At a recent service I was describing the Orthodox Christian life as I understand it, and as the Fathers teach it. It is union with God in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit in the heart through the experience of unceasing prayer. Someone suggested that this might be the Orthodox Christian way of life for a more advanced person. They meant that ordinary Orthodox Christians were expected to live a different sort of Christianity.
What other sorts of Orthodox Christianity could we mean? Is there an alternative to union with God in the heart by the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps we think that living as moral a life as we can manage will be enough, and attending services in the Church fairly regularly will please God. But to live in such a way is to be seeking to save ourselves by our own efforts. It is, essentially, to create our own personal religion, where our own personal God is pleased enough by our making a moderate effort to be reasonably nice to people, and to pay him some attention on Sunday. This is not Christianity of any sort since it does not require anything but a distant relationship with God. This is not life but only religion.
Another understanding of the Christian Faith, but an equally false one, is more pessimistic. It is one in which God is not only rather distant but angry towards us all. We have to obey all of the new Christian Law that he seems to have imposed, otherwise he will send us to Hell. We can never quite be sure that we have done enough and when we think about God it is with fear and not love. He seems to send trials to punish us, but we have no choice. We have to obey in fear or face eternal damnation. This is not Christianity either. The God it describes is not the Christian one. How can there be a loving relationship with such a deity? This is also not life but religion.
What will we choose, if we want an Orthodox Christianity for ordinary people? Will we choose a comfortable religion where God is easily made happy with our small effort? Or will we choose a forbidding religion where God is always angry and waits to punish us unless we keep each aspect of a religious Law no less oppressive than the Jewish one? Neither are true life. Neither have the power to heal and sustain and transform mankind.
Thank God, the Orthodox Christian life which God offers to mankind is offered for all and to all. There is only one Christian path and we experience it to the extent that we are able to commit ourselves to it. When God created man, he gave the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. He intended that man should live as a reflection of the divine light in union with him. Adam sinned, and mankind lost this gift and the consequence for us all is that we bear our natural human mortality. We face an increasing corruption of every aspect of our lives as we try to live without the true life, the abundant life, that God had given at the beginning.
The renewal of this divine life in man by grace is the very meaning and purpose of the incarnation. It was in love that God became man. It was to restore that life of the Holy Spirit in mankind that he lived, died, and rose from death, breaking its power forever on our behalf. To be an Orthodox Christian is to receive the gift of new life in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit by baptism and chrismation. The Orthodox Christian life is one of seeking to experience the fruit of this union with God by the indwelling Spirit in increasing measure.
Everything we do in the Orthodox Christian spiritual life is concerned with deepening this experience of union with God, and participation in the life of the Holy Spirit. The sacraments are the means of a continuing renewal of God’s grace. Our spiritual tradition of unceasing prayer establishes a constant sense of being in God’s presence. While the spiritual disciplines, practiced with the grace of God and in humility, lead to a transformation of our mind and heart, habits and attitudes. The Orthodox Christian life, presents to us the means of union with God and the experience of our own transfiguration in the light of the Holy Spirit, manifests to the world the image of God which we were created to bear.
There is no other Orthodox Christian life. We may follow this way very badly, or with great commitment. But if we wish to please God it can only be by this way of union with him. If we wish avoid the punishment of Hell then it is by finding ourselves in Paradise even in this life by union with God and the experience now of the life of eternity.
There is only one way, union with God who is the way himself, and the fullness of life and light. To commit ourselves to such a union with our whole heart is to discover that we are becoming more authentically human, even as we are becoming more completely that spiritual man and woman that God desires us to be for our salvation.
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