The South is a place where a lot of focus has been placed on the Lord Jesus Christ. Since the Great Revival in the South that started in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, this focus has tended to be framed by the idea of a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus Christ. But there is a problem with this. Yes, the Lord Jesus did take on human flesh and condescends to our weaknesses, but to restrict our relations with Christ to fallen human limitations, turning Him into something like a cosmic best buddy, is a tragic error.
We see this limiting of our relations in the writings of various Protestant Evangelicals. Joyce Meyer gives a good ensample:
God wants to be involved in everything we do. He wants us to fellowship with Him, which means communicating with Him throughout our day just like we do with someone who's our close friend or family member.
Knowing God loves us, loving Him, spending time with Him, and being grateful for what He's done and is doing in our lives can help us have a real relationship with Him.
Knowing God loves us, loving Him, spending time with Him, and being grateful for what He's done and is doing in our lives can help us have a real relationship with Him.
Source: https://joycemeyer.org/everydayanswers/ea-teachings/a-real-relationship-with-god, opened 25 Sept. 2017
But we were not made for external relationships with God, mankind, or the creation. We were made for union with all of them. The hardened boundaries between ourselves and the things around us and God are a result of the fall. It will not be like this in the age to come. We get a foretaste of it now in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church, and also in true prayer when men and women unite all things in the heart, the spiritual center of human beings (which prayer, it must be said, cannot be separated from the ascetical, liturgical, sacramental life of the Church).
On union with Christ our Lord, which is the fullest potential of our ‘personal relationship’ with Him, here are some words from the Orthodox pastor, Archbishop Chrysostomos:
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Keeping in mind these general principles with regard to the source of genuine theology (empirical theology), let us examine what St. Gregory Palamas says about the person. To begin with, we must say something about the Orthodox understanding of man. Man exists both in essence and in hypostasis (and the word hypostasis is one which Palamas seems to prefer over the word person, having drawn much of his language in this regard from both St. Basil the Great and St. John of Damascus). The essence of man (bear in mind that this word derives ultimately from the verb to be, as Metropolitan Ierotheos reminds us) describes his state of being, which he shares with all others. His hypostasis (person), however, is that which distinguishes him from others. (Needless to say, one should not naïvely confuse the terms used here in describing the human being with the Hypostasis and Essence of God, which have wholly different meanings and which apply to God alone. The Essence of God is ineffable; and the Hypostasis of God is uncreated, while that of man is created.)
The human person is the hypostatic manifestation of the human essence, the realization of who a human being is as an individual: being, again, common in his essence but individual in his hypostasis or person, as St. Gregory Palamas affirms. It is primarily the human person to which the therapeutic and salvific methods of Hesychasm, as the spiritual teachings of Palamas are called, are directed. The cleaning and enlightenment of the individual human mind, the purification of the human heart, and the restoration of the passions (which have been misdirected and perverted, as a result of the Fall) constitute the Hesychastic way of life. And the way of life that effects these things leads to the restoration of the individual, the human person, who freely turns from a life of sin to one of synergy with God. In short, one can say, though risking theological difficulties in overstating this point, that the restoration of the human being in Christ centers on the person, on the restoration of the person, and on the cure of the process of disease which separates the individual from the full realization of his potential in Christ.
In the purest anthropology of the Fathers, expressed perfectly in the Hesychastic teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, we come to understand that the essence of man, his being, has been restored through the divinization of human nature by the Incarnation of Christ, Who, in His Resurrection, lifted human existence above what it was even before the Fall. The personal salvation of the human being lies in his free acceptance of the potential for restoration in Christ, his ascetic struggle to free himself from the taint and illness of sin, and his restoration of the human person, his hypostasis, through the vision of God. And this vision of God, according to St. Gregory Palamas, is communion with God, the divinization of the human person (theosis), and his union in energy with Christ. In this divinization by Grace, man comes to an intimate knowledge of God. His mind cleansed and enlightened, his heart purified, and his passions cleansed and directed towards the love and attainment of holiness, man finds salvation.
And once more, this salvation is personal, centered on the distinct human being who draws on his essence—renewed in Christ—and who, in his person, becomes a small Jesus Christ within Jesus Christ, to quote one Church Father. So it is that Jesus Christ is our personal Lord and our Savior. In this profound sense of the personal, and in an apocalyptic encounter with redemption (for salvation is closely united to spiritual vision and to the noetic revelation and knowledge of God), we find, through experience, what the more fundamentalistic Protestant Evangelicals understand only in empty form. We know through the attainment of true personhood in Christ, which is the enlightenment or salvation of man, what these seekers know only intellectually and in terms of a theology of affirmation and commitment crippled by the unrestored senses and passions.
It behooves me to note, here, that God transcends all human categories of thought, all human conceptualization, and even our understanding of His existence. The personal experience of the redemption of Christ, therefore, occurs beyond the dimensions of the human intellect, as I said above, since the true encounter with Christ is an encounter with God Himself. This encounter is the result of our union with God's Energies, and thus occurs noetically and spiritually, through the mind made new in Christ, the heart transformed by Grace, and the person restored to the image of God in union, by Grace, with the God-Man. Divine vision is, in effect, vision beyond vision, just as personhood in Christ is beyond the personal as we understand it, since the fallen personality is not a true person, but the product of passions and fallen proclivities.
In conclusion, I should emphasize that the therapeutic path towards the restoration of personhood in Christ is, and must be, focused, of course, on the life of the Mysteries, which are the very life of the Church and which cannot be separated from the Church in any manner whatsoever: among other things, the emptying-out (kenosis) of sin through confession and the infusion into our hearts, joints, and reins of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. The spiritual faculty of man, the noetic faculty, having been displaced from its natural place in the heart, as St. Gregory Palamas teaches us, must be brought back into the heart, back to its natural place, so that the human person can be restored and, cleansed by the Mysteries, rise above his own nature, attaining what is above nature, transcending human nature through union with Christ. As a result of this, the human being transcends even his own person, his restoration in Christ touching on all mankind. Gaining the gifts of the Spirit, he sees all things clearly, not only for himself, as St. Gregory writes, but revealing what he sees to others, and thus helping them to gain their salvation through the vision of God.6 In this sense, Christ is not only our personal Lord and Savior, but He is also the Universal Person, Who renews us each individually and, so made manifest in us, reveals to us a far greater dimension of personal salvation than we can imagine.
Source: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/ac_personhood.aspx, opened 22 Sept. 2017
One other note on the Evangelical view of the personal relationship with God: It is opposed to the apostolic command to practice asceticism, to the idea that we must war against our corrupted passions, in order to prepare ourselves for union with Christ and to be able to live a holy life. Quoting again from the same Joyce Meyer article as above:
When we have a real relationship with God through Christ, life gets exciting because He stirs up a passion inside us to love people—and we don't have to struggle to do the things He calls us to do. It just happens naturally.
The importance of the differing approaches has been touched on by the Archbishop above and will be seen again in the passage from St Symeon below.
The iconography of both Evangelicals and Orthodox illustrates well the points we have been discussing.
On the Evangelical side, this expresses their ideas of personal relationship very well, the ‘Jesus as a good buddy/close friend’ teaching, where the divinity of Christ is swallowed up by his humanity:
Picture from http://faithsmessenger.com/fellowship-with-jesus/, 25 Sept. 2017
The Orthodox Church, as we said above, also emphasizes the true humanity, the approachableness of Christ:
Icon of Christ with the woman at the well, St Photini, https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/collections/our-lord-jesus-christ/products/jesus-christ-and-the-samaritan-woman-icon, 26 Sept. 2017
But she does not lose sight of the fact that He is, in addition to being perfect man, also perfect God. Therefore, a fully realized ‘relationship’ (if that word must be used) with Christ will take place on a different plane of existence than the interpersonal relationships fallen human beings are accustomed to. The Lord Jesus is more than just a supernatural best friend Who hugs us and gives us emotional support. He gives us life and knowledge of Himself and etc. by our union with His resurrected, glorified, and ascended Body through holy baptism:
Icon from https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/collections/our-lord-jesus-christ/products/jesus-christ-the-vine-icon-1, 26 Sept. 2017
The journey toward full union with Christ is expressed beautifully by one of the Orthodox Church’s great saints, Symeon the New Theologian (+1022). In his account, one will see something of the poverty of the usual Evangelical Protestant approach to the Christian life:
A man by the name of George, young in age - he was about twenty - was living in Constantinople during our own times. He was good-looking, and so studied in dress, manners and gait, that some of those who take note only of outer appearances and harshly judge the behavior of others began to harbor malicious suspicions about him. This young man, then, made the acquaintance of a holy monk who lived in one of the monasteries in the city; and to him he opened his soul and from him he received a short rule which he had to keep in mind. He also asked him for a book giving an account of the ways of monks and their ascetic practices; so the elder gave him the work of Mark the Monk, On the Spiritual Law. This the young man accepted as though it had been sent by God Himself, and in the expectation that he would reap richly from it he read it from end to end with eagerness and attention. And though he benefited from the whole work, there were three passages only which he fixed in his heart.
The first of these three passages read as follows: 'If you desire spiritual health, listen to your conscience, do all it tells you, and you will benefit.' The second passage read: 'He who seeks the energies of the Holy Spirit before he has actively observed the commandments is like someone who sells himself into slavery and who, as soon as he is bought, asks to be given his freedom while still keeping his purchase-money.' And the third passage said the following: 'Blind is the man crying out and saying: "Son of David, have mercy upon me" (Luke 18:38). He prays with his body alone, and not yet with spiritual knowledge. But when the man once blind received his sight and saw the Lord, he acknowledged Him no longer as the Son of David but as the Son of God, and worshipped Him' (cf. John 9:38).
On reading these three passages the young man was struck with awe and fully believed that if he examined his conscience he would benefit, that if he practiced the commandments he would experience the energy of the Holy Spirit, and that through the grace of the Holy Spirit he would recover his spiritual vision and would see the Lord. Wounded thus with love and desire for the Lord, he expectantly sought His primal beauty, however hidden it might be. And, he assured me, he did nothing else except carry out every evening, before he went to bed, the short rule given to him by the holy elder. When his conscience told him, 'Make more prostrations, recite additional psalms, and repeat "Lord, have mercy" more often, for you can do so', he readily and unhesitatingly obeyed, and did everything as though asked to do it by God Himself. And from that time on he never went to bed with his conscience reproaching him and saying, 'Why have you not done this?’ Thus, as he followed it scrupulously, and as daily it increased its demands, in a few days he had greatly added to his evening office.
During the day he was in charge of a patrician's household and each day he went to the palace, engaging in the tasks demanded by such a life, so that no one was aware of his other pursuits. Every evening tears flowed from his eyes, he multiplied the prostrations he made with his face to the ground, his feet together and rooted to the spot on which he stood. He prayed assiduously to the Mother of God with sighs and tears, and as though the Lord was physically present he fell at His most pure feet, while like the blind man he besought mercy and asked that the eyes of his soul should be opened. As his prayers lasted longer every evening, he continued in this way until midnight, never growing slack or indolent during this period, his whole body under control, not moving his eyes or looking up. He stood still as a statue or a bodiless spirit.
One day, as he stood repeating more in his intellect [not the discursive reason but the nous, the faculty that allows us to have unmediated apprehension of God--W.G.] than with his mouth the words, 'God, have mercy upon me, a sinner' (Luke 18:13), suddenly a profuse flood of divine light appeared above him and filled the whole room. As this happened the young man lost his bearings, forgetting whether he was in a house or under a roof; for he saw nothing but light around him and did not even know that he stood upon the earth. He had no fear of falling, or awareness of the world, nor did any of those things that beset men and bodily beings enter his mind. Instead he was wholly united to non-material light, so much so that it seemed to him that he himself had been transformed into light. Oblivious of all else, he was filled with tears and with inexpressible joy and gladness. Then his intellect ascended to heaven and beheld another light, more lucid than the first. Miraculously there appeared to him, standing close to that light, the holy, angelic elder of whom we have spoken and who had given him the short rule and the book.
When I heard this story, I thought how greatly the intercession of this saint had helped the young man, and how God had chosen to show him to what heights of virtue the holy man had attained.
When this vision was over and the young man, as he told me, had come back to himself, he was struck with joy and amazement. He wept with all his heart, and sweetness mingled with his tears. Finally he fell on his bed, and at that moment the cock crowed, announcing the middle of the night. Shortly after the church bells rang for matins and he got up as usual to chant the office, not having had a thought of sleep during the whole night.
As God knows - for He brings things about according to decisions of which He alone is aware - all this happened without the young man having done anything more than you have heard. But what he did he did with true faith and unhesitating expectation. And let it not be said that he did these things by way of an experiment, for he had never spoken or thought of acting in such a spirit. Indeed, to make experiments and to try things out is evidence of a lack of faith. On the contrary, after rejecting every passion charged and self-indulgent thought this young man, as he himself assured me, paid such attention to what his conscience said that he regarded all material things of life with indifference, and did not even find pleasure in food and drink, or want to partake of them frequently.
Source: ‘On Faith’, The Philokalia, Vol. IV, pgs. 16-9 (882-4 of PDF document), http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/Philokalia.pdf, opened 26 Sept. 2017
Icon of St Symeon, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symeon_the_New_Theologian, 26 Sept. 2017
As confused and materialistic as Southerners have become in recent decades, there still remains a strong desire among many of them to find Christ. The true Christ is waiting for them in the Orthodox Church.
Icon from https://www.orthodoxmonasteryicons.com/collections/our-lord-jesus-christ/products/deisis-icon, 26 Sept. 2017
Holy Ælfred the Great, King of England, South Patron, pray for us sinners at the Souð, unworthy though we are!
Anathema to the Union!