Orthodoxy and the Holy Spirit

I would like to speak briefly about Orthodoxy and the Holy Spirit. I grew up in an evangelical community and during the late 70s and early 80s, in my late teens and early adulthood, the effects of the charismatic renewal reached even into our Brethren community. Some left us and joined explicitly Pentecostal groups in town. Others stayed and helped to introduce new forms of worship, different song books, and teachings about spiritual practice that created some tensions within the congregation. Plenty of us attended meetings in other places and heard some of the important speakers of the time. There was some excess in some of these meetings, undoubtedly. And it disturbed me as an evangelical seeking a deeper life with God. But much that seemed to be the expression of a desire to life the Christian life in a way that transformed those who claimed to have new life in Christ.

It might seem to an outside observer that Orthodox could not be further from Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement if it tried. I am sure I thought that myself, as a teenager, of Catholic and Anglican churches. But that was a measure of my ignorance and lack of experience. Certainly Orthodoxy chooses deliberately to avoid emotionalism, though not emotion. Certainly Orthodoxy has chosen to make the Liturgical prayers of the Church of the highest quality possible, and invites the faithful Christian to enter into these prayers, so that they become our own prayers and lift the quality of our spirituality by raising our own hearts in using them. Certainly Orthodoxy does not believe that lasting spiritual transformation happens in a moment and without effort.

In my own life, I pray the Lord’s Prayer often. It appears several times in each of the seven times of prayer which Orthodox Christians are invited to observe in the Daily Office. But very often I find that even while praying this short prayer my mind has wandered and I have not prayed it with the attention it deserves, and I return to it, seeking to pray it with attention, and again my mind wanders. It is clear to me that I have not yet learned to pray with that attention I would wish, and I need to pray even this one prayer more often, until it is truly my own, rather than race off seeking something new each time I pray. Yet when I was younger, this was entirely what seemed most spiritual to me, seeking after something new all the time, rather than mastering something simple and ancient.

So we should not confuse the ancient prayers and teachings of Orthodoxy with mere religious practice, or a lack of spirituality. Does someone become a carpenter if they cannot make a simple joint? Does someone become a musician without much practice of scales and the careful performance of other, and greater, composers work. Does an Olympic athlete win a medal without putting in hours of necessary but often repetitive effort.

It is the same with Orthodox spirituality. The desire for something new all the time is a sign of a heart that is disturbed by earthly and worldly thoughts and aspirations. We want to be excited. We want to be satisfied. But Orthodox spirituality offers much the same thing, over and over, so that we learn to quieten these shifting and rootless desires, and are able to build the inner temple of the heart on solid foundations.

These solid foundations of ancient liturgical prayers, often traced back over 1600 years or more, are filled with an Orthodox and Apostolic Pentecostalism.

Orthodoxy understands the Christian life as being one which is lived entirely in the power of the Holy Spirit. St Seraphim of Sarov, the Russian saint, was asked about the goal of the Christian life, and he responded in these words…

Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.

He goes on to explain what he means, and how he thinks the Holy Spirit can be acquired…

Of course, every good deed done for Christ’s sake gives us the grace of the Holy Spirit, but prayer gives us it most of all, for it is always at hand, so to speak, as an instrument for acquiring the grace of the Spirit. For instance, you would like to go to Church, but there is no Church or the Service is over; you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there isn’t one, or you have nothing to give; you would like to do some other good deed for Christ’s sake, but either you have not the strength or the opportunity is lacking. This certainly does not apply to prayer. Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful.

In Orthodoxy the grace of the Holy Spirit is inseparable from spirituality. The Holy Spirit cannot be demanded by all. He comes to those who have prepared their hearts. This conversation with St Seraphim is well known among Orthodox and many of those of us who are exploring Orthodoxy. Let me read a little more towards the end of the conversation…

I replied, “I do not understand how I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?”

Seraphim replied: “I have already told you, 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 do you want, my son?”

“I want to understand it well,” I said.

Then he took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: “We are both in the Spirit of God 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.”

Seraphim said: “Don’t be alarmed! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; 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 to us! You saw that I did not even cross myself; and only in my heart I prayed mentally to the Lord God and said within myself: ‘Lord, grant him to see clearly with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.’ And you see, my son, the Lord instantly fulfilled the humble prayer of poor Seraphim. How then shall we not thank Him for this unspeakable gift to us both? Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself. But why, my son, do you not look me in the 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 in the center of the 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 feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards and illumining with its glaring sheen both the snow-blanket which covered the forest glade and the snow-flakes which besprinkled me and the great Elder.

We should not imagine that such an occurrence is usual, nor does Orthodoxy teach that we should expect or seek any such manifestations in prayer. But Orthodox Christians do expect God to act by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. Not in the way that we demand that he acts. But out of his manifest love and mercy for us.

I receive many requests that I pray for the healing of people. Indeed during the week, at the Liturgy I conducted in Swindon I prayed for the healing of a young child, anointed him with blessed oil, laid the relics of the saints on his head, and asked for the grace of the Holy Spirit to come upon him and heal him. I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. I can accomplish nothing without the Holy Spirit.

I want to just consider briefly a few excerpts from the Orthodox services which illustrate this dependence on the Holy Spirit at all times. The first excerpt is from the prayers for a catechumen. A catechumen is someone who has asked to be prepared for baptism and has entered a period of formal instruction. In the Orthodox tradition there are prayers and anointings at this important step in a person’s life.

One of them says in part…

The Lord deliver you from every evil and unclean spirit; the spirit of deceit and guile, the spirit of idolatry and covetousness, the spirit of falsehood and of all uncleanness: so that you may be made ready to receive the Holy Spirit, and that He may take up His abode and dwell in you for ever.

This is the purpose of this period of instruction, and the object in view. To be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit. The one who is becoming a catechumen is anointed with blessed oil, and this oil always represents in some sense the activity of the Holy Spirit. But in being anointed it is in the name of the Holy Trinity that the blessing takes place. The priest says…

You are anointed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

Indeed anyone who spends time in Orthodox services will note just how often the name of the Holy Trinity is confessed, and in doing so the Holy Spirit is always named, as being one of the Holy Trinity, and with equal honour and glory. From the beginning of a service to the end, and with every spiritual action, the Holy Spirit is present in Orthodoxy.

We can then turn to the celebration of Orthodox baptism and Chrismation, or anointing. These also are sacraments filled with a sense of the Holy Spirit being present in his power and grace. In the service for Baptism we pray…

Confirm the profession of faith of this your servant; let power dwell in him that he may not turn back again to those things that he has left. Strengthen his faith that nothing may separate him from you, and establish him upon the foundation of your Apostolic Faith, and call him into your holy light, and make him worthy of this great grace which is from you. Strip him of his old nature, and renew his life; fill him with the strength of your Holy Spirit unto the unity and good-will of your Only-Begotten Son, that he may no more be a son of the body, but a son of righteousness, and may become a wise and faithful servant. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

We see here that at the beginning of the baptismal service we are asking that the candidate be filled with the strength of the Holy Spirit, and there is that expectation that it is by the coming of this same Holy Spirit and by his power that the one being baptised will no longer be a son of the body or the flesh, but a child of righteousness.

And then, over the waters of the baptistery, we pray, asking that the Holy Spirit will be sent down in power to grant the grace of baptism. We pray…

We ask and entreat you, O Lover of Mankind, send your Holy Power that it may come upon this baptism that it may give power to your servant and may prepare him so that he may receive the pure baptism of regeneration for the remission of his sins and the hope of incorruption through Thine Only-Begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

And then pouring holy oil in the sign of the cross upon the waters of the baptistery, we pray..

Thunder, O God the Father Almighty, upon these waters, that through them and Your Holy Spirit, You may beget again in Your divine power your servant who has presented himself to you. Make him worthy of the remission of his sins and the garment of incorruption, through the grace, compassion and love for mankind of your Only-Begotten Son, or Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

There is a clear understanding that it is by baptism in the water and in the Holy Spirit that the forgiveness of sins and the new birth into Christ are accomplished. It is the same Holy Spirit who has been called upon the waters, just as he brooded over the waters in the beginning of creation.

Indeed we pray…

Look upon this your creation, this water; give unto it the grace of Jordan, and the power and the strength of heaven; and by the descent of Your Holy Spirit upon it hallow it with the blessing of the Jordan.

And after the baptism itself, by triple immersion, has taken place, we pray again..

You, our Master, have purified this water by the grace of Your Christ and the descent of Your Holy Spirit upon it. It has become for Your servants who have been baptised therein, a laver of regeneration and freedom from the old sin and illumination for them with the light of Your Godhead.
Again, we insist in our Orthodox service of baptism that all that takes place is done in the power of the Holy Spirit, and that it is by the working of the Holy Spirit that new birth, forgiveness of sins and enlightenment of heart are received.

In the Orthodox tradition, received from the beginning, the chrismation or anointing of the candidate for baptism takes place immediately on coming up out of the waters. This anointing with oil is the same as the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Spirit.

In the first place, we pray that the Holy Spirit will be sent down upon the holy oil, saying…

Bestow the Holy Ghost on this Holy Myron that it may be a life-giving seal and a confirmation for Your servant.

And the priest then places his hand on the candidate who has been baptised and anointed and prays…

May you be blessed with the blessing of the heavenly ones and the blessing of the angels. May the Lord Jesus Christ bless you; and in His Name (here he shall breathe in the face of the candidate) RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT and be a purified vessel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Whose is the glory, with His Good Father and the Holy Ghost, both now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

What does this mean? It means that the Orthodox Church does not believe that it is possible to live the Christian life without the Holy Spirit. It is not possible to make a proper beginning without receiving the indwelling Spirit who is our true life. This is why St Seraphim speaks of the Christian life as being one of seeking to acquire the Holy Spirit. Not just once and for all in baptism and chrismation, but as the determined purpose of our life to be united with the Spirit of God, to find grace and strength, to be transformed from glory unto glory.

If I consider just a few excerpts from the Eucharistic liturgy, it will be seen that in this regular weekly service of prayer Orthodox are also seeking the filling and indwelling with the  Holy Spirit.

At the consecration we pray….

Send down, O Lord, upon us and upon these Gifts that lie before You Your self-same Spirit the all-holy that hovering with His holy and good and glorious coming He may hallow and make this bread the holy + Body of Christ. And this cup the precious Blood + of Christ that they may be unto all that partake of them for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life.

Now it may well be considered that Orthodox are wrong in holding such views of the Eucharist, though they have been held by Christians from the first century and any other views were not expressed for 1500 years. But it is clear that Orthodox do insist on the Pentecostal aspect of the Eucharist. It is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and without his divine presence, sent from the Father, the body and blood of Christ, the Word of God, would not be received by those who gather for the forgiveness of their sins and eternal life.

And just as the congregation prepares to receive these holy mysteries, the priest prays…

O Holy One, Who dwells among the saints, sanctify us by the word of your grace and the coming of your all-holy Spirit, for you , O Lord, have said : be holy as I am holy. O Lord our God, incomprehensible Word of God, consubstantial, co-eternal, indivisible, receive this pure hymn in your holy and unbloody sacrifices with Cherubim and Seraphim, and from me a sinner, crying and saying : Holy things for holy persons!

We are to be sanctified by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Not by the mere celebration of religious rites. Orthodoxy has never taught that. Our salvation is found in our reception of the life-giving Holy Spirit, who dwells in us as we seek and desire to be sanctified. How do we receive this Holy Spirit? Orthodoxy teaches and has always taught that it is especially in the sacraments of baptism and chrismation, and in the regular and devout participation in the Eucharist. These sacraments are worked out in our life. They are fulfilled in our daily spirituality and service to others.
We rely on the Holy Spirit from the moment we wake, to the moment we sleep, and throughout the hours of rest. But the sacraments matter. It is in them that we receive our own experience of Pentecost, and find that experience renewed week by week.

In our daily prayers we retain that strong sense as Orthodox Christians that we depend entirely on the Holy Spirit. In the prayers prayed in the middle of the morning, when we think especially of the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, our daily prayer is this…

Your Holy Spirit, O Lord Whom You sent forth upon Your holy disciples and honoured apostles in the third hour, do not take away from us, O Good One, but renew Him within us. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence. And do not take Your Holy Spirit away from me.


O Lord who sent down Your Holy Spirit upon Your holy disciples and Your honoured apostles in the third hour, do not take Him away from us, O Good One, but we ask You to renew Him within us, O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Word; a steadfast and life giving spirit, a spirit of prophecy and chastity, a spirit of holiness, justice and authority, O the Almighty One, for You are the light of our souls. O Who shines upon every man that comes into the world, have mercy on me.

And we even address prayer to the Holy Spirit himself in these daily prayers…

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who is present in all places and fills all, the treasury of good things and the Life‑Giver, graciously come, and dwell in us and purify us from all defilement, O Good One, and save our souls.

The Holy Spirit is a constant presence in the life of the Orthodox Christian. It is not possible to become a catechumen without looking forward to receiving the Holy Spirit. The very substance of the Orthodox sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation are to allow the candidate to receive new life, forgiveness of sins and the indwelling Holy Spirit. The regular spirituality of the Eucharist is linked explicitly with a sense that those gathered are waiting to receive the Holy Spirit who is poured out upon them as they worship. And finally even in our daily prayers we do not cease to ask for the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit, uniting such hope and expectation with the desire for holiness of life and faithfulness to Christ.

This has certainly been my experience in increasing measure as I have sought to make the spirituality of the Orthodox Church my own. I have come to understand that it is not a religion with complex rites and rituals, but it is the means by which we enter into a life giving relationship with the Holy Spirit who is our own true life in Christ and the gift of our Heavenly Father.

I am no Seraphim of Sarov. Far from it. But I have seen such peace and joy and a sense of the light of the Spirit in some of the best and most spiritual of those among the Orthodox. They are an inspiration to me to seek a deeper and richer and more transforming experience of the Holy Spirit in Orthodoxy for myself.

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