Signs of the Holy Spirit

St Gregory of  Sinai (d. 1346) writes about how the Holy Spirit manifests Himself differently in each person.

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“There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen . . .

In some it appears as awe arising in the heart,

in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation,

in others as joy,

in others as joy mingled with awe,

or as tremulousness mingled with joy,

and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe.

For the soul is joyous at God’s visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins. Again, in some the soul at the outset experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (cf. Rev. 12:2). For the living and active Logos – that is to say, Jesus – penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (cf. Heb. 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body.

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In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation – a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (cf. Rom. 8:26). Isaiah has also called this the ‘waves’ of God’s righteousness (cf. Isa. 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it ‘spurring’. The Lord Himself describes it as ‘a spring of water welling up for eternal life’ (John 4:14) – He refers to the Spirit as water – a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.”   (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 44476-44502)

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Not everyone experiences the same thing when the Holy Spirit comes in their life, nor should one judge another’s experience.  As St. Gregory says, some will experience repentance and contrition when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and convicts them of their sins.  But not everyone will experience that.  Others experience love and peace for all or even an overwhelming joy.  One experience is not better than the other, one is not more preferred than the other.  The Spirit moves where it will (John 3:8), and He moves each person as He chooses for the salvation of the world.  Rather than seeking a particular experience of the Holy Spirit, we should allow ourselves to be open to what the Spirit wants to reveal to us.  Whatever experience the Spirit bestows on us, we can give thanks that God comes and abides in us.

On Pentecost: What Language Was Heard?

The Epistle for the Feast of Pentecost, Acts 2:1-11, gives to us a description of the events which constitute the basis for the Feast.

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”

There is a long standing debate about the events of Pentecost, which the Patristic writers engaged in, long before the modern era.  When the disciples were speaking in other languages as described in Acts 2, were they actually speaking in many languages OR was it that the listeners were each able to understand the disciples in the native tongue of the listener?  Is the Holy Spirit changing the speech of the apostles, or changing the hearing of those listening to them? Fr. Alexis Trader writes:

“In the patristic literature, two opinions can be discerned concerning the nature of what was heard. The literal interpretation favored by Saint Gregory the Theologian is that the Apostles were not speaking in Hebrew, but in foreign languages. Saint Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand seems to indicate that they were speaking in Hebrew, but that “every man heard them speak in his own language.” Although both interpretations can be supported by the actual text if one is free with the punctuation, both a practical consideration of the event and an understanding of the primary faculty of the soul involved in the working of grace point to the preferability of Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s intuitions.

Saint Gregory the Theologian asserts that the phrase “each one heard them speak in his own language” requires punctuation for the best interpretation. He suggests that a comma should be inserted after the word “heard” so that the text would have the sense “they spoke the languages of those who heard them.” What prompts the Theologian to add this punctuation and provide the text with this interpretation is his pious desire to honor the Holy Apostles. He notes that otherwise this aspect of the miracle would refer to the crowds who were listening rather than to the Apostles who were speaking and that the magnitude of the miracle would be decreased.

An alternative interpretation that Saint Gregory the Theologian himself mentions is that “one voice came forth, but they heard many.” Saint Gregory of Nyssa apparently follows this interpretation when he speaks of the “divine power being portioned out into many languages” for the benefit of all. For Saint Gregory of Nyssa, each person received the one “proclamation in his own dialect…comprehending the meaning of what was said by words familiar to him.” Thus, for Saint Gregory of Nyssa, the words uttered by the Apostle and the words heard by each foreigner were not the same. The Holy Spirit “translated” Saint Peter’s words in the hearts of each listener into his own respective language. This is what leads Saint Gregory of Nyssa to exclaim, “we must realize that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in our own words as we have learned from the narration of Acts” (In Peace Let us Prayer to the Lord, pp. 77-80).

This is one of numerous issues on which the church fathers actually disagreed in how to interpret the scriptures.  Specifically when dogma was not at stake, they didn’t always agree on how to interpret a passage or event in Scripture.  They used the gifts of  wisdom and knowledge which the Holy Spirit gave them, but sometimes the Spirit did not give them one answer, but rather inspired them to interpret a passage of Scripture according to the wisdom and knowledge given them.  This led to them sometime disagreeing on issues that were not doctrinal.

Interpreting the Scriptures meant a real engagement with the text itself to make sense of the text and to derive the fullest meaning and purpose of the text.  We see as the Fathers wrestled with the text their willingness to make sense of the text by trying to discern what was the real miracle at work?  Is Pentecost about the Holy Spirit uniquely appearing on the Apostles and changing them?  Or is the greater miracle that the Spirit’s outpouring was not limited to the Apostles but fell even upon those who were listening to the Apostles speak?

 

The Samaritan Woman at the Well

St. Ephrem the Syrian gives us poetically vivid imagery to help us understand the Gospel Lesson of the Samaritan Woman at the well (John 4:5-42).

8186047331_e19fe9005e“Our Lord labored and He went like a farmer

to water the seed that Moses sowed.

Directly to the well He went to give

hidden and living water for the sake of the revelation.

Blessed is Moses, who, with the book he wrote, sowed

the symbols of the Messiah, still young;

by [Christ’s] watering were the seeds of the house of Moses perfected,

and they were reaped by His disciples.

Refrain: Praises to your humility!

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Blessed are you, drawer of ordinary water,

who turned out to be a drawer of living water.

You found a treasure, another Source,

from Whom a flood of mercies flows.

The spring had dried up, but it broke through to you and gave you to drink.

He was poor, but He asked in order to enrich you.

You left behind your pitcher, but you filled understanding and gave your people to drink.

Blessed are you to whom He gave living water to drink,

and you did not thirst again, as you said.

For he called the truth “living water,”

since all who hear it will not thirst again.

Blessed are you who learned the truth and did not thirst;

for one is the Messiah and there are no more.”

(HYMNS, p 355)

Salvation: Restoring the Divine Image

While Christianity focuses on Christ, it doesn’t begin with Jesus.  Christ comes to heal humanity, but the illness which He heals began thousands of years earlier with the entrance of sin and death into human existence.  St. Gregory of Nyssa offers an understanding of what was the ill that Jesus Christ came to cure.  First Gregory notes that sin is not a thing that is permanent or can even exist without a host.  Sin is dependent for its existence on human free will.  If humans made no choices, sin could not exist.  Humans were created with the possibility of sinless existence, but we have made choices that led us away from God – separation from God is death.

Is it possible that there was a physical death that could exist that didn’t involve separation from God?  Is it possible that living things could age and even die but remain united to God?  Is this what God intended from the beginning?  Certainly in Christ we have that reality achieved – even death doesn’t separate us from God.  Jesus the man is never separated from divinity even in His death and descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  In Christ, we all remain united to Him even through our own deaths and after our burials.  In Christ, death no longer separates us from God!  Whether this was something totally new, or a restoration of what existed at the beginning of creation, doesn’t matter for it is the new reality – creation renewed in Christ.

St. Gregory begins describing the first human, the first Adam, who had all of the potential for good, and yet chose to separate himself from all that is good.

So too the first man who arose from the earth–he, indeed, who begot all the evil that is in man–and it in his power to choose all the good and beautiful things of nature that lay around him. And yet he deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil. For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right. All of God’s creatures are good, and nothing He has made may be despised: He made all things very good (Gen. 1:31). But in the way I have described, the whole procession of sin entered into man’s life for his undoing, and from a tiny source poured out upon mankind an infinite sea of evil. The soul’s divine beauty, that had been an imitation of its archetype, was, like a blade, darkened with the rust of sin; it no longer kept beauty of the image it once possessed by nature, and was transformed into the ugliness of evil.

St. Gregory describes a common idea in Orthodox patristic writers: there is an inner goodness in every human being – the image of God is imprinted on each of us and is never lost.  Sin cannot take the image of God away from us.  Rather that image becomes covered with the rust and dirt of sin.  The most precious diamond in the world if caked with layers of  dried and hardened clay will look like any rock.  Yet, beneath those layers of hardened mud lies encased that most valuable diamond.

Thus man, who was so great and precious, as the Scriptures call him, fell from the value he had by nature. It is like people who slip and fall in the mud and get their faces so smeared that even their relatives cannot recognize them. So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead. And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life. Once this earthly covering is removed, the soul’s beauty will once again shine forth.

In sticking with the imagery of a diamond encased in hardened clay, St. Gregory sees each human person.  No longer do we see the glorious image of God in each other.  Baptism begins to wash away these layers of filth, the accretion of a life time of sin.  Baptism washes our eyes so we can see the reality of God’s hand in creation and the image of God in others.  Baptism helps wash away our own layers of sin so that others can see the image of God in us.

By our human efforts we can merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin and thus allow the hidden beauty of the soul to shine forth.

This lesson is taught, I think, in the Gospel, where our Lord speaks to those who have ears for the mysteries that Wisdom teaches us: The kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). I think that the text here points out that the gift of God is not separated from our nature nor is it far from those who choose to look for it. It dwells within everyone of us, ignored and forgotten, choked with the cares and pleasures of life (Luke 8:14), but is rediscovered when we turn our minds to it.

But if we must confirm this doctrine in other ways, the same lesson is, I think, taught by our Lord in the search for the lost drachma (Luke 15:8-9)…and surely the hidden meaning of the coin is the image of our King, which has not yet been completely lost, but is simply hidden under dirt. By the dirt I think we must understand the uncleanness of the flesh; for, when we cleanse and sweep this away by a fervent life, what we are looking for will be made manifest. And then the soul that finds the coin rightly rejoices and calls in her neighbors to share in her joy. The soul’s associates are, of course, the various faculties of the soul, which the text here calls neighbors. For when the great image of the King is discovered and shines forth again, just as it was stamped on our drachma in the beginning by the Creator, stamped on the hearts of everyone, then do all our faculties unite in that divine joy and gladness as they gaze upon the ineffable beauty of what they have found. For she says: Rejoice with me because I have found the groat which I had lost (Luke 15:9). (From Glory to Glory, pp.13-15)

In all such imagery and thinking, we find that sin is not limited to law breaking which God must punish.  Sin is experienced by us as being covered by layers of filth – of our being buried beneath layers of sin so that we can no longer see clearly, and reality itself (the image of God in each of us is so covered as to be totally obscured from sight). Salvation is not merely a release from legal retribution, but is a restoration and recreation and regeneration of the human being.   Overcoming sin is thus not just a matter of suffering an appropriate punishment, but requires a washing, a cleansing which restores the human to his or her glorious nature.  It is a healing of soul and body which we need, which is given to us by Christ, the true physician of our lives.

Satan Learned About Paradise

In a previous post, When Death Wept, I mentioned that early Christian writers were far more interested in how Death reacted to Christ then they were in what it is like to be dead or to traverse through the place of the dead.  Their interest in Hades was because it is a place Christ has conquered and filled – it is a place where we will meet Jesus Christ our Lord, not be separated from Him.

Christ’s descent into Hades liberates all those held captive by death.

These same writers were also very interested in what Paradise, the garden God prepared for His first human creatures, must have been like.  This was of greater interest to these early writers than taking a sojourn through circles of hell or through purgatory or toll houses.  They focused often on where God is, which turns out to be everywhere including Hades, rather than in concocting places where God is not.  St. Ephrem of Syria (d. 373AD) poetically describes Paradise in his volumes of poems.

Perhaps that blessed tree,

the Tree of Life,

is, by its rays,

the sun of Paradise;

its leaves glisten

and on them are impressed

the spiritual graces

of that Garden.

In the breezes the other trees

bow down in worship

before that sovereign

and leader of the trees.

In the very midst He planted

the Tree of Knowledge

endowing it with awe,

hedging it in with dread,

so that it might straightaway serve

as a boundary to the inner region of Paradise.

St. Ephrem describes Paradise to be God’s temple, like the Temple in Jerusalem.  Or rather, as we know, the Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the Temple which was revealed to Moses (Exodus 25:9, 26:30; Numbers 8:4; Acts 7:44).  Paradise had different regions according to St. Ephrem which had boundaries marking that some regions were even more holy than other regions.  Those who could enter each region were limited, which is the pattern which the Jerusalem Temple followed with its outer courts and the inner Holy of Holies.

Two things did Adam hear

in that single decree:

that they should not eat of it

and that, by shrinking from it,

they should perceive that it was not lawful

to penetrate further, beyond that Tree.

While Genesis portrays the Tree being in the middle of the Garden, St. Ephrem sees the Tree as a boundary which Adam was not permitted to trespass beyond.  The serpent was not even allowed in the Garden, but craftily learned about the inner structure of the Garden by inquiring about it from Eve.  To talk to the serpent, Eve and Adam had to intentionally leave the inner sanctuary.  The serpent didn’t really have Eve and Adam’s ear – they had to go out of their way to listen to the serpent, according to St. Ephrem.

The serpent could not

enter Paradise;

for neither animal

nor bird

was permitted to approach

the outer region of Paradise,

and Adam had to go out

to meet them,

so the serpent cunningly learned

through questioning Eve,

the character of Paradise

what it was and how it was arranged.

According to St. Ephrem, the serpent’s goal all along was to learn about the design of the Garden – of God’s Temple.  His discussion in Genesis 3 with Eve is really his crafty way to learn the layout of the Temple.  The serpent wanted to know what was in the midst of the Garden. Once the serpent had that knowledge he hatched his plan to get Adam and Eve to turn away from God.

When the Accursed One learned

how the glory of that inner Tabernacle,

as if in a sanctuary,

was hidden from them,

and that the Tree of Knowledge,

clothed with an injunction,

served as the veil

for the sanctuary,

he realized that its fruit

was the key of justice

that would open the eyes of the bold

and cause them great remorse.

(St. Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise, 3, Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 44-46)

The serpent couldn’t harm Adam or Eve, but he was able to figure out a fatal flaw in them!   Once he surmised that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was the key, the serpent suggested to Eve that there would be no harm in eating the fruit, that the fruit like everything in the garden was good to be had.  Wisdom says there is a time for everything.  It was not yet Eve and Adam’s time to partake of the fruit, but they bit on the serpent’s temptation, and the rest is history, so to speak.

When Death Wept

At some point in early Christian history, Christian theologians began imaging Christ’s descent into Hades, the place of the dead.  Unlike concerns of later Christians, they didn’t have Christ describe what Hades is like or what it’s like to be dead or how to make the proper sojourn through the place of the dead as was the theme of pagan religion.  They took a completely different point of view: they imagined how Death reacted to facing Christ in Hades.  Death realizes that he is suddenly confronted by God, face to face in a place which Death thought he was all powerful and far removed from the reach of God.  These early Christian theologians personified or anthropomorphized Death, and then rejoiced in Death’s shriveling and cowering before real power – the eternal God.  Death felt all powerful – able to claim every human person God created and to enslave them in Hades.  In the face of the crucified Christ, Death realizes he has no real power even over the dead.

In the midst of Death’s own kingdom, Death realized he still had a Lord, and that he himself really wasn’t a lord at all, but was powerless in the face of God.  Christ came to destroy death not to describe what the place of the dead is like.  He didn’t come to tell us how to navigate our way through Hades or Toll Houses either.    Christ destroyed death and then by His resurrection showed us the path to the Kingdom of God.  Christ smashed the gates of Hades and opened the gate of Paradise to His human creatures.  By entering Hades, Christ transformed even Hades into Heaven!  So the Syriac-Persian Christian Aphrahat (d. 345AD) writes:

“When Jesus, the slayer of Death, came and put on a body (Ibesh pagra) from the seed of Adam, and was crucified in the body and tasted death; and as soon as Death perceived that he descended to him, he quivered in his place and became agitated at the sight of Jesus. He shut up the doors and did not want to receive him. However, he shattered the doors and entered to him [Death] and began to rob him of his possessions. As the dead saw light shining in darkness, they raised up their heads from the bondage of death and looked forth and saw the brightness of Christ, the King.

Then the powers of darkness sat lamenting, for Death was destroyed and stripped of his authority. And Death has tasted deadly poison (sam mauta) and his hands slackened and he realized that the dead will revive and escape his tyranny. As he [Christ] conquered Death by spoiling him of his possessions, Death cried out and wept bitterly and said: “Go out of my place and do not come back. Who is that who dared to enter my home alive?” And then Death cried out as he saw darkness starting to disperse and some among the righteous ones who were lying down there, rose up to ascend with him [Christ]. And he said [to Death] that he will return at the end of time, and will release all captives from his authority, and will draw them to himself, so that they could see light. Thus, as Christ had completed his ministry (teshmeshta) among the dead, Death let him escape out of his region, for he could not endure his presence there. For it was not sweet for him to swallow Christ up as [it was with] the rest of the dead. And Death did not prevail over the Holy One and he was not subjected to corruption.” (quoted by Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 69-70)

Women Disciples of the Lord

3rd Century Christian theologian Origen commenting on Romans 16:1-2 notes that the Myrrhbearing women were not the only females to have served the Church.  Women continued serving in recognized offices in the Church throughout the early centuries of Christianity.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you  may receive her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may  require from you, for she has helped many and myself as well.’ [Romans 16:1-2]

This passage teaches us, with apostolic authority, that women were appointed to the ministry of the church. Paul describes Phoebe, who held office in the church of Cenchreae, with great praise and commendation.   He lists her outstanding deeds and says, she has helped many, ready whenever they were in difficulty, and myself as well, in my troubles and my apostolic labors, with full devotion.

I would compare her work to that of Lot; because he always offered hospitality, he merited to receive angels as guests. Similarly Abraham, who always went out to meet strangers, merited that the Lord and his angels would stop and rest in his tent. In the same way, Phoebe, since she offered and provided assistance to everyone, merited to become a benefactor of the Apostle. This passage provides two lessons: women served as ministers in the church and those appointed to the ministry of the church should be benefactors to many and through their good services merit the praise of the apostles. The passage also encourages Christians to honor those who commit themselves to good works in the church; whether they serve spiritual or fleshly needs, they should be held in honor.” (J. Patout Burns Jr., Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 7510-18)

Fasting: Refraining from Sin

Fasting in the body, O brethren, let us also fast from sin.” This is the Church’s song in the lenten season of fasting. It is also the teaching of the saints

…in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

 

A man who fasts wisely … wins purity and comes to humility and proves himself a skillful builder’ (St. Abba Dorotheus, 7th c., Directions on Spiritual teaching).”

(Fr. Thomas Hopko, Spirituality: Vol. 4, p. 135)

Two Different Ways to Make a Sincere Confession

St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) says there are two very different but equally acceptable ways to do a sincere and proper confession.  Though the two ways are very different, they both result in the same desired goal: one is humble before God.  Usually, today we think of confession as consisting of enumerating the sins we have committed.  St. Maximos says the other way is to list all the things in our lives for which we are thankful.

 

 “Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.  

Confession takes two forms. According to the one, we give thanks for blessings received; according to the other, we bring to light and examine what we have done wrong. We use the term confession both for the grateful appreciation of the blessings we have received through divine favor, and for the admission of the evil actions of which we are guilty. Both forms produce humility. For he who thanks God for blessings and he who examines himself for his offences are both humbled. The first judges himself unworthy of what he has been given; the second implores forgiveness for his sins.”  

(THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 18272-80)