To Live A Spiritual Life

It has become a commonplace to hear someone say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Most people have a general understanding of what is meant. I usually assume that the person holds to a number of ideas that are considered “spiritual” in our culture, but that they are not particularly interested in “organized religion.” I understand this, because organized religion can often be the bane of spiritual existence.

I am an Orthodox Christian – which is not the same thing as saying that I have an interest in “organized religion.” There is much about organized religion that I dislike in the extreme, and I occasionally see its shadow seep into my experience within Orthodoxy. But I repeat unashamedly that I am an Orthodox Christian and admit that one clear reason is that I am not very “spiritual.” Without the life of the Church and its Tradition – I could easily drift into a shapeless secularism – living a mediocre existence, marking time until my time is done.

The shapeless contours of spirituality often reflect nothing more than the ego within. How can I escape the confines of my own imagination? It is, of course, possible to ignore the question of the ego’s input and be satisfied with whatever we find comfortable as our “spirituality.” But, as noted above, I do not think I am an inherently “spiritual” man.

The Church is spiritual – indeed it is far more spiritual than “organized.” It is standing in the midst of the holy (whether I am aware of it or not) and yielding myself to that reality that largely constitute my daily “spirituality.” I pray and when something catches my heart, I stop and stay there for a while.

In earlier years of my life, as an Anglican, I learned about a  liturgical phenomenon known as the “guilty secret.” It referred to the extreme familiarity that grows up between priest and “holy things.” Holy things easily become commonplace and their treatment dangerously flippant. More dangerous still, is the growing sense of absence in the heart of a priest as the holy becomes commonplace and even just “common.” Of course the things which God has marked as “holy” are just “common.” A chalice is holy though it is only silver or gold (still “common” material). God uses common things in the giving of grace.

The “guilty secret” can afflict anyone. It’s the old phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” It is particularly dangerous on account of our secular culture which holds most things in equal contempt. Things are only things within our culture, and any value it may have is imputed and not inherent.

This same problem holds true with “spirituality” itself. Words easily revert to mere words; actions to mere actions; ideas to wispy drifts of nothing. I have written elsewhere that secularism breeds atheism. The guilty secret that stalks us all is nothing more than the suspicious voice of secularism whispering, “There’s nothing and nobody there.”

The life we are called to live as Christians is not one long argument with the voice of secularism. The voice of secularism is not the sound of our own doubt, but the voice of the evil one. He has always been a liar.

The essential question for us is clearly stated by St. John:

By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. (1Jo 4:2-3)

It is the question of Christ’s incarnation – but, in turn, it is also the question: “Is the flesh capable of bearing the Spirit?” Do we live in a world that is capable of God? There are many, who have partaken of a semi-gnostic spirit within modern secularism, who are not comfortable with Spirit-bearing material. Christ is someone whom we have fenced off, demarcated as a unique event such that He alone bears Spirit. He is the God who became incarnate in a world that was, by nature, secular. His incarnation would thus be a sign that does not confirm the world in any way, but by its very coming condemns all flesh.

This, according to St. John, is the spirit of the Antichrist. It is as though the evil one had said, “Fine. Take the flesh of this child born of Mary, but everything else is mine, and tends towards nothing.”

The Incarnate Christ is not only God with us, but reveals the true reason for all creation. “Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” Nothing is merely anything. Everything bears the glory of God.

Thus my “spirituality” is to learn how to live in a material world that is everywhere more than I can see or know. For such a life I need a guide. Without a guide I am left to the devices of my own imagination. My parents were not raised in such a situation. They were not teachers in this matter. It is the life of the Church, the way of knowledge that is the lives of the saints that teaches me how to live. They help me eat (or not eat) in a manner that reveals God. They teach me to read, to honor icons, to forgive enemies, to hold creation in its proper, God-given place. I am an Orthodox Christian. Who else remembers how to live in the world, holding that Christ is come in the flesh?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





14 responses to “To Live A Spiritual Life”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! I know I sound self-centered, but I so needed to read these words this day (and most days lately!) God bless you!

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  4. Lina Avatar

    I have often said that there are days when I can’t stand the Church and yet I can’t live without the Church.

  5. Rhonda Avatar

    Well said as usual, Fr. Stephen!

    I love your comments “It is the life of the Church, the way of knowledge that is the lives of the saints that teaches me how to live. They help me eat (or not eat) in a manner that reveals God. They teach me to read, to honor icons, to forgive enemies, to hold creation in its proper, God-given place.”

    My nonpracticing RC husband who once informed me that he did not attend Church because “That’s just not my way.” To this I
    responded that I do not attend worship & receive the Mysteries because “it is my way, but rather because it is not…the disease of sin results in us repeatedly separating ourselves from God, i.e. the way I am…worship & the sacraments brings us back into union with Him, i.e. the way I am not…”

    Thank you!

  6. Pete Avatar

    Thank you so much for this post, Father. As you stated, we all experience that “guilty secret”. I know, for myself, that when I approach for the Eucharist, or Unction, &c., I find that I have to mingle two things in my mind: prayer/petitions and reminders of what fear I should have with approaching such sacredness. I really think this simple pre-Communion prayer captures what I feel like I must repeat in my heart:

    “Behold, I approach Divine Communion;
    O Maker, burn me not as I partake,
    For Fire art Thou which burneth the unworthy.
    But purify Thou me of every stain.”

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    This is also a favorite of mine.

  8. lovesrain Avatar

    I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for about three years and I have never experienced “the guilty secret” yet. But I sometimes feel surrounded by others who do.

  9. Handmaid Avatar

    Well said too, Rhonda.

  10. George Avatar

    God bless us, everyone. God’s grace of faith come to each of us.

  11. Toddy2 Avatar

    Once more we are grateful to the Father for allowing us this inside view of what it is like to live the spiritual life in Christ within Orthodoxy. All the churches face essentially the same enemies in living our heavenly calling on this earth in this wicked and twisted generation. The names & details may differ but it is the one Christ, e One Holy Spirit, and the One Word of God that enables us as the People of God to participate in Christ’s victory over the world to the praise & honor of His Father.

    May you continue to have His blessing & enabling in 2012 for Jesus sake and the Gospel.

    John Paul Todd

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Respectfully, I know nothing of “all the Churches.” There are over 20,000 different groups that claim the name, and I know only a few. I

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  14. Dallas Wolf Avatar

    Any distinction between sacred and profane in life is a bogus one. I struggle to live that.

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