An Introduction to Orthodox Christian Spirituality

New Martyr John the New of Socchi, who suffered at Belgrade

New Martyr John the New of Socchi, who suffered at Belgrade

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By George C. Papademetriou


The source of Orthodox Christian spirituality are the Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the Dogmatic definitions of the Ecumenical Synods (Councils), and the spiritual teachings of the Greek Orthodox Holy Fathers. Orthodox spirituality is mainly expressed through prayer, daily Christian living, and worship, which ultimately lead to union with the Divine Uncreated Light.

Man and His Purpose as a Creature of God

Before we enter into a discussion of the spirituality of the Orthodox Church, let us see what man's purpose as a creature of God is. Man is created in the image and likeness of God. The human destiny is not to achieve mystical union with the essence of God, but rather to attain moral and spiritual perfection by participation in the Divine Uncreated Energies. Man, according to the Orthodox Fathers, was not created perfect from the beginning. Rather he was created with the potential to achieve perfection through grace. This, of course, was not realized because of the fall. In the fullness of time, God sent our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to become man, and through His suffering and Resurrection from the dead, restored man to his original state of grace and enabled him to attain perfection. Christ says: "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." The ultimate purpose of man, therefore, is to become perfect in God, through love.  That is, to attain perfect, selfless love of God and one's fellow human beings.

The Christian Commitment

The life of moral perfection, according to our Holy Bible and the Holy Fathers of the Church, is a call to a life in Christ, that is, a Christ-like life. Consequently, the spirituality of the Orthodox Christian is portrayed as a life in Christ, a life of commitment to the Lord, and a complete submission to His will. One lives only to everything for Christ's sake, as Christ wants it and as Christ would do it.

The Christian commitment to Christ must be made by an inner, free act and is not compelled by any external force, not even by God. "Man is free and able to enter into relations with both kingdoms--the kingdom of light and that of darkness." These kingdoms, the spiritual and the satanic, are hidden, not in the mind, but much deeper in the soul--"under the mind, beneath the surface of the thoughts," as Saint Makarios asserts. This fourth-century Saint already had the notion of "heart," which is strikingly close to the modern psychological concept of the subconscious.

Moral Perfection is Life in Christ

Orthodox spirituality is described throughout the centuries as life in Christ, striving for moral and spiritual perfection. The mystical union in Orthodox spirituality is not the "devout life" that some sects claim but the communion of the person (believer) with God. In sectarian teachings, the "devout life" is a sentimental and emotional relation to "divinity". The Orthodox Church rejects this concept in favor of one, which envisions the meeting of man with the Divine Person in a mystical way. Orthodox spirituality is union with Christ, with God. A spiritual person is one who purifies himself of all worldly and moral defects in order to be united with the love of Christ. The mystical experience takes place in this world, yet the cause, God, is from beyond the material world. Orthodox spirituality, as well as the whole thought of the Church, is based on the revelation found in the Old and New Testaments. Studying the Patristic interpretation of the Christian truths can see this. In the mystical vision of the Divine Energies of the advanced Christian, he experiences the divine presence within himself, as vision of the Uncreated light and the energies of God. It is especially through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist that we experience mystical union with our Lord.

Philosophy and Divine Knowledge

The important Orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation, that is the Divine Logos/Word Who became flesh, rendered philosophy and metaphysics irrelevant to our deeper knowledge of the Divine Truth. Christianity offers access to Divine grace for the salvation of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ. We cannot speculate about the Logos/Word after the coming of Christ, Who is the Divine Logos/Word in the flesh, and who sent the Holy Spirit to the world and "teaches us all things." The mystical experience spoken by the classical Greeks is abstract and conceptual. That is, in ancient Greek philosophic contemplation, the soul or spirit goes outside the body to be liberated. Philosophy plays only a linguistic role in Orthodoxy, lending the use of its terminology after the terms have been transformed and purified of their secular meanings, "Christianized" philosophy and culture, as Father George Florovsky used to say. A master of spirituality, a monk of Mount Athos, describes this point in the following manner: "Many of the Greeks tried to philosophize, but only the monks found and learned the true philosophy." The Logos/Word became flesh and revealed to humanity the Divine revelation. He is the Truth and through Him we can attain knowledge of the Divine will. The metaphysical patterns of the philosophic speculation of the Christian revelation distort the Divine mission of the Incarnate Logos/Word.

Three Ways Upwards

The Holy Fathers of our Holy Church suggest three ways to make progress in the spiritual life and attain spiritual perfection:

  1. The way of catharsis or purification;
  2. The way of illumination, and
  3. The way of perfection by total union with God.

These ways can bring the Christian who cooperates with the Divine Grace to perfection. Synergy of the individual effort with the help of the Grace of God brings us to our ultimate destiny of perfection. Our Lord's death and Resurrection achieve for us our end in attaining the presence of the Holy Spirit within us.

The Philokalia speaks of "the increasing knowledge of God decreases knowledge of all else. In other words, the more a man knows God, he knows less of other matters. Not only this, but he begins to realize more and more clearly that neither does he know God. This point is of fundamental importance to Orthodoxy that declares the total mystery and unknowability of the Divine Essence.

The purpose of man is to achieve moral perfection through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. In the teachings of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the Holy Spirit leads the individual through the steps outlined above in order to attain union with the  Spirit of Truth.

Monasteries are Spiritual Centers of Orthodox Spirituality

The spirituality of the Orthodox Church is best exemplified in its spiritual centers, the monasteries. The monk is a "martyr" or "witness" to Christ, the Son of the Living God. Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov is an excellent example of this spiritual model in the person of Father Zossima. This monastic model eloquently portrays the spirituality of the Orthodox Church. Dostoyevsky distinguishes between worldly freedom and the spiritual person. He says that the worldly or secular people "Maintain that the word is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air." But in reality the opposite is true, as is evident in international conflicts and wars. This famous Orthodox novelist expressed eloquently the Orthodox view that in spiritual subjugation, that is, in absolute obedience to Christ, one finds limitless freedom. This is especially exemplified in monasteries where spirituality is nurtured.

(To be continued)




With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George