EXPLORATIONS IN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
By: The Reverend Mother Myrella LeClair
What is Orthodox Christian Spirituality? What are the essential foundations of Orthodox Christian Spirituality? How do I live a life attuned to God? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed on this page as we travel the spiritual pathway toward living life in communion with God.
"Essential Foundations of Orthodox Christian Spirituality"
". . .whatever you do, do all to the Glory of God." (1Cor. 10:31)
Fr. Lev Gillet, also known as "A Monk of the Eastern Church", provides a framework for living a spiritual life. He lists seven essential foundations. The first four essentials are described below:
1. Aims and Means of Christian Life
The aim of human life is communion with God and union (theosis) with Him. We are meant to be "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet. 1:4). This union is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit and is accomplished through Jesus Christ: "In the Son, we become sons". St. Iraneus wrote: "Through the Spirit one ascends to the Son and through the Son to the Father". Christ is the "means" of Christian life. His redeeming actions are the "alpha and omega" (the beginning and the end) - as well as the very center - of Christian spirituality.
2. Divine Grace and Human Will
A person's incorporation into Christ and union with God requires the cooperation of divine grace and human will. Intimate union with God is not possible without surrendering and conforming our will to God: "Lord, not my will but thy will be done". Without God's grace, we are powerless to achieve both the willing and the doing. Origen taught that divine grace "reinforces voluntary energy without destroying freedom". Clement of Alexandria used the word synergy (cooperation) to express the action of these two forces/energies: grace and human will. Orthodoxy emphasizes that grace is freely given and is freely received, and "synergy" continues to represent the doctrine of the Orthodox Church.
3. Asceticism and Mysticism
Fr. Gillet defines "asceticism" as an "exercise of human will on itself, in order to improve itself". Thus, the ascetical life is a life in which acquired virtues, resulting from personal effort prevail. Human action predominates. The mystical life, however, is a life in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit prevail over human efforts and in which "infused" virtues predominate over the "acquired" virtues. God's action predominates.
Fr. Gillet provides a comparison between an oar and a sail to show us the difference between asceticism and mysticism: "the oar is the ascetic effort, the sail is the mystical passivity which is unfurled to catch the divine wind." This example distinguishes between the state in which a human acts and the state in which she is acted upon. Spiritual life is usually a synthesis of the ascetical and mystical.
4. Prayer and Contemplation
Fr. Gillet states that "prayer is a necessary instrument of salvation". He refers to Cassian's three ascending degrees of Christian prayer: Supplication (for oneself), Intercession (for others), and Thanksgiving or Praise. These three degrees of prayer "constitute a whole program of spiritual life". Fr. Gillett states that the most loving prayer, whether it be vocal or mental, is always the best.
Contemplations begin with the "prayer of simplicity", which consists of "placing yourself in the presence of God and maintaining yourself in His presence for a certain time, in an interior silence while concentrating on the Divine Person". The contemplative life is oriented towards living a life in which acts of contemplation are fairly often. You are preoccupied with God and attentive to His presence even though you are still in the world.
Monasticism offers the most favorable conditions for practicing contemplation; however, contemplation is open to all. No one is excluded from practicing contemplative prayer. In Orthodox tradition, the Jesus prayer (also known as the prayer of the heart) is often used.