Eastern Christian Spirituality

A book publisher’s busman’s holiday, as you might expect, is browsing through neighborhood bookshops. I recently found myself thumbing through the spirituality section of a popular New York City Catholic bookstore. There were books on a spirituality for men, for women, for religious and singles, for professional people and homemakers. I couldn’t help thinking that the Church had as many “spiritualities” a Starbucks has coffees.

I thought of my own experience as an Eastern Christian. In my own Greek Catholic Church – and I know it’s the case in all the churches of the Byzantine tradition – there is one spirituality to which we are all called. The life in Christ is meant for everyone, priest or monastic, married or single. A monastic may live some aspects of this life with a greater intensity than a married priest, but it’s the same life in Christ.

Even then, monastics haven’t cornered the market. One of the most popular tales about St. Anthony the Great in the sayings of the Desert Fathers is the following:

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels. [note The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1975), p. 6.]

St. Anthony and his unnamed brother in Christ were living the same life: the laity are meant to harmonize with the angels, and monks are meant to give as well as receive. St. Nikon of the Black Mountain, an 11th century monk at Antioch, counseled monks that they, too, were expected to help the disabled and the dispossessed:

Monks have the obligation to give alms from the work of their hands or from what they receive from others. They must help others when others help them… And when they give alms, they should not make a precise investigation to spot the faithful from the unfaithful, but exercise mercy to all in an equal manner. [note The Pandectis, Summary of Chapter 21 in Ignatios Dick, Melkites, (West Roxbury, MA: Sophia Press, 2004), p. 98.]

This single vision of the spiritual life stems from the great evangelical perspective that lies at the heart of the Byzantine tradition: that we are called “to become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4) not just to be “saved” from sin. We see ourselves as invited to live the very life of God, to become intimately related to God, to be physically united to Christ and to have the Holy Spirit dwell within us. The Church Fathers saw this as the reason for Christ’s coming. “God became man so that man might become divine” (St. Athanasius).

This process – called theosis in Greek and sometimes translated as divinization or deification – begins when we receive in faith the Holy Mysteries (what western Churches call sacraments). In baptism we are made one with the risen Christ in His victory over sin and death as we reenact His burial and resurrection. This reliving takes place when we are buried (immersed) in the water and are raised from it.
We immediately receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, “the first of God’s gifts” (Rom 8:23), in chrismation (confirmation). In receiving the Eucharist we recognize that our mortal bodies are united to the Body and Blood of Christ as a token of the life to come, when they shall be united to Him in glory forever.

Just as infants are fully formed in miniature, in potency you might say, so are we through these mysteries. But we are not complete: we must become what we are by living out the new life that is ours. In Eastern Christianity this is generally seen to take place when we live a “public” life of worship and communion and a “secret” life of prayer, fasting, and sharing.

Everybody Say “Amen”

As members of Christ we are one with Him in all things. By adoption we are the children of His Father. By grace we are united to Him in His eternal priesthood. We are called to add our voice, not only to the priest’s but to Christ’s own voice. In the East the Church does not view Christ’s sacrifice as something of the past. Christ’s blood was shed at a definite time in human history; but the offering of His precious blood takes place in eternity.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews – on which the shape of our Eucharistic Prayer is based – Christ’s sacrifice is described liturgically. He enters the heavenly “sanctuary” carrying, not the blood of bulls or goats, but His own blood. There He remains in the presence of the Father on our behalf, ever making intercession for us (see Heb 7:25, 9:24). The sacrifice of Christ, then, is an eternal liturgy. The offering was slain in the past, but the oblation continues in eternity.

In the Eucharist we are connected to our High Priest in His eternal Liturgy. The worship style in Byzantine Churches reflects our faith that we are sacramentally one with the risen Christ in glory. All the senses take part in our worship to image this heavenly Liturgy. We see icons, vestments, candles; we smell incense and perfumes; we taste blessed foods and use physical gestures such as bowing, prostrating and crossing ourselves repeatedly to express our wonder at this foretaste of the eternal kingdom.

The Eucharistic Liturgy is the highpoint of our worship life, but not the extent of it. Weekly and annual cycles of feasts and fasts are foreign to our commercially driven lifestyle, but they remain in Byzantine Churches to anchor us in the kingdom of God.

It is not unusual to find vespers served in parishes on Saturday evening or matins on Sunday morning to lead us into the Liturgy. Active parishes aggressively recruit their youth to participate in choirs or train as cantors to open them to the riches of the liturgical life.

We are members of the Body of Christ, the Communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit. United in the holy mysteries we are also called to express this communion by the support we give one another. Hospitality has been a hallmark of the Eastern mind with the story of Abraham (Gen 18) inspiring all his offspring – Christians, Jews and Muslims – to “entertain angels” in the hope of receiving God.

Not Before Men

Besides this public Christian life, the Eastern Churches also stress a personal spiritual life “in secret, so that your Father who sees all in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:6). Chief of these, of course, is personal prayer. People are encouraged to commit themselves to a “rule” of prayer, specific prayers said at a regular time, usually before one’s icons, to help us become people of prayer.

In the East, private prayers are not different in style or substance from liturgical prayers, for even when praying alone, I am one with the Church. Many feel that the Church’s prayers take us beyond our own needs and wants and express wider concerns than we might find in our own hearts. After all, if it were up to me, I would probably skip the first part of the Lord’s Prayer and get right to the “Gimme” part.

One of the most popular prayers in the Byzantine tradition is the Jesus Prayer. This prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” expresses the essence of who Christ is and who I am. Eastern spiritual writers counsel repeating it again and again until it enters the deepest recesses of our consciousness. There it is always available to recall us to God’s presence and remind us of His merciful love.

Eastern Christians maintain the importance of fasting as Jesus counseled (Mt 6:16-18). Most basic are the weekly fasts on Wednesday and Friday as old as the Didache, and of course the Great Fast, the 40 days before Pascha. There are others, too, such as before Christmas and Our Lady’s Fast in August.

These are not a question of regulations or Church law as they are a matter of tradition. People are invited to embrace them as much as they are able and to grow in them. Today we have the means to gratify ourselves endlessly, whenever we want. By refusing to do that, we reflect our need to continue our conversion day by day.

As we saw earlier, almsgiving is another important dimension to our “secret” life with God. This has always been a matter of getting personally involved, since people in need are not considered “social problems” but Christ, in the spirit on Matthew 25. In serving one another we are serving Christ.

Catherine Doherty, founder of the Madonna House community of Combermere, Ontario, describes how she learned this lesson from her parents, pre-revolutionary Russian nobility:

Early in my childhood the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parents’ example and words. No one was ever turned from our door, bum or beggar, woman of the streets or thief. The men were welcomed by my father. He gave them a bath himself, or Mother would do it for the women; then they would be given clothing if they needed it. They would be served by Mother and Father, and by us children – if we had been good that week, and thus worthy of serving Christ in the poor – on our best linen and from our best china in the main dining room. [note Catherine Doherty, My Russian Yesterdays, (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1951), p. 12.]

Though we are called to be divinized, we realize that this process is long. Our path is rich in meaning, but rigorous in practice. The most difficult obstacle to our grown is the weakness and brokenness of our personalities. This is why the Eastern Churches call on their members to engage in a spiritual warfare in the arena of their hearts, learning to subject their passions to the divinizing power of the Holy Spirit working within them.

Struggle (ascesis) is part of the Christian life, but with the grace of the Holy Spirit and the example of the saints, we can resist evil. We can support one another in the struggle and journey together on the path of salvation.

When a person decides on a more than rudimentary practice of the Christian life, he can be overwhelmed with questions, make more than one false start, and finally give up in frustration. This is why the Eastern Churches have long insisted that a serious Christian needs the help of a spiritual guide or elder.

The elder is first of all someone who knows the ways of the Tradition through personal experience and secondly who knows the person he is guiding. In this way the elder can lead along a path which he himself has walked. Authentic spiritual life must reflect the Tradition and yet be intensely personal. A sensitive elder can bring the Tradition to life in our hearts.

Synthesizing a life’s work like this makes it seem complex, but it need not be so. Because we can grow, we need not digest all aspects of the Church’s spiritual tradition at once. We explore them as we are deemed ready for them.

When Abba Pambo was troubled about how to proceed in his Christian life, Abba Anthony simply told him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.” [note Ward, op. cit. p. 2.]

“If we keep before our minds the brokenness of our humanity, trust in God’s forgiveness for our past sins and guard against physical and mental excesses,” Eastern Christians affirm, “we will find ourselves on a slow but sure path to the Kingdom.” [note Light for Life, Part Three, “The Mystery Lived”, Pittsburgh: God With Us Publications, 2001, p. 51.]