Being Orthodox: Spirituality and Membership

“For the Orthodox, spirituality is about moving more and more closely into communion with the source of life, with God, who has been revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the life of that relationship, which can be lived fully only in the context of the Church. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church as a whole, not to a set of individuals, and it is when the Church gathers that the fullness of Christ’s presence among us can be realized. The self becomes what it truly is only in relationship; this teaching is at the heart of Orthodox trinitarian theology.

However, here it is necessary to say something about the mysterious nature of what ‘membership’ means, when we speak of someone as a ‘member’ of the Church. Membership in a merely social sense is hardly the point. To live truly as an Orthodox means prayer, ascetic struggle, spiritual direction, and liturgical participation. And the participation must involve the whole of self: before we recite the Creed we say, ‘Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit…’ Without love and reconciliation, the rest is meaningless.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp. 76-77)

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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.

Green

“He ranges the mountains as his pasture, and he searches after every green thing.” (Job 39:8)

It is not only the Lord who searches “after every green thing.”  In Genesis 1, God gave every green leaf to be food for humans and for animals alike.

“And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” (Genesis 1:30)

Green, the color of chlorophyll, is the color of life for plants and the life giving process of photosynthesis.  Maybe it is life giving and sustaining qualities associated with green that causes God as Creator to seek our and value things green.

 

He who trusts in his riches will wither, but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf. (Proverbs 11:28)

Green is not the color of money in the Bible, but the righteous will flourish like the well watered green leaf.  I am amazed when walking in the woods about all the shades of green present in any one small portion of land.  The shapes, sizes, contours of the leaves are abundantly varied.  Even though the shades of the color vary so greatly, yet everyone of them is still green.  Not all greens are identical.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”  (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

I do not know when or why green became the color identified with Pentecost in Orthodoxy, but it is the color of abundant life in the plant world.  Traditionally in Orthodoxy the only mention of color with a feast was whether vestments should be bright or dark, but an exact color was not assigned to a feast, so I can only guess that the use of green with Pentecost must be a recent practice.  I also don’t know when or why churches began decorating with tree branches and green leaves for Pentecost.  It is possible that this too is a relatively recent practice.

The Holy Spirit at Work in Us

“Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10;  emphases not in the original text)

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Every baptized Orthodox Christian receives the Holy Spirit in and through the sacraments of baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist.  How do we show that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives?

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Each Orthodox Christian is called to be part of the holy priesthood.  Priests in general consecrate things – to make them into an offering to God.  In the Church, Bishops consecrate Chrism and men to serve as priests and deacons in the church.  Priest in turn consecrate believers in baptism and also bread and wine to be shown to be the Body and Blood of Christ.   But all believers share in a priesthood in which we each are to consecrate the things in our life – our homes, families, children, jobs, hobbies, meals, friendships, thoughts, words, feelings – everything great and little can be consecrated.  We can make everything we do into a holy offering to God.  The meals we cook, the things we build, or memorize, or sing, or think about – all can be consecrated, offered to God.  If we think we can’t offer it to God, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.  But what we choose to do, all of these things we should offer to God, consecrate them to God and for God’s own use so that God will deify them.

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Everything we have is a gift from God including our lives, our possessions, our blessings, our talents, knowledge, wisdom, the work of our hands.  So what can we offer to God that is truly our own?  What is truly ours are our wills and our decisions.  We can freely opt to co-operate with God.  We can present ourselves to God  in order to serve Him.  Our free wills belong to us and we can work in synergy with God to accomplish God’s will.  Thus every decision, the countless ones we make in our daily lives are each an opportunity for us to serve God – to offer that moment in our lives to God, to direct our energy toward God.  Our choices are a true offering to God –  not something God predetermines in our lives, but what we can freely offer to God.  Our love is something we can choose to offer to God.  It is something God truly values in us and from 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 Fire Which is the Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is Light and Life,

a living Fountain of spiritual gifts,

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

all-knowing, upright and good–

He leads us and washes away our sins.

He is God, and He makes us gods;

He is Fire proceeding from Fire,

speaking and acting and distributing gifts.

Through Him all the Prophets, Martyrs and Apostles of God are crowned.

Strange account, strange and wonderful sight:

fire is divided for distributing gifts.

(Pentecost Hymn)

Same Spirit, New Dispensation

On the Thursday after Pentecost, the Matins hymns offer us insight into what the Feast of Pentecost means for believers and how we experience the new dispensation of God’s salvation.

The Holy Spirit, the giver of grace has come down upon earth,

Not as in the days of old:

Through the shadow of the law or the dawn of the prophets.

Rather, now He is given to us in person,

Through the mediation of Christ.

Let us cleanse our hearts by the practice of virtue,

That we may receive his illumination,

For He enlightens us in a Holy Mystery.

In the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit came down upon some of God’s people, such as the prophets, and they spoke the Word of the Lord to God’s people.  At Pentecost, we celebrate that no longer do we receive the Holy Spirit only through the inspired Scriptures:  now we receive from God our Father His Holy Spirit, as gift.  The person of the Holy Spirit is revealed to us and given to us.  The Holy Spirit abides in us – not just the gifts of the spirit, or the Spirit’s power or effects, but the Spirit Himself comes upon  us and lives in us!  We, God’s people, are to live that changed life which allows God’s Holy Spirit to abide in us.

Moses said … “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit upon them!”  (Numbers 11:29)

Not only are the prophecies fulfilled, but the Holy Spirit abides in all of us who are baptized into Christ.  Prophecy is changed into reality and we enter into the hoped for time of the Lord.

Behold, the oracles of the prophets are fulfilled!

He who discloses Himself dimly to them

Now plainly reveals Himself as God the Paraclete!

He is fully poured out upon the apostles.

Through them the faithful have come to worship the uncreated Trinity!

The Spirit of God which inspired the prophets, now comes to inspire all of us who listen to their words, coming to abide in us so that we might be with Christ forever.

Being Light Upon Earth

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“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14-16)

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One of the Matins hymns from the Week of Pentecost describes how believers become light dawning on the world.

Savior, You have filled Your apostles with the light of the Spirit!

He has made them as the sun at dawn,

For they have burned the fog of error from the face of the earth!

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They have illumined the souls of the faithful,

Teaching them to adore Your Father and the most-Holy Spirit,

Who sanctifies those who worship You!

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We Christians are not to be just a candle lit in the face of overwhelming darkness.  Rather we are illumined to be like the sun which overwhelms the darkness, bringing light to every nook and cranny in the world as well as in our hearts!

The Day of the Holy Spirit

“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 and are not just putting God to the test – for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, ‘It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it’ (cf. Wisd. 1:2).

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.”   (St Gregory of  Sinai, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 44476-44502)

Enlightened by the Holy Spirit

12th Century Pentecost Icon

“The man who is enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the Revealer of all things, acquires new eyes and new ears, and sees no more as a natural man, namely by his natural sight with natural sensation, but standing as it were beyond himself contemplates spiritually visible things and bodies as the symbols of the things invisible.” (St. Simeon the New Theologian in The Universe as Symbols & Signs by Nikolai Velimirrovich, p 10)

 

St. Seraphim of Sarov