The Soul of Orthodox spirituality
The soul of Orthodox spirituality consists in the practice of virtues and especially in the gift of prayer. There is no spiritual life without prayer and there is no labour greater than praying to God. The Church has got canonical prayer of hours (seven times a day) and the unceasing prayers that can be recited privately even in the time of doing some jobs. Through prayer a faithful will be illumined and prayer is the measuring rode of a person’s spiritual life. St. Dionysious the Areopagite divides the spiritual life into three stages: Purification, illumination and deification (union). We may compare these stages with the stages of the practice of virtues, the contemplation of nature and the contemplation of God Himself. Practice of virtues begins with repentance. The baptised Christian struggles with God’s help to escape from enslavement to passionate impulses. By fulfilling the commandments, gradually he/she attains purity of heart and it is this that constitutes the ultimate aim of the first stage. At the second stage, the contemplation of nature, the Christians sharpens his/her perception of the being of the created things, and discovers the Creator present in everything and thus it leads him/her to respect and give honour to fellow creations. This leads him/her to the third stage, the direct vision of God, who is not only in everything but above and beyond everything. The full vision of the divine glory is reserved for the age to come, yet even in the present life, the saints enjoy sure pledge and first fruits of the coming harvest.
The first stage is called ‘active life’ while the second and third jointly designated the ‘contemplative life’. It is to be noted that not only the social worker or family member or the missionary who is following the active life, the hermit or the recluse is likewise doing so, in as much as he/she is still struggling to overcome the passions and to grow in virtue. In the same way the contemplative life is not restricted to the desert or the solitude, but a miner, a clerk, a typist or a house wife may also possess inward silence and prayer of the heart, a may therefore be in the true sense a ‘contemplative’.
a) The Orthodox tradition is intensely conscious of the ecclesial character Christianity. It is of course true that there are many who reject Christ and His Church, or who have never heard of him; Whether they will be saved or not cannot be answered properly by us and let God will do as His will. But, as Church members, we believe that even a solitary in the solitary in the desert is as much a churchmen as the artisan in the city. The ascetic and mystical path is at the same time social and communal. The Christian is the one who has brothers and sisters. He/she belongs to a family and that family is the Church.
b) Spiritual life is not only a life in the Church but also life in the sacraments. It is the sacraments that constitute our life in Christ. Our path is the path of corporate worship, centred around the sacraments and especially the sacrament of Eucharist. That is to say that it is in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ that the Christian life is based and moved towards perfection.
c) The spiritual life is also evangelical. At each step upon the path, we turn for guidance to the voice of God speaking to us through the Bible. After being inspired by what is written in the Bible, we lead ourselves to be the real witnesses of our Lord to our neighbours. We are asked to preach the Gospel and witness our Lord by practising the virtues of prayer, fasting and alms giving. Prayer unites us to God; fasting sanctifies us and alms giving (Charity) is really an extension of the divine Grace in us to our fellow beings and the rest of the creation.
These presuppositions obviously show the Trinitarian Christological, Pneumatological, Sacramental and ecclesiastical character of Orthodox spirituality.
Orthodox spirituality gives enough and equal space for family life and monastic life. That means it gives equal value to those who follow family life and monastic life and no clear marked distinction is given to their goal although their style of life is different. The practice of virtues is highly extolled in both ways of life in the manner that is befitting to each of them.
Orthodox spirituality is not an ecstatic movement like some contemporary so-called spiritual movements. It gives us a lesson for the perpetual and continuing bliss that one can really experience in the Eucharistic worship of the Church. Flight from division, ascetic silence and hospitality are highly extolled in Orthodox spirituality. For the Church Fathers, ‘to flee from the world’ means to flee from every thing that divides. Also, the spirituality must ultimately be understood in terms of paschal mystery. It is an affirmation of the Cross-as the path of resurrection. The ability to bear the cross comes from the joy of being saved. Joy in our Lord is our strength. The aim of the exercise that at times is found painful is a purified love of God, of neighbours, and of the whole creation. But that also means an increase of joy.