Orthodoxy and Religious Experience

How do we experience God? Do we hear voices? Do we sense a presence? Are there physical sensations involved? Should we see light or feel warmed?

Some may be surprised to hear that our belief in God is not based in an interior human experience. Such things stretch across an incredible variety (such is the nature of human experience). However, none of these are definitive, none of them meet the standard of canonical authority, and none of them make the stuff of persuasive religious argument.

I do not mean to suggest that the personal experiences of believers have no validity – only that they are private by nature (no one can get inside your head and judge for themselves what you are experiencing). Indeed, Orthodox spiritual culture tends to encourage people not to speak of such things, or to speak of them only in the context of confession and private spiritual counsel.

The ground of Orthodox believing is the historical revelation of Jesus Christ in the testimony of His disciples.

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth….And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:14-18)

“And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:30–31)

In the centuries following the deaths of the Apostles, the Church’s life has had an ongoing experience of God and the lived-out testimony of saints who have followed the teachings of Christ and the doctrine of the Church and born witness to its reliability and effectiveness. However, Orthodoxy does not have a history of “revealed” doctrines, or doctrines made known through special revelations or visions.

The landscape of Western Christianity, on the other hand, has undergone profound changes through the influence of various pietist movements over the past 400 or so years. There is not a striking difference between Eastern and Western descriptions of experience in their early histories. However, with the rise of the Protestant reforms, something of a “democratization” of religious experience becomes evident. I am most familiar with the details of the English Church, though what took place there had similar counterparts on the continent. The movements among the “non-conformists” (such as the Puritans, Quakers, Fifth Monarchist, Grindletonians, Muggletonians, Ranters, Seekers, Brownists, Diggers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Levellers, etc.) had a tendency to nurture private revelations of various sorts. Stories of individuals interrupting services in the Anglican Church with various preachings, prophesyings, and such were quite common. In the American colonies, during the period now called the First Great Awakening, similar experiences (and many others an ecstatic nature) were described. Churches across New England were divided by the movement and confused about the nature of what was taking place. This was not an outbreak of a great revelation – rather, it was an eruption of endless ecstasies and competing claims. Later descriptions, as found today within Evangelical lore, are highly sanitized and inaccurate.

That first Awakening has been followed, through the many decades since, by additional movements. In the 19th century, those movements tended to become enshrined in newly-created denominations (as well as occasional cult groups). Today, Evangelical Christianity and Pentecostalism are the two largest “umbrellas” under which these experience-based movements can be described. However, many of the assumptions of these pietist movements have been absorbed by society-at-large and imported into both Catholicism, and even corners of Orthodoxy. It is easily the fastest growing expression of Christianity across the world (and is extremely compatible with many of the assumptions of modernity).

A striking component of the awakenings were a doctrinal development that equated an inner experience (described variously) with being “born again.” Classically, the phrase “born again,” had always been associated with the sacrament of Baptism. However, the new definition replaced the sacrament with an experience. Inner experience was well on its way to becoming the defining criteria of belief and belonging.

The Christian faith rests on certain specific historical claims: that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, was, in fact, God incarnate, the only-begotten Son of the Father, and that He was crucified, dead, buried, and raised from the dead, having destroyed death by death. In light of these historical claims, and in accordance with His teachings, it is asserted that union with God (salvation) is made possible through Him. These essential teachings of the Christian faith are true regardless of anyone’s personal experience.

This same approach is true when considering the existence of God. Indeed, it is proper, as a Christian, to begin with the claims of Jesus of Nazareth when thinking about the existence of God. We do not reason from God to Jesus. We reason from Jesus to everything else. Whether I “feel” that there is a God, or whether I have a sense of His presence, does not belong to the same category as whether Jesus is the incarnate God who was crucified and raised from the dead.

Inner experience can be “all over the map.” Even the greatest of saints report experiences of emptiness and abandonment. In my own life, I think about my inner experience as information about myself – not information about God. My inner life is not the barometer of reality.

Orthodoxy is no stranger to inner experience. It has strong advocates, such as St. Symeon the New Theologian. Nevertheless, that experience is set in the context of sacramental and doctrinal stability. The interior life should not overwhelm all else. Such an approach would nurture instability – as witnessed by the multitude (over 30,000) of post-Great Awakening denominations.

The Divine Energies and Noetic Perception

The Orthodox Church teaches that we may know God “in His energies” but not “in His essence.” It is a distinction that is largely lost to the modern mind. Essentially, what it means is that who/what God is in Himself, on the level of the Divine Essence, is unknowable and beyond every possibility of knowing. However, in His energies (His actions, providence, His going forth towards His creation) He may be known and participated in. Famously, St. Gregory Palamas described the experience of the “Divine Light” as among the energies by which God may be known. This experience, however, is not common.

The single most common reference to the Divine Energies by which God may be known, particularly when reading in the early Fathers, is that of Divine Providence. We may know God in the goodness of His providential acts in creation.

“How manifold are Your works, O Lord, in wisdom have you made them all!”

St. Paul makes reference to this in Romans 1:19-20

“because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead,”

It is striking that St. Paul describes this as “what may be known of God.”

This reference to God’s invisible attributes (later known as the “Divine Energies”) being clearly seen in the things He has made does not mean to suggest that we are left with a rational contemplation of creation – simply thinking about providence, etc. Rather, we become participants in the Divine Energies. God’s invisible attributes encompass the whole of creation as well as human beings around us. We are not observers in a world of objects – separate – isolated – left only with thoughts and sensations. We are participants in creation, and we are created for participatory knowledge of God.

That participatory knowledge is known as “communion.” The organ by which we perceive this communion is the nous. That knowledge is described as “noetic.” There is an inherent difficulty in describing noetic experience. It can resemble trying to describe colors to the color-blind. St. Porphyrios famously declared that “to become a Christian, one must first become a poet.” It is not a literal statement, of course, but it teases our understanding towards the noetic. The Fathers describe silence as the “language of heaven.” This, too, is an attempt to express the character of noetic perception.

Noetic perception is not passive (whereas our experience of rational, objective knowledge champions passivity). Instead, it is an active and intentional participation in which we extend ourselves, grounded in love. Those practices which we generally describe with the term “asceticism” (fasting, confession, prostrations, etc.) are all geared towards the purification of the heart – that is – towards removing or healing the obstacles to love. A “pure heart” cannot be described as a heart merely devoid of sin. Rather, it is also understood as a heart that is transformed in and by love.

St. John has this to say:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love…. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:7–8, 20)

Love is the key to noetic perception – of God and of the whole creation. Only love knows anything. Anger, fear, greed, envy, lust – the passions that enslave us – distort the world. Indeed, they make even rational objective knowledge problematic.

What God has done for us is seen both in His historical actions (such as the Crucifixion and the Resurrection) and in His providential goodness that upholds all things. Theosis, the transformation of our life in His image is the patient work of our loving cooperation with His grace that fills all things. For which we give glory.

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.



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60 responses to “Orthodoxy and Religious Experience”

  1. A reader Avatar
    A reader

    “ A “pure heart” cannot be described as a heart devoid of sin. Rather, it is also understood as a heart that is transformed in and by love.“

    I’m confused by these two sentences, Fr. Stephen. Did you mean that a pure heart is devoid of sin, or isn’t?

    Thank you for this article. It is most helpful in cutting through some confusion.

  2. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Reader,
    I should have written: “A pure heart cannot be described as a heart merely devoid of sin. Rather, it is also understood as a heart that is transformed in and by love.” I’ll correct the text.

  3. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    I love this precious article. Thank you so much for these words.

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Many thanks! I’ve been relatively quiet (blog-wise) over the past week or so as I worked on this article. It ran long – in that the subject required it. It could have been twice as long had I filled in more of the blanks…

    But, thanks!

  5. Constantine Avatar
    Constantine

    Greetings Father,

    Thank you for the article. I must say, the ones that deal with perception and providence are my favourite ones, as even a slight improvement in my understanding on such matters is of tremendous help, though I often worry that I’ve merely put a Christian spin on plain old optimism when it comes to such things.

    In regards to this, to try and unify many questions into a more general one, could it be that working towards better perceiving God’s providence in a noetic manner is akin to setting a task for yourself to always look for, and try to find and see, His love and goodness in all things, and upholding with trust that all will be ultimately for good even if it doesn’t appear so immediately?

    To incorporate what I’ve also read from your writings on interrelations and the necessity of participatory adherence, would it also be of help to think of my place in all this as a participant and how it relates to me?

    Would it also be of any help to contemplate by what means God might show his providence? As an example, a village here was affected by a terrible hailstorm and roofs, windows, and crops were ruined. In other words, the people were devastated and any government help would take months to arrive. In this, I tried to see God’s hand and how He can work this for good and how this affects me, and what I perceived was that this allowed us that were not affected to donate and help, and for the ones affected, this showed them there was still plenty of good in the world and that we could rely on each other. Would such an outlook be in the right direction, or have I missed the mark and cooked up some backyard theology?

    Apologies for the long comment and messy questions, Father, but if you can provide even the slightest response, it would be of great help to me!

  6. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Constantine,
    Your thoughts seem to be spot on. It is difficult in very small things to see clearly the larger working of providence. I like the story of the 3 Young Men in the fiery furnace as an example. They are threatened with being burned – and it looks pretty certain. Their response to the wicked King, though, was, “Our God is able to save us. If He does not, nevertheless, we will not bow down and worship your image.”

    Again, as noted in the article, we start with the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. He has gathered all suffering and calamity into His Cross. It’s cosmic and universal. All of that is carried with Him into death and Hades, and all of that is trampled down by His death. His resurrection is also the victory of God’s goodness over all suffering and calamity. Certain modern versions of Christianity have shrunk the Cross into a minor theological point when it is the truly Great Point.

    So, in your example, regardless of what happened and the response, the suffering of the village was gathered into His Cross. The village was “crucified with Him.”

  7. Constantine Avatar
    Constantine

    Thank you for the swift response, Father!

    Now that you’ve pointed it out, I realize I’ve not properly acknowledged the roll of the Cross and how Christ has taken on and transformed all suffering. Perhaps it’s the modern managerial mindset that forces me to try and see that immediate consumerist “usefulness” in everything.

    I’ll make sure to work on learning to see this. Thank you again, this has been extremely insightful!

  8. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Constantine, if I may add, in your example of the village it may help to not think of these things so generally. We have an opportunity to love people and help them love each other. Whether that is face-to-face, from some distance, or only through donation and prayer, it remains a personal opportunity. Only then, I think, is there an opportunity for love to be involved, as opposed to simply reaction (and some bewilderment over the role of Providence, which leads to useless reasoning much of the time). There is a personal aspect but it has to be expressed in communion. If I have spoken poorly, please forgive me.

  9. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I did not spend much time with the providence/problem of evil question in the article. However, Modernity has a very specific approach to it that, coupled with the individualistic inner experience stuff, has very much corrupted Christianity.

    Modernity sees suffering as an unexplainable and utterly terrible thing. It “demonizes” all suffering, by and large. It’s answer, of course, is modernity itself – which is all about managing the world and the outcome of history with the make-believe narrative that modernity is slowly ending all suffering through progress and technology (and enlightened legislation). Of course, this is a terrible lie.

    Modernity, ultimately, answers suffering by killing people: euthanasia, abortion, etc. It promises to end suffering – and snuffs it out!

    But it attacks and accuses God because He is not assisting in the modern project. God is seen as a magical figure who only exists (and it think He doesn’t) in order to help us not to suffer. Thus God is just a cultural Santa Claus figure – who is then easily dismissed. That also allows Modernity to press forward with its total overthrow of reasonable morality and restraint (in the name of freedom and progress). Modernity has created hitherto unknown versions of suffering – and, strangely, is one of the most murderous regimes to have ever lived on earth. Hmmm.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Ah, Father! Your words bring back memories as I came to The Church from a Christian organization from one for whom “spiritual experience” was the guiding principle.

    BUT….

    There was also a firm belief in the Incarnation and the Sacramental nature of worship, especially the Eucharist and Jesus real presence in Sacrament for our blessing and salvation. Strangely enough I have known His real presence with me, internally and externally since being received 37 years ago than I did in the 13 years prior even as I both expected and desired that experience in those 13 years than in the 37 since. Yet from the very first time I entered an Orthodox Church, He, His Mother and His Holy Angels active and known presence have never been far from me sustaining me at times when people were not helping. A personal reality, not a vague feeling.

    I have known many others in my 37 years that have and do testify to that reality in both words and deeds –most often largely silent in their words about it. I speak of it now to let others here know how “at hand” He is.

    But if I don’t follow the teachings of His priests and bishops — too bad.

    Recognizing and submitting to their authority (which you share) is essential for following Him not the counterfeits.

    Only the Orthodox Church, despite all of our arguments, has that Personal authority throughout His Body in a blessed hierarchy that extends to everyone in some manner. I have been blessed to know many fellow lay people who demonstrate such blessing.

    Glory to God!

  11. A reader Avatar
    A reader

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for the clarification. I hope you go on to “fill in the blanks” with more posts. I’ve been reading your blog for several years, always helpful, but this one really impacts me in some positive way. It is lovely, pun intended, freeing and enlarging but at the same time directional (to the narrow gate).

  12. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    You mentioned the pietist movement and its personal experiences. Is this the root of the concerned questions/veiled criticisms I get from Protestant friends, that they’ve never heard me speak of my “personal relationship with Jesus”?

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Ook,
    Yes, it is the root of those questions. There is an assumption, nearly 250 years old that if you’ve not had a particular personal experience, then you are not “saved.” Again, those who believe this often give a very sanitized historical account of the movements that gave birth to it – with no critical examination whatsoever. An interesting and careful account of the First Great Awakening in New England (which is part of that lore) can be found in this good historical work: Darkness Falls on the Land of Light. Jonathan Edwards was famously part of that movement (or certainly touched by it). But, most people who are its inheritors today generally never bother to do real historical research – but repeat the lore that they’ve heard. It was problematic from the beginning and remains so to this day.

    Oftentimes, the personal experiences today are somewhat toned down – but not always. It’s also become deeply mixed with politics in some circles – which can get very weird (just as it does when that happens in Orthodox circles).

  14. Lewis Hodge Avatar
    Lewis Hodge

    Evidently, thinking and living are integral for you, Father Stephen. I think that’s why the comments in your blog are in themselves also so beneficial.

  15. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    Thank you for the reference, Father. 607 pages! Fortunately, it’s in the local library. Good summer reading.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    From an historical perspective, the Great Awakening and what came before was primarily a political movement as the founders were politically motivated against the Queen at the time. Although in modern lore it was the foundation of democracy, etc … Nothing could be further from the Truth. It was and is as hierarchical or more than any hierarchy (the “experience” being the key).

    The actual hierarchy within the Orthodox Church is real, not man made, but Apostolic.

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    I’m sorry, but I think your historical account of this is a bit confusing. New England was quite settled by the 1740’s (more or less the decade of the Great Awakening). It was Puritan, Calvinist, and generally unified in a highly moralistic and somewhat boring version of Christianity. The Great Awakening largely came to that area of America through the preaching of George Whitefield (an Anglican protege of John Wesley). His preaching across the colonies was accompanied with highly emotional responses and sensations. Things got quite out of hand, so to speak. By the time the decade was done – most of the little towns no longer had one Puritan Church, but several – with a great deal of division – splitting even families. Some of the claims became quite outlandish (one noted character claimed to have achieved immortality). It was simply the beginning of a number of “waves” of religious fervor that would come and go. The Second Great Awakening, in the 1800’s, had the effect of launching any number of movements and denominations. Frankly, the phenomenon has yet to cease. Indeed, many of these cultural waves began to take on secular characteristics. I think the present “woke” phenomenon is religious in character and just one more wave of American religiosity. We’re actually a pretty insane country and have been since our founding. Insane, rich, and sure of ourselves. Quite a combination.

  18. Ook Avatar
    Ook

    @”the present “woke” phenomenon…one more wave of American religiosity.”

    The Great Awokening, perhaps?

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, the politics goes all the way back to the founding and, IMO, there is a strain that continues today. It is subtle and it has been a long time since I studied it. I may not have all the connections correct, but in general in US history politics have always been highly influenced by religion and ‘tuther way round. Politics in a general sense. It was brewing in Queen Elizabeth’s time.

    The main point I was trying to make is about the nature of authority and how differently it tends to manifest in Secular, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities. The mixture and interaction tends to mess up understanding but for the first time I have clearly seen the different nature of that authority thanks to what you wrote. Forgive me if you feel I took it somewhere you really did not want to go but I think in general I am going in the right direction. Please take my post down if you think I am that far wrong.

    I was taught by my folks and my professors to look for intra connections with people, ideas, events and current time and place in four dimensions.

  20. Jennifer (Nina) Avatar
    Jennifer (Nina)

    Thank you Father, for your faithfulness. God bless you. Lord, have mercy on us and help us to perceive the truth in Christ.

  21. KS Avatar
    KS

    Dear Fr. Stephen:

    Many thanks for this concise and forthright description of religious experience in Orthodoxy. It puts in words what I’ve only vaguely sensed about Orthodox and non-Orthodox experience.

  22. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Some years ago I was part of heavily charismatic evangelical churches and ministries. I saw some things. I experienced some things. I was often skeptical, but I never wanted to say what I saw and what I experienced was not of the Holy Spirit. I have heard testimonies of people who have come to Christ (or as Fr. Stephen says “agreed with the decision Christ already made for them”) because of genuine charismatic and inner experience(s). Who am I to judge? I simply rejoice that such experiences are bringing people closer to our Lord.

    All that said, I do think it is wise counsel to test the spirits and the experiences. Do they edify? Do they serve the community? Do they bear fruit?

  23. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    I very much agree that politics and religion (particularly in America) are often two sides of the same coin. America’s politics and political drive were religious from the beginning and have continued to be so. For example, we never just have a political platform of have decent government. We have “morning in America,” “save democracy,” “make America great,” etc. Every campaign is a religious crusade, spoken in superlatives married to visions of greatness or avoiding exaggerated extreme dangers. We are crazy, rich and powerful.

    American exceptionalism is a “doctrine” and a religious doctrine, at that. It is simply not true. The problem is that when it is seen to not be true, there is a tendency for the bottom to drop out of things – in that people don’t know what to put in its place.

    My common counsel about living small, doing the next good thing, keeping the commandments, etc., is a word meant to draw people away from the lies of modernity that are constantly pointing towards “grand” things – that, when analyzed, are religious in nature but not rooted in God.

    God give us the grace to live according to His will.

  24. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    It would be a terrible mistake to make a blanket judgment in these cases, and I share your hesitancy to say “this is not of the Holy Spirit.” First off, God is always at work in us to save us – always. So, there are “mixed” phenomena. Something can be going on that is largely emotional/mental, and yet God still be at work within it. That said, the doctrines that have been created as part of these movements, (as in the “born-again experience”), are sometimes false, departing from the received teaching of the Fathers (and the Scriptures). Orthodoxy has faced these temptations many times (and will again) and has had to struggle to resist them, without at the same time smothering legitimate experience.

  25. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Understood Fr. Stephen. Thanks so much.

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “Modernity sees suffering as an unexplainable and utterly terrible thing. It “demonizes” all suffering, by and large. It’s answer, of course, is modernity itself – which is all about managing the world and the outcome of history with the make-believe narrative that modernity is slowly ending all suffering through progress and technology (and enlightened legislation). Of course, this is a terrible lie.

    Modernity, ultimately, answers suffering by killing people: euthanasia, abortion, etc. It promises to end suffering – and snuffs it out!

    But it attacks and accuses God because He is not assisting in the modern project. God is seen as a magical figure who only exists (and it think He doesn’t) in order to help us not to suffer. Thus God is just a cultural Santa Claus figure – who is then easily dismissed. That also allows Modernity to press forward with its total overthrow of reasonable morality and restraint (in the name of freedom and progress). Modernity has created hitherto unknown versions of suffering – and, strangely, is one of the most murderous regimes to have ever lived on earth. Hmmm.”

    I never thought of it all this way before. Thank you.

  27. Andrew Avatar
    Andrew

    Thank you for this Father. You mentioned in a comment that this post could have been twice as long. I would welcome more on these topics. The concept of Providence, in particular, is one I sometimes struggle with. What exactly are the boundaries of Providence and how does it interact with human freedom, sin and failure? How does an Orthodox understanding of it contrast with say, a Muslim understanding (all is as Allah wills it). Providence vis-à-vis Fatalism. They way I hear some people talk, they seem to think they are synonymous.

  28. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father and Matthew,
    For what it’s worth in this conversation, I’ve never met more judgmental and churlish people than those who self described Evangelicals. Perhaps this was just a fluke. I would not know.
    And I believe that the charismatic experiences reported are induced. I’m hard pressed to call it healthy.

    However saying what I have said here may sound judgmental. For me there is a difference between a system that induces unhealthy activity and one that falls victim to it. I believe that it is possible to judge a system without disparaging the victim. I’m open to correction. I also believe our loving Lord is able to work all things to our salvation, as Father Stephen says.

    Last, I’m grateful for the scholarship conducted to learn about the antecedents to these movements. I plan on reading the book Father Steven mentions in an earlier comment. I shudder that such things might be (or have been) introduced into Orthodoxy. In the US we all may be susceptible to this phenomenon in one form or another, as it seems to be an illness in the culture.

    Lord have mercy on us all. There are so many temptations.

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Here’s something dreadful to contemplate (forgive me). It is said that many of the techniques of modern advertising were birthed during the Second Great Awakening and some of the theorizing of Charles Finney. He reasoned that God “always wills revival.” Therefore it was ok to create the emotional/psychological conditions to induce a revival. In some ways – advertising is a revival in which the religion is mammon.

  30. Father Nicholas Young Avatar
    Father Nicholas Young

    – However, Orthodoxy does not have a history of “revealed” doctrines, or doctrines made known through special revelations or visions. – God has revealed Himself to us; is this not true? No one invented Christ’s teachings so to speak. He teaches us, taught us and revealed things previoulsy hidden or misunderstood, including Himself. So there is revelation or apocalypse, but not endlessly and only “by half” for individual persons. As you seem to say Father, any “spiritual vision” I may have is more about myself than anything or anybody else. Any personal revelation may be to my salvation, but these “enlightenments” should not be imposed on anybody else. Even Christ does not impose Himself on anyone. Do I make any sense?

  31. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, I have wondered about advertising exactly as you reveal. Indeed it is frightening. But learning of such things is helpful I believe.

  32. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes, Father. Christ is the great revelation. But that revelation has very clear, concrete properties (ultimately in the Resurrection, etc.). There are a few things in Orthodoxy that have a source that’s quite non-historical. The stories and theories about the “toll houses” is an example. Whatever it is, it is not a dogma of the Church. It is a pious expression of the “particular judgment” whose descriptions even find their way into the Church’s prayers. But such things should never be treated as dogma (just to use an example).

    God never imposes Himself on us. He desires “sons” not slaves or robots.

  33. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Dee … I don´t think it is all induced. Some of it is very genuine. That said, there is no room for judgmental behavior be it evangelical, Orthodox, or whatever.

    We must “test” all this stuff as the New Testament teaches us. Then we will be able to discern induced psychological/emotional manipulation from genuine experiences of the Holy Spirit.

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew I trust the Lord. Not so much in men. Please forgive me. I appreciate your kindness and comments.

  35. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I intend to use men as ‘man’ all humans in my usage. I do not intend a gender discussion and hope not to be misinterpreted.

  36. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    Regarding the notion of testing the spirits: this is indeed a biblical reference. However when implemented within the very system geared to induce such effects, I’m doubtful that the results of such tests are what the Lord intends.

    I believe the state of our souls are in the hands of our Lord when we sincerely seek Him and not so much sensations of Him. I’m grateful He stays with me even when my prayers are as dry as the driest desert. I might not ‘feel’’ Him but trust in His words and in Him and in His love.

    The Lord said to Thomas, Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.

    Once again I want to emphasize how much I appreciate your comments and thoughts. They enrich our discussions.

  37. Simon Avatar
    Simon

    What does it mean to “experience God”? I think 1 Corinthians 2 is sorely overlooked in thinking about this question:

    > But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.

    The verse points attention to something we are all aware of. What is that? It is the direct and immediate accessibility of our own interior experience compared to the inaccessibility of that experience to all other people. It is posed as a question:

    > For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?

    We know our own thoughts, feelings, and experiences not as an observation per se, but as a matter of reflection. Why? Because these are not “things” that we have, but inflections of who we are. The verse uses that universal experience of interiority as a lens by which through we can say soemthing about “knowing God”:

    >Even so (similarly or in the same manner) no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God.

    Here the verse creates something of an analogy between the interiority of our spirit to the Spirit of God as the iteriority of God. No one knows the things (thoughts, feelings, experiences) of a person except the spirit of that person, and similarly no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. How would anyone else come to know our spirit and the things of our spirt–truly know them–except to share or participate in our spirit so that we shared the same interiority? That seems to be what is hinted at when the verses next say

    > But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. Now we have received…the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.

    In other words, we come to know God when our interiority participates in the interiority of God. There is a sense in which the interiority of God and our interiority become one, and as this happens we “come to know the things of God.” This might an early description of communion.

    It is interesting that the verses say “that we might know the things that have been freely given to us” rather than just saying “that we might know God.” Perhaps this is an allusion to the divine energies or to the fact that apart from theosis and hypostatic fullness knowing God will always be something we see “darkly.”

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Simon,
    It’s a very apt passage as you point out. “Things that have been freely given to us” is notable, for sure.

  39. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    Sometimes, we hear about phenomena associated with Orthodox saints. Do any of those phenomena resemble those seen or reported in charismatic Evangelical groups? One example might be Mary of Egypt and what was witnesssed when she prayed. Or is it simply unfruitful to make comparisons of such phenomena?

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Good question Dee. The most common phenomena associated with Orthodox saints of which I am aware is the weeping of their icons, but that is a different class.

  41. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    It’s impossible to go back and ask St. Mary of Egypt questions about her experience – we are left with the story. And, of course, the story is not about her experience with the icon (for example), but with the whole of her story of repentance.

    This is a problem in our present day, I think. There is a habit, among some, to speak in the language of the lives of the saints (as we have received them), which also ignores the reality (in the West) of the entire experience of Western charismatic, evangelical, and pentecostal experience. Something written in the 5th century (the Life of St. Mary) need not take into account our modern tales from these protestant/pentecostal movements. And we easily forget this. The entire ecclesiastical context of St. Mary’s story (and it is utterly imbedded in the Orthodox Church’s life), is too easily set aside or ignored.

    We cannot compare her story to those of our present time (which is why it is read aloud for us during the time of Holy Week in a very ecclesiastical context).

    For myself, I have learned to remember cultural contexts (some places within Orthodoxy are largely ignorant of modern Protestant tales and speak as though they were still in the 5th century). I jokingly say that some tales within Orthodoxy should be “divided by ten”).

    Nevertheless – we must remember that God is faithful, that He works miracles, that He makes Himself known. That is our faith in God. But we also remember that human beings are unfaithful, unmiraculous (and inaccurate in our reports), and that we often obscure God. Our faith is in God, Himself.

    I have watched and held an icon with myrrh flowing from it at a rate that physics cannot explain. Miracles happen. I’ve also been with human beings whose stories were questionable. God is good and His mercy is everlasting.

  42. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Thank you Michael and Father Stephen for your responses. I very much appreciate it!

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Thank you, Father. Dee, I have personally seen and venerated a weeping icon that came to my parish many years ago. It was awe inspiring.

    As Father notes there are questionable “signs and wonders” as well. I have also been blessed to have been with a few folks in my parish whose life and demeanor spoke lovingly of our Lord

    They had a quiet joy about them that was always evident.

    In our culture we seem to go by the news axiom: “If it bleeds, it leads”.

    I have found the deeply personal quality in the Church to be unique.

  44. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, reading the Gospel for today “John 17:18-26” got me thinking again on the question Dee asked. It seems to relate. The reality comes from within and not from external “signs and wonders”. Our Sacraments and icons are manifestations of the eternal reality.

    Am I wrong?

  45. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee. You said:

    “Regarding the notion of testing the spirits: this is indeed a biblical reference. However when implemented within the very system geared to induce such effects, I’m doubtful that the results of such tests are what the Lord intends.”

    How would you feel if it was implemented in the Orthodox Church?

    Thanks also Simon. Your comment made me think of how we as individuals moving through our salvific journey are also joined together as a community around the Lord´s table. I suppose, then, that even individual religious experience needs to be, somehow, verified by the community. I also think even if one has a personal religious experience, it must also be for the benefit of the entire Body of Christ.

  46. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew you might want to consider the Feast of the Synaxis of the Archangels celebrated on Nov. 8. To me it explains what commonality we have as Christians, such as it is, than anything else. Yet, to my knowledge we Orthodox are the only ones who recognize and celebrate such feasts.https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2024/11/08/103244-synaxis-of-the-archangel-michael-and-the-other-bodiless-powers#:~:text=The%20Synaxis%20of%20the%20Chief,before%20the%20First%20Ecumenical%20Council.

  47. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    In the West (RC’s and Anglicans) have the feast of St. Michael and All Angels on September 29. It is known in Britain as “Michalmas.”

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have an icon of it on my prayer table and it always produces a sense of awe in my heart every time I look at it. It really hit me today how much they do to keep us on and/or return us to the right path even in death. God is mercuful

  49. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    You asked how I would feel. I just glanced at my previous comments. I’m not sure I have presented ‘feelings’ either way or another about “testing the spirits”.

    However, regarding the religious movements and their activities that Father presents in his article or the subsequent manifestations in some evangelical groups, I did say this: “I shudder that such things might be (or have been) introduced into Orthodoxy. In the US, we all may be susceptible to this phenomenon in one form or another, as it seems to be an illness in the culture.”

    Regarding how I think about ‘testing the spirits’ in the Orthodox Church: without investigating this carefully, I will likely be corrected, but I believe that the process would be quite different in the Orthodox Church than it might be conducted in an Evangelical setting.

    Spiritual delusion is known and is treated in the Orthodox setting. Here is an article that describes it as “prelest” and it gives examples of the manifestations of it and the cure for it is also mentioned: https://orthodoxwiki.org/Prelest

    We have saints in the Orthodox Church, but the process of naming a saint requires an ecclesiastical endeavor. I suppose there is a similar ecclesiastical vetting (albeit a different process) involved in the ordination of a priest or bishop or tonsure of a monk or nun.

    Over time, certain ecclesiastical stances changed in the Orthodox Church, such as the period of iconoclasm, in which the change to allow veneration of icons might be described as the working of the Holy Spirit within the Church.

    Also, Christ has mentioned that a test might be the ‘fruit’ of the manifestation or congregation, or social structure (of the vine).

    As far as I know these are the processes I think of that might resemble “testing the spirits” in the Orthodox Church.

    Father Stephen’s experience is more extensive, and he might have other thoughts to add or corrections to make regarding what I have said.

  50. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee, Matthew,
    The process of discernment is something of a constant in Orthodox (when it’s healthy). Indeed, the warnings governing delusion (prelest) are quite common, particularly in monastic literature.

    Historically, in classical Christianity, there has always been something of a tension between the sacramental life and the charismatic life. For example, there’s the “authority” of a charismatic elder and there’s the authority of a bishop or holy synod. When that tension is heightened, it generally means there’s a problem somewhere. Our present times, with the power of the internet-driving publicity, has increased the tension. In time, it will settle out, I think. But the life of the Church requires spiritual discernment – and there are many mechanisms. In a believer’s life, Confession is probably the most common form of such discernment.

    Regardless, the problems associated with charismatic claims (particularly as authoritative), should seem obvious. Human beings are fallible. We should note, as well, that many “published” claims from various figures are second-hand, taken out-of-context, etc. Christ’s admonition was to be as “wise as serpents and as meek as doves.” In my experience over the years, we have more serpents than doves. Meekness and humility are by far the greatest “tests” of the spirits. It’s ok to sometimes say, “I don’t know about that.”

  51. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    How is confession a form of discerment Fr. Stephen?

  52. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Confession is also a place for spiritual direction – not just the forgiveness of sins. It would be appropriate, for example, to share something about an experience and ask for guidance or help in discerning what is taking place.

  53. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for the explanation Fr. Stephen.

  54. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I remember the biblical reference to a ‘still small voice’ regarding an experience of God. And sometimes such an experience might be a call to repentance and confession. Would this be a reliable indication of an experience of God in one’s life?

  55. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Dee,
    Certainly.

  56. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I am sorry I have not kept up with the comments and discussion in this article, so I write without having read very much of them.

    But I did want to comment on this article that I appreciate very much the way that Father has written of the structure of faith, if I may use that expression. What I have found is that in the liturgy we have a sort of total skeletal structure upon which everything else can hang. Our bodies grow and change, we mature, but the form of the body has this corrective shape to it. So our spiritual experience can vary and grow, we can mature and make mistakes and find correction, etc. But throughout the decades of our lives the liturgy can remain the constant framework through which we can experience all of that varying perspective that growth and struggle in faith involves, so we can constantly return back to it for what we need, and somehow the experiences hang on that framework. Or so I have found for myself. I consider for myself that the experience of liturgy includes the icons, the readings, the prayers, and all manner of what we experience in Church, including the body of Christ and our communion both “earthly” and heavenly. My two cents and thank you again Father for the way that you have written this essay!

  57. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Beautifully said Janine!

  58. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you so much dear Dee. Confidentially I have had some experience with some people of the charismatic movements you mention, and it was disconcerting to me, even bringing a kind of destructive chaos into a personal situation. I share your cynicism. Things have to be grounded on safe territory, as “testing the spirits” implies. One thing I think is important in this respect is that Orthodoxy in its fullness also teaches us about sacrifice in the sense of the fasts and guarding the heart, etc. If this sense of discipline in our internal life is missing as part of the fullness of faith then I think things can be questionable, as such discipline is a form of awareness of our own potential for error. I see this as likely a primary way to guard against what can be misleading. It’s not a simple, “if you do this, then x mystical experience will happen,” but rather the awareness of our capacity to be misled — and to mislead ourselves — is significant. But as Father always says, love has to be the ground of everything (and discernment comes in there too, especially, in my experience, in our understanding of what love is and does). In this respect of love I have had a lot to learn and continue learning.

    I suppose in some way (in terms of yourself as a scientific person) what this shows is that Orthodoxy embraces and maybe even enshrines a healthy skepticism, as “testing” implies. I recall commentary on the Annunciation that Mary first asks, “How can this be?” before saying “Yes,” and I think it is relevant.

  59. hélène Avatar
    hélène

    Two very good comments Janine ! Thanks !

  60. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you hélène!

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