Orthodox Spiritual Life

St. Cyril the Archbishop of Alexandria

St. Cyril the Archbishop of Alexandria

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

By Harry Bousalis

The Acquisition of the Grace of the Holy Spirit

"The good of Christian life is the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit." -St. Seraphim of Sarov

One of the fundamental themes in the writings of Saint Silouan is his teaching on the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit; this is at once both the starting point and the continuous goal of Orthodox Christian spiritual life. However, before proceeding to an analysis of Saint Silouan's teachings about grace, it would be helpful to discuss some basic preliminary points.

1. Preliminary points of Orthodox anthropology

Orthodox anthropology teaches that man is created to participate in the life of God. This is the essential meaning of the Scriptural account of the creation of man: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness...So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him..." (Gen. 1:26, 27). This passage conveys the fundamental truth that man is a spiritual being and that the true meaning of human existence is understood only in its proper theological perspective. According to the Orthodox view, God grants to man "through grace" that which belongs to Himself "by nature," i.e., divine life. Man was created to be a vessel of divine grace. Apart from this he becomes something he was not originally intended to be.

When man declares his independence from his Creator, he restricts himself to a secular life separated from God. He then not only forfeits his sanctification through Divine Grace, but also fails to comprehend the fundamental purpose of his existence. Communion with God and participation of Divine Grace therefore constitute man's natural element. (St. Silouan writes, "Every day we feed the body and breathe in air that it may live. But what the soul needs is the Lord and the grace of the Holy Spirit, without the soul is dead.") It is precisely the divine image and the presence of divine grace that distinguish man from the animal kingdom. Saint Silouan writes: "How infirm is the soul! Without God's grace we are like cattle, but with grace great is man in the sight of God."

Man is thus created and called to grow into the fullness of divine likeness. However, although he has fallen from his original splendor, and in spite of the fact that he is now born into a state of sinful inclination, man still retains the 'image of God' in which he was initially created. According to Orthodox teaching the image of God in fallen man is certainly distorted and disfigured, but it has not been entirely annihilated--as is taught by those Protestant confessions that have inherited the Calvinistic teaching of total depravity. The goal of Orthodox spiritual life therefore is not only to restore the 'image of God,' but also to attain to the 'likeness of God' in Christ.

The exact meaning of the phrase 'in the image and likeness' has occupied the minds of many Christian writers throughout the history of the Church. For Orthodox anthropology, the term 'image' has a different meaning from the term 'likeness'. 'Image' may be seen as the potential inherent in man for sanctification,, while 'likeness' refers to its perfection. On in other words, one could say 'image' implies 'potentiality', whereas 'likeness' implies 'actuality.' Elder Sophrony alludes to this distinction between image and likeness, "When it is God's good pleasure to unite with the human being, man perceives within himself the action of a Divine force which transfigures him and makes him no longer just potentially godlike--in the image of God--but actually godlike in likeness of being.").

Man was not originally created in a state of completed perfection. He was, however, endowed with the unique freedom to choose either to live in pursuit of achieving his full potential, or else to digress toward the desecration and defacement of his true dignity as man. Only through the proper use of his God-given freedom can man cooperate with divine grace in restoring the image of God within him and attain to the likeness with God for which he was crated. In the teaching of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, man is presented created as a 'child', who must grow into the full maturity of manhood."

According to Orthodox teaching, sanctification -which is also referred to as perfection, theosis or deification--is not to be understood as a static state, where man maintains or preserves a particular high level of spiritual virtues. The human person is called to grow ceaselessly and progress continually into the likeness of God. Thus, perfection has no limits. It continuously advances, not only on earth, but also in the life to come.

2. The goal of the life in Christ: the deification of man

For Orthodox anthropology then, the ultimate goal of man is deification (theosis). In order to understand the Patristic teaching on the deification of man, one must bear in mind two important theological distinctions. The first is the fundamental distinction between the uncreated and the created. 'Uncreated' refers only to divine nature, i.e., to God Himself. Everything else that exists is created, since it is the work of God, created out of nothing and dependent on God for existence.

The second distinction, which is found only in Orthodox theology, refers to the uncreated Divine Nature of God. This is the distinction between the essence of God and the energy or energies of God. God in His essence remains transcendent, inaccessible and incommunicable. However, in His energies, which are inseparable from His essence, God communicates Himself and grants His divine life, which sustains and sanctifies not only man but the whole of creation. This distinction is fundamental to the Orthodox teaching of deification (theosis). Through the efforts of Saint Gregory Palamas and a series of councils in the fourteenth century (14th century) that upheld the authority of his writings, this teaching was established as dogma of the Orthodox Church.

However, it must be noted that Saint Gregory Palamas was not an innovator, and he did not see himself as the author of this teaching. The distinction between divine essence and divine energies, as well as the teaching of the deification (theosis) of man, is found throughout many writings of earlier Church Fathers, even though they may not have explained it with the same clarity and precision as did Saint Gregory Palamas.

Man is called to become "a partaker of Divine Nature" (see 2 Peter 1:4). This is to be understood as participation in uncreated divine energies and not in the Divine Essence, which remains inaccessible and 'non-participable.' The belief that man becomes a partaker of the essence of God would lead to pantheism. Saint Gregory Palamas clearly identifies divine grace with the energies of God. Elder Sophrony also states explicitly, "Since grace is God's uncreated energy, the Orthodox understand it as Divinity...The grace that is Divinity hallows man, divinizes him, makes him into a god." The Orthodox teaching on the deification (theosis) of man through participation in uncreated grace is a decisive point of difference between the divergent views of salvation that distinguish the Christian East from the non-Orthodox West (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism).

(To be continued)



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.


Glory Be To GOD For All Things!


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,

The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George