Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The essentials of Orthodox spirituality

Notes on chapter two of Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition. The essentials of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. Aim and means of Christian life. "The aim of man's life is union (henosis) with God and deification (theosis)." Deification is a sharing in the divine life (2 Peter 1:4) which causes man to participate in the love that flows within the Trinity. This union is the only way which humans can love God and neighbor perfectly. It is accomplished through the Mediator, Jesus Christ, and through the operation of the Spirit. It is a product of the action of God and not the natural effects obtained by human discipline. "The basis of the spiritual life is not psychological, but ontological."
  2. Divine grace and human will. "The incorporation of man into Christ and his union with God require the co-operation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces: divine grace and human will. Will - and not intellect or feeling - is the chief human instrument of the union with God. ... But our weak human will remains powerless if it is not anticipated and upheld by the grace of God." Orthodoxy has a synergistic view. They did not face Pelagianism (as in the West) and so do not speak the language that arose out of that controversy. Their fight was against an "oriental fatalist gnosis."
  3. Asceticism and Mysticism. "The 'ascetical life' is a life in which 'acquired' virtues, i.e., virtues resulting from a personal effort, only accompanied by that general grace which God grants to every good will, prevail. The 'mystical life' is a life in which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are predominant over human efforts, and in which 'infused' virtues are predominant over 'acquired' ones; the soul has become more passive than active." These are not mutually exclusive lives, though one may be predominant in a particular individual. "Graces of the mystical order are not necessary to salvation", but many of the Greek fathers believed that they are offered to all souls of good will.
  4. Prayer and Contemplation. "Prayer is a necessary instrument of salvation." Cassian distinguishes three ascending degrees of prayer:
    • Supplication for oneself
    • Intercession for others
    • Thanksgiving or praise
    Contemplation is not necessary to salvation, but, like mysticism, is open to all. Contemplation is not "high intellectual speculations or extraordinary insight". It begins with the "prayer of simplicity" or "prayer of simple regard", which consists in "placing yourself in the presence of God and maintaining yourself in His presence for a certain time, in an interior silence which is as complete as possible, while you concentrate upon the divine Object, reduce to unity the multiplicity of your thought and feelings, and endeavor to 'keep yourself quiet' without words or arguments." A contemplative life is one that opens itself up regularly to these acts of contemplation. Contemplation can be acquired by personal effort (as the ascetical life) or it can be infused by divine grace (as the mystical life). In the West, St Theresa distinguished four states of contemplative prayer:
    • The prayer of quiet, silent concentration of the soul on God, which however does not exclude distractions
    • Full union, in which there are no longer distractions, and which is accompanied by a feeling of "ligature of the powers" of the soul
    • Ecstatic union, in which the soul "goes out of itself"
    • Transforming union, or spiritual marriage
    The Greek fathers do not have such a strict classification, but it does parallel their thought. The first two stages are degrees of hesychia and are "the normal end of any habitual and loving prayer-life", though, again, love is the perfection of the Christian life, not contemplation.
  5. The Holy Mysteries, i.e., (in Western terms) the sacraments. The Orthodox church believes "the sacraments are not mere symbols of divine things, but that the gift of a spiritual reality is attached to the sign perceptible by the senses." They are reluctant to give exact definitions of the mysteries, e.g., the eucharistic presence. "The Orthodox Church wants a mystery to remain a 'mystery', and not to become a theorem, or a juridical institution." They agree with the scholastic axiom that "God is not bound to the sacraments" and do not assert that those who are outside the Orthodox church are deprived of grace.
  6. The Communion of Saints. "The worship of the saints is not latreia, the adoration due to God, but douleia, service or sebasmos, veneration." In addition to the apostles, the martyrs, and the other saints, the Orthodox church also venerates OT saints and the angels. The Greek fathers particularly emphasized guardian angels. "At the summit of the celestial hierarchy is the Theotokos, the blessed Virgin Mary." The Council of Ephesus (431) was key here. The most Orthodox form of piety toward Mary is based on the Gospel texts themselves, e.g., Luke 1:28, 38; John 2:3, 5; Luke 11:27-28; John 19:26-27. Ikons occupy an important place in prayer. They are designed not as a resemblance of the subject but as a stylized symbol or hieroglyph. "While the likeness is for the West a means of evocation and teaching, the Eastern ikon is a means of communion."
  7. The stages of the spiritual life. The western distinction between the three stages of the spiritual life (purgative, illuminative, and unitive) has correlations in the Orthodox church. More authoritative, however, is the view that the three holy mysteries - Baptism, Chrisma, and Eucharist - represent the three stages in the way that leads to God. All the sacraments, sacramentals, prayers, and the liturgy itself are focused on these three mysteries. This does not mean that the spiritual life is "merely ritual life". On the contrary, these mysteries are signs of invisible graces, viz, Baptismal grace, Pentecostal grace, and Paschal grace. It is the realities behind the outward signs that are the essential thing.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.