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Demetrios Constantelos

Four Major Aspects of the Church's Faith and Experience

From: Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church, Hellenic College Press, Brookline, Massachusetts 1998.

Mystical Life and the Orthodox Faith

Mysticism cannot be defined, but in broad terms it is the religious experience of the individual who seeks a life of harmony, peace, and continuous communion with the Supreme Being. Introspection, contemplation, and solitude are prerequisites for the development of an inner religious experience. Constant prayer assures divine intervention, which illuminates the human soul. Divine grace and man's continuous quest assure revelation, or acquisition of divine presence. Mysticism is primarily a personal religious experience within the broad framework of the Church and tends to stress the individualistic approach of religion.

In one way or another, to some degree, every individual is a mystic. Christian mysticism has its beginning in the teachings of Jesus, Saint Paul, Saint John, and several early Church Fathers and saints. But mysticism developed into an influential theological stream after the fourth century under the influence of Saints Methodios of Olympos, Makarios of Egypt, John Klimakos, Dionysios the Pseudo-Areopagite, and Maximos the Confessor. All emphasized the need for solitude, meditation, cultivation of the inner life, and continuous communication with the divine. The theological disputes of the fourth and fifth centuries contributed to the cultivation of mysticism, for they convinced certain holy persons that the way to God is inward cultivation. For example, when in the fourth century churchmen argued over the terms ousia and hypostasis with reference to God, Evagrios of Pontos advised: "In silence let us worship the incomprehensible."

Some Orthodox thinkers have stressed that the exclusive purpose of Christianity is a direct and intuitive experience of God. Among many others Makarios of Egypt views the relationship between God and the individual soul as similar to the intimate relationship between a groom and his bride. The mystical experience is the result of a marriage between the individual soul and Christ. "The soul is wounded by Eros or Agape for Christ, as a result of which she longs for her consubstantial union with him."

The mystical union is beyond the senses, imagination, or rational explanation. Not all believers can claim such an experience, and the Church acknowledges that God has bestowed different gifts on different people. There is no need to doubt the existence of such religious experiences. If we accept that the human soul is of God, created by Him in His own image and likeness, it is not difficult to understand that the human soul longs for God and finds no contentment, peace, joy, or certainty apart from Him.

The human soul lives in the divine reality even though this reality transcends the soul and the world and at the same time is in the soul and in the world. The human person lives in God but is not absorbed in or dictated by God. The relationship between the two is one of love. The human intellect and will become subordinate to God's love and will. The creator loves His creature, and the creature is continuously drawn to its creator. The prevailing theme in Orthodox mystical theology is the love affair between God and His creatures, who meet in the person of the God-man, Christ.

God manifests His love throughout His creation as the creator, the redeemer, and the restorer. By grace a person can imitate God, however imperfectly, as restorer and reformer of the human social order and of the condition of all humanity in general.

The emphasis on the love that God communicates to people and divine experience to which they are invited reveals the ethos of Greek Christianity, which is not so much psychological security, freedom from fear, or even doctrinal guidance, but communion with God. The doctrine that man is made in the likeness of God leads to the doctrine of the deification of man. Thus to imitate God's love, or philanthropia, is "to practice being God," as Clement of Alexandria formulated it. The imitator of God's philanthropia lives the very life of God. Orthodox spirituality, as expressed in several liturgical services, teaches that God is not distant, abstract, remote, or unapproachable, but that He is the Father whose name is Philanthropos and whose nature is philanthropia; that is God's name and nature are love. "And the more one loves God, the more one enters within God," as Clement of Alexandria writes.

The soul's imitation of God's love is not ordinary stirring or movement of the soul but a divine gift, made in response to its longings, to its faith and desire. The gift is a "divine energy," which induces a fire in the soul and wins it to God's love and will. The eleventh-century mystic Saint Symeon calls God "Holy Love" in one of his homilies:

Ο Holy Love, he who does not know you has never tasted the sweetness of your mercies which only living experience can give us. But he who has known you, or who has been known by you, can never again have even the smallest doubt. For you are the fulfilment of the law, and you fill, burn, enkindle, embrace my heart with measureless charity. You are the teacher of the prophets, the faithful friend of the apostles, the strength of the martyrs, the inspiration of fathers and doctors, the perfecting of all the saints. And you, Ο Love, prepare even me for the true service of God.
The true lover of God is also a genuine lover of persons. Elsewhere Symeon writes of love as the crown of all other virtues, such as humility, penitence and faith. Love enables the soul to know the purpose of its divinity and its destiny upon earth. The fulfilment of human life is to love, and through the experience of love the soul is united with God. Symeon cries out in praise of love: "Ο blessed bond, Ο indescribable strength, Ο heavenly disposition, how excellent is the soul which is animated by the divine inspiration and perfected in exceeding love of God and man."

Similar views were developed later by Nicholas Kabasilas. Ιn his famous Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, Kabasilas called upon man to offer doxologies to God's exceeding and unfathomable love for man, out of which He emptied himself of His supernatural exaltation, assuming flesh in order to walk among His adopted brethren and draw them back to the eternal God.

Because God's presence in the world is an existential reality, with concrete illustrations of His concern for the cosmos and human beings in particular, they ought to reciprocate and express their love for God with love for their fellow human beings. Orthodox theology takes very seriously the biblical verses: "If any one says, 'Ι love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also" (1 Jn. 4.20-21).

The concept of a vertically and horizontally understood philanthropia is important for our age and relevant for any epoch. Because of God's example, the whole human family becomes an object of concern for all believers. The dialogue of love escapes the realm of sentimental yearning and transforms itself into a reality. On the basis of the same reasoning, Christ who manifested the Father's as well as His own agape, is acknowledged as the cosmic redeemer, drawing to himself all people who display a genuine concern for the destiny of the human family.

It is certain that the apophatic element dominates liturgical and patristic theology. God and the divine are beyond human ability to comprehend. We know that God is "he who is," and "infinite and incomprehensible," to use the classic words of Saint John of Damascus. Nevertheless, God manifests His energies, including philanthropia, which is the crown of them all and ecumenical in character: it leads to the final restoration of justice, the salvation of human beings, and the realization of God's desire for their participation in God's eternal life.

Philanthropos or Christos Eleemon or Christos Evergetes -here is revealed the ideal Christ, whose deep concern over humanity Christians must imitate in their daily lives. Believers in and imitators of the philanthropia of God are no longer individualists living by and for themselves; they become their "brothers' keepers." The theme of God's search and love for man is diffused throughout the Divine Liturgy and the other sacraments of the Church. On the other hand there is the holiness and transcendence, the awe and mystery, the "metaphysical" wonder, of God and on the other hand there is the realized immanence and presence, the "unfathomable philanthropia" of God. It is because of His merry, love, and compassion that God condescends to walk among us in order to raise us to godhood. "Lord, have merry upon us, you who suffered for us to free us from our iniquities, you who humbled yourself in order to raise us," as the congregation sings in one of the Church's hymns.

Ιn the liturgy we glorify God's great mercy. It is because of God's constant manifestation of philanthropy that the weakling becomes mighty, the carnal becomes spiritual, and the spiritual sees the glory of the fountainhead from which the soul derives strength, courage, and achievement.

Greek Orthodoxy views God as Being, as personal, individual, and distinct from nature and man, but also as the being in whom all other beings participate and in whom all existence moves. People apprehend God as immediately as their own existence and come to know Him fully through their interactions and relationships with their fellow human beings.

The concept of Theos Philanthropos implies a special understanding of history.
One sees the continuity of creation from the event of cosmogony to the resurrection of life after Christ's victory over death. The philanthropia of God brought the world into being before time was, it was manifested in the historical person of Christ and it is perpetuated in the work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore all events and all history are dominated by God's love in action, permanent, constant, and developing.

Ιn Orthodoxy there is only "sacred" history, not because there is no "secular" history but because the two are inseparable. Many historical events belong to both. To be sure there was the "sacred" history of ancient Israel, but God disclosed himself through "secular," or natural history as well. Even the "sacred" history of Israel was not totally "sacred," for it was developed in the context of "secular" history. As sacred history was conditioned by secular history, the latter too was conditioned by sacred history.

The incarnation of the Messiah-Logos was the fulfilment of sacred history, and was accomplished in the context of Greco-Roman history -the Greek cultural and intellectual milieu and the umbrella of the Roman state. History is called "sacred" because God is in history, revealing Himself in and through history, whether by the prophets or by the philosophers, the Israelites or the Gentiles.

Orthodox worship stresses the infinite love of God in the Trinity, God the Father who creates, God the Son who redeems, and God the Holy Spirit who sanctifies, gives life, and leads to a final recapitulation of God's redemptive process. His people, the Church, should emulate God's love. As the bride of a loving bridegroom, the Church must pursue a dialogue of love among her members and with those outside her jurisdiction. Because of God's philanthropia, there is hope that through the grace of God people can come together as adopted children under the fatherhood of God.

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