|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Psychotherapy|
Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov
What is the essence of Christian contemplation? How does it arise and where does it lead? Who or what is contemplated, and in what manner?
As I was taught, true contemplation begins the moment we become aware of sin in us. The Old Testament understood sin as the breach of the moral and religious precepts of the Law of Moses. The New Testament transferred the concept of sin to the inward man. To apprehend sin in oneself is a spiritual act, impossible without grace, without the drawing near to us of Divine Light. The initial effect of the approach of this mysterious Light is that we see where we stand ‘spiritually’ at the particular moment. The first manifestations of this Uncreated Light do not allow us to experience it as light. It shines in a secret way, illuminating the black darkness of our inner world to disclose a spectacle that is far from joyous for us in our normal state of fallen being. We feel a burning sensation. This is the beginning of real contemplation- which has nothing in common with intellectual or philosophical contemplation. We become accurately conscious of sin as a sundering from the ontological source of our being. Our spirit is eternal but now we see ourselves as prisoners of death. With death waiting at the end, another thousand years of life would seem but a deceptive flash.
Sin is not the infringement of the ethical standards of human society or of any legal injunction. Sin cuts us off from the God of Love made manifest to us as Light in Whom there is no darkness at all (cf. 1 John 1.5). To behold one’s pitiful reality is a heavenly gift, one of the greatest. It means that we have already to a certain extent penetrated into the divine sphere, and have begun to contemplate- existentially, not philosophically- man as he is in God’s idea of him before the creation of the world.
The horror of seeing oneself as one is acts as a consuming fire. The more thoroughly the fire performs its purifying work, the more agonising our spiritual pain. Yet, inexplicably, the unseen Light gives us a sense of divine presence within us: a strange secret presence that draws us to itself, to a state of contemplation which we know is genuine because our heart begins to throb day and night with prayer. It cannot be too often repeated that divine action has a twofold movement: one, which seems to us the first, plunges us into darkness and suffering. The other lifts us into the lofty spheres of the divine world. The range of our inner being expands and grows. But when the downward movement prevails, the cry is forced from us: ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God’ (Heb. 10.31).
To begin with, we do not understand what is happening. Everything is new. We only later, and gradually, come to comprehend God’s gift to us. Christ said to Peter: ‘What I do thou knowest not now; but shalt know hereafter’ (John 13.7). Impressed by the world revealed to her, which the heart did not yet know, the soul is both attracted and afraid. How can we describe the dread of losing God Who has so unexpectedly entered and enriched our life? Dismay at the thought of returning to the dark pit in which we existed until God’s coming to us stimulates a desire to cleanse ourselves from all that could hinder the Spirit of God from taking up His abode in us for all eternity. This dismay is so immense that it brings total repentance.
Repentance does not come readily to carnal man; and none of us fathoms the problem of sin which is only disclosed to us through Christ and the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Holy Spirit is an event of supreme importance. Fallen man meets with God all-Holy. The notion of sin is possible only where God is regarded as Absolute Hypostasis. And, likewise, repentance for sin is possible and appropriate only where there is a personal relationship. Encounter with a Personal God- that is what the event signifies. The sinful man experiences at one and the same time fear and exultation. It is new birth from on High. An exquisite flower unfolds within us: the hypostasis-person. Like the Kingdom of God the person ‘cometh not with observation’ (Luke 17.20). The process whereby the human spirit enters into the domain of divine eternity differs with each one of us.
The soul comes to know herself first and foremost face to Face with God. And the fact that such prayer is the gift of God praying in us shows that the person is born from on High and so is not subject to the laws of Nature. The person transcends earthly bounds and moves in other spheres. It cannot be accounted for. It is singular and unique.
Absolute Being is Hypostatic; and man, the image of the Absolute, is hypostatic. God is Spirit, and man-hypostasis is spirit; yet spirit which is not unconnected, abstract, but given concrete expression by the corporal body. Just as the Divine Logos took on Himself human flesh and thereby showed that God is not a fantasy of man’s imagination, born of ignorant fear of unknown phenomena, but actual reality. So, too, the human hypostasis is actually real. The Divine Spirit embraces all that exists. Man as hypostasis is a principle uniting the plurality of cosmic being; capable of containing the fulness of divine and human life.
The person does not determine himself by opposition. His is an attitude of love. Love is the most profound content of his being, the noblest expression of his essence. In this love lies likeness to God, Who is Love. Per se the person is excellence surpassing all other cosmic values. Rejoicing in the freedom that he has discovered, man contemplates the divine world.
Scientific and philosophical knowledge may be formulated but the person is beyond definition and therefore incognisable from without, unless he himself reveals himself. Since God is a Secret God, so man has secret depths. He is neither the author of existence nor the end. God, not man, is the Alpha and Omega. Man’s godlike quality lies in the mode of his being. Likeness in being is the likeness of which the Scriptures tell.
Article published in English on: 11-10-2006.
Last update: 11-10-2006.