Pilgrims from Paradise:
At the end of the last podcast, I suggested that, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the way to the direct, immediate encounter with the person of Jesus Christ that many Christians, whether they understand it or not, are seeking, is the two-fold path of asceticism and sacrament. Let’s think about this. First of all, by a direct, immediate encounter with God, I am talking about an experience with Him that is deeper and more alive than just my theological thoughts, deeper and more real than the emotional byproducts of my imagination, deeper and more tangible than the experience of some charismatic power. What I am describing is a relationship with God that has all the same characteristics as my relationship with my wife, my children, my grandchildren, and every other real live person whom I love.
Certainly, these relationships are not built on rational analysis or imagination, or miraculous manifestations of empowerment. No, they are founded on my actual encounters with those living persons. I meet the people I love. We respond to one another. We do things together. I learn who these people are as I experience their personalities through their actions toward me.
They learn of me in the same way. An intricate give and receive dynamic develops as we participate in one another’s lives. Or, as I am fond of saying, as we dance with each other. This is exactly how God intends that we know Him. The only thing that is different in my relationship with God is where I find Him. He does not walk through my office door, or touch my shoulder as I pour a cup of coffee in the morning in the kitchen. God does not sit down next to me at a soccer game or have a piece of cake with me at my grandson’s birthday party. No, my encounter with God happens in a different way, a way that is actually much more intimate than I can experience with any mortal being.
Nonetheless, I still experience Him as another being who is fully present in His tangible personhood. It is just that the encounter happens within me, in the depths of my inner being. And so, my awareness of Him will be unlike my awareness of other people. In fact, it will be more akin to my awareness of myself.
Let me explain. If I am a Christian, the Spirit of God lives within me. To show Himself, He must express Himself dynamically through me. He must think in me, feel in me, and act in me. So, my awareness of the Spirit comes as a consciousness of a new me, a me who is clearly separate from the me of my sinful, earthly thoughts, passions and actions.
The ineffectiveness of the typical Western approach to a relationship with God is revealed as we consider this: How do I normally experience me? I certainly do not have to study about me, or rationally meditate on things I know about myself in order to experience me. Nor do I have to imagine myself or generate some particular emotional state before I can feel me. I do not need to display some dramatic empowerment to know that I am here. No, my awareness of myself is intuitive and living. I simply am, and I know it.
My experience of the God who lives in me, the great “I Am” (Exodus 3:14), is of the same quality. Even though my encounter with God is unique in this way, engaging Him in the dance of love requires the same willful effort on my part that is demanded in all of my relationships.
Living in the midst of this fallen and sinful world, it is easy to be preoccupied with our selfish thoughts and desires. Like dark clouds, these can completely obscure our awareness of others, and most especially, of the life of God within us. To experience God immediately, as the activity in my limbs, the thoughts in my mind, the life in my heart, those contending thoughts and desires must be silenced and shackled. That is why Jesus calls us to deny ourselves (Matthew 16:24).
But how exactly do we do that? How do we quiet our thoughts and impulses and open the way for the Spirit of God to live out God’s life in us? How do we allow Him to become us, and thus become intimately aware of Him?
This is an issue of critical importance for Western believers looking to find their way back through the philosophical maze of their tradition to the original faith, to that way with God that has been preserved in the Christian East. The self-denying, mystical Orthodox experience of God is founded on two inseparably entwined elements: asceticism and sacrament. From the standpoint of spiritual development, these are two words that must be spoken with the same breath.
Asceticism refers to a life of spiritual exercises that break the power of selfish desires and deeds. Principally, this is a life of fasting and prayer. In particular, a manner of prayer that separates us from our own thoughts and desires and allows us pure unencumbered communion with the God who indwells us. As Jesus Christ taught us, the sin and evil in our lives may be overcome only through such prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21).
Another element of asceticism is almsgiving. The glad giving away of one’s money and physical goods is an integral part of mystical life in God. In the Book of the Acts, the righteous gentile, Cornelius, found his quest for God rewarded because, as the angel told him, “Your prayers have been heard, and your alms are remembered in the sight of God” (Acts 10:31). When we separate ourselves from the stuff that binds our hearts and minds to this world of passion and desire we open our hearts to a deeper mystical encounter with the indwelling Spirit.
Another hallmark of ascetic life, one that is unfortunately neglected by many Orthodox Christians, is humble obedience to the spiritual direction of a priest or monastic elder. You see, the ultimate act of self-denial is to mistrust one’s ego. To direct ourselves, to reserve the right to make up our own minds about what we shall believe and about how we shall act in every matter, is the very essence of our fallen condition. To humbly submit one’s decision-making processes to the wisdom of one ordained by God and to determine to do nothing without the blessing of those who, as St. Paul puts it, “watch out for our souls as those who must give account” (Hebrews 13:17), is an important step toward oneness with God.
But as I said, all these self-denying spiritual disciplines go hand in hand with the corporate celebration of sacraments, or to use a more Orthodox term— mysteries. These are divinely ordained events in which members of the Body of Christ mutually encounter the active presence of the living God. Within Orthodoxy, these mysteries include the commonly noted list of seven that comes to us from medieval Roman Catholic theology: Baptism, Chrismation, the Eucharist, marriage, ordination, and Holy Unction. But Orthodoxy is broader than the Roman Catholic tradition regarding mysteries. One could include liturgical worship, the veneration of icons, the various prayers of blessings used within the church, and monastic vows. All of these are sacramental activities, as well. For through these, God actively reveals His presence to His people.
What makes these mystical events special is that they are relatively meaningless unless God is actively present in them. What I mean is that God must do something to us in Baptism and Chrismation. The Spirit of God must move us to bare our souls and speak our sins in confession. Christ must give His life energy in the Eucharist. Divine power must penetrate the bodies of the sick in Holy Unction. Grace must bind the hearts of the married and descend upon the chosen in ordination. If this real activity of God is not present, then all these events are reduced to symbols of ideas about God that we entertain in our heads.
Of course, many who are steeped in the rational, philosophical Christianity of the West are perfectly fine with that view. They reject the whole notion of mysteries. For them, faith is, from start to finish, in the mind. It is defined by beliefs, not by living experience. Typically, they limit their practice of sacraments to baptism and communion. But even then, they are adamant that these are just symbolic acts, a public acknowledgement of beliefs they hold in their minds. They certainly are not conduits for the dispensing of divine power.
Even in those Western denominations that uphold and practice sacramental acts, the influence of Augustine can often be seen. In fact, it can be discerned in the very word that they use to describe them. Sacrament, you see, is actually a Latin word. It means “oath” or “obligation.” And sometimes this is how Western sacramental churches approach the Mysteries, as duties to be fulfilled in God’s plan for restoring order to His universe.
In fact, we Orthodox only use the term sacrament in deference to Western believers, in order to make our mutual discussion of these spiritual events easier. As I have already suggested, Eastern Christians properly refer to these practices by the Greek word mysterion or “mysteries.”
We do not perform these acts to fulfill an obligation to God, we do them to experience the profound mystery of His personal presence in our lives. By these, the Creator joins Himself to the created. There is no greater mystery than this.
Those who follow the ancient Eastern path to Christ know that it is only through the ascetic, sacramental life that we can experience the dynamic inner indwelling of God and the intimate union He desires with us. Our encounter with the active and living God, in other words, must itself be active and living. After all, love is not something we know, it is something we do.
Above all, love is a completely self-denying activity. Otherwise, it would not reflect the self-denying God who is its object and its author. And that is just what the Eastern ascetical sacramental path with God is—total self-denial, on all the important levels I outlined earlier.
First of all, we find along this path, the bridling of personal desires. This is most clearly revealed in the ascetic life. For instance, in fasting, we deny the most primal of all passions, the desire to satiate our hunger in a way that pleases us.
In Orthodox style prayer we silence our own personal thoughts rather than build our prayers on them. In almsgiving, we deny our longing for comfort, security and possessions. In obedience, we say no to our own egos. And these ascetical practices prepare our hearts to receive God in those blessed sacramental moments when He meets us.
When we come to the Eucharist with our hearts readied through fasting, the power of Christ’s Body and Blood to awaken the life of God within us because more effective. Through prayer and obedience, we learn to come to the mystery of confession with true humility and repentance. As we speak our sins, we experience the Spirit moving our hearts and lips.
None of this is done out of some empty sense of obligation or out of guilt or out of some hope that we can impress God with our personal discipline and devotion to the sacraments. No, we do it because we know that as we ascetically, by God’s grace, empty ourselves of deep-rooted selfish desires, we make room for the Holy Spirit to possess us more completely.
We join in the mysteries to give Him the opportunity to fill the space formerly occupied by our selfish yearnings with His energetic presence. As the Spirit of God lives His one life in us all, Orthodox believers enter more deeply into the life of God, and we enter more fully into each other’s lives, as well. The divine goal of making us one with each other and one with the Holy Trinity, in the same way that the members of the Godhead are one (as we read often in John 17:23) is accomplished.
Here, we can draw to a close our discussion of the second obstacle the Augustinian tradition presents to contemporary Christians. That is, its lack of resources for achieving genuine intimate union with God and with other believers. But let me make some final observations.
It may be tempting for those who are dissatisfied with the Western rational imaginative or charismatic approaches to God to think that they can quench their spiritual thirst merely by adopting ascetic and sacramental practices. Certainly, there is a way in which this represents a positive step in the spiritual development of someone who has been mired in the ineffective traditions of evangelical Christianity.
Nonetheless, just being ascetic and sacramental cannot cure the spiritual ills of those seeking a pre-Augustinian life with God. Why? The answer is simple. Whether one finds some Western denomination that practices the ascetic and sacramental life, or just decides to adopt this way of life in some purely personalized form, one still stands outside the historically united Body of Christ. And we have to understand that the function of the asceticism and mysteries of the ancient Church is to unite believers across all cultures and generations in the one, living faith of the apostles.
Granted, that faith is ascetic and sacramental, but this is not what defines it as the true faith. What makes the true faith true, what makes it the one Body of Christ, is that it has a divine existence of its own. That is, it is something more than just a mystical, spontaneous joining together of people who have all reached the same personal spiritual conclusions or who have individually decided to live in an ascetic and sacramental manner.
No, the Church is more than the combined lives of its parts. It is a self-existent living reality that calls human beings to become members in it. The Church does not exist because we do. It is there before we are, and it pre-establishes the very concrete requirements for union with it, requirements with which all would-be participants must comply. In other words, we do not make the Church, it makes us.
It is only as we come to understand this that we can begin to see just how confused the Christian West has become about what the Church of Jesus Christ is. Unfortunately, without a correct relationship to the Church, seekers of Christ can remain forever outside that glorious oneness with God and with each other that Jesus Christ came to create. This is the third of the essential obstacles that Westerners must overcome to rediscover pre-Augustinian Christianity, and we will begin to investigate that more fully next time.