Orthodox Spiritual Life (Part IV)

Martyr Antonina of Nicea

Martyr Antonina of Nicea

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

CHRIST IS IN OUR MIDST! HE WAS, IS, AND EVER SHALL BE.  Ο ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ ΕΝ ΤΩ ΜΕΣΩ ΗΜΩΝ! ΚΑΙ ΗΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΙ ΚΑΙ ΕΣΤΑΙ.

ORTHODOX SPIRITUAL LIFE: THE EXPERIENCE OF DIVINE GRACE AND ITS EFFECT ON MAN
By Saint Silouam the Athonite

Saint Silouan says much concerning the personal experience of Divine grace. He explicitly refers to the soul's awareness of the tangible presence of grace: "And when the Lord enlightens you, your soul will feel the Lord... And this you will come to know of experience..."  Saint Silouan writes: "Glory be to the Lord that He gives us to discern the advent of grace, and teaches us to know wherefore grace comes..." The experience of grace is proportional to one's humility. Such an experience is impossible to describe. Yet the soul directly senses its presence.

Saint Symeon the New Theologian emphasizes the necessity of such an experience. In the fifth chapter of the Ethical Treatises he stresses that the believer must sense the presence of the Divine Grace within him. Saint Diadochos of Photiki: "...when we begin wholeheartedly to carry out the Commandments of God, all our organs of perception will become fully conscious of the Light of grace; grace will consume our thoughts with its flames... These effects of grace are always present in those who are approaching perfection..." (On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination 88, The Philokalia, vol. 1, p. 287). Indeed he uses the term 'sense' repeatedly. This particular teaching is directed to those who think that they can have Divine grace within them without being aware of it. According to Saint Symeon, it is not a question of whether or not the believer 'is able' to have such an experience. He states that if one does not sense the presence of Divine grace within him, then he must not consider himself 'spiritual.'

The grace of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the soul. The human body also feels its presence. Saint Silouan also writes, "...the grace of the Lord is exceeding sweet, and warms the mind and the heart and the whole feeble body." Also, Saint Gregory Palamas writes: "...the grace of the Spirit, transmitted to the body through the soul, grants to the body also the experience of things divine, and allows it the same blessed experiences the soul undergoes." This teaching on Divine grace pervading even man's physical body is already developed by Saint Macarius of Egypt. He clearly states that grace permeates all aspects of the human body, including the heart, the mind and even the thoughts of man. Divine grace thus affects the entire man. The bodily experience of grace reflects the dynamic dimension of man's deification (theosis) in Christ. Saint Siluan writes: "... he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics."

An interesting account of man sensing the tangible presence of Divine grace is found in the celebrated converstation of Saint Seraphim of Sarov. In this spiritual text of nineteenth-century Russia, the direct experience of personal participation in uncreated grace is described in the form of a dialogue between Saint Seraphim and the layman Nicholas Motovilov, his beloved disciple. Motovilov recalls a walk one snowy day with Saint Seraphim in the forest near the Sarovka River, when both experienced the presence of the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit. Their conversation reveals in a remarkable way the dynamic effects of Divine grace upon the whole man-soul and body.

["After he (St. Seraphim) said these words, I looked at his face and was seized with an even greater sense of reverent awe. Imagine that in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, you see the face of a man speaking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes. You hear his voice and you feel someone holding your shoulders. Yet, you do not see his hands nor his body, but only a blinding light spreading out for several yards, illuminating both the blanket of snow covering the forest glade and the snowflakes falling on me and the great Staretz with it brilliant radiance!]

This teaching of the sensible presence of Divine Grace penetrating even the human body could be misconstrued as a form of Messalianism. This heretical movement which arose in the 4th century and was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, expressed similar claims of a direct experience of the Holy Spirit, whose presence was physically sensible by man. The Messalians (heretics) were condemned by the Church Fathers not because they emphasized the indwelling of Divine Grace in man, but rather for teaching that through prayer man can behold the very essence of God.

Neither Saint Silouan nor the Holy Fathers before him can be accused of such views. In fact many of the Church Fathers who wrote about their experiences of Divine Grace also wrote against the Messlians and their heretical extremes. The approach of the Messalians was to set such 'spiritual experiences' and 'visions' in opposition to the sacramental life of the Church. Another fundamental error of the Messalians that the Holy Fathers opposed included their teaching that those who experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit no longer needed ascetic discipline or participation in the Holy Eucharist, since they were no longer subject to the dangers of sin.

It is interesting to note that Saint Silouan considered participation in Divine grace as an experience that man is normally unable to endure or sustain. Elder Sophrony recalls, "I remember Saint Silouan...once saying that our earthly being cannot sustain the fullness of grace...It is easier to carry burning coal in one's bare hands for a hundred yards, say, that to hold on to this grace and stay alive." This experience is apparently so overwhelming that it must be experienced slowly, in stages and even in small 'doses'.

The strength to endure such a experience is given by the Lord Himself. If and when the Lord pleases, He grants the believer the measure of grace that he is able to endure. Elaborating further with regard to Saint Silouan's own personal experience, Elder Sophrony also refers to the progressive nature of participation in Divine Grace, and how such experiences increase in both quality and length of duration. ("In proportion as the visitations of grace grew in strength and duration, so did the feeling of gratitude to God increase in Silouan's soul," St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 46). In this way the Lord instructs the believer, that he may progress gradually and grow in the participation of divine life.

(Next: The loss of grace)

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MY BLESSING TO ALL OF YOU

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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Glory Be To GOD For All things

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With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,

The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George