Monday, July 24, 2006

Spiritual Formation

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

When you look through the gospels at the three-year relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ and His twelve hand-picked disciples, you cannot help but be struck by what a truly astonishing relationship it was.

First of all, these men were blessed to walk with God! Could there be any more amazing human experience than to spend every day of an entire three year period living with the Creator and Maker of all? They traveled with Him, ate and drank with Him, prayed with Him, listened to His teachings and stories, and slept under the same roof with Him every night. They came to know Him better than anyone, save His own Mother.

At the same time, the gospels reveal another dimension of their relationship with our Lord. Despite the great advantage of their intimate affiliation with Jesus, these men frequently misunderstood His mission, misinterpreted many of His teachings, and often failed to grasp the things He repeatedly taught them. It wasn’t until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them with power, that they slowly began to connect the dots and understand many of the things they had witnessed during the preceding three years, and the time and effort they had expended during that discipleship finally began to bear fruit in their lives.

Of course Pentecost was just the beginning. For the rest of their lives the apostles would continue to undergo the process of spiritual formation and would in time become very different, much more enlightened men from what they were even at Pentecost. By the end of their lives, they would truly be transformed.

What this illustrates is the simple reality that spiritual formation takes time. This is an important lesson for us to learn and remember, for we live in an impatient culture that demands immediate gratification in all things. What we want we must have now and if we have to wait for anything, it is an unbearable torment. It’s tragic but no surprise really that this cultural impatience is even found in our contemporary religions. Popular Christianity has reduced salvation to an instant experience, and makes a bad situation worse by instructing its new converts that once having received salvation, they are immediately “spiritually illumined” to read and interpret the scriptures of the Church “as the Spirit leads them” with no regard for the established beliefs of that same Church or how the Holy Spirit Himself has consistently led it through the ages. This fits very well with the American ideal of fierce independence and self-reliance, together with our desire for everything in life to be quick and easy. But what has it led to? Ignorance, delusion, and error are rampant, and fragmentation and division between Christians is the rule.

Imagine if our Lord, instead of investing three years disciplining, instructing, and correcting the apostles, had simply handed out bibles to them on the first day and said, “Go start My Church”. Do you think the result would have been anything other than doctrinal disagreement, quarreling, and twelve separate churches all calling themselves Christian? There is no way on earth our Lord would have allowed such a thing, yet among divided Christians today it passes for the norm.

Traditional Christianity recognizes that there is still a need for discipleship and a period of spiritual formation measured in years, even lifetimes, rather than in moments. It doesn’t accommodate itself to our preference for instant gratification or our desire to be our own, independent spiritual guides. In fact, it rather strenuously objects to these fallen impulses.

It also recognizes that human beings require a lengthy period of purification preceding true spiritual illumination. Our reasoning souls have been darkened by a lifetime of enslavement to the flesh; we are driven by ego and many fallen passions. Such things do not simply evaporate the instant we believe in Jesus. Once again, it takes time and communion with Christ in His Church to bring correction and healing to us and allow true spiritual formation to take place.

One of the things that can be seen in Eastern Orthodoxy is a great consistency of faith and confession in the lives of the saints throughout its entire twenty centuries of existence. This stands in sharp contrast with the division and confusion of contemporary Christendom. Having been purified by the therapeutic askesis of the Church, the saints all came to the same essential knowledge of God, despite vast differences in language and culture and era. The essential vision of God has remained the same in all the saints of the Orthodox Church because it was not ultimately based upon human opinion or personal interpretation of the scriptures, but upon the direct enlightening of God’s self-revelation to those who were pure enough to perceive it. In a very real sense, the saints became “living scriptures” written in flesh and blood rather than paper and ink, revealing God to us through their lives. When men today reduce the entire self-revelation of the uncontainable and indescribable God down to a single book—even that greatest of all books, the bible—and then attempt to interpret it by a human reason not yet made pure, it does not matter if they claim to have the Holy Spirit guiding them, the results will inevitably be what we see in the world around us: many different gods and many different confessions, and not what we see in the life of the Orthodox Church: one God, consistently known and confessed.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Of the three-part nature of the Orthodox life—purification, illumination, and deification—the only part that we have anything to do with at all is the first one, purification. We cannot illumine ourselves, we cannot deify ourselves, but we can purify ourselves with the help of God. Through careful obedience to the ascetic disciplines of the Church, fueled by our desire to draw ever nearer to Christ, we can slowly gain the purity of life and heart that allows God to begin to reveal Himself to us. There are no shortcuts to this process. Book knowledge and study, though important, do not take the place of divine illumination. Neither is there any way to live in sin and spiritual sloth and come to the true knowledge of God.

Just like the apostles and all the saints, we must devote ourselves to a lifelong experience of following Christ, of being discipled by Him in His Church, of being corrected by Him, at times of being rebuked by Him, always being nurtured by Him, that over time we may come to the knowledge of Him and the vision of God. For “this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” This is true salvation; not an “instant status” bestowed by a single decision for Christ, but a complete transformation which is the result of a lifetime of choosing for Jesus.

Let us join with all the saints before us in pursuing this life of purifying discipleship with patience, that together with them, we may also receive the blessing of transformation and of knowing God unto life eternal.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 7/24/2006 6:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, which orthodoxy is this?

I tried to look it up, but... Greek, Coptic, Russian, Oriental, Nestorian, Antiochan, or Western Orthodoxy, or ??

Pardon my lack of knowledge, but when I tried to get information I kind of got lost in all the permutations. I even ran across "Uniates" and "Melkites" and I wasn't sure which was the solid line of Church history leading back to the apostles. Isn't it the Catholic Church who says that?

Anyway, sorry for being somewhat new, but could you identify which Orthodoxy this is?

At 7/24/2006 8:15 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

You have mingled some non-Orthodox groups in with your mix, indeed showing your ignorance.

What I have written in this post is universal to all Christian Orthodoxy, as far as I know. Do you have some complaint or objection to it, or are you simply attempting to misrepresent Orthodox opinion as divided, to make it seem as bad as Protestantism?

At 7/27/2006 4:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lack of knowledge = Ignorance of this matter, yes. That's why I said, "Pardon my lack of knowledge."

I stated clearly that as an outsider I was unable to determine which ones were considered "Christian Orthodoxy". It might be clear to you which ones that claim the title of "Orthodoxy" are "true", but I had previously only heard the Catholic Church claiming an unbroken line from the apostles. Orthodoxy isn't as well known as many other groups. How can an outsider learn if he does not ask?

I have no idea if "orthodoxy" is united or divided. I am simply unclear as to what this "universal Christian orthodoxy" is.

Unfortunately, I also posted under the wrong section. I meant to post under the one above. I apologize.

At 8/02/2006 1:36 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

I offer my apology. Perhaps this page will help clear up some of the confusion:

Hope it helps.


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