by Fr. Dr. M. John Panicker
Spirituality may be defined as the life in and with the Holy Spirit. It is an ascetic and pious struggle against sin through repentance, prayer, fasting and participation in the sacramental life of the Church. St. Paul Says:
“Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish…. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like... But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And those who have are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:16-25)
Orthodoxy has preferred always to use the terms ‘life in Christ’, ‘life in Spirit’, ‘the spiritual life’, and the ‘life in God’ to describe the life of the Christian in union with God, regardless of the level of this life. See Galatians 3:28; 3:20; 2 Corinthians 4: 11; 1 Corinthians 7: 8; Romans 8: 15; Ephesians 3: 16-17; Colossians 3:3; John 14: 23; 1 John 3:24 etc.
Orthodox Spirituality presents the process of a Christian’s progress on the road to perfection in Christ, by the cleansing of passions and the winning of the virtues, a process which takes place in a certain order. Spirituality describes the manner in which the Christians can go forward from the cleansing of one passion, to the cleansing of another, and the same to the acquiring of the different virtues. Thus a certain level of perfection is reached and culminates in love. This is a state that represents the cleansing of all passions and the winning of all the virtues. As man/woman climbs toward this peak, he/she simultaneously moves toward union with Christ and the knowledge of Him by experience, which also means his/her deification.
The goal of Orthodox Spirituality is the perfection of the believer by his/her union with God in Christ. But as God is unending, the goal of our union with Him, or our perfection, has no point from which we can no longer progress. So all the Eastern Fathers say that perfection is unlimited. Thus our perfection is not only the goal but also an unending process. In this process two great steps can be distinguished: first, the moving ahead toward perfection through purification from the passions and the acquiring of the virtues and secondly a life progressively moving ahead in the union with God. At this point, man’s work is replaced by God’s. Man contributes by opening himself up receptively to an ever-greater filling with the life of God.
In short, we may narrate the following features of Orthodox Spirituality:
1. The culminating state of the spiritual life is a union of the soul with God, lived or experienced.
2. This union is realized by the working of the Holy Spirit, but until it is reached, man is involved in a prolonged effort of purification.
3. It takes place when man reaches the ‘likeness of God’. It is at the same time knowledge and love.
4. Among other things, the effect of this union consists of a considerable intensification of spiritual energies in man, accompanied by all kinds of charisma.
The Orthodox uses the word ‘deification’ or participation in the divinity to characterize the union with God. It, however, does not mean that here there is a pantheistic identification of man with God. But it asserts with courage the possibility of a ‘union’ of man with God, of a direct ‘vision’ of Him, of a ‘participation’ in Him, through grace.
It is very important to note that Orthodox Spirituality does not call for an indifference to life, for a withdrawal from its affairs and for a pre-mature eschatology. The Church Fathers have demonstrated the movement of God’s creation (universe) and the need for every person to participate in it, if he/she wants to reach the perfection represented by the mystical union with God. There should be a synergia (co-operation) of human will and the divine grace (human will and divine grace are two unequal but equally needed forces in the movement to attain perfection. The Church denies any kind of teaching that deny either the divine grace or the human will in the process of attaining perfection). This movement is intended in general to elevate a person to the level of the highest good and to perfection.
The road to Christian perfection does not exclude this world and the works in it, but it does require that it contribute to the winning of virtues. No one should imagine that the work he/she does is an end in itself; it has the role of beautifying his nature, with the virtues of patience, of self-control, of love for his neighbor, of faith in God, and in turn of opening his eyes to the wise principles placed by God in all things. The ultimate purpose of work and the taking part in the life of this world is not so much the development of nature as it is the normal development of the dormant possibilities in man and in his neighbors. Even in the enduring of troubles, which is one of the most important means of Christian striving, we don’t have to run away from the life of the world, but persistence in it. The care for one’s own formation and that of our neighbors, by beautifying ourselves with virtues, does not mean a non-participation in the life of the world.
The one who has reached the peaks of spiritual living is no longer pre-occupied with external activity, but contemplation. Even so, he/she exerts an influence on the development of the world, by an attraction and a power which touch his neighbors, that they might become as he/she is, by the same fulfillment of the commandments, by the same virtuous works. The person who has reached the peak of perfection exerts an influence and an attraction on his/her neighbors, which makes them strive to reach the ideal goal. Because the very highest of the virtues, which the spiritual man struggles for, is love. In love there is knowledge too and the love of God cannot be separated from the love of the people.
The very basis of Christian life is in the mystery of Holy Trinity and Incarnation. Orthodox spirituality has as a basic conviction on the existence of a personal God, who is incarnated and who is the supreme source of radiating love. God prizes man and does not want to confuse him/her with Himself, but maintains and raises him to an eternal dialogue of love.
But the personal God, the supreme source of love, can’t be conceived of as a single person, but as a community of persons in a perfect unity. The God of the New Testament and of the holy Fathers is living and irreducibly three in one the Holy Trinity.
We may describe the Trinitarian basis of our spirituality in the following lines: Only a perfect community of supreme persons (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) can nourish, with its unending and perfect love, our thirst for love in relation to it and between ourselves. The Father wants to extend love in its paternal form. So after the creation of man, He wanted His Son to become man so that His love for His Son, made man, would be a love which is directed toward any human face, like that of His son. In the Son made flesh we are all adopted by the Father. The Father loves all of us in His Son, because the Son was made our brother. God the Son, too, thus shows His love as a supreme brother. But the Son’s love for us is not separated from the Father’s love for us, but in His love as a brother He makes the Father’s love and also His love for the Father, engulf us. In us the Father welcomes other loving and loved sons because His Son was made our beloved brother. However, this paternal love is poured out on us in the form of the Holy Spirit flooding the Son. By the Incarnate Son the Holy Spirit radiates within humanity and the world, as the love of God for us and of ours for God. The Holy Spirit brings into creation inter-Trinitarian life and love. He raises us to the level of deification. The invocation of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Qurbana (epiclesis) hasn’t only the purpose of changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but of brining divine life into the creation. This is why the Church invokes the Holy Spirit in all her sanctifying services. We are raised up by the Holy Spirit to the divine world or in the other way the divine world penetrates us. This is what really the meaning and goal of our spirituality or spiritual life.
The soul of Orthodox spirituality consists in the practice of virtues and especially in the gift of prayer. There is no spiritual life without prayer and there is no labor greater than praying to God. The Church has got canonical prayer of hours (seven times a day) and the unceasing prayers that can be recited privately even in the time of doing some jobs. Through prayer a faithful will be illumined and prayer is the measuring rode of a person’s spiritual life. St. Dionysious the Areopagite divides the spiritual life into three stages: Purification, illumination and deification (union). We may compare these stages with the stages of the practice of virtues, the contemplation of nature and the contemplation of God Himself. Practice of virtues begins with repentance. The baptized Christian struggles with God’s help to escape from enslavement to passionate impulses. By fulfilling the commandments, gradually he/she attains purity of heart and it is this that constitutes the ultimate aim of the first stage. At the second stage, the contemplation of nature, the Christians sharpens his/her perception of the being of the created things, and discovers the Creator present in everything and thus it leads him/her to respect and give honor to fellow creations. This leads him/her to the third stage, the direct vision of God, who is not only in everything but above and beyond everything. The full vision of the divine glory is reserved for the age to come, yet even in the present life, the saints enjoy sure pledge and first fruits of the coming harvest.
The first stage is called ‘active life’ while the second and third jointly designated the ‘contemplative life’. It is to be noted that not only the social worker or family member or the missionary who is following the active life, the hermit or the recluse is likewise doing so, in as much as he/she is still struggling to overcome the passions and to grow in virtue. In the same way the contemplative life is not restricted to the desert or the solitude, but a miner, a clerk, a typist or a house wife may also possess inward silence and prayer of the heart, a may therefore be in the true sense a ‘contemplative’.
a) The Orthodox tradition is intensely conscious of the ecclesial character Christianity. It is of course true that there are many who reject Christ and His Church, or who have never heard of him; Whether they will be saved or not cannot be answered properly by us and let God will do as His will. But, as Church members, we believe that even a solitary in the solitary in the desert is as much a churchmen as the artisan in the city. The ascetic and mystical path is at the same time social and communal. The Christian is the one who has brothers and sisters. He/she belongs to a family and that family is the Church.
b) Spiritual life is not only a life in the Church but also life in the sacraments. It is the sacraments that constitute our life in Christ. Our path is the path of corporate worship, centered around the sacraments and especially the sacrament of Eucharist. That is to say that it is in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ that the Christian life is based and moved towards perfection.
c) The spiritual life is also evangelical. At each step upon the path, we turn
for guidance to the voice of God speaking to us through the Bible. After being
inspired by what is written in the Bible, we lead ourselves to be the real
witnesses of our Lord to our neighbors. We are asked to preach the Gospel and
witness our Lord by practicing the virtues of prayer, fasting and alms giving.
Prayer unites us to God; fasting sanctifies us and alms giving (Charity) is
really an extension of the divine Grace in us to our fellow beings and the rest
of the creation.
These presuppositions obviously show the Trinitarian Christological, Pneumatological, Sacramental and ecclesiastical character of Orthodox spirituality.
Orthodox spirituality gives enough and equal space for family life and monastic life. That means it gives equal value to those who follow family life and monastic life and no clear marked distinction is given to their goal although their style of life is different. The practice of virtues is highly extolled in both ways of life in the manner that is befitting to each of them.
Orthodox spirituality is not an ecstatic movement like some contemporary so-called spiritual movements. It gives us a lesson for the perpetual and continuing bliss that one can really experience in the Eucharistic worship of the Church. Flight from division, ascetic silence and hospitality are highly extolled in Orthodox spirituality. For the Church Fathers, ‘to flee from the world’ means to flee from every thing that divides. Also, the spirituality must ultimately be understood in terms of paschal mystery. It is an affirmation of the Cross-as the path of resurrection. The ability to bear the cross comes from the joy of being saved. Joy in our Lord is our strength. The aim of the exercise that at times is found painful is a purified love of God, of neighbors, and of the whole creation. But that also means an increase of joy.
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