Some of us grew up with a tradition of evangelical faith with a strong emphasis on gateway experiences, particularly being born again. There was a whole ethos into which we were born, and I for one tried hard to conform myself to this, but some elements of it have not proven to be very satisfactory, and we have needed to go searching for answers. I must arise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares, I must seek him whom my soul loves. (Song of Songs 3.2) This can be taken to mean searching among other viewpoints and spiritual ways. This has led me to look among other places at Orthodox traditions. Nowadays we have the eastern Orthodox churches, the Greek, the Russian etc., but perhaps we can extend the term to talk about eastern church views generally, going back to the Church Fathers. There is a different take on spirituality; and this article will look briefly at some of the places (including some which clearly are not Orthodox) at which I have looked, as well as an effort to describe some of the distinctives of thought.
Firstly, what have I read that can be recommended? Well, first exposure was to the Russian Orthodox — I studied Russian at school, and this led to one or two contacts — specifically with a man known as John of Kronstadt, who exercised a beautiful and influential pastoral ministry. This made me open to the otherwise alien ways of clerical garments, long beards, Metropolitans, priests etc., but not very much to the thinking. Many years later, when I was really searching for input outside the confines of Pentecostal evangelicalism, I found my way to the excellent The Orthodox Way by Kallistos Ware. This opened my eyes to a different way of thinking and led on to further reading. This included The Way of a Pilgrim, an account of the results of praying ‘the Jesus Prayer’, and I bought a copy of the Philokalia, the compendium of writings from the Church Fathers. There was a cross over from the Toronto, Catch a Fire ministry through the writings of Guy Chevreau with Theresa of Avila, so I looked at some of the ‘medieval’ writers, Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Sienna and Catherine of Genoa. It is worth mentioning too that years before I had read Madame Guyon, of whom there is an excellent biography by Phyllis Thompson. (I mention these writers, not as in a formal sense ‘orthodox’, but as part of a different tradition. I have always found the Protestant divines of 17th and 18th century England dry and difficult, more given to polemic than devotion — the devotional, more ‘mystical’ outlook is much more sympathetic. I have also found in similar vein to Jeanne Guyon, Gerhardt Tersteegen, who, like, Guyon, influenced John Wesley. A very good Catholic writer on prayer is Jean Grou.) But then, as chronicled elsewhere on this site, I found Bob Ekblad and he sent me on to Daniel Bourguet, who has engaged seriously with the orthodox/patristic tradition and with its monastic element. Through this I have looked again at some of the writings in the Philokalia; some of the theology is really devotional in nature. Bourguet quotes from a number of sources. I read material from Isaac the Syrian as well as Matthew the Poor, a modern day Egyptian Coptic monk and author. There was a very good biography of Seraphim of Sarov and other material on him, and recently I found another Russian of similar ilk, Theophan the Recluse, who was another influential figure in his country, particularly through his writings; he has a charming book titled Tales of a Magic Monastery.
In all these writings there is a solidity and gentleness that can certainly be lacking in modern day charismatic circles. The gentleness I note is something I generally find true of writers from a Catholic background when compared to (particularly American) evangelicalism. There is a lot in our modern churches which is not very appealing to more educated people, but it is not just a question of what is attractive — there are also what we might term truth issues. An interesting take on this may be found in the writings of Brad Jersak and on his website www.bradjersak.com/about/orthodoxy. Brad was decidedly ‘charismatic’ , but explains in this article why he has changed streams.
So, there are certain distinctives to orthodoxy which are very different to the evangelicalism with which I grew up, and I will endeavour to explore this a little, the doctrinal elements, and the very obvious issue of the contemplative life, with its particular expression in monasticism.
I recently encountered a book which is a good basis for this discussion. Its title is The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos C Markides. The author is a Cypriot origin American sociologist who finds his way, after pursuing other thinking, to Orthodox spirituality. First at Mount Athos and then in Cyprus he gets to know a monk who becomes the abbot of a monastery in Cyprus, and with him investigates monasticism and orthodox spirituality. I find it very interesting to put it alongside our ‘evangelical’ teaching – much of it is the same and is very familiar – I am happy with both traditions, although my ‘theology’ is clearly more comfortable with the orthodox – but this particular book has given me a new context for quite a lot of thinking. The author dwells on the contrast between eastern orthodoxy and western Christian thought, but a big part of my response is that this is overdone, I think because the author has little or no knowledge of Pentecostal spirituality. The spiritual tradition he describes in Greece and Cyprus has a very large emphasis on experience of God – experiences with Christ, with angels, with miracles, with dreams and visions, with spiritual gifts …with the Holy Spirit! Almost nothing of what is described is other than common with spiritual Pentecostalism, and some very wonderful, unusual things are described. In the context of looking at orthodoxy it is normal to describe this as “mystical” – but it is just the same as is experienced in our churches too.
There are however some distinctives of orthodoxy as opposed to our evangelicalism, many of which are strengths, with however what looks to me like one substantial weakness.
We focus on gateway experiences and on two in particular, being born again (being saved) and then being baptized in the Holy Spirit (and I would prefer to say, speaking in tongues). “Are you saved?” we would say. “I was saved when I was 16 years old.” “Are you Spirit filled?” “I was baptized in the Holy Spirit as in Acts 2 on such and such a date at 10 in the evening.” The idea that we would still be trying to save our souls is really quite alien except for those times when our attention is directed to James 1.21. The idea that would you go into a monastery to “save your soul” seems odd — “you mean you’re not saved yet?” However, this idea is integral to the orthodox way, a way which seeks theodosis, an experienced, felt union with God. “But – ‘he that is united to the Lord is one spirit’” Well, that may be true “positionally” we might say, but not as a fact of our everyday lives, and the orthodox way has a well worked out, well formulated pastoral system for helping believers towards a very godly, saintly life, but without the focus on gateway experiences.
So, what is this way? Well, firstly, it involves withdrawal from the world, spending time with God, in the ordinary disciplines of the spiritual life, in ‘putting off the old man’. In the Cypriot context this is termed catharsis – subduing the passions, letting the peace of God rule in our lives. We do all this, but not in such a focused way. (It is worth noting one nice little story in our book. A young man joined a monastery very eager for spiritual experience, for a life of prayer and seeking God. To his dismay the abbot gave him a copy of David Copperfield, telling him that he needed to connect properly with the ordinary affections of life before setting out on ‘spiritual pursuits’. The spiritual life is for ordinary, well balanced people!) One particular ‘technique’ is to constantly pray the Jesus Prayer – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ (Nowhere in the literature have I come across any reference to speaking in tongues, which seems to me a very sad omission!) Veneration of the saints is important — and of course we do this too, only we don’t call it that, we just call it reading biographies of prominent men and women of God. Only it is done rather more purposefully in the orthodox setting and with surprising results. Mary is venerated in a way we don’t. Icons are highly regarded – and they certainly have some very beautiful religious paintings that help create a feeling of holiness. Then there is the liturgy – and there is good reason to see this as sadly weak among us, while perhaps we are both more user-friendly (perhaps a good thing) and more spontaneous. There is a concept called logismos which basically means thoughts, and how to deal with the thoughts that pass through our minds; we call this ‘renewing the mind’. Physical work is an important part of dealing with these in the monastic setting.There seems to be a whole pastoral science of how to apply the various disciplines (forms of asceticism) to individuals according to their circumstances. We do it all in our practices too, but not in a very well focused way perhaps.
After catharsis comes fotisis or perhaps photisis, light coming into the soul, enlightenment. We probably tend to focus too much on doctrine, correct doctrine, rather than the element of light. To me it is an utterly extraordinary thing that one of the supposed great works of western theology was written by a man (Calvin) who was only about 25 — this has to be wrong! The orthodox are very clear that this is light shining into the heart! We have this too, but they are perhaps clearer.
The final sort of stage is theosis, which is seen as union with God. It is perhaps here that the most substantial differences between the two traditions are seen. As one reads the literature it is plain that some of the orthodox saints, elders, or in Russion starets (which means elder), do reach a remarkable degree of sanctity, one which it is hard to find the equal of in the west. Some of the stories of these people are quite amazing. Perhaps we have different ideas of sanctity. “As holy as I ever want to get,” said TL Osborn, “is to reach down into the gutter and lift a beggar up.” This does not seem to be the primary objective of orthodox spirituality, so this seems to be the weakness. It is not Orthodox monks who are transforming the lives of millions in Mozambique, for example. Where we ‘receive the Holy Spirit’ to empower us for witness, the orthodox emphasis seems to be to ‘attain the Holy Spirit’ at the end of a long process of discipline. However, they emphasize humility. It is hard to see the orthodox having people of undeveloped character exercising spiritual gifts in the way frequently seen with us.
Happily, cross-pollination between the two traditions seems to be happening more.