Fr. Stephen Rogers is the priest at St. Ignatius Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN. He gave a series of 9 talks at the parish on Orthodox Spirituality concentrating on Purification, Illumination, and Deification.
Tonight is a little troublesome for me. For the past seven sessions, we have been concentrating on the stage of spiritual growth that the Fathers of the Church refer to as purification, that process of ascetical struggle to purify ourselves of the passions. The fact of the matter is, I know a little bit about struggling, I know a little bit about failure, I know a little bit about passions, but as we move tonight to illumination, I don’t know a whole lot. So I’m nervous about it. The truth of the matter is that in this process of ascension, the higher we go, the less the Church has to say about it and the more it’s taken out of the realm of words into the realm of contemplation. Nevertheless, we’ll try to get a glimpse tonight of this mystery.
As I said, for the past several weeks we’ve been speaking of the process of purification in the life of a Christian. In those talks, we have spoken of many actions and frames of mind that we, as those seeking to be purified, are to engage in and to frame our minds in, and it’s very much an active process on our part. But the effect wrought by those actions is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Throughout the literature of the Orthodox Church when it speaks about the process of theosis, the process of deification, the state of illumination, what is being talked about is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov says it is the highest goal of every Christian to acquire the Holy Spirit.
So when we begin to speak about illumination, we’re speaking about life in the Spirit. You may remember last week: we quoted Fr. Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory in his saying that
Baptism is our birth into Christ, and our chrismation is life in Christ; we are born into Christ and we live in Christ, and if the act of purification is the working out of the grace of our baptism, then illumination is the working out of the grace of our chrismation. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life [that] the second Person of the Trinity sent to us to be our Comforter, the Spirit of truth, the Revealer of sin.
And it is the work of the Holy Spirit, as we pursue this process of purification, to pierce through the heavy layers of our passions, so that the light of Christ may shine and that the fruits of the Spirit may take root.
St. Nicholas Cabasilas says, “Once the passions which darken us begin to be removed, the gifts of the Holy Spirit blaze up in our consciousness from the hidden part of our heart in all their brilliance.” The darkness of the passions, through purification, allows the illumination of the Holy Spirit to spring forth from our hearts, the hidden part of the heart, that place within us that was created in the image of God to commune with him.
And thinking along the same lines, St. Maximus the Confessor tells us that after we have made some [progress] in the virtues through purification, our conscience begins to redden with the first glow of illumination, as the light of the Holy Spirit begins to rise within us like the sun. He’s telling us that the struggle against the passions, being subject and in bondage to our passions, is like struggling in darkness, but if we will continue to struggle in the darkness, then out of that darkness comes the rising sun, and the first glow of the illumination of the Spirit begins to rise within us. St. Maximus goes on to tell us that through the initial process of purification, we’re striving to keep the commands of God simply for the reason that he has given them. We act out of obedience, but as the Holy Spirit begins to penetrate and illuminate, the fruits of the Spirit take hold and our motivations begin to change, and we begin to see and perceive things in a deeper way, as the light begins to dawn in the darkness of our heart.
So as we continue and as we pursue and as we struggle through this process of purification, the first flickerings of illumination begin, and St. Maximus says we begin to develop the gift of understanding. And we no longer seek to follow the commandments of God simply out of obedience, but we begin to see and discern the blessings behind them. We begin to obey God with joy and good judgment.
The gift of knowledge, this obedience through joy and understanding, St. Maximus [says] begins to grow, and from obedience comes the gift of knowledge, and we begin to see the effects of those commands in our lives. And the gift of comprehension blossoms forth, in which we begin to see the work of God in all things. And through that comprehension finally comes the gift of wisdom, in which God is truly everywhere present and fills all things. And this wisdom, this illumination, is the seeing of God in all things, of truly experiencing God as the maker, the sustainer, and the guide of all things.
The illuminated person is able to see his purpose. He is able to see his path. He’s able to see the interdependent meaning of the events of his life and of all of nature and how it’s all woven together with and in the one God that exists as the base of all things.
Parenthetically, only God knows how this process works within us and why is it you read in the lives of holy men and women that the state of illumination is reached in some almost instantaneously and others it takes decades. Why is it within weeks St. Silouan sees a manifestation of the incarnate Christ and St. Mary of Egypt goes into the desert for 47 years? God knows, and I’m sure when that illumination comes, that whether it’s a week or 47 years, the joy is the same.
But in the state of illumination, this higher state of spiritual being, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, this knowledge, this wisdom, this comprehension, guides us to experience the mediated knowledge of God—and I’ll explain that. For what distinguishes the state of illumination, the second state in this “purification, illumination, deification” process, what distinguishes the state of illumination from the state of deification is that the illumined man experiences the divine energies of God through the external experience of them; the deified man experiences the divine energy from within. In other words, for the illumined man, the divine energies of God shine forth on man from things; for the deified man, the divine light shines from within the man himself.
Like Moses on Mt. Sinai or the disciples on Mt. Tabor, the illumined man experiences God’s glory mediated through things. And, freed from the passions and guided by the Spirit, the illumined man sees beyond the surface of things to the essence of things. And all these efforts of purification become living realities. Creation is no longer seen as a thing in and of itself. The sense of wonder that we talked about becomes self-sustaining and permanent. Obedience becomes a natural way of life, not a constant effort. And the hidden and deeper meanings of Scripture reveal themselves. The higher realities of the Liturgy are experienced. And the man and woman who have struggled through this process of purification to illumination contemplates and sees God in all things.
For St. Maximus, whose writings and experience form the basis of what I’m saying tonight, for St. Maximus, for St. Evagrius, and for many of the contemplative ascetics, one of the most fundamental aspects of illumination is the contemplation of God in nature. And we’ve all probably staggered through a darkened room, feeling our way through the room on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, bumping into things, stubbing our toe, but as the sun rises in the morning, the objects in the room become more visible. They take on more definition. A chair becomes a chair, and the purpose of things becomes more discernible. And that is the relationship of the light of the Spirit and the illumined man to the world.
St. Maximus sees creation and our thoughts toward it as absolutely necessary in our ascent to God. He says that on the road of our approach to God stands the world, and we must pass through the understanding of it. He says, “Everyone knows the world according to the power within him.” The state of our being interprets the world around us is what he’s saying. And that true knowledge of the world can only come through the virtues: through purification. He goes on to say: “The world is a teacher that can lead us to Christ, but it can also be a road that leads us to hell.”
St. Maximus says, “The world is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The illumined man looks at creation and sees the Creator and is saved. The man of passion sees the world as something to eat, and is lost.” When the illumined man looks at the world, he no longer sees the world in and of itself, but sees the world as a manifestation of the Creator. He sees the world symbolically. And just as we did in our inquirers’ class last week, discussing the Liturgy, we must elaborate that in the true meaning of the word symbol, we do not mean an object that represents something else. The true meaning of a symbol is the joining of two things to become something greater. So the Liturgy is a symbol in that it is the coming together of heavenly worship and earthly worship, and becoming something more. So the illumined man sees the world as symbol: the uniting of two things to become one thing, to see in creation the Creator, to experience in creation the Creator.
For the illumined man, in the words of St. Maximus, the view of the world is united with the vision of the unfathomable and the ineffable. Everywhere, the illumined man is in contact with the mysterious, and in the world, he sees the light of another world. The world is illumined by divine light which has no limit. St. Maximus says the illumined man sees the world in the spirit. Freed from passions, the illumined man contemplates the world spiritually. The discursive powers, that is, our reason, no longer looks for answers, but has found rest. This does not mean that in the illumined state reason is abandoned; rather, it is purified.
And St. Maximus says that contemplation of God in nature is not a renunciation of reason or an irrational leap of faith, but rather an illumined reason, a reason freed from the passions. Illumination does not do away with reason, but rather raises and activates it into a purer form. The illumined man realizes that there is a reality beyond his reason, and therefore reality is not a mere product of our reason. The illumined man’s reason is conformed to this higher reality and does not seek to conform reality to his reason. In a state of illumination, reason is purified and illumined by light rather than darkened by the passions.
In the darkened state, our reason becomes our enemy. The higher truths and purposes of creation are replaced, and only the materialistic and utilitarian side of creation is seen. When the reason is darkened by our passions, the world becomes strictly a place for the flesh. And the world, seen this way, produces a reason that is dominated by personal interest. And a reason dominated by personal interest replaces objectivity with subjectivity. Each person has a truth of his own, and the world no longer seems the same to everyone. Everyone, through darkened reason, sees the world differently, so that the true Author of that world is no longer seen. And this darkened reason creates doubt as to whether there is an objective truth at all. For the person who has not been purified from the passions, reason is always in service of the passions, and therefore distorts the truth rather than defines it. So the illumined man, freed from the passions, does not set aside his reason to simply contemplate the world in some sort of altered state, but the purified reason sees the world objectively because the world it sees is not a world of its own creation but the world of the Creator.
So a critical step in this pathway to illumination is to strive and to struggle to see the higher symbolic truth of things. This goes back to our earlier conversations. And while still in this process of purification, while I am still bound to my passions and struggling with the reason that is darkened by my passions, I still must strive to think and reason like an illumined man. I must train myself and constantly strive not to see an apple as simply a delicious object to satisfy my appetite, but to see it as a sign of divine beauty and goodness. I must train myself to not see other people as objects to desire or manipulate, but as human beings created in the image of God. I must strive to not simply see the Divine Liturgy as a ceremony or a ritual, but as an actual entry into a higher, more complete, more reasonable reality, adjoining into that divine, eternal liturgy that has always been going on and always will be celebrated around the throne of God.
More than once I have said to people, “If you want to experience God in this place, then act like he’s here. If you want this to be holy ground, then act like it’s holy!” And if we want to strive toward illumination, then we must act like illumined people, and even though it’s still in our struggle and still in our passions, strive to see the higher symbolic reality of the world and the creation we come into contact with every day at every breath of our life.
In patristic literature, we encounter stories of the saints talking to animals. I meant to make copies of my icon at home of St. Seraphim of Sarov sitting on a rock, talking to a bear. It’s one of my favorite icons. Real rabbit trail: Have you seen that picture that was on the internet a year or so ago, of trapeza, the dinner table, at a monastery in Russia, and there’s two monks with their plates in front of them, and right between them is a bear? It’s a real picture; it’s not Photoshopped. I love the caption: “Orthodoxy. We’ve got bears.” [Laughter]
But we see this icon of St. Seraphim talking with a bear. We reading the writings of Dostoyevsky of priests asking forgiveness of the birds, and thanking them. In Scripture we read of Daniel in the lions’ den. Are these things fairy tales? Are they some sort of pan-theistic neo-heresy? Or are they the accounts of the experience of creation in a state of illumination, the world seen free of the passions, a world in which a man sees the world and all it contains as an icon of ineffable beauty, who sees the bear and the birds as the handiwork of a Creator-God who is in all places and fillest all things?
In Orthodox literature, we hear accounts of priests waiting for the holy fire to tangibly descend upon the Gifts. We hear accounts of angels perceived around the church altar. We hear stories of Mary extending her protective veil over entire cities. Are these accounts fairy tales, or are they the real experience of creation by those who have reached a state of illumination? In hagiographic literature, the writings about the lives of the saints, we hear about cracks opening up inside the earth to hide them. We hear about people walking on water; we hear of people calling down the elements. Are these fairy tales, or are they the experience of creation to an illumined soul?
It’s fair to say that illumination is a step in part of the process of God’s restoration of man. Illumination is a communing with God through the restored image made possible by the incarnate Christ, for Christ is the highest symbol. He’s the greatest example of two things being joined together to become something else. St. Maximus says, “The powers of searching for and investigating divine things are planted in the nature of man, in its essence, by our Maker.” In other words, we are created in the image of God. So the power of searching for and investigating divine things, that nature was given to us and bestowed to us by God. And he says the power of the Holy Spirit imparts the revelation of divine things by grace. The grace in the Holy Spirit, life in the Holy Spirit, is the reestablishment of the power of those who do not persist in error, those who have been purified, those who have been restored.
St. Maximus says, “It’s not right to say that only grace works by itself in the saints without the powers which we are capable of by nature.” In other words, he’s saying it’s not just grace that works on us, but grace and cooperation with the very image that God has bestowed upon us, as created in his image. But on the other hand, the power of nature alone doesn’t find the truth without the grace of the Holy Spirit; neither does divine grace produce illumination if someone is not in the state to receive the illumination in his natural faculties. In other words, our natural faculties, our God-given image to perceive the things of God, is restored through the Holy Spirit in these acts of purification, and he who does not struggle to be purified will not have the faculties to receive the grace that illumines the world.
St. Maximus says, “He who knocks on the door in a dispassionate way, in a purified way, will enter unimpeded into the mystical grace of the knowledge of God.” All of this is to say that illumination is produced by purification. Illumination is the restoration of man. Illumination is the repair of our true humanity; it’s not a super-new, super-humanity. And so this progress in the Spirit in faith by the practice of the virtues, by asceticism, is a return to healthy reason, which leads to contemplation and wisdom. In the illumined man, the relationship between reason and contemplation is not one of mutual exclusion, but they are complementary. Reason and contemplation complement and nourish each other. God is beyond our reason, but he isn’t devoid of reason; he is the supreme reason. He is the reason from which all reasons proceed.
St. Maximus says, “What man, once he has seen with wisdom the beings brought by God into existence from non-existence, and has directed his contemplation to the variety of things in nature, wouldn’t know the one Logos?” In its simple form, to be illumined is to return to one of the very opening statements of our talks, when we quoted St. Gregory who said, “Let us become what we once were.”
So for the illumined man, the world becomes icon. The world becomes simple, in which the Logos behind the creation is manifested in all the variety of that creation. St. Maximus goes on to say that while the illumined man sees nature as it truly is, there’s a second thing that is opened to the illumined man as well. Quoting St. Maximus: “Man has the absolute need for two things if he wants to keep the right way of God without error: the spiritual understanding of nature and the spiritual understanding of the Scriptures.” For just as the illumined man by the Holy Spirit sees creation in a fuller, more comprehensive way, so too the man of the spirit sees a deeper meaning in the word of God. And St. Maximus is rather stern in stating this.
He says that the man who is full of passion, to the extent that he’s glued to external things, will also be glued to Scripture as merely being law and history. He says, “For the passionate man, Scripture can actually be a roadblock in the path to God, rather than being the way to him.” For the illumined man, for the purified man, Scripture transcends mere law and history, and becomes the very depth of God’s divine thought. To the illumined man, the spiritual reading of Scripture is the leaving of the confines of the letter and the moment in time in which it was written, to experience the words speaking to him directly.
Were I an illumined man, the Scriptures would speak to my person, to my time, to my situation, to my future. For the illumined man, the reading of Scriptures is hearing the voice of God himself. This does not mean that the illumined man will receive subjective meaning that is not objectively contained in the Scriptures, for subjective meaning would mean it was no longer the objective word of God. But what St. Maximus is saying is that for the illumined man, the same Holy Spirit within the man reading the Scripture is the same Holy Spirit which inspired the words of the Scripture. The source of inspiration and the source of interpretation and the source of implementation are one and the same. And because the Spirit is speaking to the spirit, this prohibits the illumined man from misinterpreting the Scriptures or approaching them in a subjective manner.
The revelations of the Spirit are given by the same Spirit that uttered them, and therefore they are received in the Spirit of truth.
In this way, all things in Scripture become not only contemporary and relevant, they become biographical. And for the illumined man, the historical realities of Scripture are the biographical realities of his soul, and the flight from Egypt is his flight, and he experiences the story of Joseph as his story. The phases of King Hezekiah’s life are the phases in the life of his soul. David is the mind purified from the passions. Saul is my spirit when bound to a fleshly interpretation of things. Babylon is my soul, gripped by the passions. For the illumined man, the events of Christ’s life related in Scripture become the events of salvation in his life. Jesus is present in the illumined man. He is born for me. He is baptized for me, he suffers for me, he dies for me. I am resurrected with him. For the illumined man, Scriptures become a relationship with God, a very real dialogue with him. And the Bible becomes much more than a textbook on morality or a treatise on theology. It becomes what we like to call it: the word of God.
Again, that’s why we pray: Account us worthy to hear the holy Gospel. And I share with you again, in the light of illumination, the prayer that I pray on behalf of us all before the Gospel is read. The priest prays, “Illumine”—that’s the first word.
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind, with the pure light of thy divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of thy gospel teachings.
What are we praying for there? That we would hear the Scriptures as illuminated people.
Implant in us also the fear of thy blest commandments, that, trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things that are well-pleasing unto thee…
What that prayer affirms, and what St. Maximus is saying, as frightening as it is for me, is that the passionate man doesn’t even hear the Scriptures in their fullness and in their entirety. And the prayer ends by saying:
...that we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, an illumined manner of living, both thinking and doing such things that are well-pleasing unto thee, for thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God.
This prayer makes it plain that the true understanding of Scripture is not merely an exercise in reasoning. It’s not merely an exercise of our cognitive powers, but it is an action of the Spirit made possible by the purification from the passions. Understanding of Scriptures is incompatible with the passionate way of life.
And all that we have said about the illumined man’s view and experience of creation, all we have said about the illumined man’s experience of divine Scripture, can also be applied to the illumined man’s experience of the liturgical life of the Church. The illumined Paul is caught up into heaven. The illumined John joins in heavenly worship and liturgy.
The old priest stops the liturgy and waits—you know that story; we’ve told it before. It’s a true story. Elderly priest at the altar, and when he gets to the epiklesis, the words of institution, “Send down thy Holy Spirit upon this bread and make it the body of Christ,” he gets to that point and he just stops, and a minute goes by, and two minutes go by, and there’s movement in the church, and people are starting to get a little uncomfortable. Has he had a stroke? Has he lost his mind? Eventually, after a very uncomfortable pause in the Liturgy, of silence, they send somebody up to the altar to say, “Father, are you okay?” And he says, “I’m just waiting for the fire to come down.” And this priest, as an illumined man, experienced the symbolic, the higher reality of our Liturgy.
The illumined child in our congregation a few years ago is the child that saw angels singing and standing behind our choir and singing the canon of Pascha. I’ll never forget. “Father, did you see the angels over there?” Huh? [Laughter] No, sorry to say.
Near the end of the chrismation service which we heard last Saturday at a baptism, we’ll hear again this Saturday at a baptism, near the end of the chrismation service, the priest announces to the newly baptized, “Thou art baptized, thou art illumined, thou hast received anointment with the holy chrism. Thou art sanctified, thou art washed, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” By the love of God in the Church, we have received the means and the power to be restored. We have received the means and the power to be purified. We have received the means and the power to be illumined. We have even received the means and the power of the Holy Spirit to be deified.
And as the Holy Spirit purifies, we reach that state of illumination in which the grace of God is manifested through external things. We see the world in the light of Mt. Tabor. But the Holy Spirit continues its work, and the illumined life leads to the deified life, in that state of being in which we pass from experiencing the divine light in external things to radiating it internally. This is God’s desire for man. This is our image and likeness restored. This is the promise and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let’s all continue and not lose hope, and continue the struggle.
I was at the Mullicans’ house last night, blessing their home, and was relating to the day, you know how we talk: “How was your day,” and I casually mentioned that my day had consisted in a little outbreak of what I consider the epidemic of our age, and that is irrational fear, and that I had had to speak with several people and deal with several people that struggle with fear, irrational fear, that is… they’re controlled by fear. I shared with them the statement that I shared with these people, and it applies to this process, brothers and sisters. That’s why I bring it up. And that statement is: “There is only one way we can lose, and that is to surrender.” There’s only one way that we can’t finish, and that is to stop.
For we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus, and all has been accomplished for us, and no matter how daunting or esoteric or beyond us this process may seem, it is a promise given to us by God and a process that leads to that promise. So despair not. Be of good cheer. Don’t be overly analytical in where you are. Again, I shared with somebody today—and I’m speaking of myself—when I try to analyze myself too much, when I try to reason my way into discerning where I am in this process, that reasoning in my life can only lead to two places: pride or despair. And I can look at this process and be puffed up with pride that I’m an ascending freshman, or I can fall over in despair that this is impossible.
All is accomplished in Christ, and Christ will accomplish all. So let’s continue to fight the good fight and be assured of the abundant promises that the Scriptures tell us are ours. And though it may seem that we’re still stumbling around in that dark bedroom and stubbing our toe, the fact is that the sun is rising in each of us and that the light will illumine us and bring us to that state of being that God desires for us. That is his promise and our assurance. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.