Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Synaxis fo the Seventy Apostles

Synaxis fo the Seventy Apostles

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

By Dumitru Staniloae

The Goal of Orthodox Spirituality

Orthodox Christian spirituality aims at the perfection of the faithful in Christ. This perfection can't be obtained in Christ, except by purification in His Divine-human life. Therefore the goal of Orthodox Christian spirituality is the perfection of the believer by his union with Christ. He is being imprinted to an ever-greater degree by the human image of Christ, full of God.

So the goal of Christian Orthodox spirituality is the union of the believer with God, in Christ. But as God is unending, the goal of our union with Him, or of our perfection, has no point from which we can no longer progress. So all the Holy Eastern Fathers say that perfection is unlimited.

Our perfection, or our union with God, is therefore not only a goal, but also an unending progress. On this road two great steps can be distinguished: first, the moving ahead toward perfection through purification from the passions and the acquiring of the virtues, and secondly, a life progressively moving ahead in the union with God. At this point, man's work is replaced by God's. Man contributes by opening himself up receptively to an ever-greater filling with the life of God.

From what has been said, we find the following features of Christian Orthodox spirituality:

  1. The culminating state of the spiritual life is a union of the soul with God, lived or experienced.
  2. This union is realized by the working of the Holy Spirit, but until it is reached man is involved in a prolonged effort of purification.
  3. It takes place when man reaches the "likeness of God." it is at the same time knowledge and love.
  4. Among other things, the effect of this union consists of a considerable intensification of spiritual energies in man, accompanied by all kinds of charismas.

The Orthodox East also uses the daring word "deification" (theosis), or participation in the divinity, to characterize the union with God. So the goal of Christian Orthodox spirituality is none other than living in a state of deification (theosis) or participation in the divine life. This experience strikingly expressed as a state of deification (theosis), includes first of all two general teachings:

  1. It represents the ultimate step of man's perfection; so this supreme phase of the believer's earthly life or the goal of his whole life is also called perfection.
  2. Deification (Theosis) is realized through the believer's participation in the divine powers, by flooding him with boundless divine things.

Because this experience represents the highest step of perfection on earth, it means the normalization and supreme realization of human powers: knowledge, love, and spiritual force. Experienced by the believer, this state exceeds the limits of his powers; it is fed by Divine power.

The culminating state of the spiritual life is when the believer is raised higher than the level of his own powers, not of his own accord, but the work of the Holy Spirit. "Our mind goes outside itself and so unites with God; it becomes more than mind," says Saint Gregory Palamas.

It wouldn't be able to see what it sees "...only because it has a mental sense, just as a person's eye wouldn't be able to see without a perceptible light exterior to it and distinct from it." During this vision of God the mind goes beyond its own self and all its mental operations receive a boost from God.

It the goal of Christian spirituality is a mystical life of union with God, then the path to it includes the ascent that leads to this peak. As such, this path is different than the peak; yet it is organically connected to it, in the same way as the ascent of a mountain is to the peak. Only by prolonged effort, by discipline, can the state of perfection and mystical union with God be reached. Efforts that don't continue to this crowning, this final moment of ascetic discipline, or to the mystical union with God, seem to be without purpose.

The connection between ascetical discipline and the mystical union with God is also closer than that between the path and the goal. Even though the living of that union is realized at the final end of all ascetical efforts, its aura begins in the soul beforehand, along with them.

Christian perfection, therefore, requires a whole series of efforts until it is attained. The holy Apostle Paul compares these strivings with the training that athletes employ to get in shape in order to win. Without referring to the word asceticism, Saint Paul used the image of the ancient physical exercises to characterize the efforts made by the Christian to reach perfection. Saint Clement of Alexandria and Origen later introduced the terms of asceticism and ascetic. Little by little in the Orthodox East they gained a monastic coloring. Monasteries are called askitiria, places for physical training. The askitis (the ascetic) is the monk who strives to obtain perfection by observing all the rules of restraint or temperance through cleansing from the passions. Origen calls zealous Christian ascetics; they are disciplining themselves to mortify the passions and develop habits that lead to perfection.

Saint Neilos the Ascetic in his On Asceticism gives us a detailed comparison of the spiritual ascetic with the athletes in the arena. Asceticism then is that part of spirituality that deals with the rules and efforts that bring man to the first step of the ascent to perfection, to contemplation and union with God. Asceticism is the active part of the spiritual life, the self-coercion and cooperative part that God requires of us. Yet the mystical union with God is also a result of the passive bearing of the work of grace in us. Now God takes the initiative. We have only to follow. It belongs to Him alone.

(To be continued)


Father Dumitru Staniloae was born in 1903, in Vladeni, Romania. He received his degree in theology at Cernauti in 1927, and his doctorate there in 1928. He then studied in Greece, Germany, France, and Serbia, and became especially adept in the Greek and German languages. He began to teach theology in Sibiu, Romania in 1929, and following marriage was ordained a priest in 1932. After World War II, he accepted his years of suffering in a communist prison as an opportunity to pray and grow in virtue and to reach the highest level of Christian love.

A contemporary of both Vladmir Lossky and Fr. John Mayendorff, Father Steniloae spent his life immersed in the mystical (or "spiritual," as he would say) theology of the Church. He was a follower of Saint Dionysios the Areopagite and a disciple of Saint Maximos and Saint Gregory Palamas.

For many years, Father Dumitru was Professor of Theology in Sibiu and Bucharest, where both in and out of the classroom he remained ever the humble, soft-spoken man of virtue. Well loved by his students and recognized by the Christians of many nations, he fell asleep in the Lord in 1993 at the age of 89.  May his memory be eternal!



"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George