Friday, September 19, 2014

Life in Christ

The following article was written by Archimandrite Barnabas. The article was first published in Orthodox Leaflet: No. 72, pp. 11-12 & No. 73, pp. 2-3. It was republished in Σπουδάγματα, Τεύχος 1, 1994, pp. 55-58, a magazine produced by the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Panteleimon, Harrow, North-West London (UK). It is an interesting and important article, that is why it is been reproduced here.




It is said in Genesis that “Enoch walked with God and was not”: that Noah was “a just man and walked with God” (Genesis V.24; VI. 6). Abraham when called and chosen by God to be father of the elect people heard these words from God: “I am the almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect” (Gen. XVII.1).
Later in the Bible there are repeated exhortations to walk before God, e.g. “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. CXVI.9), and in the first verse of the first psalm it is written “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly”. To walk with someone was to be in accord with him. To walk with God was to share in the divine company, to be one with God, to reflect Him and His ways in our earthly pilgrimage. 
When the old covenant yielded place to the new, in the fullness of time, God walked with man in the Person of His Son Jesus Christ. Here was intimacy indeed – God and man walking in creation together, and because God has emptied Himself of the glory that was His by right, man was able to look on His face and not die, but rather to go on living more abundantly.
To walk with God now meant that man lived in God’s Presence, became like Him and as God was now known in Christ, so man became an alter Christus, and St Paul is able to say with great boldness in Galatians 11.20: “I live, yet not I but Christ liveth in me”.
This co-dwelling with and co-inherence in Christ is the goal of every Christian, the aim of his pilgrimage, the purpose of his being, his raison d’etre as a Christian, and of course there are degrees of achievement, depending partly on the seriousness of our own endeavours and the graciousness of the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit on our souls, since God does not deal in the same way with each and everyone of his creatures.
This process is called boldly deification, divinisation, becoming truly the Sons of God by grace – what Christ is by nature. “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans XIII.14). It is greater than an imitation of Christ: it is such a process of union that Christ takes over and is reflected in the body, mind and soul of His servant.
Clearly such a process of transfiguration cannot be the work of brief devotion, but is a case of “precept must be upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little” (Isaiah XXVIII.10) for to live in Christ is to acquire a Christian spirituality and this involves effort as the work of deepening our foundations continues.
Spirituality and its life-giving sources – here is the key to “continuing steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” –these four keynotes of the Apostolic Church as recorded in Acts 11.42, perseverance in which enabled the early Christians to live and die in Christ.
Let us then look at these life – giving sources.
1.       First comes the Bible – that is the canonical books of the Old and New Testament – that precious gift of the Jewish Church to the Christian, and the Christian Church – the Bible in its entirety – to the world. Here is truly the written Word of God whose dominant theme is in fact the Incarnate Word of God, since the culmination and fulfilment of all things is found in Christ. The Bible in the context of the believing body, i.e. the Church that gave it to mankind –never divorced from its setting, a liturgical book since parts of it are read regularly in the liturgical services of the Church. This is a sure way of living in Christ since we know how well-read Christ Himself was in the Scripture – how He quoted it against the devil at his temptation and his enemies when they tried to confound Him. It was on His lips as He died on the Cross.
2.       Our next guides to spirituality are the Fathers of the Church and their writings, since these lived and thought with the Church, being both the heirs and guardians of the faith “once and for all delivered to the Saints”. In the last chapter of his Rule St Benedict speaks thus: “For one who would hasten to the perfection of the monastic life there are the teachings of the Holy Fathers, the observance of which would bring a man to the lofty summit of perfection. For what page, what sayings of the divinely inspired Old and New Testaments is not a perfectly straight rule for the life of man?  Or what book of the holy Catholic Fathers does not loudly proclaim how we may come by a straight course to our Creator? Then too the conferences of the Fathers and their institutes and lives, and the Rule of our holy Father Basil, what are these if not the tools of achieving virtues for good-living and obedient monks?” (Chapter LXXI-II).
This is true not only for monks but for ordinary Christians in the world. To the name of St. Basil the Great, whom St. Benedict mentions, could be added so many others, -St. Irenaeos, St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasios, St. Cyril, St. Gregory, -a line of deep thinkers, able writers and above all devout followers of Christ, stretching from the dawn of Christianity right through the years of undivided Christendom. Most of them are canonised and are thus honoured liturgically as their feast-days come round.
3.       Our next element in spirituality is the liturgical life of the Church. The Christian Church at the beginning took over the prayer-life which it knew in the Jewish Synagogue, but now it put in the Name of Christ and begged help of the Father through the life, death and resurrection of His Son. There was, of course, a gradual re-shaping as the Church spread into gentile lands, but the link with the Synagogue was maintained through the liturgical prayer, and the link with the Temple through the breaking of the bread (η κλάσις του άρτου), since this action replaced the daily sacrificial rites of the Temple, so soon to be destroyed and never to be rebuilt. This element is so emphasised in the early pages of the Acts: “The Apostles continued in prayer with the women and Mary the Mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14) and the verse already quoted “They all continued steadfastly…”.
The crown of liturgical prayer was the Eucharist – η Θεία Λειτουργία- which was both formed by the piety of the various converted peoples, and in turn itself developed and formed that piety. So we gave different families of liturgies, the Alexandrian, Antiochene and Roman, which of course remain to this day.
There was no question then of a private piety divorced from the Church and its round of prayer and sacraments, no pseudo-mysticism, no esoteric devotion. If such there was it belonged to the fringe groups such as the Gnostics and heretics who borrowed certain factors from the Catholic Church but never belonged to it.
As the Church grew and questions were asked and criticisms levelled, its doctrine became formulated in the early great Oecumenical Councils of Christendom. The decisions of these Councils became the dogmas of the Church and were compiled in a convenient formula knows as the creeds. In the East there is only the Nicene Creed; in the West there are the Apostles’ and the Creed of St. Athanasius. These dogmas were skilfully interwoven into the liturgical prayers, and thus also nourished spirituality.
4.       The final element in spirituality was then contributed by the Monastic Movement. Asceticism has a very real part in true Christianity, and the ascetical or monastic movement traces its origins to the Nazarites and Sons of the Prophets in Old Testament times, to St. John the Baptist and his disciples in the New Testament. A monk in St. Benedict’s phrase is “one who truly seeks God” and puts aside everything else in order to achieve this quest. The movement gained a great impetus in the 3rd and 4th century with the flight to the desert beginning with giants as St. Paul of Thebes, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Pachomius, St. John Cassian and others. These men have left behind them sayings or writings, and though they spoke primarily to their disciples, their profound teachings can nevertheless be followed by those living in the world. Certainly if these precepts are followed then it is indeed a case of life in Christ.
In the monastic climate there grew up the practice of punctuating each day with regular prayer, of giving oneself time for spiritual reading, of preparing oneself for a devout reception of the Sacrament, of controlling the passions with a view to becoming passionless (απάθεια), and the form of prayer known as the Jesus Prayer which helps souls to fulfil the Pauline precept of: “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. V.17).
These aids to spirituality can be considered as the tools for leading a life “hid with Christ in God” (Colossians III.3). But can such life be a case of “the path of the just is as the shining Light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day” as the book of Proverbs puts it? (IV.18).
The Light of Christ is certainly there in our lives always, just as the sun is always shining in the firmament though its rays cannot always penetrate through to the earth because of a build-up of cloud. St. Gregory Palamas, the great 14th century father and mystic, openly taught that the uncreated light of Tabor is accessible in this life, but this has never meant that all shadows are instantly dispersed and that we walk in perpetual illumination. Indeed the contrary can often be the case, and though we aim at the positive Summum Bonum, we have to walk through the via negativa to achieve it.
A Western Mystic of great penetration, St. John of the Cross, calls these periods of darkness the Dark Night of the Senses and the dark night of the soul, and though these terms are not found in the writings of the Eastern mystics, nevertheless they describe the same states of mind.
“To bring into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II. Cor. X.5) is a pregnant phrase from St. Paul – we can put it also as the attempt to achieve integrity, that is, that we really are inwardly what we appear to be outwardly. We all realize that there is a gap between these two. St. Paul again puts it thus  - “The good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not that I do” (Romans VII.19), an echo of Ovid’s “video meliora proboque, sed deteriora sequor”.
How do we advance in this way of integration into Christ and to the integration of our own personalities, since the second is consequent on the first?
 We must always line in God’s Presence – always be aware of His nearness –if we fail there must be instant repentance without delay. Then we must cultivate a sense of the presence of the Communion of Saints, especially the Holy Theotokos, the Angels –be aware of this army of bodiless Powers (Ασώματοι). Because it is a fact that as soon as we seriously begin in the work of “walking with God” we awake our enemies, and a battleground is made in our own souls, inside us. This is where the Sacraments help and where we should have recourse to our spiritual guide, a soul-friend, who himself walks along this way, knows its dangers, and realizes that it is “the narrow way that leads to life” (Matt. VII.13, 14) and because of his knowledge and love of us, is able to help us. Alas, such guides are not easy to find, and like St. Benedict we have to be our own novice-masters!
Can we make mistakes, take a wrong turning? Yes, we can. Is this mistake capable of being corrected? Yes, it is, in God’s merciful plan, though we have inflicted a wound on our souls –yet it is curable if we turn again towards the Light.
In conclusion let me say how much easier it must have been to live in Christ when there was just the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in the first millennium of Christianity. Then all Christians were linked in canonical and dogmatic union with the ancient Apostolic Sees, Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem and followed a developing Tradition while keeping open their lines of communication with the original deposit of the faith. There was undoubtedly a break at the Great Schism between East and West in 1054 and yet another great break at the Protestant Revolution in 16th century Western Europe, when a bifurcation occurred in Christianity separating Catholic and Protestant elements. Those whom we in the Orthodox Church and those in the Roman Catholic Church and Catholic-minded Anglicans venerate as Saints are in the fullness of Tradition, and if we examine their lives there is a totality of dedication which is not so marked in the heroes of the faith of Confessions outside the Orthodox-Catholic. If we follow in the path of the Saints, beg their prayers to help us to do so, then we must be quite sure of the Tradition that we follow that it is in line with “the faith once and for all delivered to the Saints”. Holiness and Unity are both epithets describing the Catholic and Apostolic Church, and both must grow together since they are inter-dependent. Holiness integrates the personality – brings unity: unity with Christ in His Church in its turn brings holiness, that precious virtue “without which no man shall see the Lord” (Hebrews XII.14).

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