by "Moses" of Nashville, TN
As the day draws to a close, the sunlight fades from the room leaving only the flicker of lampadas. Their warm glow illumines the icons and vestments, which, in turn, appear to radiate a shimmering mosaic of gentle light. The sweet aroma of incense fills the air, its smoke ascending as a prayer to the Most High. Like noetic beings in complete surrender, chanters exclaim all praise and worship to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All standing prostrate themselves before the Holy Altar calling upon the Lord God for mercy. The mystical presence of Christ is undeniable as the priest sounds in chant, "Both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen."
The sacred rituals of ancient Christianity stand in amazing contrast to the modern Christian experience. Many Americans find themselves, flipping through the channels some time after midnight, caught in what one hopes is a paradox, but unfortunately is a comparable onslaught of infomercials and televangelists. Christianity in the modern world is often perceived as a hypocriticial caricature of itself. Seeming contradictions between faith and lifestyle are no new issue, but rather a reflection of man's ongoing struggle. Western civilization has been dividing against itself in the name of Christ throughout the dominance of papal authority and its schism with the East, the reformations, and colonial puritanism, until this very day. With the ever-growing number of denominations presently exceeding 32,000, unity in Christ appears to be limited to the Gospel, and no longer applicable to the Church.
Civilized man has long been in pursuit of a perfect society, an idealized concept of humanity. To believe in such an ideal lends inspiration to the acquisition of education and moral understanding. These two are homogenized into a religious legalism. Caught in the exhaustive mechanics of legalism, seeking to be refreshed, a new fervor takes hold of the modern man. A hyper-emotionalism in the pretense of spirituality is now conceived. These qualities are incapable of meeting the elusive needs of man, who longs to experience the subtle mysteries revealed in a life of spiritual contemplation. Western Christianity is dominated by legalism and emotionalism, and is absent from the mystical reality of Christ; it yearns for a faith of substance.
"Spiritual life is such a realm into which the wisdom of this world does not penetrate" (St. Theophan 61). This quote by St. Theophan the Recluse, the most highly acclaimed spiritual writer of nineteenth century Russia, seems to contradict much of the method by which we in America pursue spiritual life. Modern theology, with its reliance on theory and academic debate, separated from the heart of Christ, is deprived of its very life force. The mass divisions in the Faith are a result of this innovative reasoning which presupposes that man in his wisdom is the fashioner of all true dogmas. We have replaced apostolic theology with a post-modern ideology affirmed by the individual interpretation of Scripture. These intellectual and legalistic concepts do little to help us make sense of a personal God, and they force us to rely on the memorization of Scripture and moral reason in the absence of a spiritual life.
When the elements of antiquity are distorted by frequent abuse, they lose their essential qualities and become something old, feeble, and stale. The apostolic Faith, as presented in Western Christianity, is diluted and the new ideology is empty. Much of the modern world, desiring to be liberated, has embraced an emotionally-charged Christianity. This contemporary facsimile of spirituality with its hypnotic worship and crowd-pleasing message is no answer to the dead faith of legalism. "When the body is urged by the senses to indulge its own desires and pleasures, the corrupted intellect readily succumbs and assents to its impassioned fantasies and impulses" (St. Nikodemos 75). So then, "Guard yourself from the mother of vices, self-love," for "when the desiring aspect of the soul is frequently excited, it implants in the soul a habit of self-indulgence" (75). Emotionally-driven faith is temporal and encourages self-love, which is opposed to God, according to the ancient writing of the Holy Fathers and Jesus; "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself" (Matthew 16:24). Emotionalism in faith only further distances us from God, and it leads us to believe that His presence in our lives is a subjective experience.
"I who am so insignificant in this world, I contemplate in myself completely the Creator of the world. I know that I will not die since I am inside of Life: all of life surges within me. He is in my heart, yet He remains in Heaven. Here and there, equally dazzling, He reveals Himself to me. How can all of this come about? How can I accurately understand it? How would I be able to express all that I understand and see? In truth, these are indescribable things, utterly ineffable" (qtd. Damascene 402). These words of St. Symeon depict "his face to Face encounter with the personal God" (402). This mystical reality is experienced, not through rational thought or emotional feelings, but through God's self-revelation to man. Western Christianity is largely void of such encounters. Yet, according to St. Gregory, there exists within us all a common place, empty, waiting to be filled in moments of prayerful contemplation so that we might "be elevated from thoughts, speculations and all human knowledge, as well as from intellect itself, and thus to acquire the noetic energy- the illumined nous" (qtd. Vlachos 127). (Nous is the eye of the soul.) Man's very being longs for the sacred rituals, which define the essence of apostolic Faith. The subtle mysteries of Christ are revealed in the sacraments, prayers, and stillness of heart present in Holy Tradition. These essential aspects of the ancient Christian life continue to be lost to much of the Christian world.
Dominated by legalism and emotionalism, Western Christianity longs for the mystical presence of Christ to restore the substance of its faith. A new ideology has given rise to a placid literalism, depersonalizing our relationship with God. In understandable desperation we seekers succumb to the senseless call of hyper-emotionalism, which hinders our perception of God with false emotions, and binds us to the indulgences of self-love. Much of Western Christianity has been removed from the mystical Body of Christ present in the holy traditions of the Church. In humble awareness of heart, desiring to be filled by the wellspring of mystical truth, Western man turns to face the noetic light of Christ. Realizing our delemma, we must look to the East to understand the ancient teachings of Jesus and the Apostles maintained in the fullness of Orthodox Faith. "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" (Matthew 16:26).
1. Damascene, Hieromonk. Christ The Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books, 1999.
2. St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. The Philokalia. Vol. 2 Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. London: Faber and Faber, 1990.
3. St. Theophan the Recluse. The Spiritual Life: And How To Be Attuned To It. Trans. by Alexandra Dockham. Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995.
4. The Holy Bible. King James Version.
5. Vlachos, Archimandrite Hierotheos. The Illness And Cure Of The Soul. Trans. by Effie Mavromichali. Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1993.