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Introduction to Orthodoxy 10: Orthodox Spirituality

Title:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 10:  Orthodox Spirituality

Subject:  A Way of Living that Brings us Closer to God; Seeking Internal Change; Active Life, Contemplative Life, Mystical Life

Age:  16+ years

Prerequisites:  Introduction to Orthodoxy 1 Church Tour, 2 Church History , 3 Jesus Christ, 4 Holy Spirit, 5 Salvation,6 Fathers, Saints, and Theotokos, 7 Sacraments, 8 Prayer, and 9 Scripture (see below)

When we speak of spirituality we can quickly get into muddy waters.  The term is loaded, much like its related terms, religion, religious, etc.  For our purposes, we will talk about spirituality as a methodology or specific way of living that can bring us closer to God, that can lead to communion, that is ultimately transformative, and that leads to holiness.

Part I:

The two greatest commandments are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  "The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lour our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength'" (Deuteronomy 6.4).  "The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."

If you do these you become a saint.  Where does one begin?  Many people express that they are interested in seeking a deeper spiritual life, a fuller spiritual life, and a closer connection with God.  What they are after is practical; when it comes to spirituality, people want a relationship with God that somehow changes them and their life for the better, on the inside.  It is important to ask ourselves, better in what sense?  Better in terms of morality?  Better in terms of how we act and react to things in this world; with others and themselves?  This might be true on the surface, but such a goal doesn't get people very far.  It is hard to sustain this direction in life, a direction ultimately aimed only at moral improvement.  It is too dry and not full of life.  Keep in mind that for the purposes of this talk we have equated spirituality with the way we live, the methodology that governs our actions and not necessarily something esoteric or "religious."

Where does this desire for greater spirituality come from?  Is their a seed we can point to?  We might observe the desire for holiness arise in people, that certain something inside one that drives them towards wanting a deeper spiritual connection to God.  We can consider that perhaps the seed is planted because in hurting the one you love, you realize that your own ability to love "needs" work. Perhaps you encounter true holiness.  Perhaps pure love has overwhelmed you at some point in time, and you might have what we would classify an ecstatic experience.  You have felt a joy in self-sacrificial love.  This would be the end point of the spiritual journey.  Like Christ on the Cross, whose self-sacrificial love, His total kenosis/self-emptying, has led Him to love even in the ultimate moment of sacrifice, the laying down of His life for others. 

Perhaps you have simply realized that you are broken as a human being; you don't work "right."  You know something is amiss.  You have felt this way and acknowledged it, and once you begin to be directed on this sacred path towards holiness, you may also encounter a sacred wound.  A rupture can occur in our self-contained world and love puts us outside of ourselves, our love flows out and God's love flows in.  Perhaps this rupture creates the space needed for God's love, since pride is a false sense of "fullness."  This is where things can get messy; this is where things can begin to change. 

We may need to say more about this sacred wound.  St. Paul speaks about a thorn in his flesh, a thorn that he asks God to remove.  God responds by stating that it is in St. Paul's weakness that Paul is perfected.  In a sense the grace of God seeks and flourishes in our humility and brokenness.  But where do we start?  Most of us never get anywhere.  Rather, we get hung up or get lost because of the basics.  The basic message of the Gospel does not govern who we are.  The fundamental exercises of the spiritual life are ignored or practiced haphazardly.  Some of the basic virtues of the Christian life include love, hope, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and joy.  Some of the basic passions of human beings include greed, pride, vanity, covetousness, anger, bitterness, and cynicism.

A great ascetic was asked several deep theological questions by a pilgrim.  Their hope was that this great man who had spent so much time in the ascetical life would clarify some sticky theological questions they had.  His answer was unexpected.  He replied, as to your questions I am not sure of the answers but this I know: the passions.

We know our failings.  But how do we, practically speaking, overcome our passions, our shortcomings, those things that hinder us?  We should not be seeking to promote some type of religious system or methodology that leads to a certain moral improvement or progress.  The Church certainly does not want to reduce the Christian life to a set of rules and a set of what we ought to be doing and what we ought not to be doing.  We also want to avoid any type of religious formalism that eventually or effectively cuts us off from the life of the Spirit.  Unfortunately, many today make the opposite argument that religion's primary focus is to develop character and morality.  We have reduced the mystery of salvation and the incarnation of Christ to simply that:  moral improvement.  While it is certainly easier to "sell" religion under the guise of morality, it is in the end a cheap substitute for developing a relationship with Christ.  Of course, mystical union is not something many of us are prepared to consider.  Thousands of years ago Thomas the Disciple came across the same crossroads.  He asked his Teacher, Jesus, to show to him and the other disciples the Father.  To this request, Jesus responded, "I am the way the truth and the life."

Our Christian faith is not about moral improvement although that certainly is a by-product.  Our faith is not about becoming "better" members of society.  Our faith is about an encounter that leads into the depth, the darkness, and the mystery of personal relationships.  We certainly would not think of reducing our own relationships with one another to the level of utility and mere function as a good thing.  We don't equate getting married, having a best friend, or parenting a child, with simply sleeping in the same bed, calling on their birthday, or driving car pool.  Similarly, growth in Christ is not just about being a good person and being nicer to those around us. 

This is, however, exactly what we have reduced religion to, reduced our spiritual life to, and having done so we have cut ourselves off from the most powerful thing: transformation through personal encounter.  We find religion boring because when it is defined as moral improvement it is boring.  Making up lists of what we ought to and ought not to be doing is to simplify the gift Christ gave us to such a level as to have rendered it useless.  Of course we find religion irrelevant because becoming a "better" person can without a doubt be done outside of the church.

The following are four questions to consider:

  • The Incarnation and the Cross:  Did Christ enter His creation and die to save us from sin, death/non-being, and the devil?
  • Salvation:  Is the Nativity of Christ and His Cross a sharing of a new ontology, a new way of being, specifically the sharing of the Divine Life?
  • Heaven:  Through Christ's incarnation do we begin in this life to participate in the life of the Kingdom?
  • How to get to heaven:  Is this path entered by acting the same on earth as one would in heaven?

The following are the explanations: 

  • The Incarnation and the Cross:  God the Father did not inflict death; death is not a punishment.  Rather, we stepped away from life, out of God's mercy.  God allows death so that we don't live in a quasi-life, a life of sin.  God in His mercy allows us to die, preventing things from going on and on in eternal misery. 
  • Salvation:  What saves us is the in-pouring of that which is uncreated, Christ, into the created, the incarnation itself.  The Divine Life unites itself with created life.  Our participation in this happens through our association with the Church, its life, and most importantly the Mysteries (sacraments).
  • Heaven:  Thus we can say that Divinization happens in this life, even though we know it is also something approached and never completed.  Here it is best to understand salvation as a continuum.  You are saved because you get the uncreated light, this uncreated mode in you.  Remember the words of Christ:  "Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand."  Heaven then begins in this life, we don't have heaven completely and firmly but the whole reason Christ was born was to be married to us; we know that His divine life remains in His Church.
  • How to get to heaven:  We are saved by acting the same way here as we would in heaven, by acting as we do in the Divine Liturgy:  thanksgiving, sacrifice, and praise.  "If you want to go to heaven, just do what they do in heaven."   The moment this second world-view is triggered in you, you automatically become more liturgical.

Part II:

"A Saint, to see a Saint is to see someone who is more human than you are."

There are three ways to live: (Brought to the Desert by Evagrius but integrated by St. Maximos). 

  • Active Life (practice):  examples include business person or soldier
    1. Book of Proverbs (St. Basil is the one who connects these three stages of living with three books of scripture)
    2. This is the dating stage of a relationship, it is practical.
    3. An example of the active life style is to bang wood as a carpenter.
  • Contemplative Life (theory): examples include academic, monk, nun, writer, artist
  1. Ecclesiastes
  2. This is the stage of the relationship in which a couple becomes engaged.  One is engaged to get to know that person, and you don't want to stay engaged for too long, this only leads to vanity and despair.
  3. Someone who is contemplative knows ideas, words, a philosopher.
  • Mystical Life – hermit, this is where the Orthodox wants to live.
  1. Song of Solomon
  2. This is the stage in which a couple is married; bliss, eros, union
  3. In this stage you really know persons.  You know someone and they know you back!  There is a loss of control, and this is a non-linear life.

There is a 4th level, if you will, that exists between the contemplative and the mystical life.  The grave/zone of death/twilight zone, before getting to the Mystical Life, from the Contemplative Life, there is a risk, a Death that must occur.  We must pay a price to get out of the theory of love and get to actual love.  You have to make a decision, you have to show up and take a risk.

Part III

If you want a more mystical life and you have the will to do it, what do you do?  First, it is so hard for us to tell where we are personally; we need help.  We must seek the wisdom of the Church through our priest.  Second, we must begin to practice the following:

  • Open ended prayer:  You have to reject all the old thoughts, all the old idols, and images you have;
  • With your Spiritual Father, you must experience confession.  You have to let yourself be known;
  • Worship, the liturgical life, pilgrimage or retreat: you go so you can go back.  You go to a monastery to have a deeper experience, and then you go back;
  • Reading Holy Scripture and about the lives of Saints;
  • The Big Three:  Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving.  These are not works, but "un-works," they lead us to live by faith.  Prayer helps us to renounce our mind.  Fasting helps us to renounce food, the material needs.  Almsgiving helps us to renounce our wealth;
  • Humility;
  • To live in our hearts, to love—the Chief virtue.

Prepared by Fr. Evan Armatas


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