Sunday, May 26, 2013

Met Saba Esber on the Purpose of Orthodox Spirituality

Arabic original in Majallat al-Nour, here.

The Purpose of Orthodox Spirituality

Question: I know, father, that many Orthodox do not like to use the term "spirituality." But insofar as it is a term that is current in the field of religion as in other fields, can you explain to us what is Orthodox spirituality?

Elder: We can define Orthodox spirituality as the path of the Christian's growth and his advancement in the way of perfection in Christ, the path that is completed through purification from the passions and the acquisition of the virtues. It is a way that is completed through a defined system and a well-known method. It describes the manner through which the Christian advances in the process of purification from each successive passion, while at the same time acquiring more virtues.

Question: Does this not give spirituality an ethical dimension?

Elder: When you are purified of a given passion and acquire the virtue that opposes it, your character naturally improves. However, Orthodox spirituality does not stop with good morals and does not consider that to be a goal in itself, but rather a natural expression of advancement of the life in Christ, reflecting God's grace active in the person being purified. In light of Orthodox spirituality, Christian ethics no longer appear to be the simple fulfillment of the duties demanded by God's commandments. In these commandments, there is a note of remuneration or reward. Orthodox spirituality transcends the issue of "putting the conscience at rest", "avoiding punishment" or "greed for reward."

Question: In light of what you said, what is the goal of Orthodox spirituality, then, if it is not good morals?

Elder: Orthodox spirituality aims for the believer's perfection in Christ. Its goal is the believer's unity with God, in Christ.
The Fathers affirm that perfection is not limited by any ceiling. Our perfection, or our unity with God, is not only a goal but also an infinite path. In this path, we distinguish two stages:
1. Moving forward toward perfection through purification from the passions and acquisition of the virtues.
2. The upward motion of life in union with God.
On this path lies a person's work to open the doors of his soul, so that it can be filled more and more with God's life.
Love of God, the desire to draw near to Him, and life in His constant presence pushes the believer to live this life and to be colored with the characteristic that we describe as spirituality.

Question: Are there specific qualities that distinguish Orthodox spirituality?

Elder: We can distinguish the following basic qualities:
1. The apex of spiritual life is the soul's union with God.
2. This union is realized by the work of the Holy Spirit, which supports the believer in continuing his efforts to purify himself.
3. The process of purification is achieved when the believer arrives at "God's likeness". That is, when he abides in knowledge and love.
4. This union appears in the focus of divine powers in a person, accompanied by various kinds of gifts.
The purpose of Orthodox spirituality is nothing other than living in a state of divinization or participation in divine life. The East dares to speak of man's divinization.

Question: What is our understanding of union with God?

Elder: Let us not speak to much of what is loftiest in human life. One of the spiritual fathers was accustomed to say "Talking about God is good, but listening to Him is better." Let's focus on the path that leads to this high level. However, let me answer you with the words of Saint Gregory Palamas, "Our mind leaves itself and is united with God. It becomes more than mind." This state is realized when the believer rises to what is above his own powers, through the activity of the Holy Spirit.

Question: What did you mean, father, by focusing on the "path"?

Elder: In order to reach this state, a person must make constant effort and persevere in asceticism, my son. The Apostle Paul uses the image of the dedicated and diligent athlete who strives to win the prize. Constant athletic exercises are what makes the athlete maintain his fitness.

Question: Talking about asceticism scares people these days, father. What does asceticism mean?

Elder: The Greek word asceticism, my son, has taken in the East a monastic meaning, but the literal meaning of the word is "exercise". In the Christian understanding, an ascetic is one who exercises to return his passions to their root, through persistent practice of the system of abstinence and self-control, according to a defined program, in order to arrive at perfection.
Origen calls zealous Christians ascetics because they train themselves for liberation from the passions and to develop good habits that lead to perfection (1).

Question: Does this mean that it depends on the person, according to his ability to practice and live asceticism? Where is God's role in this path of perfection?

Elder: If we talk, my son, about the ascetical effort that is demanded of a person and its role, it does not mean that we give the person all the agency, nor do we mean that divine grace does not support ascetic efforts. Rather, we simply mean that this spiritual experience that is attained does not find its source in human spiritual powers, but rather exclusively in God. Divine grace supports the person who makes effort to persist in his ascetic efforts and to advance in it.
We must not forget that divine activity does not sanctify without human agreement. By agreement we do not mean a mere lack of objection,  but rather active acceptance.
There is a lovely saying by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, in effect, "For you to create, this is something that depends on God. For you to be created, this is something that depends on man" (2).

Question: Why does Christianity in general and Orthodoxy in particular give such importance to asceticism?

Elder: If you desire life, you must put death to death. Asceticism is "killing death" within us, so that our nature may be liberated from its enslavement, according to the expression of Saint Maximus the Confessor (3).
The death of death, or the death of sin, is not something instantaneous. It requires a long ascetical preparation. Asceticism is a life that brings forth death to evil, according to the teaching of Saint Symeon the New Theologian. It is the gradual destruction of sin and every inclination towards it.

Question: But asceticism is based on abstinence, which is a negative activity. Can we strive toward perfection in Christ through negation?

Elder: No, my son. The negative connotation of the word "asceticism" comes from the prevalent erroneous usage. In our concept of it, however, asceticism is a very positive activity because one who struggles does not only strive to abstain from passion, but abstains from it in order to open space in his soul, so that it can be filled with virtue in its place. Asceticism sows the virtues in place of the passions. These, the virtues, in turn strengthen nature in truth.
The final goal of asceticism is to liberate our nature, not only from the movements of sinful lusts, but also from the thoughts that appear in our mind after its purification from the passions.

Question: But this liberation empties nature and the mind, father. Is emptying what is desired?

Elder: No, my son, we do not empty our nature and our mind. Rather, we replace the sinful, passionate, harmful things that fill them with what God created in us before the fall of our first ancestors. We sublimate our passions and lusts by becoming free of them. In this way, we replace, in the words of Saint John Climacus "longing with longing, desire with desire." We become free of earthly things and replace them with heavenly things. For us, emptying is a positive activity because on the one hand it displays a thirst exclusively for God and on the other hand it fill us with that which is beneficial for us and is meant for our salvation. The believer rejects passionate diversions in order to receive God in their place (4). We are emptied of what is harmful and sinful and are filled in their place with what is beneficial and good. Otherwise, there is no meaning and no use for asceticism. Asceticism is not a goal in itself.

Question: Is this not difficult for human nature?

Elder: Naturally, if we look at it from a purely human perspective, it is very difficult. But, if we are moved by love of God and know that God is with us, it becomes much less difficult. According to the teaching of the Fathers, the weakness of human nature is manifest in its lack of stability and firmness. It is like a branch shaken by the wind (the wind of the passions), and some compare it to a ball in the hands of the passions. However, by means of gradual ascetic exercises, our human nature participates more and more in the power of Christ's human nature. We must not forget that our efforts also include the power of Christ's human nature. The possibility of connection to Christ becomes active and effective through faith in Him. Consequently, His power becomes our power.

Question: So, ascetic efforts are more than necessary?

Elder: Our asceticism is the gradual death of the old man within us. It is an extension of baptism through will. Asceticism is not imitation of Christ as in the West, but rather a heroic death with Christ and in Christ. Our resurrection in Christ first means our death in Him. We cannot rise with Christ if we have not died with Him. The Resurrection is not a change of direction, but rather continuing along with Him. Death and resurrection in Christ are a single, continuous road.

Question: It is hard work, father! Who is capable of it?

Elder: Let the following words of the Apostle Paul be present in your mind, my son, "I can do anything in Christ who strengthens me." Christ is present in our favor. He is the primary actor in our asceticism, strengthening us, supporting us, and lighting our way.
Then, the real essence of asceticism is not limited to purifying the self of passions. Rather, at the same time it includes the acquisition of virtues, showing it to strengthen our nature. We not only remove the harmful weed, we immediately replace it with a good plant. This nourishes us daily with power, so that everything in us may become good.

Question: How does the Christian practice asceticism? Is it in a specific way? Or is it as the believer sees fit?

Elder: Asceticism follows a defined path, a system, a series of steps that we must never ignore. It is a specific discipline that takes into account the spiritual life's natural laws of development, as well as the principles of the faith and the person's capability. A battle like this one according to the law means that its way is based according to an authentic and inherent logic. This truth casts light on the final aspect of the spiritual life. This path of struggle requires an experienced and enlightened spiritual father.

Question: What is the role of God's grace?

Elder: Christianity holds that direct vision of God can only be realized through God's grace. In order to receive this grace, we must have moral perfection for the perfection of human nature, through unceasing divine help. Purely human training to awaken "the dormant power within us" is not enough. In Christianity, God does not have a nature that resembles a goal that we can seize with a human assault directed with clever tactics. God is a person. Thus, without initiative on His part, He cannot be known.
In order for God to reveal Himself in a mystical union, we must make ourselves worthy of this revealing by being sincere, pure, and good. God is above coercion that employs force. Thus Christian asceticism is a way enlightened not only by reason but also by faith, prayer, and God's help. It is a path in which our nature is entirely purified from sin and is morally strengthened.

(1) Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah, 19.7
(2) St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.64
(3) St Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassios, 61
(4) Saint Maximus the Confessor says, "Just as the sun dawns and enlightens the world, showing itself and the things that it enlightens, so too the sun of righteousness dawns in the pure mind, showing itself and the thoughts of every thing that God made or will make." Chapters on Love, 1

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