Unique Characteristics of Eastern Orthodox Spirituality (Part II)
Having discussed these differences between Eastern and Western forms of spirituality in general terms in my last post, let us turn now to some of the defining characteristics in Eastern Christian spirituality. I think you will recognize all or most of them, although this is not a complete listing of all the characteristics!
Deification / Theosis
What lies at the foundation of Eastern Christian spirituality? Its essential theological foundation is the idea of deification or theosis developed by Saints Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Irenaeus, Basil, Cyril and later Palamas (2 Peter 1:3) – that through participation in the Holy Spirit (the divine nature) creatures who are not holy by nature can become holy and become a partaker of glory. Or, as Saint Gregory put it, the “attainment of likeness to God and union with him so far as possible…” We see this reference to theosis by the monastic Fathers most often in connection with the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor, which one scholar reminds us, “is more…than an encouragement to persevere in the Christian life. It is a revelation of the true stature of our human nature, a stature that our first parents in the Garden of Eden failed to attain.” The Transfiguration is a foretaste of the world to come and is identified with our salvation. This is why it is one of Holy Church’s major feasts.
This is in contrast with the foundational Western Protestant view of “justification” as salvation of the believer in the sight of God (as a sinner). Such salvation essentially proceeds – as it is commonly taught – from the alien righteousness of Christ, imputed to us by faith, in what is understood as an extrinsic or as some say forensic righteousness. Justification is understood more as a legal (often described as juridical), (rather) than a spiritual transformation. Although Orthodox acknowledge that scripture – especially in Saint Paul’s Epistles – does include legal language to describe the atonement, we believe such language is used metaphorically or for descriptive purposes. Orthodox reject the exclusively forensic application of the legal terminology in Western theological doctrine. For Luther and many Evangelicals, for example, sin and righteousness always continue to coexist in the believer; believers always remain sinners inwardly, but are made righteous extrinsically in the sight of God, through this legal transformation, which it would seem, alters man’s standing or status in the sight of God. Apparently in this Western theological paradigm, it would appear that it is God — rather than man — that requires a transformation.
For Eastern Christians righteousness and holiness are possible for the believer; the commandment that “the pure in heart will see God” can be taken at face value. The believer can be made righteous by God’s grace intrinsically by participating in the deifying mysteries of God (the sacraments) and through the believer’s efforts to struggle with the passions and to live righteously, despite his bent nature (which is never “totally depraved” or lacking in free will). Of course, this view is consistent with the many scriptural texts that refer to God’s ultimate judgment of our actions. Without the possibility of actual sanctification or righteousness, these texts would be disingenuous.
In Eastern Christianity, the goal of the Christian life, as Saint Seraphim of Sarov famously put it, is precisely the “acquisition of the holy spirit” by which the Holy Spirit reproduces the life of the Savior in us. As Theophan the Recluse summarizes: “The essence of the spiritual life, the life in Christ, consists in the transformation of soul and body and their transformation into the sphere of the Spirit, that is, in the spiritualization of soul and body.” This happens over time, through our participation in the divine energies; and, thus deification is a progressive ‘spiritualization’.
Orthodoxy is Trinitarian
Having been in Evangelical Christian churches that primarily emphasize “Christocentric” or Christ-centered worship and prayer, I found the “Trinitarian” emphasis of Eastern Christianity a liberating and necessary spiritual recalibration. The God of Christianity is the Father who reveals himself through the Son in the Holy Spirit, in simultaneous ‘processions’ from God the Father. I found the Evangelical experience often unbalanced, even sometimes confused: there was either a heavily Christocentric impulse (Christ alone); a pneumatological emphasis (Holy Spirit); or perhaps, in the attempt to compensate, a pendulum swing back-and-forth between them, but never a steady Trinitarian balance.
Our sanctification and theosis as Christians lies in the ascending movement which goes from the Son to the Father in the Spirit, in which movement we participate. Eastern Christian spirituality (then) is characteristically defined by three characteristics (called the ‘royal road’): it is pneumatological (of the Holy Spirit); Christological (Christ); and, Trinitarian.
Orthodoxy is Contemplative
For the Greek fathers, the human being is spirit, soul and body. The spirit is the highest part of the human person. It is the superior faculty with which a person is able to seek God. It is the seat of the human person (nous), identified with the Image of God (which constitutes his true “humanness”) by which the human person enters into communion with God. When the spirit is directed by the fallen will to focus externally it becomes scattered, and misses its true purpose; when it is gathered in prayer and deified by the sacraments and grace, it descends into the heart (nous) where it communes with God and experiences a taste of paradise (deification). The purified heart is where we encounter God. The Jesus Prayer is the primary means by which this noetic unity is achieved.
Orthodoxy is Anthropological
We see all around us in our culture the impulse of secular humanism: the so-called ideal of the perfection of man apart from God. For Eastern Christian spirituality, the perfection of man is only possible because of the image of God deposited in man, according to which man was created (and which is the source of what is distinctly “human”), and which progresses to the “likeness” of the Creator through the deifying mysteries of the Church. It is an entirely spiritual anthropology encompassing all of man, the faculties of his soul and body and their potential of being spiritualized.
Orthodoxy is Ecclesiological
For the patristic fathers human nature is understood as a unity: we all share one nature. This is how and why Christ’s death and resurrection could affect our common and universal humanity (and our personal humanity). Because man has a soul common to all men, one’s individual ‘spirituality’ can therefore progress only in a divinized pleroma or fullness, which is the Church. Individual spirituality outside the fullness of the Church is very difficult. The sacraments or mysteries are the medicine of God’s therapeutic and transforming work in the soul, along with the discipline of parish life (or monastic life), including the difficulties and blessings.
Orthodoxy is “Cosmic”
Eastern Christian spirituality is cosmic in the sense that our vocation is to actively cooperate with God to reestablish the original beauty and integrity of the universe in which we were placed at the moment of creation. Our vocation is the perfection and deification of the world. This is not understood in terms of a political, or utopian social system or recasting (i.e., a social gospel or a particular social teaching) but rather as cosmic sanctification possible through the Incarnation, and made possible through the sacramental life of the Church. Our life is a sacramental life.
Orthodoxy has a strong Monastic Tradition…
From the beginning of the Christian movement, the monastic life was considered the authentic Christian life. The monks were those who wanted to observe all of the commandments and were therefore considered the true Christians. “If you want to be perfect”, the Lord said, “go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and go follow Me” (Matt. 19:21). Their flight from the world, their rigorous asceticism aimed at the very goal of baptism: to purify the Image of God in man which has been tarnished and to give back to it its full splendor.
…and Eremitic tendencies (hermit or recluse)
Although Eastern contemplatives understand the spiritual connection between themselves and all of humanity through a shared nature, they frequently thought it useful to live out this union isolated from other human beings. They saw in the eremitic life the means of intensifying their relationship with God through prayer and without distraction, and putting to death their self-will; as Saint Paul says, “…having nothing and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:11).
Eastern Christian rubrics abound with repetitions of the Lord Have Mercy or Kyrie Eleison, with constant requests for the remission of sins. This does not come from a spirit of sadness, pessimism, or lack of faith in God’s mercy (one hears from Evangelical critics: “Why do they always ask for God’s mercy? Don’t they believe Christ obtained God’s mercy for us on the Cross?”), but rather from a joyous faith: from the belief that sin is the only evil, and that sin can always be wiped out by repentance.
Despite what Evangelical Christians often seem to believe, asceticism has deep Christian biblical roots: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should have become disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). One of the foundations of Eastern Christian spirituality is the belief that praxis (spiritual practice which includes parish life) leads to theoria (vision of God). Asceticism has always been seen by the Eastern Christian ascetics – then and now – as a return to nature created by God, a purification of the heart and the world, and a testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Spirituality of the Heart
One often hears the characterization of Western Christianity as “rationalistic” and Eastern Christianity as “mystical”. I think this is too simple a characterization. However the preoccupation of Eastern Christian spirituality is the condition of the heart and its disposition rather than external activity.
Last, the contemplative spirit found in the Eastern Church goes hand in hand with its eschatology (death and its aftermath; final events of history). The ethos of Eastern Christian spirituality, its liturgies, sacraments, contemplative practices, and ascetic ethos is to see God in everything! This is where man’s ultimate perfection lies: to be transformed so that one can see the presence of God within creation. We are thus invited to enter the Church to experience ‘heaven on earth’ and to enter into Paradise in this life.
Photo courtesy of Momez.