Reflections on Orthodoxy

“Those who hold forth about spiritual realities without having tasted and experienced them are like a man traversing an empty and arid plain at high noon on a summers day: in his great and burning thirst he imagines that there is a cool spring close at hand, full of sweet clear water, and that there is nothing to prevent him from drinking it to his heart’s content. Or they are like a man who, without having tasted a drop of honey, tries to explain to others what its sweetness is like. Such indeed are those who try to introduce others to perfection, sanctity and dispassion without having learnt about these things through their own efforts and direct experience. And had God given them even a slight awareness of the things about which they speak, they would at all events see that the truth about them differs greatly from the explanation that they give. Christianity is liable to be misconstrued little by little in this way, and so turned into atheism.

“But in reality Christianity is like food and drink: the more a man tastes it, the more he longs for it, until his intellect becomes insatiable and uncontrollable. It is as if one were to offer to a thirsty person a sweet drink such that he would want, not simply to slake his thirst, but to go on drinking more and more because of the pleasure it gave him. These things are not to be understood merely in a theoretical way; they must be achieved within the intellect in a mysterious manner through the activity of the Holy Spirit, and only then can they be spoken about.” (Makarios, Philokalia III:320)

These things, this true spirituality that unites us in eternity to God and others, is the goal of the Christian life. Orthodoxy argues that while humanity retains that original image of God we have lost the likeness of God. We are lost, emptied, confused, trapped in sin, and unable to relate properly to God or to each other. In our sin, we tend towards corruption and death, unable to become who we properly are. With the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ we have redemption. He who is the second Adam overcomes corruption and death, bringing freedom to those who embrace his sacrifice and renewed life. Christ is a hand of a God, working to bring a fallen humanity back into the embrace of the Father. The Spirit is the other hand of God, working always with Christ, gathering those who participate with him into an increasing awareness of God’s fullness and power, so that as we participate in the power of the Spirit we are conformed to the likeness of Christ in eternal unity with God, a unity that brings freedom within the celebration of our true diversity. We are united with Christ in the work of the Spirit who does not awaken us only to bind us to sameness but rather enlivens us to be fully who we are, distinct from others in our participation with God, in our gifts and contributions and roles.

Christ and the Spirit work within the context of the church, building a holy community of holy people who are being restored to the wholeness of being, finding stillness and peace in the increasingly realized love of God’s eternal communion. We are raised to participate in this communion, not becoming God in his essence, but rather becoming able to commune with him in his energies, becoming divinized by the work of the Spirit who conforms us to the likeness of God. This work begins in the present becoming fulfilled in eternity with God, by God. This is not a passive transformation. Instead it is a dynamic interaction, with our participation invited and called to share with the Spirit an increased openness to divine perspective, choosing to find unity with God rather than with the world, which seeks to undermine, distort, and destroy the hope that God invites us to celebrate.

But what does it mean to be conformed to the likeness of God? What is the image of God in this world that the Spirit moves us towards and enables us to live? In quoting Makarios above, I quote from a representative of the great monastic tradition of the Eastern Orthodox, who sought a fully realized participation with the Spirit in overcoming sin, in finding deep and true discernment, living a life of prayer and worship. John Wesley, early in his life, encountered the writings of Makarios and these writings radically shaped his perspective and his ministry. Yet rather than embracing the monastic life that enabled a spirituality as it retreated from active participation in the world, Wesley saw that being conformed to the likeness of Christ, participation in the Kingdom of God that the Spirit represents in power, meant not only an ethical holiness but also mission and helping those in need. His was a public holiness, a holistic holiness that risked participation with the world in order to reflect more wholly the model of Christ in this world. Far from being works meant to earn salvation, these are works that come out of salvation. We work because God has already worked, and is working, and works in and through us to join with others in a communal, active holiness. We can work because of the Spirit’s work in us, we must work because of the Spirit’s work in us.

And so we see the deepened pneumatology of the Orthodox finding a place for the work of the Spirit outside of the bounds of the church, not cut loose from Christ at all, though maybe more spread than the tighter grasp of the Orthodox. The work of the Spirit in bringing us to Christ calls us to gather others into this embrace, “farther up and further in”, with a holiness that, like Christ, is in this world, for this world. Yet, in doing this, it is very easy to lose the deepened perspective on holiness with the Spirit offered by the Orthodox thinkers, and those of us who seek to see God in and for this world, outside the bounds of a hierarchy in an emerging perspective on Christ and Kingdom, who are wary of a separate and away from this world, should regularly drink of these deep wells of the Orthodox, whose pursuit of the Spirit, whose participation of the Spirit gives us a map of the Christian life and the human struggle seeking a way to wholeness and stillness with God.

“What is the purpose of Christ’s advent?” Makarios asks. He answers, “The restoration and reintegration of human nature in Him. For He restored to human nature the original dignity of Adam, and in addition bestowed upon it the unutterable grace of the heavenly inheritance of the Holy Spirit. Leading it out of the prison of darkness, He showed it the way and the door to life. By traversing this way and knocking on this door we can enter the kingdom of heaven. As He said, ‘Ask and it will be given to you… knock and it will be opened to you’ (Mt. 7:7). By passing through this door it is possible for everyone to attain the freedom of his soul, to cut off even thoughts, and to become Christ’s bride and consort through the communion of the Holy Spirit. Such is the ineffable love of the Lord towards humanity, whom he has created in His image.” (Philokalia III:352)

This entry was posted in holiness, Holy Spirit. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *