Our society loves to divide things into categories, to compartmentalize our lives into different segments that (in many cases) do not or should not intersect. We have our work lives, our sex lives, our spiritual lives, and so on. But this division is a relatively recent phenomenon, the product of secularism. Eastern Orthodox spirituality does not exist as a separate thing; rather, it illuminates the whole of our lives and permeates everything that we do. That is genuine spirituality. That is what religion truly is: a way of life.
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The lie of secularism
One of the most important modern Orthodox thinkers, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, said that “secularism is a lie about the world”. He refers here to the division between the sacred and the secular. The false idea that religion is a private thing, a matter of personal taste, an individual preference. Orthodoxy has always pushed against this, asserting that spirituality is not a part of your life. It encompasses the entirety of your life.
Restoring communion with God
God created this world, and its existence is completely contingent upon Him. He did not have to create this world; rather He chose to create it out of love. Thus, our lives are not our own. They are a gift, and their purpose is to be in communion with the God who created us. But as a result of the Fall, that communion has been broken. We know this by simply looking at the world around us and seeing sin, fear, hatred, and death every day. The world itself now seems to fight against this deep desire within each of us to seek wholeness, reconciliation, and truth.
Orthodox spirituality speaks of restoring our communion with God through theosis, or deification, which is central to the Christian life. It’s important to realize that our being is not a simple extension of God’s being. He is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and yet He is utterly unlike us. But because of the saving work of Christ, we can become like Him and share in His divine life through adoption as His sons and daughters. In St. Athanasius’ words, “the Word became man so that man might become God”. Spirituality for the Orthodox is about moving more and more closely into communion with the source of life, with God, who has revealed Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this relationship can only reach its fullest potential within the context of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Monasticism: The heart of Eastern Orthodox spirituality
The heart of Orthodox spirituality finds its roots in the monastic movement that gained momentum in the 4th century. (Although, truly it was a continuation of something John the Baptist first exemplified, and that we find in movements such as the Essenes and the Qumran community. Christian monasticism began in the Egyptian desert. In some ways it was a response to the complacency of Christians who no longer feared persecution; no longer fearing for their lives, they grew comfortable and no longer strove toward holiness. Eager to once again encounter God, several men and women fled to live a life of ascetism and prayer.
Spirituality means unceasing prayer
The earliest monks tried to put into practice the exhortation of St. Paul to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). But what did prayer mean, and how did one start?
In her introduction to The Desert Fathers, Benedicta Ward writes:
St. John the “Protomonk”
St. John the Baptist is often referred to as the protomonk (proto = the first). His ascetic life, with its prophetic insistence on repentance and the presence of God’s kingdom, served as a beautiful model for the first monks. A life in which every energy is concentrated on being attentive to the living God was considered an angelic vocation. This is why some icons portray St. John the Baptist as an ascetic dressed in animal skins, with wings attached to his back.
It was a whole way of life […] It was not an esoteric doctrine or a predetermined plan of ascetic practice […] It is important to understand this, because there is really no way of talking about a way of prayer, or the spiritual teaching of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They did not have a systematic way; they had the hard work and experience of a lifetime of striving and to redirect every aspect of the body, mind, and soul to God, and that is what they meant by prayer. Prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day; it was a life continually turned towards God.
The work of prayer involved a struggle against the passions, and the ultimate goal was apatheia, or passionlessness. This does not mean viewing the body, food, and drink as bad things; they are indeed good. Rather, it is our relationship to our appetites that is the problem. They can become gods in themselves if we do not subject them to the will of God and control them through fasting, almsgiving, and prayer.
What prayer looked like
The practice of prayer often consisted of a single line of the psalms, repeated. For example, you might say, “Lord, come to my assistance; O God, make haste to help me” (Psalm 70:1). Regardless of the psalm chosen, you would couple this repetition with simple manual labor, fasting, and solitude, with attention to the presence of God. Monks increasingly called upon the name of Christ, and eventually the Jesus Prayer took the central place in Orthodox spirituality.
Hesychasm: Orthodox theology of prayer
Over time, the monastic tradition became known as “hesychasm” from the Greek word for stillness. This type of spirituality soon spread throughout the Eastern Orthodox world. It wasn’t until the 14th century that a conflict arose, when Barlaam the Calabrian rejected the idea that prayer of the heart could lead to a genuine experience of God’s presence, even a vision of what was called the “uncreated light”.
In defending his monastic brethren, St. Gregory Palamas asserted that while God could not be known in His essence, He could be experienced in His energies, which were also God, also divine. This assertion was controversial, because in the West, they taught that Grace was created, and inherently lesser, a gift to aid us in our movement toward God. But in the East, Grace was considered divine, uncreated, a part of God that we could participate in. So the monastics’ experience of the uncreated light was in fact an experience with the energies of God, not His unknowable essence.
The uncreated light
The “uncreated light” was the light that surrounded Christ on Mount Tabor, when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus, radiant in the presence of Moses and Elijah. Some monks affirmed that this light was something they experienced in prayer, as if they – like the original apostolic witnesses – were able to participate in an experience of divinity.
The point of prayer
While some people may arrive at an experience of the uncreated light, that is not the point of prayer. This experience is a gift, not something to be achieved. Rather, the point of prayer is turning one’s life over to God. Although the aim of Orthodox spirituality is not any particular experience or set of experiences, the testimony of many of our Fathers and Mothers in the faith is that God is experienced. That God’s life is shared, that a reality which will dawn fully at the end of time can truly be known now.
In defending Orthodox spirituality, Saint Gregory Palamas said:
This supra-rational knowledge [of God] is the common possession of all those who have believed in Christ […] Christ will come in the glory of the Father and in that glory “the just shall shine as the sun” (Matt 13:43); they will be light and they will see light, a blessed and sacred vision, that is the portion of the purified heart alone. Today this light [through God’s energies] shines out in part, a pledge given those who by impassibility have left behind all that is forbidden and by pure and immaterial prayer have passed beyond all that is pure.
Eastern Orthodox spirituality, which encompasses a whole way of life, stems from a desire to restore the communion with God that we lost after the Fall. We see the beginnings of his spirituality with Saint John the Baptist, whose life inspired Christians to live a monastic life in isolation from the world. To live truly as an Orthodox means turning oneself completely toward God through contemplative prayer, ascetic struggle, spiritual direction, and liturgical participation. And that participation must involve the whole of the self.
Keep Reading: How To Maintain A Consistent Prayer Life >>