“. . . in order that through these things [the precious and great promises given to us] we might become koinonoi of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)
This past Sunday was the Sunday of the Blind Man, and marked the fifth liturgical anniversary of my conscious, intentional and settled turn toward the Orthodox Church. If nothing intervenes, and as God has mercy, I now stand quite literally days away from incorporation into Christ’s Body, the Church. And I will experience the full sacramental life of the Church, the life Christ himself both is and gives to sustain and perfect his people.
My anticipation has fueled some thoughts.
I have thought quite a bit about grace these past five years. Particularly grace not, as in much popular Protestant thought, as God’s emotional disposition toward me, but, rather, grace as participation in and union with God. A union not just of spirit and soul, but of body as well. A grace not as something external to me or to my physical being, but, rather, which courses through all that I am, body, soul, and spirit.
St. Paul writes to the Church at Colossae:
“For this I labor, struggling according to his energy which energizes in me with power.” (Colossians 1:29)
“Energizes” in the above is meant to illustrate its shared root with “energy” (which precedes it). One might as well have translated it “his work which works in me with power.” But we too often see the noun “work” as product, as something external to us. And we also see it as static: a thing that sort of just sits there existing. “Energy” however retains the dynamism that this verse is expressing, even if “energizes” sounds funny to our ears.
In context, of course, this verse is referring to St. Paul’s work on behalf of and in the Churches. And indeed, not just work, but his suffering, his spending of himself. “Struggling” of course could be transliterated as “agonizing” (though it would definitely carry the wrong connotations in English), or even, perhaps better, “wrestling,” though it would lose some of the “agony” with which we infuse our word “struggle.”
I point these things out because, taken extracontextually, they provide something of a paradigm of the Christian life in the Orthodox phronema or way of thinking-living. That is to say, the Christian life is one of struggling toward Christian virtue, done in and by the dynamic and energetic workings of God’s grace within us. We struggle, but we do so in and by God’s power.
More to the point, this grace within us is not simply some product God gives to us, nor even some nth-removed emanation of God toward and in us. Rather, this grace is God himself. And this grace is not just simply “spiritual,” wholly contained in our inward being (however rationally conceived), but is, rather, a grace that extends throughout our whole person, body and soul, heart and mind. We are pervaded by this grace, down to our deepest physical, spiritual, intellectual and volitional center; which is to say, our heart. We are not simply filled with grace as a cup with water, but, rather, like the sword in the fire, this grace fills us as it pervades all that we are.
On coming to Orthodoxy more than five years ago, I did not understand this. I suffered, as most Protestants suffer, from a soteriological dialectic which disjoins human effort and God’s grace. Either what one does with regard to salvation is all of God’s grace, or it is not. If it is not, then there is some level of human effort, which stands alone as human; and stands alone as a term of dialectical opposition, “not God’s grace.” If it is all of God’s grace, then Protestants have to wrangle over how it is that God’s grace can be totalizing and yet not negate human “free” willing, with those who posit a genuinely libertarian human willing opposing those who deny the possibility. Most Protestants don’t actually posit a genuinely libertarian human willing—which they would categorize as either fully Pelagian or semi-Pelagian—but some form of deterministic willing, usually compatibilism.
This soteriological dialectic is also problematic in another way: by opposing the divine and the human, the dialectic ends in violating the synergistic balance revealed in the Incarnation, as explicated by Chalcedonian formula, in that the soteriological dialectic separates the human and the divine.
But Orthodoxy presented me with something far more biblical and far more satisfying: a grace that was “personal.” Not personal, of course, in the technical Trinitarian terminological sense (such grace is enhypostatic as opposed to the hypostatic being of God), but certainly as a real experience of the activity of a Personal God. That is to say, as in the illustration above, God’s activity—an activity that is ineffably one with his essence and yet ineffably distinguishable from it, an activity that is “personalized” though is not a Fourth Trinitarian Person—enters me from without (as creature I am not Creator, as sinner I am not all-holy) and yet suffuses all my being, as the energy of the heat enters the sword from without and yet suffuses it with heat and activity, enlivening the sword and enlightening it. The sword does not cease being a sword, indeed does not cease being this sword, but it becomes simultaneously all sword and all heat. It is not, itself, the fire that heats the sword, nor the heat which permeates it, and if the sword is withdrawn from the fire, it will cool. But so long as the fire warms the sword, the sword will become that heat which the fire is and gives off and remain that sword.
This participation in God—in technical terms, our participation by grace in his divine energies—is cosmic in scope, by virtue of the work of Christ. We are told that in Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, all the waters of the earth are sanctified. And we know that the flesh with which man is clothed is the stuff of the earth, and so, Christ, in taking on a body of flesh, sanctified, too, the material world. Grace is cosmic.
But in the merciful condescension of God, grace is particular and personal, it is localized and it is communal. I am baptized into Christ and his Body. I am chrismated with him, I am anointed with the Anointed and given the Spirit. And most of all, I consume Christ and am consumed by him. I take him in as a member of Christ’s Body and as a member of Christ’s Body.
“I speak to you as persons of practical judgment. Discern what I say to you. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not koinonia of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not koinonia of the body of Christ? Because [there is] one bread, we, the many, are one body; for we all participate of one bread.” (1 Corinthians 10:15-17)
St. Nicholas Cabasilas focuses my thoughts on these things.
After Chrismation we go to the table. This is the perfection of the life in Christ; for those who attain it there is nothing lacking for the blessedness which they seek. It is no longer death and the tomb and a participation in the better life which we receive, but the risen One Himself. Nor do we receive such gifts of the Spirit as we may, but the very Benefactor Himself, the very Temple whereon is founded the whole compass of graces.
Now indeed Christ is present in each of the Mysteries. It is with Himself that we are anointed and washed; He also is our Feast. He is present with those who are being initiated and imparts His gifts to them. The mode, however, is not entirely the same. As He washes them in Baptism He cleanses them from the filth of wickedness and imposes His own form upon them; when He anoints them He activates the energies of the Spirit of which He, for the sake of our flesh, became the Treasury. But when He has led the initiate to the table and has given him His Body to eat He entirely changes him, and transforms him into His own state. The clay is no longer clay when it has received the royal likeness but is already the Body of the King. It is impossible to conceive of anything more blessed than this.
It is therefore the final Mystery as well, since it is not possible to go beyond it or to add anything to it. The first Mystery [Baptism] clearly needs the middle one [Chrismation], and that in turn stands in need of the final Mystery. After the Eucharist then, there is nowhere further to go. (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, [SVS Press 1974], pp 113-114)
I have been without the sacraments for five years. Regardless of what I think now about the validity of those previous sacraments, they were not without God’s grace in a general sense. And at the time, they were, in my mind, God’s gifts to me. When I left ECUSA, and more especially when I turned toward Orthodoxy five years ago, I knew that the only sacraments I would or ever could truly participate in would be those given by Christ through his Church. And so I have been keenly aware that I was missing something integral to my faith and my life. This has been the most difficult aspect of the journey toward Antioch–to want and desire the Mysteries, and to know my need for them, and to remain without them.
But what St. Nicholas Cabasilas presents here is that pervasive union I have not yet known as I will soon know it, that sweet image of the sword in the fire. I will bear the lightning within me.
. . . That of which we partake is not something of His, but Himself. It is not some ray and light which we receive in our souls, but the very orb of the sun. So we dwell in Him and are indwelt and become one spirit with Him. The soul and the body and all their faculties forthwith become spiritual, for our souls, our bodies and blood, are united with His.
What is the result? The more excellent things overcome the inferior, things divine prevail over the human, and that takes place which Paul says concerning the resurrection, “What is mortal is swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4), and further, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
O how great are the Mysteries! What a thing it is for Christ’s mind to be mingled with ours, our will to be blended with His, our body with His Body and our blood with His Blood! (Ibid. pp 115-116)