Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Orient - Philosophy

Related articles: Through the Eastern Gate



Part 1

The life in Christ is a mystery. It’s something that cannot be explained. It cannot be rationally comprehended to a degree that ever begins to articulate what it actually is. This has been the problem of theologians from day one, literally from day one. From the first moment that Christ opens his mouth and preaches, theologians have misunderstood what Christianity is about. That misunderstanding leads to the crucifixion. It leads a little while later to schisms and controversies. It leads a little while later to an abundance of terrible theology books, many of which can still be found in libraries all throughout the civilized world.

The problem isn’t that trying to understand is wrong. The problem isn’t that seeking to articulate is a bad thing—these are wonderful things. The scriptures themselves are an articulation of the divine, and we know them to come from God. So we must accept, as a basic premise, that it is possible to speak about this life. And yet, for all that we could ever say, all that we could ever speak, the fact remains that the life in Christ is a mystery. It ultimately goes beyond the things we say.

And it is on this notion that Christianity is mystery that I would like us to focus in our time together tonight and tomorrow. What does it mean?

To begin my talk with that phrase—the life in Christ is a mystery—is homage to a departed monk who, when he heard years ago that I was going to start lecturing at the university, was not terribly happy about this. He said, “These secular institutions—they’re no good! They’re no good!” His one condition for giving me his blessing was, “You must begin every lecture with the phrase ‘The life in Christ is a mystery’.” —which I have tried to do. 

For us, it serves perfectly. What does it mean to say this? What does it mean to speak of Christianity not as a faith or a religion but as a life? And what does it mean to say that this life is bound up “in Christ”?  We don’t say the life “of Christ”. We say the life “in Christ”. What does it mean to say that such a life bound up in the Lord is mystery?

I’m brought to this theme—mystery—because mysticism is a very popular word in our world today. I must say that, having moved from England to California, I’ve noticed it a lot more than I used to. We talk about mysticism, mystical experiences, mystical visions, mystical encounters, and mysterious moments. What are we talking about? What does this word actually mean? Mysticism is one of these lovely slate of words that fills our general spiritual vocabulary that means basically whatever we want it to mean at the moment we utter it. Usually it means something that I can’t describe by any other words.

The problem with words that mean anything is that they also mean nothing. If it can mean anything that you want it to mean then it has no meaning. Yet we continue to use a word which has no definition, at least in its common usage.

In particular, Orthodoxy is described very often as a “mystical Christianity”, a Christianity that has not lost a sense of mystery, Christianity with a “mystic” dimension. I am always on the one hand pleased to hear this and troubled. Pleased, because it’s good that there is an understanding and apprehension that there is something different about Orthodoxy. Yet I am always a little troubled, because if someone says it’s “mystical”, that means something to them —but what? You laugh, but I’m going to ask you in a few minutes. So you just get ready.

I want to start though by telling some stories. I have four stories that I want to tell and one hour in which to speak. So, if I’m lucky, I don’t have to say anything of my own devising. But I do want to tell stories partially because I think that stories are an effective way of conveying truth. The Lord himself preferred this means and method of conveying his own truth. He infuriated his apostles by almost never directly responding to a question with a clear answer.

It’s a fact that we know it infuriated them from a gospel reading that we had according to the Old Church calendar, just the one my church keeps, only a week or two ago. The very famous parable in St. Luke’s gospel of the seeds cast on different types of soil. You get to the end of the story, and there is a sort of implied lull in the conversation before the apostles turn to Jesus, when the other crowd isn’t looking, and sort of whisper under their breath, “What on earth are you talking about?”, and he explains it to them again in a different way.

But the Lord knows that a story teaches something that plain statements don’t. And there is something in that that I think is significant. So let me begin with a few stories if you’ll permit.

The first begins like many good stories do—“A long time ago and (from my vantage point here in Southern California) very far away.” In an afternoon, beside a lake, a man talks to a group of his followers. These men have followed him from their homes, into the city, into the countryside. They’ve seen him loved, and they’ve seen him hated. They have watched him heal the sick. They have watched the dead brought back to life. They have watched him see into the hearts of men and women. They have watched him control the cosmos itself—stopping a storm by a single word, walking upon the sea. After all of this, he takes them aside one afternoon and he turns to them, and he asks them point blank, “Who do people say I am?”

I can imagine the apostles all trying to vie for the right answer—“Some say you are a prophet, some say you are John, some say you are Elijah.” They list off all of the possibilities. Christ doesn’t say anything, but he turns to one of these men, the one whom he has chosen to be, in a sense, their leader, and he changes the question—“Who do you say that I am?” In that moment, St. Peter gives an utterance which Christ himself identifies as divine. He says, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Standing before a man—a man of flesh and blood; they’ve seen him eat; they’ve seen him sleep; they know that when he is cut he bleeds; they watched him weep for his friend. Ultimately, this is a man who, when tortured, dies. And yet, looking at this man, they see something that cannot be human in all its humanity. They see something that has to be identified as divine, as God. “You are the Christ, Son of the living God.” That’s the first story.

The second is a little bit different. It takes place a short time later. We don’t know quite how long, but a handful of years. The second story is well known to everybody, I hope. Maybe not. I shouldn’t presume that. It is “a well known story”. On a certain afternoon—we can presume the year was A.D. 35 or 36—during a journey otherwise routine, we are told that journeys like this happened before. We are also told that it happened midday. A small caravan suddenly comes to a halt on a desert road, and one of its members falls to the ground in a state of apparent ecstasy. He looks as if he sees something, and yet no one else sees anything. He converses as if he is talking to somebody, but no one sees an interlocutor. Some hear a voice, but they don’t see another person.

Now this experience, this event, we have no idea what it appeared to be to the people around him. In their later memory, they would all recall it as being a divine visitation. But whether that’s what they thought in the moment, it’s hard to say, as this man collapses to the ground and starts to speak to somebody who doesn’t appear to be there. The event couldn’t have lasted more than a few moments. Only a few words were exchanged. Yet in this brief instance, in this paucity of words, a man’s life is completely transformed. In a very real way, in that encounter, one man dies and another is born. Between the act of falling down and getting back up, a new person stands in the midst of his colleagues.

What could account for this, and what could it possibly mean? Let’s look at it from a slightly different perspective. I’ve just been speaking in a comfortable, objective, or at least appearing to be objective, academic way of the story. Imagine it from the first person.

This is, of course, St. Paul traveling on the road to Damascus. He’s engaging on a journey that, by his own admissions, is familiar. He’s out hunting people. He’s out to get them. He is a devout follower of the Jewish Law. He’s a Pharisee—a group of people who believed that the Law was gift of God, a gift to be cherished, a gift that when it was defaced or deformed should be protected, not because they were legal-minded and enjoyed being bound in by regulation. But because God had said that this Law gave them life and directed their steps.

He believed this with his whole heart, and he saw in this group—this little sect that had formed—what he believed to be a perversion of this divine gift. He would stop at nothing to hunt out those who defamed God. As he himself noted and recorded in St. Luke’s account of the Acts of the Holy Apostles: “This I did in Jerusalem. Many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. I punished them as often as I could in every synagogue. I compelled them to blaspheme. And being so exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.”

So on this day he was traveling to a foreign city. Who knows what his heart was like? What thoughts were in his mind as he was traveling toward, as he viewed, a sacred mission? Was he looking forward to the task? Did he feel that he was doing God’s work, that God would support him? Whatever his precise state of mind, whatever his thoughts, they are interrupted. The midday sun is completely overwhelmed. Light no longer seems to come it but from something else. Everything in this man’s experience is changed.

Paul, many, many years later before a local tribunal on false charges, he gives an account of this experience to his accuser. He characterizes it in this way: “At midday, O my king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun. It shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Is it hard for you to kick against the goads?’ And I said back, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ and he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you for a reason.’”

Since that afternoon, this event has been taken by the whole Christian world as a kind of paradigm for conversion, of a heart utterly changed, of being united to the life in Christ. Not by some little class that we took that somehow made us ready and now somehow we are worthy, but by change, not of what we think but who we are—becoming someone new, even if we are not divorced from our past.

St. Paul so much becomes an apostolic witness that we call him often simply “The” Apostle despite the fact that, of the Apostles, he never knew Christ in the flesh. Yet we call him “The” Apostle. He’s become such a zeal for mission that he travels literally the whole world as it is known to him to spread the faith and becomes an example for mission ever since. All this and we are given to know that this is theonly time that St. Paul has such an experience. A few seconds, one day, and life is different.

Story number three. Fast forward. A young boy by the name of Francis is born of Greek parents in the village of Paros, Greece in 1898. I have to give you the date early on or you all will think that I am talking of St. Francis of Assisi. This is a different Francis. From the age of twenty-three this Francis begins to read the writings of the Church Fathers. Particularly, he is captivated by the ascetical writings on the monastic spiritual life. He decides that he wants to know this God and live this life, and he begins to practice his own ascetical discipline in his parents’ small farm yard. He tries this for some time before literally running away and making his way to the famous Athonite peninsula of Mt. Athos. Here, on a granite peak that shoots 2,000 meters directly up out of the Aegean Sea, Christians have been living effusively ascetical life, by the time he is there, for at least 1,100 years.

This is a mountain that has always been prone to big ideas and big feats. Alexander the Great commissioned his chief architect to come up with plans—to carve out of the Athonite peak an enormous statue of Alexander himself, holding his open hands out, big enough to have a small settlement in each open hand. To the great glee of Athonite monks this was never realized. But others, almost as ambitious, were. King Xerxes carved a canal through Mt. Athos. You can still see it today. It’s long since silted in but still clearly visible.

This is a mountain which, according to the tradition of our Church, was turned into a spiritual battleground for the monastic life by none other than the Mother of God herself. And it there that young Francis went, eventually migrating down to the southernmost tip, the most fierce of all the terrain—a place called “the desert”—in order to live out this spiritual life.

Francis’ aim since his youth had been to “know God”—“I want to know God.” But his path toward this was fraught with difficulty and frustration. As later he was to say of those early struggles, “I was almost inconsolable, because I was longing so ardently to find what I had set out in search for, to find God. But not only was I not finding it, but the people who I thought would help me were not even being helpful.” He’s frustrated. If he continued to seek, he did not lose heart simply because the circumstances around him were difficult. God rewarded him for that perseverance. As he would say later to some of his disciples, on one day he began to experience real prayer. In his words, “I was at once completely changed, and I forgot myself. I was filled with light in the depths of my heart, and outside my heart, and everywhere. I was not even aware anymore if I was in the body. And then the prayer began to say itself within me.”

This experience is not an uncommon one in the Orthodox Church, but we would hardly call it normal. It reminds me of St. Simeon the New Theologian, one of the great Byzantine fathers of the 10th and 11th centuries who, having heard that God reveals himself in light, stood up in his room and said, “Show me yourself! I’m not going to sit down until I behold you.” And he beheld the Divine Light. I don’t recommend trying to emulate that as a strategy. It’s not always the case that we are as prepared as Simeon might have been in his youth.

The young man of whom I have been speaking is better known to Orthodox by another name—Joseph, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Father Joseph of Mt. Athos. He was one of the greatest figures of monastic life on Athos in the last century—a man who almost single-handedly by the grace of God saw the life of the Holy Mountain turn around. Disciples gathered around him who went out transfigured by the same God and repopulated monasteries that had been dormant, in decay, physically as well as spiritually. The Holy Mountain in all its history had never been so depleted of monks, and yet by this man’s prayers it is today thriving and growing.

So we have three stories: disciples at the side of a lake, Paul on the road to Damascus, and Elder Joseph alone in his cell praying to God. What binds these together? Outwardly, these stories are radically different. They take place in different times and cultures. Even their contours are not really in common one with the other. The point that I would like to emphasize tonight is that the theme which binds them together is “encounter”. In each of these stories, what changes people is an encounter with God himself.

St. Peter and the apostles are not convinced that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, because he’s rationally argued them into submission. The Sermon on the Mount is a beautiful pastoral homily. It’s not a logic lesson. It’s not a theological tract. They are not convinced to believe that this is the Son because he has told them. They are not convinced because there is a specific set of scriptures that says “A + B + C = Jesus of Nazareth”. 

Later on, they will discern that the scriptures did point to him. But they don’t believe he is the Messiah because of some scriptural formula. They don’t believe it because of some rational analysis. They believe it because they have seen him, known him, have eaten bread given to them from him—enough to feed thousands coming from five little loaves. They have been on the boat when he calms the storm. They were there when he walks on the water. They were there and watched him heal the sick and cast out demons. And because of that experience they are able to say, “I think that they don’t understand you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And I say that they don’t understand it, because scripture makes it very clear that they didn’t.

St. Peter, who makes this confession, minutes later, gets a pretty firm rebuke, if you remember the gospel. A few moments later, everyone is feeling pretty good about this and Christ says, “Now it is time to go to Jerusalem so that I can be sacrificed.” And Peter says, “May it never be, Lord.” This is the man who just said that he is the Son of God, refusing to let him do what God wants him to do.  And you remember what Christ said to him? “Get behind me, Satan!” Let that be a warning the next time you feel you’ve got everything worked out.

He doesn’t understand it in a rational sense, but he knows it. That’s a distinction that’s hard to articulate—that something can be known completely, intimately, and still not understood. St. Paul does not change from a Pharisee to an apostle because God has told him adequately and amply why pharisaical Judaism has had its run and is now over. He is not convinced by some rational argument. He knew the argument. St. Paul was one of the most educated men of his day—educated by Gamaliel himself—a Jew of the Jews, of the tribe of Benjamin. He knew what he was fighting against.

He’s changed because he meets a person, and that event utterly transforms his view of himself and the world. Until that moment on the road to Damascus, St. Paul, then Saul, had been persecuting a cause, an idea, a concept, a movement. In one moment, he is made to understand that who he is persecuting is a person. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” And that changes everything for the Apostle. Suddenly, God is not an idea to be defended but a person to be known, and loved, sacrificed for, shared, died for. That is a very different kind of belief.

Similarly, Elder Joseph in his prayer does not finally find out how to pray because he has read all the right handbooks, he’s finally made it through volume five of the Philokalia, he knows all the instructions and he can assemble the parts in all the right order and create interior prayer. That’s not what does it. He hasn’t been given the right lessons in the right classes. He hasn’t heard the right lectures or the right speakers. “The prayer began to say itself in me.”

Remember the words of the Apostle Paul to the church of Rome—“When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays in us with words and utterings too deep for the human heart.” When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit prays. That’s what Elder Joseph experienced—that God could come to him. He had spent his whole youth trying to get to God, and in a quiet moment the Holy Spirit comes into his heart and reveals his presence. And the man is changed.

In all of these stories, the encounter with God is what does it. What it does is alter a life. It alters a life so that this life, this person, sees what before he could not see. He hears what before he could not hear, something that Christ had vaguely promised to them in an ambiguous way many times—“let him who has ears to hear, hear; let him who has eyes to see, see.” These people did not have ears to hear until their engagement and encounter with the Lord changed their eyes, and they saw, as Elder Joseph said, “Lights everywhere; love everywhere; hope in everything.” St. Paul became a man who would joyfully go to his own execution, because he could see the grace of God even there. Imagine that! It is the encounter that changes the senses, the perceptions, of these people.

My fourth story, I hope you all know it. It’s one of the most famous. Can I see a show of hands of those who have read Metropolitan Kallistos’ Orthodox Church? One or two of you. If you haven’t, I believe they are selling copies outside, and I’ll tell him I expect a commission on every sale now. The reason I raise this book is that he talks about the event that I want to share as do many others. It’s one of the more famous, historical moments in the development of the Church in the Russian lands.

Prince Vladimir of Kiev and of all of Rus wanted to find a religion to unite his imperial court. Any religion would do. He just wanted to find the right one. So he did what a good ruler would do—he took emissaries from the royal court and sent them out and said, “Find out about all the religions out there and come back and tell me which one is best, and that’s the one we’ll use.”

They went out and visited many different religions, many different forms of Christianity. Christianity was not yet firmly divided in the way we think of it today, but there were already longstanding schisms by the time of the conversion of Russia. We often think of the Great Schism as being the schism between the Roman West and Constantinopolitan East. But this was a late schism, much sadder. More divisive schisms had happened long ago—schisms, for example, at the time of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Schisms which, lest you think history is all in the past, still divide us today in 2010. Lord, have mercy.

So he sent out his emissaries and they visited here and there. By one tradition, they went to the Islamic court, asked about Islam, and wrote back to Vladimir and said, “It’s a nice religion, but they don’t allow alcohol, and this would never go over with Russians.” They went to Germany, Europe and throughout the world.

One group of envoys went to Constantinople. This is what they wrote in their own words, “When we stood in the temple [this is Hagia Sophia where you can still go today, the Church of Holy Wisdom], we hardly knew whether we were in heaven or on earth. For in truth it seems impossible to behold such glory and such magnificence on earth. We could not possibly relate to you what we saw in that place. But one thing we know, there God dwells among men, and all the worship of other countries is to us, forevermore, as nothing. We cannot forget that beauty which we saw. Whoever has enjoyed so sweet a sight will never be satisfied with anything else; nor will we consent to remain any longer in paganism as we are now.”

What does this story tell us about the life in Christ? Firstly, it has always struck me that the envoys’ comment is about beauty—“It was beautiful. We cannot recount that beauty which we saw.” The thing that affects them first and foremost is vision, experience. It’s not intellect. Bear in mind, these were not Greek speakers. They wouldn’t have had any idea what was being said. And yet, they were convinced—“One thing we know. We know in that place God dwells with men.” No system of catechesis was provided, no indoctrination. Yet through the beauty of that moment, of those experiences, something furrows its way into their heart. They are engaged with something that they did not anticipate. Something becomes real, tangible, visible, and touchable. Many would call this experience “mystical”. They had a “mystical experience”.

Okay, now it’s interactivity time. This is where I prove that I’m a university professor after all. I would like you to take a moment and turn to the person next to you and define “mysticism”. Don’t come up with the right answer. Come up with what you really think it is, and talk to the person next to you and share your definitions.

I’m delighted that on a Friday you are all so enthusiastic to talk about such deep things. Who would like to be the first to be ritually humiliated and stand up and tell us what mysticism is? Great will be your reward in heaven. Don’t be shy. As my tutor once said to me, “There are no stupid questions—only stupid students.”

[First respondent]: Something which is knowable but not by the mind or the intellect.
[Second respondent]: An encounter with the Lord.

I think I should have asked this before I told the stories! Your answers are, from my point of view, sadly accurate and therefore I can’t taunt you. Mysticism is often simply used as a kind of general term to mean something that’s not intellectual, something that isn’t purely rational. I am very happy to see that in both of the straw poll answers just taken that there was a sense not of just being utterly general, but of being general in a Christian way—encountering Christ but in a way that we can’t understand or can’t articulate.

But in popular speech, “mystery” and “mystical” often just means anything that goes beyond rational description. I’m living in San Francisco now, which is a very odd place, and I heard one time a certain type of special coffee drink described as a “mystical experience”. This reinforces my general belief that the word is useless by and large. I don’t like it. I find it disruptive, because it infuses discussions with ideas that have no shape.

Mysticism, by the way, isn’t an Orthodox term, at least if by that we mean a word that in its own right has much place in the history of Orthodox vocabulary. There is another word that does—mystery—and an adjective—mystical. But mysticism, as a thing in its own right, is a kind of odd anomaly—the idea that experience can be extracted away. It’s no longer an adjective that describes how you experience something, but it is the very notion of experience in its own right. That’s strange, because, as someone once said to me, “Who cares about your experiences in their own right?” All that matters is what you experience and how that experience affects you. If you extract those ingredients and just come down to the feelings I have or the idea that I’m getting out of my head and out of my mind and intellect, who cares? As one former student of mine put it, “A few glasses of wine and anyone can be that sort of mystical.”

In the encounter with Christ that we’ve seen in the stories that I’ve told, something rather different happens. They each have experiences that are definable in different ways that in many cases are miraculous, are extraordinary. Yet they serve a purpose of uniting the lives of these people to the life of Christ himself. That is the ultimate fruit of these encounters. Through these experiences, the Apostles, St. Paul, Elder Joseph and ultimately you and I have the ability for our life to come in contact with the life of God, to be changed by being in union with God himself, to become different than we are now.

These are experiences and encounters that are open to us by experience, because we are experiential creatures. We live in history. God gives us skin and bones and eyes and ears. What is it that these apostles and disciples see when they encounter Christ, when they look at him? What is it that they see that is so transformative? It’s not just a great magician and miracle-worker. There were a lot of magicians and miracle-workers in the ancient world. There were lots of ways to do miraculous things. Someone once said, “There are more spirits than just the Holy Spirit.” There is the power to do the miraculous, not to good but to evil.

It’s not the “magic act” dimension that is the focal point of their attention. They see something they have craved and never found. They see the kingdom of God made real in the world around them. They see the end, the fulfillment of all things, walking in their midst. They see someone who shows them the end of the story, a story that involves growth and pain, joy and profound sorrow, a story that shows ups and downs and ins and outs, some of which are pleasant and some of which are most certainly not. In the midst of all of that, the normal human response is to despair. The fact that there is some joy in this experience doesn’t stop the despair—it makes it worse. If I can feel joy and still suffer, what good is the joy? It would be much easier if it was all pain.

Yet Christ comes into this and shows the fulfillment of creation, that God reigns, that the devil loses, that the Father wins, that creation is redeemed, that life is eternal, that sorrow is finite, that pain is a drop that passes, joy is eternal, that sins can be overcome, that death can be defeated. They see the end of all things, and it gives them hope—a hope that cannot come from anything else. That is what they experience. How they are brought to that experience varies, but that is what they encounter. That is what enables St. Peter to look and say, “You are the Messiah.”

As Orthodox Christians, we live in that corporate experience of the kingdom of God made real in Christ. We view history from the end of history, not from the now, not from the beginning. From our point of view as Orthodox people, historians’ biggest problem is that they read history backwards. They are committed to the great fallacy of thinking that you should start at the beginning. It makes for a lovely song (you all know the musical which I am referring to), but it doesn’t make for good theology.

Theological history starts at the end and looks backwards. My life now is a cause for great despair if I just look at it now, look at all my sin, look at my complete inability to do anything holy. Look at the fact that for all my desire, for all my intention, I fall at the first hurdle every time. That’s not a hopeful sign. Yet if you look at life from the empty tomb, this suffering, this sorrow, has meaning.

This is why as Christians, as Orthodox Christians, we don’t pretend that we don’t know how the story ends. Our Holy Week services are a wonderful example of this. We don’t start Holy Monday and pretend that we are unsure as to what is going to happen, which happens sometimes in certain traditions and locales. We sort of put on a drama that leads you to this amazing revelation.

We know how it ends, and we start by singing “Christ is risen from the dead!” Some of the most moving services of the whole year are found on Holy Saturday where Christ is entombed in the middle of the church. The plashchanitsa (Плащаница) or epitaphios (ἘðéôÜöéïò) —the burial shroud of Christ—has been taken in procession, a funeral procession. It has been ceremonially buried in the middle of the temple. Then there is this wonderful Service of the Lamentations. That’s what we call it in English. The word in Greek is “praises”, where we stand by the tomb of Christ and we sing the most bizarre intermixture of psalms and hymns you’ll find at any point of the year. Utter sorrow and sublime joy interwoven. We weep and we rejoice, and the reason for that is summed up in my favorite hymn of the year. I’ve been told before that I’m not supposed to say that—you can’t have favorite hymns; you can’t have favorite saints. So taking all that on board, my favorite hymn in the entire year is this most remarkable hymn from Holy Saturday. We’ve been singing to Christ and about him. Suddenly, we sing in his voice, in the first person. We are Christ lying in the tomb, and his mother is weeping over him. The words of the hymn are, “Do not weep for me, my mother, seeing me in the tomb, for I will arise and be glorified!” Knowing how the story ends is important to Christians.

The miracle of this is that knowing how the story ends paradoxically shows us how it began. It gives us a vision of beginnings that we never had before; a vision that itself changes our perception of the world.

Genesis…and I have to be careful saying this because I know that the last year’s speaker was a beloved friend of mine, Fr. Damascene, who must have talked to you about Genesis, I’m sure. He’s done a great amount of work revising for the Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book on this. So let me say this and see if he phones me up in a week or two. Genesis 1, if you read it on its own right, doesn’t matter. It’s a meaningless text. Who cares how the world began? Who cares? It doesn’t mean anything, unless (I hope he hears the whole speech!) we see it from the perspective of the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. In which case, the story means everything!

Without the resurrection, without knowing that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega who finishes history because he started history, you just get interesting facts about what happened on which day and in what order. But in that knowledge, in the experience of Christ, we receive a message about our own life. We look back to the beginnings, and we see a creation. We are told the world is not accidental. It is created for a reason, for a purpose, and we know what the purpose is. It is not an accident of science. It is true science— scientia—true knowledge that Christ has established the cosmos for my salvation; that what is chaotic, he has ordered; that what was dark he has made light; what was lifeless, he has filled with life, down to the finest detail orchestrated so that I can find him and he can be my God.

We hymn over and again that creation fits together like a puzzle. And like a jigsaw puzzle which reveals a picture, the picture at the end is a cross, the empty tomb, and you and me. We are told that we are made— we are made—by God, and that means something critical to us. In the life of Christ, creation is filled with meaning. We love creation. We cherish Christian history—the history of creation—because it is not just about history. It is the story of my redemption. Without that segment in the story, we miss part of our own life as we live it now.

One of the things that we miss, and that the world around us misses, is who we are and what we are. We are told in so many ways, some of them directly (those of you who have had any experience perhaps with the New Age movements), the idea that I’m not really me—this is not really me. I am spirit, ethereal spirit, part of a larger spirit, etc. There are so many variations that it is hard to boil them down into one. But there is a very popular distinction that this isn’t me—this is a little shell that I wear—until such a time as I can at last be liberated from this. This is a demonic idea, because it divorces us from the very thing that God has fashioned us to be—creatures. When we read Genesis in the light of Christ, we see that the very physicality, the dustiness, of our body is integral to who we are. We are material beings through and through. In Orthodox icons of Genesis 1, Christ is the one who fashions us from the dust. You see Jesus walking along, picking up the sand and breathing into it. The ultimate revelation we have that our materiality is important is that God takes it as his own. He becomes a man, flesh and blood.

There’s a wonderful story in the 8th or 9th chapter of John’s gospel where a man is born blind, and Jesus gives him back his sight. He does this in a strange way. He spits into the dirt and makes mud and rubs it in the man’s eyes and says, “Go, wash it.”

In the second century, my patron saint, Irenaeus of Lyons, commented on this gospel. He said, “Some people would ask, ‘Why doesn’t God just go POW! and your eyes are fixed?’” Obviously, he could have done that. God can do anything, why not? Why go through this strange ritual of spitting, making mud, and smearing it in someone’s face? The answer, he said, is that Christ wanted us to know that matter—dust, mud, flesh, bones, the things that the world tries to tell us are coarse and meaningless—these things matter. They can be holy. They can be avenues by which we encounter God’s grace.

The human person, the creature that experiences God, experiences him with its senses. We sing in the Divine Liturgy, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We conclude the Divine Liturgy by shouting aloud, “We have seen the true Light.” We receive into our mouths the flesh and blood of the Lord himself. We surround ourselves with images that flood the eyes. We sing so that our ears are filled with the sounds that lead us to God. We burn incense so that even our nostrils don’t escape. Then we prostrate ourselves and make the sign of the cross so that even our bodies are involved. No sense is left untouched, because we know something. We can sense God. The senses that he has given us are holy, if we use them in the way they have been fashioned to be used. That is something that must be done in cooperation with God himself. When we encounter him and experience him, our senses are changed. I’m going to talk more about that tomorrow.

The human heart is what the Fathers call or identify as the center of our human existence. It’s not exactly the physical heart that pumps blood through our bodies, but it is connected to that. It is not to be divorced from that. But in this they see condensed everything—earth and heaven, the past, the present, and the future, life and death—all are centered right here in the person. And only that creature can know God in his fullness.

If we try to divorce ourselves from ourselves and say, “I am pretty much just mind, therefore I will know God with my mind,” you will know a little bit about God—but not very much. If you try to pretend that you have no mind at all, you will know maybe a little more about God than if you went with option A, but still not very much. But if we approach God in our full personal authenticity—as creatures tip-toeing on the earth (as St. Clement called it), clinging to heaven—then we can know him in his fullness. Without that, our knowledge is shallow. But with it, our knowledge is deep. That brings me back to mysticism and mystery.

In Greek, the root mu- or my- means “depth” or “the deep”. That which is mystical is something which goes to the very depths of reality, beyond the surface things that we see day to day, to the very depth of what really is. This is what makes life mystical when it is lived in Christ. The human person united to his God has the ability to see what cannot be seen, to hear what cannot be heard, to have access to that which cannot be accessed, to—in his or her own heart—overcome the seemingly impossibility that God cannot be seen and yet we have seen the true Light.

Without communion in God, these things don’t work together. It’s one or the other. In the life in Christ, they are both true. We behold Christ himself. The goal of our life in Christ, of this mystery, is to experience the kingdom of God in its fullness, at every moment, to live now, today, that which is coming. Christ calls himself at one point “the One who is to come”— ho erhomenos. It is better translated out of the Greek as “the Coming One”. He is here now. The One who is to come is already here. We attempt to live our life taking seriously what Christ said to the repentant thief: “Today you can be with me in paradise.”

Mysticism, as Orthodoxy might appropriate the term, has to mean the struggle to gain the experience, the encounter in Christ with the eternal kingdom of God. But, as I said, mysticism is a term kind of foreign to us. It doesn’t really appear in our Fathers or in our writers with any sense of regularity. But we have it as an adjective—mystikos, or mystikos deipnos (ìõóôéêüò äåßðíï)—the mystical supper. There it is.

What makes it mystical? In this moment, we see what cannot be seen. We see that bread is the body of the Lord, that wine has become the blood of the Lord, that Christ is here right now. A person who is not living in this mystery will stand right beside you and not see it. They will watch Christ walk across the water, and, like the apostles, will say, “Who are you?” But the person who lives in this mystery beholds these things and says with the Apostle Peter, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

I started off with one line—the life of Christ is a mystery. Maybe we can now understand what this means a little more. The coming of Christ into the world means that God is accessible, sensible to the human person. Indeed, the very reason we are created as we are is to meet him, to have at our disposable what is necessary to meet him. That encounter grounds not a religion —are not a religion. It doesn’t ground a faith either. We possess faith by the grace of God, but we are not of faith. Christianity is a life. It has to be lived. There is no other way to do it.

It is a very peculiar life. It is a life bound up in Christ himself. We get that image most potently from St. John of Kronstadt, whose memory we kept very recently. His spiritual diary was called My Life in Christ, which if you haven’t read you should. When our life is bound up in Christ, it attains a depth, an engagement with reality, with creation, with God and with ourselves that can come from nothing else; that goes beyond experience and yet involves experience; that is grounded in time and yet meets eternity. This is what it means to speak of mystery. This is what it means to speak of a mystical life - the life of God that has been made the life of the human person; the life that leads to the kingdom of the Father. Amen.


Part 2


We began yesterday with a discussion of what mystery means and what the life in Christ may mean from the perspective of mystery. I tried to put some of this into the framework of the popular language and vocabulary of mysticism and why I am nervous when people try to describe Orthodox Christianity as a “mystical” religion or try to compare it with other forms of mysticism, as if consolidating mystery into a thing were a possibility. Orthodoxy, as we discussed last night, sees mystery everywhere, if we understand mystery to be the true depth of creation that God has fashioned which goes beyond what our senses normally perceive, beyond goes beyond the very shallow and superficial understandings of creation, of the person of God that we normally hold within us and normally foster.

Yet, for Orthodoxy, mystical is almost always an adjective. It describes something—it isn’t a thing in its own right. I referred last night to the icon above the Heavenly Gates in the Orthodox Church—ìõóôéêüò  äåßðíïò or mystical supper. We use mystical in this way—to describe something like communion or to describe life. There is a great deal of language in Orthodox literature of the mystical life—a life that’s lived to its fullness in Christ. This makes it not a distinct thing from ordinary life but simply suggests to us that the way we live life normally is a shallow reflection of what life actually is. Life, if lived to its fullness, is intrinsically mystical. Life lived in its fullness is a life that joins the human person to God.

Mystical life is not a life that you learn to fasten on to who you are. It is a life that discloses who you actually are. All you have to do to live a mystical life is to live a human life, or, more properly, to stop living a subhuman existence, which is the way most of us pass our days—living out a life that is more defined by our sin and our limitation than it is defined by the fact that we are creatures fashioned into God’s glory in his image capable of living in communion with himself. That is true human nature.

When we see great saints transfigured (I’ll talk a little bit this afternoon of St. Gregory Palamas, St. Simeon the New Theologian—saints that are very famous in the Orthodox world for visual transfiguration and transformation), the important thing to remember is that what one beholds in those moments is not some supernatural phenomenon, but it is actually a normal, human person. What makes the person look different, miraculous and wonderful is that we behold the human person in the full glory of God rather than in the debased limitation of sin, which is how we normally see one another.

What I would like to talk about this morning is some of the practical manners in which the traditions of Orthodox Christianity go about encouraging the living of this natural life, this normal life, which is by definition the mystical life. I want to look, for various reasons, at a specific set of Orthodox traditions and personalities—those known to most people as the Desert Fathers. One of the main reasons that I am choosing to talk about the Desert Fathers is that they are very, very popular. Many people have heard of them, many people have read them, and many people like them. Can I just see a show of hands of people here who have read or heard some snippet of the Desert Fathers? A fairly good showing. Can I see a show of hands of the number of people who have read the corpus of St. Maximos the Confessor? Aha. Four or five. This is about right. The Desert Fathers are in many ways far more accessible to us, or they seem more accessible. They are simple and brief sayings gathered together that seem very applicable to our life. The question I want to ask is, “How? How are they applicable to our life?”

One of the best studies in the English language of monastic traditions in the Early Church is a book by the Anglican vicar and scholar Derwas Chitty. In 1966, he published a volume entitled, The Desert a City. The book and the study were not very popular in his life. No one paid it a considerable amount of attention. Only at the end of his life—he died rather suddenly—and after his death did the value of the book, to historians and religious scholars, start to become clear. It is now, although quite old by academic publishing standards, still a seminal and classic text on what happened with the rise of the monastic movement.

He took for the title of the book—The Desert a City—a line out of the pages of St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria who was himself a biographer, a spiritual hagiographer of St. Anthony the Great, one of the founding fathers of monasticism. Chitty took this line where St. Athanasius writes, under the influence of St. Anthony, “The desert became like a city, filled with monks leaving the cities to populate a new city as their spiritual homeland.” Chitty, when writing about the advent of monasticism, found in this image of a barren, deserted, lifeless place, suddenly teeming with life, the absence of civility suddenly becoming a city itself all eager for citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, a vision that he felt would encapsulate or could encapsulate the whole phenomenon surrounding the rise of what we now call simply “desert monasticism”.

There is an endless series of paradoxes to the desert life. One finds life in a place that is normally associated with death; joy in a place that requires physical toil and labor. Yet, as Orthodox Christians, we hymn from every Pascha until the Ascension that the world has been transformed. Death isn’t what we think it is. Death has been defeated. It has been trampled down. It has been conquered. Life is what reigns, and it reigns in the most impossible of places—in a tomb, which is not normally the home of life. However, in our icons, the tomb and the cave of Christ’s birth are indistinguishable iconographic entities. They look the same. The place of death has become the place of life.

Life can blossom where you don’t expect it. This is really what is implied when the angel says that phrase that starts off the fullness of Christian belief, “He isn’t here. He has risen!” The world is a different place. Christian people are able to stand before the empty tomb and say with Paul, “I am persuaded that neither death nor life, angels or principalities, powers, or things present or things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8).

The mystery that is manifested in the utterly simple words of the angel, which is proclaimed in the unwavering words of the apostles and handed down through history, comes to us in a variety of different ways. The Church espouses a broad selection of means of handing on what it has received. One of the fundamental tenets of Christianity in the Orthodox understanding is that it is something that is handed on. You cannot invent it. You cannot create it. You have to be given it. You have to receive it. Christ hands it to his apostles and they hand it on to the followers surrounding them. They in turn hand it down to us, and we, here in the twenty-first century, receive it. It is a gift given to us.

The word “to hand on” in Latin is tradizione (“tradition”). It is a verb—“to tradition something”. We often think of tradition in a very debased sense, as if it’s a kind of a thing to set alongside with our favorite thing to compare it to—Scripture and tradition—as if they were both entities in and of themselves, and we would then decide whether we like this one or this one more. Or are they equal? Sometimes the Orthodox, for lack of a better way of explaining it, say, “They are equal for us.” No they’re not. They’re not things that can be compared. Tradition is an action, a handing on. The Scriptures are part of the fruit of that act of handing on an experience of God to another generation.

The Church has other ways that this has been handed on over time—the canonical corpus of the Church, lots and lots of canons. These exist not simply to be rules—you must do this and you mustn’t do that—but to give shape to a life that allows for authentic experience. The canons are pastoral tools. They exist in order to help us live a life where the experience of God is possible and to help prevent us from the pitfalls that normally stand in the way of that life. We have long, patristic tracts—long patristic tracts in some cases—that defend in minute detail very specific dimensions of that confession so that, when it is handed down, it is not perverted and it remains the same confession that Christians have always believed.

This even happens in our iconography. We see icons all around us. Icons are not free form paintings. They follow rules that are designed to ensure what they convey to us is true, that what we receive from them is not falsehood but the truth. So there are very strict rules on why Christ’s corona—his halo—looks different from everyone else’s. There’s a reason why the phrase Yahweh (in Greek Ho Ôn) is always in his halo. There’s a reason that the Mother of God, the Theotokos, wears certain colors in a certain order. These things exist to ensure that we receive truth.

For all its organization—all of its rubrics, canons, scriptures, patristic texts, iconography, hymns and liturgical typika—with all of this, the core of Orthodox Christianity still rests with that which gives meaning to all of these things, which is the human encounter with the living God, the fact that my heart and your heart can receive Christ and know him. The Church, quite rightly, lives out its calling to be universal, catholic—we believe in one catholic Church, universal. Our mission is to the whole world, as Christ himself says in the Great Commission. It touches all of creation, not just people, but our mission is to sanctify the world—the plants, animals, trees, the rocks, and the water are made holy in this confession.

But at the core of this universality is the person. Christianity starts with a person in every act, with my heart, with your heart. All of creation is centered precisely there in the human heart—what St. Maximos calls the microcosm of the entire universe. It is the person who receives the Holy Mysteries. It is a person who receives into her body the blood and body of the Lord. It is a person who receives anointing. It is a person whose sins are offered up in confession. These cosmic mysteries that literally change the universe always exist in the heart of a person.

So, for the Fathers of the Church, the human heart is an important thing. I touched on it a little last night. I want to give you a definition of the heart that comes from one of the Desert Fathers—Macarius the Great. I think it’s the best definition of the heart in terms of it being a practical definition.


The heart itself is only a small vessel, yet dragons are there and lions. There are poisonous beasts and all the treasury of evil. There are rough and uneven roads in that little place. There are precipices, thoughts. There too are God and his angels. There is life. The Kingdom is there. There too is light, the Apostles, the heavenly cities, the treasures of greats. All things lie within that little space.


The Macarius who penned these words (there are several saints Macarius of the desert) is a great Syrian master of spiritual writings—one of the lasting figures of that movement in the desert which so moves and inspires people in our own generation. The definition of the heart that Macarius gives us is something which reveals the intense mystery of human life. There is more to us than we see. Dragons and lions, God, and apostles, mountains are often tamed within. This is why St. Isaac of Syria, for example, would say, “If you wish to find the Kingdom of God, look deep into your heart, and there you will find the ladder that leads you to the Kingdom.”

This emphasis on the heart and how it can be discovered and liberated, made whole, and redeemed, is an important part of the life of what we think of as the desert monastic community. The sayings of this community (and we shouldn’t say “this community”—there were many communities over a large geography and over several centuries, but we will think of them as a whole for the sake of brevity this morning) and our main witness to this life is the Apophthegmata—the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. They are available in English in a very good translation by Sister Benedicta Ward in England. If you don’t have this, I would be surprised and you should get a copy.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are sometimes single sentences and, at times, are very short sentences. Some of the longer might be a paragraph in length. These are not things that the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert wrote down. They are sayings heard—what is called in Greek “a word”. In tradition, you would go to a wise elder and say, “Give me a word, Father, some spiritual advice.” And the Father would give a word and leave you alone. You would digest it and then go and ask for another word. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers are the collection of these “words” as they were remembered by the disciples of these fathers over time.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers is probably the singular most popular collection of ancient writings among Orthodox Christians and, indeed, among many non-Orthodox Christians as well. It’s interesting and somewhat revealing that something in our culture, from the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, that these writings above all strike interest.

Another set of writings—at least the first sections of it—come from this period. This is the Philokalia, which was not very popular until recently when, in 1979, Bishop Kallistos and others (Palmer and Sherard) produced an English translation of the first through fourth volumes with the fifth still pending. Now this has probably become the second most popular collection of patristic text among a wide readership, despite the fact that the Philokalia is, within the Orthodox tradition, considered an extremely advanced text which monks are normally forbidden to read until they have advanced to a certain degree. On a popular level, everybody reads it. That is, unless you come to me for catechesis, and I add it to the “don’t read” list. This is not because it’s bad—it’s a very holy collection of texts. But it’s a practical handbook, and the thing that we need to admit (and we don’t like to admit, I think, because it somehow feels out of our grasp) is that thePhilokalia is a monastic book—it’s for monks! That doesn’t mean it can’t have value for other people, but it’s written for monks—how to live the monastic life well. Even the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, despite the fact that they’re pithy, short and brief and therefore they seem very accessible, we have to acknowledge is a monastic handbook. This is how to live out the monastic life of renunciation. Yet more people read these texts than in any generation previous today.

So, there is a great and vexed question that emerges out of this—“What are we to do with these monastic texts so that they have a healthy value for us who strive to live the life of Christ in the world, not in the enclosure of the monastery?” Granted, there is value there—of course there is. We have to be wise enough to see it and not to simply take on board a life that is not our own. It’s no good to “play monk”. If you want to be a monk, there are places you can go, there are things you can do. But it’s no good to play monk anymore than it’s good to play family or play marriage. These are both very specific callings. Pick one! Then, when you are in it, realize that it’s blessed by God, and it’s holy. One of the things that I find very annoying and frustrating as a monk are people constantly trying to play monk—to absorb as much of monasticism as they can. It defaces the sanctity of marriage, which is the first thing that God blesses—the married life. God calls us to different things, and we should respect and love them in their integrity and take from the other traditions what can help us live within our own context and calling—the life that leads to communion in Christ.

So, how do we do that with the desert? How do we find in the Desert Fathers an avenue towards the mystikos vios—the mystical life of communion in Christ? If the writings of the Desert Fathers are simply historical documents that told us how they lived and what they did and what they said, they could almost certainly be relegated simply to the annals of interest for historians. But that’s not what they do. They’re not the type of history that just satisfies the intellectual curiosity. They recount an engagement with God of a radical sort. To me, what is remarkable is not the fact that they often recount quite radical practices—fasting from everything for weeks before receiving communion, never speaking a single word to a family member, living in caves in complete isolation. In many ways, these are radical things. That’s not really what makes the Desert Fathers unique. What makes them unique is their radical insistence that the life in Christ is possible, that a transformed life is attainable. End of story.

There’s a stark, simple, literality to the belief in the Desert Fathers that, if you follow Christ, he will draw you to himself. No questions, no doubts, no attempts to soften the blow of what’s required. If you do it, he will receive you fully into his life. There’s an insistence on the practical possibility of a transfigured life, and an insistence that a transfigured life really means a transfigured life!

One of the most touching stories from the Desert Fathers is the story of Abba Joseph of Panephysis. He went on to become a very respected elder of the desert, but the story is about his youth. He was a novice at one of the monasteries. He went to an elder of that community and said in the traditional way, “Father, give me a word.” He wanted advice. The account goes like this. Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph, and he said to him, “Abba [Abba means “Dear Father”], as far as I can I say my little office [i.e., the monastic rule of prayer]. I fast a little. I pray and I meditate. I live in peace as far as I can. I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” 
There’s nothing in this saying that leads us to believe that he is lying. We’re given to believe and, indeed, in his later lectures, he was a devout, humble man. He’s not bragging. He’s confessing to his elder that he really is trying to do everything set before him—I fast as far as I can. I try to be at peace with everybody. I really try. I say my prayers. I go to the services. The problem isn’t that he is confessing what he does. The problem is that last sentence—“What else is there?” This is the Christian life. I fast, I’m kind, I live in peace, and I go to the services. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the holy life we want. Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to Joseph, “If you would only will it, my child, you could become all flame!” Wow! When I was younger, I 
loved that image.

That the desert became a city that so many people went to and enrolled in the monastic life is a miracle in its own right. But the deeper miracle is the approach to divine communion and transfiguration that enabled this barren desert to become such a place. This is the inner message of the Desert Fathers—you can live a Christian life. And if we’re honest with ourselves, if we’re really honest with ourselves, most of us doubt that a lot of the time. “I could, but…I have this.” “I’m constrained by this….” “I could live a holy life, but….” The message of the Desert Fathers is “you can”—full stop. And, if you are willing to do it, as Abbot Lot says to Joseph, “If you would only will it, it could happen.” If it happens, your life will be transformed. How could it not be, if what happens is that you’re drawn up in to the life of God himself?

What are we to do in the city? We don’t live in a desert. What do we do here? How can we make this city into a desert? Athanasius talks about the desert being made a city. For us, the task is how to turn the city into a desert. How do we take the place where we live and find in it an avenue for the attainment of holiness and transfiguration?

The city in the ancient world was a place of lusts, gratification, social life, and where every whimsy could be met. The desert was a place of death. The monks didn’t flee to the desert because they had a romantic notion that it was all pretty, silent and quiet. Therefore, I can go there and get away from it all. They went to the desert, because, in the mindset of the ancient world, the desert is where the demons live—it’s their home turf. They were going into the battleground to fight. That’s why they went to the desert.

I was reminded of this as an undergraduate student in a rather stern way by Sister Benedicta Ward, the woman I mentioned who translated the Desert Fathers and who was my instructor. She asked me to write a paper on St. Anthony of Egypt going into the desert. I thought, “Ah, at last I can write about this subject that I love so much.” I produced this very grotesquely flowing, florid essay about it. It went on and on with, “he saw the supreme silence in the beauty of the barren place, and his heart was called to the calm and the stillness and the quiet beauty that comes from the stones and the sands.” I was rather quite proud of this. It took me a long time. As I was reading my essay aloud to her in the traditional Oxford way, I was waiting for her comments, and I could just see her face drop as I went. She just looked down. Her one word in response was, “Rubbish!” That’s not why they went. They went because they wanted to fight. The desert is a place where walls and houses can no longer protect you. That’s where the voice of the will is magnified, because there are very few other voices around. Oftentimes, in the midst of the world, we don’t confront our will, because we’re too busy confronting everybody else’s. So our will, which is broken and pained and hurting, doesn’t get looked at. In the desert, you can’t avoid it. It is a place where delusion runs rampant, where people start to believe things that aren’t true. A classic example is seeing an oasis where there isn’t one. It’s true on an interior level also. It is a battleground—spiritual as well as physical. You have to fight—literally—for every mouthful of food that you receive. The early monks viewed themselves as spiritual warriors, not afraid of the fight, but precisely desiring to take it up and be warriors for Christ. This is why monks have always in the Orthodox Church been paralleled to military soldiers. This is the spiritual infantry of the Church.

I remember how confused I became one time when I was serving vigil. When you serve vigil, vestments come on and off, back and forth, and I had to put on the phelonion for the next part. As I walked back toward the altar, the bishop who was standing to the side whispered to me in very quiet tones, “Don’t forget your sword!” I thought, “What? Surely this is a problem of translation into English.” Don’t forget your sword. A soldier can’t be without his sword. He meant this—I had left my chotki on the table. I hadn’t put it back on. “Pick up your sword!” Monks were not about just living a nice, quiet, peaceful existence. They were about fighting.

The contest, the battle, is what we call asceticism. If this is not a word yet in your religious vocabulary, it needs to be—ascesis, asceticism. It’s the heart of Christian life. Ascesis is an old sporting word. It comes from ancient Greek games. It is the preparation an athlete would go through in order to prepare himself to compete effectively in the sport or games. That preparation required training, self-denial, self-control—you can’t just eat anything you want if you expect to be a good runner—and it involved oftentimes quite demanding physical labors, strict regimens that were given for what you could and could not do, and what you must do. It was oftentimes quite painful. Many of you who are “sporty” people at all know that stretching may feel good in the long run, but it can be quite painful in the short term.

Ascesis, as a theological concept, comes out of this. In order to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, the ultimate prize, as St. Paul calls it, preparation is required. You don’t just walk on in. You get yourself ready. This is not because there is some complex set of entry requirements to get into the Kingdom of God. But the Kingdom of God is about a transfigured life—a life drawn into Christ. The way I live my life right now prevents that. It doesn’t assist it. So ascesis is what we do in order to change our life, by God’s grace and by our efforts, to become a person capable of receiving Christ fully into my day to day life.

If you want to think of ascesis in the classical sense, there is a lovely, sort of moan that St. Anthony gives to God. He’s locked himself up in a barn for twenty years in order to battle the demons. He walls himself up so that nobody can get in. His disciples come and, through a window, pass him a loaf of bread every so often. For twenty years he lives in this isolation, praying and fighting the demons. After this long, long period, one afternoon something happens. I’ll read it to you. This is from The Life of St. Anthony written by St. Athanasius:


Looking up, he saw the roof as it were opened up and a ray of light descending to him. All the demons around suddenly vanished. The pain of his body immediately ceased. The building which, to his vision, had appeared broken from the battle, now was again whole. But Anthony, feeling this help, besought the vision that had appeared to him. He said, “Where were you? Why did you not appear to help me at the beginning of my quest? Why did you not appear and make my pain cease?” A voice came to him and said, “Anthony, I was here, but I was waiting to see your contest. And since you have endured and have not been worsted, I will always be your help and your succor. I will make your name known throughout the world.”


Two things stand out to me from that encounter. One is that Anthony had achieved such a level of holiness that he could raise a finger to God and say, “Where were you?” and God answers! So the man is obviously developed in the spiritual life. But the message we have to take away from this is that struggle and pain and work and labor are not signs that God is absent from our life. The growth into holiness is often a painful, fatiguing process. We have so conditioned our lives to living in a fallen, broken way, that to get out of that is hard.

To put it in practical terms, most of us eat too much. Let us say that, from tomorrow morning, we’re only going to have a banana in the morning and that’s it. Nothing else. It hurts! It’s not just “Oh, I really want more food”. Your stomach hurts. There’s pain. Your mind constantly thinks about food. We are trapped by the way we live our life.

To get out of it is a process that involves work and struggle. And one of the most common pitfalls in the spiritual life is that we associate struggle and pain with the absence of God. If God were really here, if he really loved me, he would help me. But as this story from St. Anthony’s life shows that is the way God helps us—to assist us in our suffering so that we suffer in a redemptive way, so that the suffering doesn’t destroy us but redeem us.

It is here, I think, that the modern world has the ability to take from the Desert Fathers wisdom for its own day to day life. How to do it? How do we make a realistic beginning in taking the wisdom of these people and infusing it into our day to day life?

If the writings of the Desert Fathers are defined by any singular characteristic, it’s their practicality. They don’t talk a lot about theories, 
theologies or philosophies. They talk a lot about how to weave a good basket, how to bake bread, how to make prostrations. There’s an utter practicality to the desert approach to the spiritual life. When we’re talking about mysticism and spirituality and other very strange words that we use without it meaning anything in the modern world (spirituality means something that comes from the Holy Spirit—nothing else), we’re sometimes frustrated if the guidance comes in things like, forgive people, work with your hands, be obedient, because these are not the things we associate or expect to hear. But the testimony of the Desert Fathers is that these are the way into a transfigured life. Practical.

St. Anthony’s life in the desert began when he walked into church (rather late, the case seems to be, so he’s following good Orthodox custom as he was showing up a ways into the service, just before the Gospel was to be read), and he hears Christ in the Gospel. He says, “It was as if, when I walked into the church, the Gospel was being read only to me—nobody else—just to me. Christ was speaking to me, Anthony, and he said, ‘Anthony, if you want to be perfect, go and sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. Then come and follow me.’”

Anthony did. He walked out, sold what he had (It took a little while for him to do it—he struggled at first. He sold most of what he had. He regretted that, and then he sold the rest.), and he went. How many of us when we hear that commandment try to spiritualize it away. It means I shouldn’t cling to things the way I normally do. It means I should be more self-sacrificial—I should give more. I shouldn’t be bound by the things of this world. For St. Anthony, it meant go, sell all you have, and give it away! Simple advice. Not easy advice, but simple. It demands a radical sacrifice. But it’s not hard. Painful, but not hard.

So, with so many Fathers in the tradition of the Church who, when they hear “you must not come to the Eucharist if you harbor hatred against a brother”, would literally walk across the empire to find someone they had wronged and beg their forgiveness, then walk back, and then receive Communion. Who, being told that anger prevents one from worthily receiving Communion, actually believed that that’s what it meant.

This practicality marks out the Desert Fathers in a remarkable way. If it’s to be practically significant for us, if the mystical encounter with the Redeemer that they lead towards is to have a place in our life, to shape us in the cities, we have to start by being as practical as they were. One of the biggest problems in the spiritual life is we like to theorize about it. We like to talk about it. This sounds a little odd coming from someone who is leading a lecture at a seminar. There’s a place for it perhaps, but the place is to prepare us for the action for the work, to help us get ready to go out and do the work that needs to be done.

The world around us, more and more, is a place totally enslaved by the intellect. Life as we live it is defined by what we think and feel. We are told explicitly in society that what we think is what makes the world for us. We can define our own morality, our ethics, society, legal systems, even good and bad by what we think. You can grow by thinking in a certain way. Mind, mind, mind, intellect, intellect, intellect and we never do anything.

The Desert Fathers give us practical advice on how to live a holy, transfigured existence. Here’s the first bit of advice that comes directly out of the Egyptian desert. It’s an anonymous saying. I find it’s a good way to begin the spiritual journey—one sentence: “You need a spiritual pilgrimage: begin by closing your mouth.”

There’s hardly a more fitting saying for the Fathers of the Church to give the twenty-first century than this one. Like most of the sayings of the Desert Fathers, it’s pithy and witty. You can remember it. It’s not a book that you have to find your way through if you want to find the good bits again. It’s short—you can commit the whole thing to memory and put it into action. It talks about really making a beginning. If you want to grow, you’ve got to start somewhere. This is the right place. Turn this off and growth can begin.

We live in a modern world that is fascinated with talking. We talk all the time. We are told if you don’t have something to say, you’re not important. You should always have something to offer any conversation on any topic, however trivial and pointless. Society is so crafted that, if we are in a context of trivial conversations which we realize are trivial and pointless, we still feel odd if we don’t contribute something. We find ourselves contributing unwittingly to things that we know have no value whatsoever. Talk, talk, talk. How can you ever hear anything from God if you’re always talking? How can you ever create the stillness and silence in the heart that is needed to receive the Lord if your mouth is constantly venting out whatever thoughts happen to be crossing your mind at the moment? Simply learning to be still and quiet opens the path towards transformation.

Similarly, we are not going to be able to hear things if we stop up our ears. There’s a wonderful saying to this affect by Abba John of Aponia from the desert: “If we purify ourselves of wickedness, then we will start to see invisible realities. But there is no point, while we are still blind, to question why we cannot see the light.” There’s no point in stuffing up our ears and then moaning about the fact that we cannot hear. We live in a life where we are constantly doing things that prevent us from seeing God. Yet we moan, “Why can’t we see him? Why aren’t I changed? Why do I not have the experience of God that I so desire?” We moan as if it was almost unjust. Surely God should do something about this! He should help me out. But Abba John says, “We plug up our ears and then complain that we can’t hear God saying anything to us.” We talk constantly so that, even if God were next to us speaking, we wouldn’t hear him. But our conversation is about God’s seeming absence.

The ways to begin to ascend into the Kingdom of God are to close the mouth and open the ears and use the eyes. To attain real prayer which leads to a transfiguration of life, we have to start with the practical measures around us with the body and the mind together. Once we make a beginning in this way, John says, you then have to target the things going on in the heart that are poisoning it. The idea of the heart being poisoned and cold is a consistent theme in the spiritual writings of the Church. Once you’ve slowed it down, you have to remove the poison.

One of the chief ways of doing this, according to the Desert Fathers, is to combat something. Know what it is? Pride? Thoughts? Passions? Anger. Of all the things that we expect, anger isn’t usually one of them. But for the Fathers of the Desert, it is an overriding spiritual vice—to harbor anger. It’s one of the chief stumbling blocks towards following Christ. If you are angry, you cannot follow him. You just cannot. We need to take that seriously in the modern world. Our anger always, always separates us from God, no exceptions. The righteous anger that we hear about in God is God’s property, not ours. We turn anger into a passion—something that controls us.

This is something that the Fathers need to tell us who live in the world. This is a passion that we have ample opportunity to succumb to in the world. There are many opportunities for anger. We are thrust into relationships that we don’t want with people at work. We might have to get on with people who irritate us tremendously. We live in a society that does things of which we do not approve. Even the people close to us do things that make us mad. They betray us. They sin against us. They slander us. They hurt us. And that’s what our friends do! We have enemies as well.

Anger is always around. The danger with anger is that we don’t seriously think to combat it. We think to combat the obvious sins—lying, cheating, stealing, murdering, whatever they may be. We’re going to get rid of those first and then I’ll work on my heart. Then I’ll get to that. I’ve got to get the big things out of the way, and then I’ll get to my heart, eventually.

This is what St. John Cassian says:


If we take St. Paul literally, we are not allowed to cling to our anger for even a single day. [He’s referring to Ephesians 4:26.] I, however, would like to make a comment. Many people are so embittered, so furious, and in a state of eternal anger that they do not only cling to their anger for a day but drag it on for weeks. I am at a loss for words to explain people who do not even vent their anger in speech, but erect a barrier of sullen silence around their hearts. They distill the bitter poison into their hearts until finally it destroys them. They could not have understood these people—how important it is to avoid anger. Not merely externally but even in our thoughts, because it darkens the heart with bitterness. It cuts us off from the radiance of God, from spiritual understanding. It deprives us of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.


If we’re talking about the mystical life as a life in which we are joined to God through the Spirit, the Desert Fathers are telling us that the presence of anger immediately makes that impossible. Anger takes the place in the heart where the Spirit wants to dwell and fills it with poison, bitterness and guile. St. Paul says to get rid of it, immediately, the same day, and don’t let the sun go down on it. Yet, as St. John says, many of us have perfected the art of just burying it inside—as long as I don’t say anything to anyone…I’ll just keep it all in here. Then I’m only murdering myself.

Anger is the first step—Christian anger management—into the Kingdom of God. As I say, this is advice that the desert has to teach us in the city. We have to learn to take this seriously. It’s not something that we combat “down the road” in the spiritual struggle, but up front. If you want to live the mystical life, if you want to attain the Kingdom of God, start by closing your mouth and learning how to forgive.

Forgiveness is the way in. Forgiveness is the antithesis of anger. Forgiveness is what allows us to be wrong and respond in love. If we don’t develop and foster that as our chief aim in our spiritual life, in our ascesis with one another, the battle can never begin. You can’t fight the enemy if you’ve become your own enemy. You have to get rid of that first.

Here’s another saying from a Desert Father—St. John of the Ladder, whom we commemorate during Lent: “When you are ready to stand in the presence of the Lord, let your soul wear a garment that is woven throughout from the cloth of your forgiveness of other people. Otherwise, your prayer will be of no value whatsoever.” St. John of the Ladder is not one for mincing his words. If you’ve ever read The Ladder of Paradise, it’s a pretty forthright text.

But this is something that the Fathers of the Desert tell us. These are not little games we are playing. This is life! You may not want to forgive another person, but, from a theological point of view, who cares? Do it! Learn how to do it. Beg forgiveness as a first Port of Call. Offer it every time it’s demanded of you. There’s nothing worse for the spiritual life than for someone to come and ask for forgiveness and for you to deny it. You do them no harm. They will only grow. But you kill yourself! Your heart becomes stone hard.

These aren’t games that we play. “Otherwise your prayer will be of no value whatsoever.” We don’t believe that. We don’t take that seriously enough in the world. “Well, I’m really angry. I’m upset, but I’ll just stand here and grin and bear it.” There is a way out of anger. We have confession in the Orthodox Church that helps us discover in the heart where anger lives. Sometimes anger has burrowed itself so far in that we can’t find it anymore. We just know that something is wrong. Part of what confession is for is to be guided through your own heart, to have someone help you to see what’s there that you have become so accustomed to that it no longer bothers you, or it bothers you without being able to be identified. Use this gift. Confession out to be something that we run to with joy, because it’s an opportunity to find that which needs to be healed and to heal it.

Start the spiritual, mystical life with forgiving your brethren. In doing this, this city is a completely authentic arena for spiritual warfare. One of the temptations in the spiritual life is to think, “I could do it better somewhere else: if only I lived by that big cathedral…if only I were closer to the relics of St. My-Very-Favorite…if only I were on the Holy Mountain, on Mt. Athos…then I could be holy.” The city, this city, this town, this room is an avenue for spiritual warfare that is just as holy, just as filled with the potential for true growth as any in the world. You have to go nowhere other than where you are right now to grow in the spiritual life. In fact, many times the desire to flee, to find some better place, is itself a temptation. What we’re really saying is, “I don’t want to deal with it just yet.”

The Fathers say something about this as well. St. John Cassian once more:


If you want to set your lives aright and find peace and communion with God, finding people who will behave tolerantly towards you is not going to do it. It will come about, rather, by our learning how to show compassion to everyone. If we try to avoid this hard struggle of compassion by preferring a withdrawn and a solitary life, we will simply drag our unhealed obsessions with us into solitude. We might well have hidden them. We certainly will not have eliminated them. If we do not seek liberation from our obsessions, then becoming more withdrawn and less social may even make us more blind to them, since it will mask them.


This is practical spiritual advice, because the temptation is constantly to try to withdraw, not in the holy sense of giving up our connections to the world. But in the sense of trying to escape what fundamentally is a problem within. It’s an irrational desire—“I’ll run away to the desert and all the problems will be gone.” He says you’re just going to drag them into the desert with you. Right here is where you can be sanctified. This place, this life, is the avenue that can lead to your transfiguration, to the full reality of the Kingdom of God.

Remember the repentant thief. He found salvation at a place of execution—the least desirable place to go! Yet he found it and attained it in that moment. We have to make a start with what we have. This is the practical wisdom of the Desert Fathers that is necessary if we want to attain what Orthodoxy would consider a mystical life. This is sometimes frustrating to us, because this life is not one filled with dazzling moments. There may be a few of those here and there. It’s not a life that we spend trying to seek the next great experience, the next spiritual rush or spiritual high. Those are delusions as well. Is that really what we think Christianity is about—fleeting moments that we really like? Christianity is about a whole life change.

This leads me to the next great theme from the desert that can be used in the city to help us attain sanctification which most people will find even less a likely candidate—hospitality. St. John called our life “the hard struggle of compassion, a life that is lived in society amongst our neighbors.” If our calling is not to run away from this but to live within it and be transformed in it and to transform it, then our relationship to our neighbor is an essential part of our own spiritual growth. It starts with forgiveness and compassion, but it cannot end there. It has to build into a relationship of hospitality, which is one of the highest virtues in Orthodox Christianity. I’m not talking about “how about coming over for a cup of tea” hospitality.

I should have had a closer look about this space before I started this talk. Do you have an icon of the Trinity somewhere? Ah, yes. In that sort of diamond-shaped collection there—second from the top, the big one. What is the name of that icon? Rublev’s Trinity, yes. But what’s the actual name of the icon? “The Hospitality of Abraham.” We’ve removed most of the story from the icon. If you look at all the bigger versions, you have Abraham on one side and his wife on the other and a house. He’s entertaining these three mysterious visitors (Genesis 18).

For us, the best picture we can draw of God is a picture of hospitality. That’s the closest you can come to articulating the Trinity—mutual hospitality, an interconnection of love, of being in communion, where the life of each is defined by the life of the other, given to the other, received from the other. The closest approach we can have to such a God is to ourselves be hospitable, which is not about offering nice luncheons every once in a while to the book club.

That’s not really what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an approach to the other person which, starting from forgiveness and compassion, leads to other self offering—“I’m am willing to give myself to you, to offer myself for you, to receive myself you, when you come to me, to actually hear who you, to see who you are, to have a conversation, an encounter between us, not just an exchange of words, but two lives coming into communion with one another.”

We intuit this in the world by certain experiences of life. When someone is grieving—really in pain—what do they want more than anything else? Not somebody to talk to them. They want someone to be with them. We often say to listen to them, but often a person in intense grief doesn’t have to have anything to say. But they want somebody to be with them, to see them, to give something, even if it’s silence, to them. We intuit this reality even in secular situations.

But this hospitality, this offering of a life, my life for you, and for you to give your life back to me, and to come into communion in this way, is the closest that we can come as creatures to emulating the life of the Trinity, defined precisely through an image of hospitality.

A great desert writer, Bishop Theodorus the Ascetic, took special note of this and said the following:


The patriarch Abraham [who is theoretically in that icon] undertook the labor of hospitality, and he sat by his tent door welcoming anyone who would pass by. His table was open to everyone, even to the uncouth and the unworthy. He set no limitations on his hospitality. This was why he was counted worthy to receive God himself, to be present at that most wonderful feast when he entertained angels and the Creator of all. We too should love to practice an open-hearted hospitality so as to welcome not only angels but even the Lord himself into our life. For it was the Lord who told us “in so far as you do to one of these, you did it to me.” It is good to give yourself to all, especially those who are unable to repay you.


It is hard to be hospitable in the world in this way. He talks about an open-hearted hospitality, and he’s not being emotional, saying, “Do it with all you’ve got!” He’s talking about a hospitality that literally opens up one’s heart to another heart, a real person standing before another person. To offer that freely is a virtue that leads us directly to communion with God. It’s why in monasteries, in both the Eastern and Western traditions, hospitality has been a chief virtue. Monasteries always receive pilgrims. There isn’t really the possibility for someone to knock on the door of the monastery and say, “I’m in need of help. Receive me,” and they say, “No thank you, we’re not really interested.”

We do that all the time—not when someone knocks on our door at night and says, “Can I have a room?” But we do it when someone comes to us and we’re too distracted to want to pay attention to them, or they come to us to tell us something and we sort of listen to them. We smile and nod to ourselves, “That’s very nice, very nice…” But our thoughts are elsewhere. Our thoughts are not really there with that person. When they come to us and want to express grief and we don’t listen to their grief. We try to come back with prepared responses, little platitudes that we have been told will comfort them. But we don’t listen to another person. We are constantly depriving ourselves of the opportunity to live a godly life, because we don’t know how to give our heart to other people.

The world sometimes talks about giving the heart, but it talks about it in a very self-destructive way—“Give it away!” Well, we don’t want to give it away. We need it. The heart is who we are. But we talk in Christian terms about an ability to give freely without being depleted. The paradox of the Christian life is that the more you give up your life, the more life you have. The more you give your heart, the larger your heart becomes, until you give it completely and entirely, and you receive (in St. Theodorus’ words) not just men and angels, but God himself.

If we want to live a mystikos vios , life in all its real depth, the mystical life, we must start with a closed mouth, start by combating anger with forgiveness, and then learn to open ourselves to the people around us. Again, these are not what you would expect in a handbook on the mystical life. You would expect perhaps more esoteric sorts of things. But these are the handbooks for the Christian life—the words of the Fathers—and they are surprisingly ordinary. Here’s one of my favorites. I recently printed this out and put it above the desk in my school office:


Do not listen to gossip at your neighbor’s expense. Do not spend time talking with those who love to find fault in others. Otherwise, you will fall away from the love of God. You will find yourself alienated from eternal life.


You wouldn’t have thought that gossip was being written about in the 4th century desert. But there it is. These are men and women who attained a transfigured existence. Remember the Elder Abba Lot transfigured in flame, transfigured in fire. They did it because they knew that the way into the Kingdom of Heaven was a way of struggle and practical living out of the virtues.

You don’t have to engage in some odd spiritual mental discipline. You have to learn how to stop gossiping, how to stop judging, how to stop being angry. You have to learn how to start forgiving, how to be compassionate when everything in you fights that desire, how to open yourself even to the people who cannot possibly repay you. I always think that we should tack onto the end of that saying, “…and who do not wish to repay you.” Even they are people to whom you can give your heart.

If we do this—if we open up life to the real virtues of God in this way—we are enabled to do the thing we find the hardest to do when we are not following these instructions. We suddenly find an ability to pray, because prayer is fundamentally a simple thing. It’s not complicated. It’s utterly simple—it’s my heart taken up into God’s life. It’s not a conversation I have with God. It’s communion in God, a union with God. Adoption into God. Participation in God. The Fathers used many different titles. It’s a simple thing, and yet it is an impossible thing, if we forge of our heart something which cannot hear God’s voice, which cannot receive his presence, which will not receive his forgiveness. As we say in the prayer with which we began—“Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.” That prayer ought to frighten the daylights out of us, for the simple fact that we don’t forgive our debtors and we don’t forgive those who sin against us. That prayer is us announcing to God, “I expect from you what I’m willing to do myself.”

Christ knew what he was instructing when he offered that prayer. This isn’t a “feel good” thing to recite. This is a demand that you radically change your life, that you find the ability to forgive so that you can be forgiven. Again, it’s not that God doesn’t forgive you. God has forgiven the world. He’s forgiven you. But can you receive that forgiveness in a heart that is stone cold and to which the doors are locked and barred? We bemoan the fact that we don’t feel God’s presence in the house of our hearts. And yet it is we ourselves who have bound up and locked the doors and covered the windows so that he cannot get in.

Another saying from the desert reads simply this:


When you live the commandments, your prayer will be simple, completely simple. Both the tax collector and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase. One said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and the other, “Father, I have sinned against you.”


Prayer is simple and yet it demands a changed life. Abba Agathon of the desert described it as the hardest, simple thing to do. He said:


In my opinion, no other labor is so difficult as simple prayer. Every time a person wants to pray, our spiritual enemies, internal and external, come to disrupt it. For if we are deflected from prayer, the demons can do us harm. Whatever good work a person undertakes will produce success only if it is done with perseverance. But the labor of prayer is a warfare that will endure until our very last breath. We battle what is broken in us. We battle what comes to us from outside. And yet, the battle is not for prayer itself. The battle is for a quiet heart in which prayer can grow.


I’ll end with one final quotation from the desert:


A disciple should always carry the memory of God within him. Let that be what fills his heart. Let that be his defining characteristic. For it is written in the scriptures, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” You should not only love the Lord your God when you enter into a house of prayer. You should also remember him with deep desire when you are walking alone, when you are speaking with others, when you take your meals. For the scripture says, “Where your heart is, there also is your treasure.” Truly wherever a person’s heart is given, that is where their deepest desire will draw them. That, indeed, is their God. If the disciple’s heart longs always for the true God, then God will be the Lord of the heart.


The Fathers of the Desert tell us that we can prepare the heart for God through practical means of love and self-discipline and self-denial. If that is what we do, then we aim the heart at God and God fills the heart. If we aim the heart at the world, the world will fill the heart, and the world will become our God and that’s what we will worship. But if the heart is aimed towards God, by simple, practical measures, then God becomes the Lord of the heart, and the person attains the Kingdom itself. Amen.


Part 3


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 me 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 essencewho 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.







Article published in English on: 6-4-2011.

Last update:  6-4-2011.