Orthodoxy and Mysticism - Part 3
November 12, 2010 Length: 56:16
Up until this point, I have tried to be very practical in some of what I’ve said under perhaps the unpopular belief that practical guidance is the best kind. I’m now going to go all impractical and talk about things that— you can’t very well hold a seminar on Orthodoxy and mystery and not talk about divine light and divine darkness. But actually I want to start by saying that I don’t think that these are impractical things, even though none of us is going to hike up Mt. Sinai this afternoon and have the experience that I’m about to describe. And, as far as I know—though I wouldn’t want to insist upon this point since I don’t know all of you very well—I don’t think for certain that anyone is going to go home and be transfigured in the divine light this afternoon. It’s possible.
The danger in talking about these things is that we’ve tried to abstract them. They become interesting texts to read—the esoteric side of the Orthodox tradition. They are fantastical and wonderful, and, when we read them in this way, they can be spiritually distracting. They describe a spirituality that, in its gloriousness and wonder, can distract us from our own spiritual life. Very often, when we talk about St. Gregory Palamas and the distinction between the energies and the essence and the uncreated light at Tabor, we get very interested and worked up and excited—none of which helps us to pray or to grow.
The question is: can we learn something from them that does help us in our own spiritual life? I’m just going to pause for a moment and say—am I as loud and thundering to all of you as I sound to myself, or is it okay? It’s not too loud? I feel as if I’m being yelled at by my father! [laughter] I hear this voice coming back which is startlingly like his. Never mind. Well, big booming voices are involved in the story, so maybe that’s helpful.
Let me tell a story. A man is leading a group through the wilderness. They have escaped from a rather tumultuous—now I can’t hear myself at all. [laughs] I’m just going to ignore what I hear!—start to their journey. Having been pursued and attacked, these people have departed into the wilderness where they have wandered a long time. As any people is wont to do, they have spent most of that time complaining about the journey: “We don’t like the food that we have; we don’t much like the person in charge because I’m absolutely certain that I’ve seen that mountain peak before as we walked by.” They were walking in circles for forty years. The Sinai wilderness is not that big.
At a certain point along this journey, the people stop at the foot of a mountain. Their leader—by providence: a man who had no training in how to lead a people, who actually felt embarrassed to speak in front of a group because he had some manner of speech impediment, not a natural born leader in any worldly sense—this man has, nonetheless, led them by God’s inspiration. They stop at the foot of a mountain—having received heavenly food—manna, quails—and having been guided by pillars of cloud and pillars of flame—and they stop at the base of a mountain and complain.
Their leader, a man called Moses, departs from their company and begins to ascend this mountain peak. Mt. Sinai is almost exactly the same height as Mt. Athos, the difference being that it rises out of the sand instead of out of the sea. It’s an enormous and forbidding peak. He climbs up to the top of it by himself. There’s a storm of some kind at the peak of the mountain, and the top is enveloped in clouds. In the last steps of this journey, he enters up into cloud-covered, foggy darkness. It is there, according to the sacred Scriptures, that he sees God. He beholds him with his own eyes, although according to the Scriptures he is not able to gaze upon God’s face. So he hides in the cleft of a rock and sees the back of God as he passes by. Most famously of all in this story, God gives him the commandments of the Law, epitomized in what we think of as the Ten Commandments—of course there were hundreds and hundreds of them, but the “Ten Summary Points,” as it were—inscribed by God’s own hand, we are told, in stone, which Moses brings down to the people, only to discover that they have spent the time of his absence erecting a large, golden calf.
One of the most insightful and inspired commentaries ever written on the book of Exodus, that has no parallel at all in any exegesis we find anywhere else, is by St. Gregory of Nyssa. If you want to learn to read the Scriptures as an Orthodox Christian, go get The Life of Moses by St. Gregory and read it four or five times, because it does not approach Scripture the way we approach scripture 95% of the time. He starts by exploring the story, which I’ve just told you—of course, he explores it in far more detail, looking at each line, each detail—who was this Moses, who were these people, what happened at each point in the journey? But that’s the preamble to his understanding of the book. Once he’s set that out, he starts talking about what it means, and this is where the text becomes truly astonishing. Let me read you a section describing Moses’ experience at the top of the mountain. This is from The Life of Moses, section 46.
Moses was alone, having been stripped, as it were, of the people’s fear. He boldly approached the very darkness itself, and he entered the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those who watched. After he entered the inner sanctuary of divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he kept company with the invisible. He teaches, I think, that by those things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible by lifting up his mind as to a mountain top to the invisible and the incomprehensible and believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.
That is how St. Gregory understands Moses’ climbing to the top of Mt. Sinai. It’s not simply an historical moment to recount. It’s not simply, or even chiefly, a receiving of the Law. What happens in that moment is that Moses ascends to an intimacy with God where he can converse with him, be in his presence, see him. And yet that intimacy comes in darkness. We often think of a mountain-top experience as being where we struggle out of darkness up to a point where we’re above all the clouds, and we can see forever. But for Gregory, it’s exactly the opposite. Moses is able to see and be seen as he climbs and climbs and climbs, but at the peak of the mountain he climbs up into the darkness itself. There he says, “God is found where the understanding does not reach.”
For St. Gregory, this story in Exodus is an historical story—it’s recounting an event that really happened. And yet it is an example of spiritual life in its entirety. As we grow, we come closer and closer to divine things, stripping ourselves away from the world around us—Moses got farther and farther from the people as he went up and up and up. But at the height of spiritual growth, at the top, at the pinnacle of this ascent, is not infinite vision, but darkness. He calls this darkness, in another place, “luminous darkness,” because it is in this darkness that we can see clearly—bright darkness.
One word describes this description of how God is known: “odd.” It is an odd description. Surely darkness is not an avenue for sight. Surely, a lack of understanding is not a basis for knowledge. Surely being blind is not the aim of the spiritual life, but vision to see. And yet Moses describes this as the pinnacle of the spiritual realm, of spiritual discipline. Why? What could account for this strange image?
If you will permit me, I want to tell you a little bit about St. Gregory, just a little bit, to put his life in context. St. Gregory of Nyssa came from a remarkable family—lots of brothers and sisters from whom three bishops came—St. Gregory himself; his brother Basil of Caesarea; and his brother Peter, later bishop of Sebaste. His older sister, Macrina, became a great ascetic and monastic. His mother, Emily, was herself the daughter of a martyr. So he’s got a pretty remarkable spiritual lineage. Even in his youth, his family were known as incredibly pious, long-suffering people.
Gregory was deeply educated. He received the best classical education money could buy, and he wanted to go into rhetoric; he wanted to go into secular life. His brother, St. Basil, discouraged him in this, but Gregory was fairly firm. He married as a young man his wife, a woman by the name of Theosebia—Saint Theosebia, so the patrimony continues, though they lived largely “as brother and sister,” as their Lives call it.
His career in the episcopacy—when he becomes bishop of Nyssa—seems largely to have been contrived by his brother Basil. (I’m going to continue saying it that way [Baz-il] because I can’t bring myself to say “Bay-sil,” but you know whom I’m talking about.) St. Basil was a gifted theologian—possibly one of the most astute theologians the Church has ever known—and a deeply pastoral man. But as a bishop, he had no qualms with manipulating the lines of dioceses so that he could put people where he wanted them. And he wanted Gregory to go be a bishop. It was a choice that St. Basil himself later regretted slightly. He described him as basically clumsy and inept as a bishop, which maybe he was.
But St. Gregory of Nyssa was a brilliant theologian. In the arguments against the heretics of the day, St. Gregory’s theology was critical in the Church’s articulation of its belief in that environment. He was deposed in the year 376, and he wandered around without a see for some years until he was reestablished in 378.
He really only started to become active as a bishop after his brother died. He was a gifted speaker. He writes incredibly complicated theological treatises. So this was not a man who didn’t believe in education. This was not a man who felt that you couldn’t use philosophical language, of which he used a tremendous amount. He was certainly no anti-intellectual. And yet this is the man who said the height of knowledge comes from “darkness where understanding cannot reach.”
Why does he say this? What point is he trying to make, in giving us this image of divine, bright darkness? To understand St. Gregory’s point, we have to distinguish how the mind works and how we know what we know. There are two types of knowledge, broadly speaking, which we employ in trying to come to understanding. The first is knowledge by assertion. Or if you want the technical term for it, “cataphatic knowledge.” Now is when I’d like the whiteboard. No, I don’t need it; I’m only going to give you two long words. One of them is that one: “cataphatic,” which simply means “knowledge by assertion.”
We know things because we come to describe, to assert things about them. Fr. Irenei is the one wearing the hat and the black. He is the one in front of the room. He is the one that talks with a vague accent. He is the one who continually thumps his microphone. You assert things about the object of your knowledge, and the tighter the assertions, the more you know, the more accurately you know. So if you were just to say, “Fr. Irenei is the one wearing a black cassock,” okay, but there are a few of us. “He’s the one wearing the black cassock and a cross.” That narrows it down a bit more. The additional assertion narrows it down. “He’s the one wearing the black cassock and a cross and a hat”—even more. “The hat has a long tail on it”—even more. So finally, you’ve defined me.
You see how the basic pattern of assertion works. But it works also on a much deeper level than this. For example, much of how we know God is cataphatic. We ascribe things to him. We say, “God is good.” That helps define him and helps us to understand him. “God is loving. God is kind. God ‘desires not the death of the sinner but that he should turn from his wickedness and live.’ God is patient. God hates evil.” All of these are assertions that we make about God. Even things that don’t describe attitudes, as it were, but attributes—“God is eternal. God is timeless. God is uncreated.” We make these assertions and our knowledge is tightened in. This assertive knowledge leads us towards the object of our knowledge by positive statements that tend to begin out of observations. We see someone constantly being nice, and so we say they are a nice person.
This kind of knowledge is also intrinsically comparative. The words that we use to ascribe, the assertions that we make, are based out of comparisons with other things. “God is love.” Well, what is love? Love is all the things that we’ve seen love mean. Love is someone who is long-suffering, patient, and kind, etc. So when we say, “God is love,” what we mean by that is that God can be described by all of these comparisons from life that we find fitting for him.
(Can you turn this stand just a tiny bit? I’m getting a little bit of an echo, just a tiny bit. Sorry. I’m being fussy. The assertive knowledge: microphones are difficult! [laughter] Right?)
This kind of knowledge has many strengths, many positive attributes. It’s relatable. If we say God is patient, and we have a sense of what patience is, this helps us to understand God in a way that we can relate to. It’s demystifying. It gives us clarity where clarity before did not exist.
But there are limitations to this way of knowing, severe limitations. Firstly, it’s limited by our ability to express, to make an assertion. If something goes beyond what we can assert, we have no way of talking about it, which is again why “mysticism” is very popular. It’s that whole realm beyond [the realm in] which we can assert anything concrete.
The other limitation to knowledge by assertion is that it can only ever describe actions, never actual beings. Think in your minds. Can you make an assertion about something that isn’t ultimately describing an act? He is loving—God is love. What does that mean? God does loving things rather than unloving things. Can anyone think of—it’s a little thought experiment—an attribute that you could make, or an assertion that you could make, that doesn’t fundamentally describe an act?
[An individual in the audience makes a suggestion.] Yes, in the physical world you can describe that as “brown” which describes a sort of condition of our experience of it. Of course, good physicists would say, “Well, it really isn’t brown. That’s the way light bounces off of it and interacts with our eyes, and that interaction is what you have titled ‘brown.’ And, yes, it is brown.” But even there we are describing activities.
[An individual in the audience makes a suggestion.] [Omniscient.] Very good. Ultimately, [omniscient] means someone who knows all things—a God who knows everything; he actively knows anything that you can know. Again, you are not describing who God is. You’re describing what God is and how he is. God is a being who knows everything that is to be known. Again, that hasn’t really told you anything about the who. It’s told you the how. How does he exist? He exists [omnisciently].
[An individual in the audience says, “I find it hard [to understand] what you mean by describing things by action what actually I think is more of a category of thought [which] normally deals with qualities and quantity in relationship in modality. In those things you can determine what an object is or use the type of knowledge to define things. So it’s not really just action. It’s actually the quantities or qualities in the relationship.”]
I think you’re quite right. There is an element in which assertions we make about physical things can have quantifying descriptions or qualitative descriptions: this chair is made of metal; it is a certain fabric and a certain shape. But that only applies within the realm of the experience of creation. Beyond creation, you can’t describe things in such a way, because those are purely describing physical characteristics. So if you want to describe God, you can’t apply the same sort of qualitative things if you believe that God is beyond creation, is the Creator [himself].
But there is a sense in which this limitation is true even in our physical realm, and it’s in the realm of personhood. I can describe you in every detail—all your physiology, what makes up every organ, every cell, every atom, if I had that knowledge—I don’t, but in theory I could describe all of these things. None of them actually tell me who you are. They tell me the definitions of your created structure, and then they can also tell me what you do with it. Here is someone who uses all of that structure to be kind to another person, or to be peaceable or loving. But none of them disclose you. That’s the distinct limitation of this knowledge. You can’t really speak of a who.
We sense this in our lives most potently when we’re talking about relationships of love. You come to love another person, and you love a person that you cannot describe. There’s that vexed and pointless question that sometimes couples are heard to ask each other: “Why do you love me?” Well, how do you answer this? “I love you because you are you.” “Well, what is it about me you love?” It’s a question that only has bad answers, right? [laughter] The point here is, nothing that we can describe about another person actually tells us who they are. It can tell us the what and the how, but not the who. There is no way for assertive knowledge to address personhood, much less divine personhood.
[An individual in the audience asks, “God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but one. That’s how you can describe him. That’s not an action, is it?”]
Well, thank you, it’s a good question. It isn’t an action, but it is an action, isn’t it? God is three, existing in unity and oneness. The very definition of Trinity is an active definition. It’s a communion—an intercommunion of three Persons. This is precisely, by the way, the sort of philosophical questions of language that St. Gregory writes a lot about. If you want to know a lot more about what can and cannot be said, read St. Gregory’s texts against Eunomius. He, in fact, talks exactly about whether the titles that we give God describe “actions” or “who.” His ultimate sense is that no names that you can give God—creator, eternal, just, loving, kind—none of those get past the limitation of this kind of knowing, which is that they are all descriptive of attributes, never of a person.
What do you do to get past that limitation? This is precisely why St. Gregory loves the story of righteous Moses, because Moses ascends higher and higher the heights of knowledge, climbing up the mountain towards God. I’ve always thought that one of the things Moses would have felt is, as he goes up, he does see further and further and further, until he gets to the ultimate point where he can’t see anything. He has surpassed descriptive knowledge. In the blackness, there is nothing left but experience. No way to describe anything, because you cannot see anything. But you can experience the who—God himself. So all of those descriptives were important in bringing him to this place where now he can strip himself of them and simply be in the presence of God, beyond the place where the understanding reaches.
That type of knowledge we call “apophatic knowledge”—knowledge by negation or denial. It’s the natural counterpart to cataphatic, positive knowledge. It’s the ability to say that we can assert things about God, but if we want to actual experience the person, God himself, we have to at some point overcome those limitations. We can say, “God is just,” but at some point we have to recognize that what we mean by “justice” and “just” is so limited that we actually have to say, “God is not just,” by that definition. He is just, but he goes beyond justice. St. Gregory would say that you have to be able to say simultaneously, “He is just but beyond justice.”
“He is love,” but again, what does that mean to us? Love is something we define by our very human, very broken experiences, even if at times they are richly blessed and filled with grace. Even so, they are human, created expressions of love. God is love, but he is not limited to that. God’s love must go beyond that. It’s that moving beyond what can be said into the realm where you can’t really say anything anymore that Gregory defines as the higher form of knowledge, where what’s left, when we strip away all these rational ideas, is simply experience.
Let I give you a few quotations.
Moses’ vision of God began with light. Afterwards, God spoke to him in a cloud. But when Moses rose higher and became more perfect, he saw God in darkness.
He’s deliberately playing on the fact that you cannot see in darkness. The vision is different. It’s not a purely sensory, interpretive vision. It’s the actual vision of experience.
The contemplation of God is not affected by sight or hearing. Nor is it comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind at its highest level. “For no eye has seen nor has any ear heard nor does it belong to those things that usually enter into the heart of man.” Man must wash from his understanding every opinion derived from some perception and withdraw himself from his normal way of thinking, that is, with his sense perceptions and his interpretive mind, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature. When Moses was so purified, then he assaults the mountain.
St. Gregory is not denying that our senses are important or good. We’ve seen that already in other areas. But he is informing us that they are limited. They are linked to our brain which functions in a very specific way. Ultimately, there are limitations that cannot be overcome by their own means. When we move beyond them, into a truer communion with God, the senses are transformed. They start to be able to do things they cannot do before; to know things that cannot be known; to see things that cannot be seen—God himself. This, for St. Gregory, is what describes the highest spiritual state. He says:
Scripture teaches us that religious knowledge [“religious knowledge” being for him the title for this highest form] comes first to those who receive it as a kind of light and brightness of thought. Therefore, what is perceived to be contrary to religion is darkness. So, in our early phases, we perceive light to be good and darkness to be bad. The escape from darkness comes about when we participate in light. But as the heart progresses, and, through even an even greater and more perfect dialogue, comes to apprehend reality as it approaches more nearly to contemplation, it sees most clearly what of the divine is not complicated. It leaves behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends, but also what the intelligence thinks that it sees, and it keeps on penetrating deeper and deeper until, by its yearning for understanding, it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought. [This is the best line:] This is the seeing that consists in not-seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.
St. Gregory is telling us that, as we progress in the spiritual life, our goal can never be just to know more and more and more about God. This is a consistent risk of people who try to study theology. I’ll know more and more and therefore be wiser and wiser and wiser and can grow spiritually, spiritually, spiritually. That’s not how it works. In fact, if anything, I find being involved in the academic worlds of theology, that studying theology tends to pose pretty hefty risks to one’s growth. Not a thing to be entered into lightly.
Yet, knowledge is not bad; it is not evil. But its limitations must form part of our understanding of the spiritual life. We confront these limitations all the time. We want to know why evil exists, and we probe into it. Ultimately, we realize: even though we can describe many aspects of it—it comes from sin; it comes from free will; it comes from God respecting human integrity and allowing time for transformation: we can say all of these things—we still really can’t explain it.
Evil is a fearful mystery. Bishop Kallistos likes to say, and I like to quote him in saying, that the common language and philosophy in trying to address “the problem of evil” is a misnomer. Evil isn’t a problem. A problem is something that has a solution. If I stare at a mathematics problem long enough—well, if someone other than me stares at a mathematics problem long enough [laughter]—they’ll find the solution and it will balance out and it’s no longer a problem.
Evil is not a problem; evil is a mystery. It goes beyond our ability to explain it. So we rely on God. We find that limitation. We find it frustrating and difficult. And we find others. But St. Gregory’s point is that the limitations of knowledge are not something that should frighten us, but should lead us to something that transcends pure intellect, which is real experience. The goal of that knowledge is to lead us towards the experience of God, to help us climb the mountain of the spiritual life, so that at some stage we can enter into that darkness where the understanding cannot reach, and there experience God himself.
I want to contrast this with St. Gregory Palamas. I say contrast this, because St. Gregory of Nyssa talks about experience of God as darkness, and St. Gregory of Palamas talks about the experience of God as light. The highest expression, the highest vision of experience, is to behold the Uncreated Light.
We have in England a very dear archimandrite, Ephrem Lash. Fr. Ephrem is a man who makes an impression upon one. Firstly, he looks almost exactly like Gandalf! [laughter] And he happens, by chance of family blood line, to be, in fact, the uncle of whichever of the Fiennes brothers plays Lord Voldemort. So he goes to the royal openings of these films, and people just assume he’s one of the characters. [laughter] He looks like them. I remember early on in my coming to know this man—we were at a conference, and I can’t even remember what the conference was about, and I can’t even remember what our conversation was about. There was a group of us walking down a corridor towards lunch. Somehow, Mt. Athos and hesychasts and the vision of the Divine Light came up. Archimandrite Ephrem was an Athonite monk for a very long time before he was sent to Britain, and he just said, “Oh, phooey!” I turned to him and said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I wish people would stop talking about all that Divine Light stuff all the time!” I thought, “But you come from the Holy Mountain where the light comes from, or this language comes from.” He proceeded to tell me: we get so absorbed in this discussion that we fail to assign it any pastoral value whatsoever. It becomes an intellectual game, an Orthodox intellectual game to play. We play it with God himself, and, in playing the game, we lose sight of ourselves.
So I want to look at St. Gregory Palamas and the Divine Light very briefly and with a specific purpose, to ask: How does the knowledge of what he said affect my life? How do I put it in concert with what St. Gregory of Nyssa said about darkness? St. Gregory Palamas—I’m sorry that it is confusing that everyone is named St. Gregory in this story [laughter]—was a monk on the Holy Mountain. He was later to become Archbishop of Thessaloniki, very near to Athos in northern Greece. On the Holy Mountain, when he was there, he was part of a community of monks who practiced hesychia, hesyschastic life. “Hesychia” means “stillness, interior stillness.” It’s often translated as “quiet,” but “quiet” is kind of a weak word. “Quietude” might be better. I think “stillness” is the best definition. These were monks who strived by all the disciplines of the Church to acquire interior stillness. The confession that came out of their communities was that in this stillness, when the heart was truly quieted and calmed, in that condition, the person was transformed and could see the Divine Light of God himself—not a vision, but see God.
A huge debate erupted as to whether this was heretical or not. How can fleshly eyes see an uncreated light? How does light work? Light is little photons, and they hit our eyes, and our eyes interpret them. But uncreated light isn’t made of photons. How could our eyes see it? Some of St. Gregory’s antagonists were saying, “Look, logically it’s impossible. Physical eyes cannot see nonphysical things.” But the monks insisted, “No, this is not a created light that God fashions to give us encouragement. What is able to be seen is God himself.” The distinction that they used to describe how this is possible is a distinction between essence and energy. I’m sure that some of you have heard of this. It’s a very famous distinction. It does not originate with St. Gregory Palamas. It originates long, long before St. Gregory of Nyssa had used it, a millennium earlier.
But the idea here is that God in his essence—who he is, the “who-ness,” the “what-ness” of his being—is inaccessible to us. We have no access to it and never can, because we are creatures and he is not. Something in that distinction is unchangeable. Even in the Kingdom of God, we can never know God in that “who-ness.” But, in his energies, as they call them, God is made immediately accessible to us. So, while never knowing the fullness of who God is, we are encountering, directly, God himself. It’s a complex nuance, this distinction, but it’s important, because it forces us to acknowledge, on the one hand, that we can never know God fully, never know the entirety, the enormity, of God. Yet, at the same time, we can possess a knowledge that isn’t just intellectual. We can experience, in the firsthand, God himself. That’s important to us, because as Christian people, that’s the whole substance of our faith. God becomes human. We see God. We touch him. We talk to him.
There’s a very famous story—I have no idea if it’s apocryphal or true—of someone in an Orthodox church being led around with a group being shown all the icons. He said, “No one can see God! God is invisible. Nobody knows what he looks like.” A young Sunday School girl who happened to be nearby pointed to the icon and said, “I know what he looks like. There he is!” We believe as Orthodox Christians that it is possible for the human person to see God directly, to touch God, not through the intermediary of our understanding, but as person to person, heart to heart, in communion. That’s why that word keeps cropping up—“communion”—where we are joined together with God.
For both St. Gregories—St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Palamas— for both of them, the ultimate point to be made was that you can intimately behold God, and in that intimacy be changed—whether it means you can see light that you could not see before or whether it means that in darkness you perceive things that you could not see in the light. Whichever idiom we want to use, whichever way of articulating this we choose to adopt, the point is the same. The knowledge that we gain through our intellect leads us to a place that goes beyond the intellect.
In that place, God is met and encountered and known. In that communion, we are changed. The senses are transfigured and transformed. So that when we look at the world around us, we continue to see what we could not see before. We continue to find things that we could not find of our own rational powers. Look at the saints who, through great ascesis, gained converse with God and who go out and see all of the glory of God’s majesty in a tree or a rock or a bird or a stream. They find something there that we never really see. We sometimes romantically waft on a bit about how pretty the stream is, but that’s far different from actually seeing the glory of God in all things. To have that requires a spiritual vision, a transformation and a changing of the senses.
I’d like to move us towards summing up by quoting one of the most famous stories. I started by telling stories; I might as well end by doing it. This is one of the most famous stories in the whole Orthodox world. Now, whatever tradition you come from—Antiochian, Greek, OCA, Jerusalem, wherever—this story is known: St. Seraphim of Sarov.
What I want you to listen to when I tell you this story—I’m going to use the words of Nikolai Motovilov’s journal to do it—pay attention to what happens to Nikolai. Nikolai is the student-disciple of St. Seraphim, struggling to live a holy life, who goes out to see St. Seraphim in the woods on a snowy day, and asks how one can know that one is praying in the Spirit. St. Seraphim often had a habit of instructing people: “Acquire the Holy Spirit.” One of his most famous sayings: “Acquire the Spirit of peace within you, and a thousand around you will be saved,” which sounds lovely. But Nikolai asked the question that many of us ask, “Well, how do I do that? How am I to know if I’ve acquired the Spirit? Is it a feeling that I get? Is it a sense that I have described God rightly or said the right words? How do I know if this is what I’ve done?”
So Nikolai goes out to visit with the saint in the woods, just the two of them on this snowy afternoon. They have a conversation and an experience that will transform him. Pay attention, not so much to what happens to St. Seraphim, but what happens to Nikolai.
It was a Thursday. [Great way to begin.] The day was gloomy. The snow lay eight inches deep on the ground; and dry, crisp snowflakes were falling thickly from the sky when Fr. Seraphim began his conversation with me in a field adjoining his near hermitage, opposite the river Sarovka, at the foot of the hill that slopes down the riverbank. He sat me on the stump of a tree which he had just felled, and he himself squatted opposite me.
“The Lord has revealed to me,” said the great elder, “that in your childhood you had a great spiritual desire to know the aim of our Christian life, and that you continually asked many great spiritual persons all about it.” I must say here, that from the age of twelve this thought had constantly troubled me. I had, in fact, approached many clergy about it, but their answers had never satisfied me. But I had never told this to the elder. “No one, though,” continued Fr. Seraphim, “has given you an answer that is precise. They have said to you, ‘Go to church, pray to God, do the commandments, do good—this is the aim of the Christian life.’ ”
If I can step away from the story, think back to the story of Abba Joseph and Abba Lot: “I say my prayer. I keep the fast. I’m kind. That’s it, isn’t it?”
“They have said to you, ‘Go to church, pray to God, do the commandments, do good—this is the aim of the Christian life.’ Some were even indignant with you for being occupied with what they called ‘profane curiosity’ and said to you, ‘Don’t seek things that are beyond you, Nikolai.’ But they did not speak as they should have done. And now poor Seraphim will explain to you in what this aim really consists.”
He then goes on by my printout for ten pages to give a very long explanation, which unsurprisingly doesn’t sink in to Nikolai. He keeps asking throughout, “But, Father, how can I know that I am in the grace of the Holy Spirit?”
“Neverless,” I replied, “I simply do not understand, after your long diatribe, how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself his true manifestation in me?”
Fr. Seraphim replied, “I have already told you, your godliness [that’s how he addressed Nikolai], that it is very simple, and I have related in detail how people come to be in the Spirit of God and how we can recognize his presence in us. So what is it that you really want, my son? What do you want?”
“I want to understand it well,” I said.
Then Fr. Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said, “We are both in the Spirit of God right now. My son, why don’t you look at me?”
I replied, “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning, your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.”
Fr. Seraphim said, “Do not be alarmed, your godliness. Now, you yourself are just as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God. Otherwise, you would not be able to see me as I am.” Then bending his head towards me, he whispered softly in my ear, “Thank the Lord God for his unutterable mercy towards us. You saw, I did not even cross myself. Only in my heart I prayed to the Lord and said within myself, ‘Lord, grant him to see with his bodily eyes the descent of thy Holy Spirit.’ And as you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How can we not thank him for this gift which he has given to us both? Even to the greatest of hermits, my son, God does not always show himself in this way. But the love of God, like a comforting mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. Why don’t you look into my eyes? Just look and don’t be afraid. The Lord is with us.”
After these words, I glanced at his face, and there came over me an even greater reverent awe. Imagine the center of the midday sun. In the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you. You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes. You hear his voice. You see, you even feel, someone holding your shoulders, yet you do not see his hands. You do not even see yourself, but only a radiant light spreading around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow blanket that covered the ground and the snowflakes that besprinkled me and the great elder. You can imagine what state I was in.
“How do you feel?” Fr. Seraphim asked.
“I feel well,” I said.
“How?” said Fr. Seraphim, “Tell me exactly how you feel well.”
“I feel a peace in my soul that no words can express.”
“And what else?” he asked.
“An extraordinary sweetness,” I replied.
“What else do you feel?” he asked me again.
“I feel an extraordinary joy in all my heart.”
This story, for obvious reasons, is immensely popular. It is told the world over as an example of a fairly modern saint—just from the last century—who embodies for us a transfigured life. But this story between him and Nikolai Motovilov tells us more than the well-known fact that saints can be transfigured. We know that. It tells us something about what transfiguration can mean for us, as people striving to live the spiritual life. We live life together, in a community, as a communion, a body, one blood, the race of Adam, striving towards the Kingdom of God. And though each of us is a unique, irrepeatable person, a unique creation that has never existed before in all of the cosmos, we live out our personhood together, united to God in the life he has handed to us in the Church.
The illumination that can be gained through spiritual growth is something shared. St. Seraphim has attained great spiritual heights, and by his prayers St. Nikolai is transformed: “You yourself are glowing just as I am.” The transformation that we are called to attain is something deeply personal. It has to happen in the heart. There’s no other place for it to happen. And yet it is not private—it cannot be isolated. I cannot be a Christian by myself. It is not possible. I cannot attain to the spiritual life alone. It cannot happen. If I exist, humbly, in the communion of the Church, then this struggle toward perfection is a struggle that we share. We weigh each other down from time to time, because my sins affect you. When I sin and when I fall, your struggle is increased. Yet our successes affect one another. When you grow and you are strengthened, I am lifted up.
The life we live, we live together as one body. It is a life that starts right now, today. There’s no other time for it to begin but this moment. It is life that continues into all eternity. St. Gregory of Nyssa, whom I spoke of before with his commentary on the life of Moses, wrote famously in one place that our goal as Christians is to ascend from glory to glory, an ascension that never ends, because there will always be more to God than we can ever grasp. St. Irenaeus himself, in the second century, said the same thing: “There will always be more to God to be known than we can ever know,” and that “ascent is eternal.” It takes us necessarily beyond where our rational intellect can lead us. It takes us to eternity, to the Kingdom, to the Holy Trinity, to God himself, and weds us to a life that goes beyond life, that goes beyond death, that defeats death, that stands outside of time.
This is what the Christian life is about. Not because it is fascinated with esoteric ideas of experiences and revelatory moments, but because my broken life can be healed. The life that I experience as so fragile and finite and limited is a life that can encompass within it all of creation, a life united to the Creator himself. This is the hope of the Christian message. This is the real mystery of the life in Christ: that life goes beyond the confines of sin.
We say as Orthodox Christians during Pascha, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death!” St. Seraphim greeted people with this greeting all throughout the year, whether or not it was any time close to Pascha. He saw you and said, “Christ is risen!” That has to be the voice in our hearts as Christian people. Because if we believe that, if we believe that God became a man and died and defeated death and now lives, that changes everything. Nothing can be the same. There is the possibility for life where life does not exist. For us and for all the world, that is the only true hope, and that is the true joy of the Christian life.
My hope, my wish, for all of you for all of us, is that in our own struggles and in our own trials, as well as in our own joys, we become ever more aware that the life in Christ is indeed a mystery, something we will never explain and yet something that we can behold and see and take seriously, when at the end of the Divine Liturgy we proclaim with one voice that “we have indeed seen the True Light and found the True Faith and the True Life.” Amen.
"I absolutely love Ancient Faith Radio! Right now I am listening to the podcast series "The Names of Jesus" and—wow!—what a blessing and growing experience it has been so far!"