down on all the world, yet it becomes white in the lily, and red in the rose, and purple in violets and hyacinths, and different and varied in each. So it is one in the palm tree, and another in the vine, and all in all things; and yet it is one in nature, not diverse from itself. For the rain does not change itself and come down first as as one thing, then as another, but adapting itself to the constitution of each thing that receives it, it becomes to each what is suitable. And so the Holy Spirit also, being one, and of one nature and indivisible, distributes to each His grace as He wills. And as the dry tree, after being nourished with water, puts forth shoots, so also the soul in sin, when it has been through repentance made worthy of the Holy Spirit, brings forth clusters of righteousness. And though He is one in nature, yet many are the virtues He inculcates by the will of God and in the name of Christ.

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 16.11-12, in Joel C. Elowsky (ed). John 1-10 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture), 266.

When St Basil was attempting to define the hypostatic qualities of the Holy Spirit, he could find no other words than hagiasmos or hagiosyne, meaning “sanctification” or “holiness.” It is difficult, therefore, to speak of the Spirit without taking into account his work of sanctification, but it is no less difficult to speak of the Church’s holiness without evoking the Holy Spirit, the source and power of sanctification. It sheds light on the whole final section of the Creed: the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the body and eternal life. Sanctification is not only moral sanctification, it is the sharing of divine life, of eternal life, of the resurrection. It is the very mark of the Spirit on the flesh itself, on all of human nature, the gift of incorruptibility, of deification.

Father Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Church: A Course in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, 133.

I haven’t started reading this book properly yet, but was looking through it today, came across this, and thought it worth sharing!

What is essential to remember, here [in the thought of St Irenaeus], is, on the one hand, the double movement of the Father who sends the Spirit on creation through the Son, but also of the Spirit who returns and brings the creature back to the Father, also through the Son. The Son will always be the mediator in all things; man’s entire life, his most incarnate, most fleshly human existence, will be summoned and made capable of being transparent to the action of the Spirit. Consequently, the Holy Spirit knows no boundaries in His work of permeating, of penetrating, precisely, this flesh or this human being He must soften, which He must constitute into one bread, one body, the Body of Christ. … It is the same action of the Holy Spirit on the Son and on the Church; it is the same action of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and in man himself. Man too, to the degree that he becomes conformed to Christ, in the Church, through the Holy Spirit, becomes, in turn, “sacrament”: he becomes a sacrament of the new life, which means that his body rediscovers why it was created. The totality of the human psycho-physical composite, our entire created reality is capable of being penetrated, of being filled with the divine life. If the sacraments are symbols, if they are signs, they are this because the human body, man’s natural being, is this in the first place. I would call this the anthropological finality, and the continuity of the sacraments in the life and in the building up of the new man.

Boris Bobrinskoy, The Mystery of the Trinity: Trinitarian Experience and Vision in the Biblical and Patristic Tradition (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999) 205-206.

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