The Path Towards the Light: Orthodoxy's Holy Teachers and Teachers of Other Religions
By Theodore Riginiotes
In a certain village of Messaras lives an elderly lady called G*****, who, to those who know her, it is well known that God has bestowed her with exceptional charismatic gifts. Once, for example, the Archangel Michael appeared to a certain sick person in Athens who did not know her at all, and announced to him: "I came to heal you, because G*** sent me to you in her prayer."
The elderly G*** said to me: "I am no saint; just an old lady who beseeches God for her salvation. If you want a Saint, you should go to so-and-so the ascetic who lives over there, or the other one, *****, who lives in that area", giving me the names of four or five contemporary ascetics - mostly unknown - who live in various regions of Crete.
Characteristics like those of the elderly G*** - on their own - do not mean anything. They can quite easily be imitated by a con artist, although, people like the old lady are not frauds, as she never profited in any way from those charismatic gifts; in fact, all that preoccupied her was the fear that she might lose that mystical relationship with Christ in her heart. Instead, we can find such abilities in teachers of other religions: Buddhists, Hindus, and even witch doctors or shamans. Nevertheless, we need to mention that in our spiritual tradition there are quite a number of people who have reached the elderly lady's "level". For example, the inconceivable, miraculous charismatic gifts of contemporary Orthodox saints such as the Elders Porphyrios, Paisios, Iakovos and others, who not only had the gift of insight and healing, but also had experiences of the "warping" of space and time, the multiplication of matter, teletransportation, communication with animals, and many other signs. What is even stranger however, is that similar phenomena as well as appearances of such Elders continue even after their death - or, to use the Orthodox term - after having fallen asleep in the Lord. Even in Crete, there are such Elders, as, for example, the Elder Evmenios from the Roustikoi Monastery of Rethymnon, and others.
These wonder-working saints are descendants of a previous generation of wonder-workers, to which belonged people such as Saint George Karslidis († 1948), the sightless Saint Matrona of Moscow († 1952), Saint John Maximovitch († 1966), and many others in the world, who in turn were descendants of another generation, which included Saint John of Kronstandt († 1908), Saint Nectarios of Optina (Russia † 1937), Saint Matrona of Anemniasevo († 1932), Saint Arsenios the Cappadocian († 1924) and many others.
Proceeding in this manner backwards into history, we can see holy wonder-workers living in every Christian generation, right through to the Disciples of Christ, whose miracles have been described in the New Testament (in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles).
These holy and charismatic teachers of Christianity differ immensely from the respective Lamas, Swamis, Shamans, etc. However, I would like to mention three points, which perhaps reveal those elements that I desire to point out to you.
First of all, there is no "method" in the lives of these Christians which they follow in order to attain such characteristics, nor were they initiated in any kind of mystic teaching. The only thing they did was to open wide their heart to Christ, as God, and to their fellow man. Their way of life does not include the practicing of a certain method (for example: yoga, meditation or martial arts), but rather, we would say that theirs is a path which includes a descent into two intelligible realms - which the contemporary saint, the Elder Sophrony Sakharov, characterizes as "Hades": the "Hades of repentance" and the "Hades of Love". The first "Hades" is the complete rejection of my old self and its acts and desires (which are characterized by selfishness), and the second "Hades" which contains an unconditional love, to the point of self-sacrifice for each and every human being individually, even my enemy (whom I have forgiven completely). This love culminates in (or begins from) a love for Christ, with Whom a proper communication is maintained through prayer, as well as participation in the Divine Liturgy and the Sacrament of Holy Communion; a communication that can even reach a vision of the Divine Light, not only during prayer, but also during one's ordinary everyday life. This vision may sometimes last for entire days, and one can continue with his daily activities and simultaneously find himself inside the Divine Light - which reveals itself to him as a personal being, as Christ.
Given that there is no method by which one can strive to attain a certain result, such major spiritual experiences can be experienced not only by monks or priests, but also by common people, family men and women, or even children (who may not even be aware of what they had experienced). Christian spiritual experiences - miracles, or visions of Christ, the Panagia or certain saints - can be experienced by non-Christians, who may well remain faithful to their religions, but some find the courage to convert to Orthodoxy, by placing themselves at the starting point of that new course. What all of them have in common, however, is the "Hades of repentance" which gives birth to a humble heart, and the "Hades of love", whose prerequisite is a humble heart.
A second characteristic of Orthodox wonder-working saints is that they do not in the least desire to attain any exceptional spiritual gifts, or to have any special spiritual experiences. They do not desire any increase in knowledge, or the acquisition of "wisdom", or a "higher consciousness", or to become "one with the universe", to become "attuned" to it, or something similar. They desire only Christ. Their desire directs them outside their own self, towards another Person - which they love and to which they are inclined to be joined to, by following His path, the path of humble and selfless love towards God (the Holy Triune God, not some subjective notion "of a God", or a fantasy that "god" is a symbol of beauty or of love, or a spark that exists inside us or inside every being, etc.) and towards our fellow man. This is the reason that they do not immerse themselves inside their own self - like yogis do - but instead they look to Christ, as God, and ask for His mercy and His precious help in cleansing their heart of passions and in becoming transformed into the kind of being that He wants them to be.
Furthermore, they do not strive to carve "their own path towards perfection", but rather, dedicate themselves to the path that Christ taught and be incorporated in the Body that He founded: the Church. Christians never pursue any personal struggle for perfection; they dedicate themselves and their spiritual and moral struggle within the Church: they congregate with their brethren and they partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, from the same holy chalice. Christ is also a member of this community - its Head, to be precise - and it is within that community that I can meet with Him. Even a hermit is always a member of the community; he too becomes joined to it, through his prayer to Christ (a prayer for all people, and in fact for all beings), and he also partakes of Holy Communion, which renders it possible.
Given that Christ is the One that I Love, because He is the One that I desire to be joined to, and because I know that this union is feasible (as known to all the saints of Orthodoxy, who already experience from this lifetime that this union is what renders them wonder-workers with the spiritual gifts that the Triune God bestows and retracts appropriately, without man's ability to selfishly "recall" them with his own methods), this is the reason I am not interested in the possible existence of "other paths" for the acquisition of wisdom, knowledge, or supernatural powers. Even if someone teaches me how to awaken or manipulate these powers, I do not desire them. I desire only Christ.
Deep down I do desire such powers, which is why I am not in the state to see Christ; and if I do see something, it will likely not be Him, but "someone else" who will want to entrap me. Saints, who have attained perfection, have actually rid their inner self of egotism and do not desire any powers, but only Christ.
A favorite example in Orthodoxy that reveals the manner of approaching Christ is the parable of the Prodigal Son, who, after allowing himself to become totally crushed, afterwards fell at his father's feet and begged him to count him among the servants. That is just how a humble Christian feels, when realizing the abyss that separates him from the absolute purity of Christ, i.e., he is fully aware that he is not without sin; but we see that the prodigal son's Father (symbolic of Christ) restored the prodigal one to the status of son and honored him with a ring and resplendent garments, dismissing not only the son's request to become a servant, but also his previous life of debauchery where he had squandered the inheritance that he had demanded (and received) from his Father without having toiled for it.
We might mention here that most of us are very sinful; our intentions deep down are not in the least pure and, if possible, our ego would lead us down very dark paths, regardless if we harmed people or "benefited" them. And yet, we do not admit anything like this (often not even to ourselves), but instead we present our self as "worthy" of receiving spiritual gifts from Christ - albeit not even admitting that Christ is God, or that He does commune with man - and instead maintain that there is merely an impersonal "divine essence" or a "universal soul", thus turning our back to the True God, Who has appeared to countless saints.
Two examples of different paths to approaching God are the holy Elders Porphyrios and Sophrony. The former had visited the Holy Mountain from his early teenage years and never distanced himself from Christ, thus most probably not having to experience the anguish of repentance to a large degree. Oppositely, the latter had denied Christ, become an atheist, indulged in transcendental meditation, and had even entertained almost morbid thoughts that he himself was a god (thoughts that were influenced by oriental philosophy); thus, when he experienced the sighting of the Divine Light, God's absolutely humble love made him feel like an unworthy traitor, never having imagined that God could be so humble and condescending. The Elder Sophrony experienced the "Hades or repentance" with extreme anguish, which, however, "regenerates, and does not cause despair nor does it exterminate man".
Most of us are more akin to the Elder Sophrony - relatively speaking - rather than the Elder Porphyrios; by the way, this is why it is of incalculable value to raise our children the Christian way: so that they may find Christ in the easier manner, not the more painful one - nor reach the end of their life not having found Him at all.
The third characteristic of saints, which I would like to mention, is the knowledge (through experience) of all spiritual situations, which allows them to discern between the positive and the negative ones, even if externally they may present the same characteristics. This spiritual science is called the "discerning of spirits" and it allows the saints to distinguish between a real experience or spiritual gift that originates from God, and an "exact replica" that originates from the devil and is given to people as bait, with the intention of flattering their ego and drawing them even further away from their purpose - which is their "in Christ" union with God.
The discerning of spirits is especially apparent in saints who have also "tasted" exo-Christian experiences, after having been initiated in other spiritual traditions prior to discovering Orthodoxy. One such personage is the Elder Sophrony that we mentioned earlier, but, there are other similar cases which are recorded throughout the history of Orthodoxy - even with ascetics who had never ceased being faithful to Christ, but had been caught in a moment of egotistic weakness and had acquired "spiritual gifts" that led them into numerous torments.
The discerning of spirits is a Christian contribution that is necessary for a real evaluation of spiritual experiences, as well as of "powers", of "spiritual gifts", of "contacts with other beings", of "revelations", of "wisdom" and all the other elements that the various spiritual traditions safeguard and impart, as though they are priceless treasures. If I may be allowed to make an observation here, given that this spiritual gift is absent, even in the non-Orthodox versions of Christianity (which is why we observe "spiritual experiences" and "charismatic displays" in various heresies such as Papism and Protestantism - phenomena which according to Orthodox criteria are seen as suspicious, and even purely demonic), Orthodox Saints have experienced similar situations as those experienced by the teachers and the sages of various religions. Reversely, however, the teachers of other religions who may have "broadened their consciousness" or have "communicated with entities" etc., have not savored the experience of a union with Christ. This is the reason why an Orthodox Saint (who can immediately perceive the presence or the absence of divine Grace) is far better "equipped" to evaluate a spiritual phenomenon... and, quite frankly, this evaluation is not favorable as regards the quality of the "powers", the "spiritual gifts", the "revelations" etc., even within Christianity and within Orthodoxy, and even more so within the various religions where people worship spirits of an indeterminable identity (quite possibly malign or threatening ones, or deities that fuse "good and evil" together, as if they are supposedly the different aspects of the same thing, or supplementing each other) and they open up towards these entities, striving to become joined to them or be possessed by them, whereas God, the Angels and the souls of the reposed Saints - i.e. the benign spirits - never possess a person.
The religions of the Far East - such as Hinduism or Buddhism - regard as the perfect state and redemption the elimination of the human personality and its annihilation or its assimilation into the "universal psyche", because they regard the present world as a self-deception. Christianity on the other hand knows, from the personal experience of the saints, that an individual's personality is never lost; that it remains alive after the body's death and also that the body likewise anticipates its resurrection, as pre-announced by Christ in many parts of the New Testament.
So, where does this "elimination" that the oriental religions strive for lead to? Or, what exactly are the spirits and the entities that come into contact with people, either as "gods" or as "ancestors" or as beings "from other worlds" (for example elves and fairies), or even in the modern-day West (which is presently in a spiritual confusion), as "wise extraterrestrials" with divine qualities?
The above are just a small chapter in the huge topic of the differences between religions. Religions are not paths that "all lead to the same finishing point"; they do not say "the same things with other words", nor can they all lead Man to the Truth and to perfection. We Christians are fully aware of this, because experience has reassured us that the Truth is Christ, and that perfection is one's union with Him - which involves the in-Christ participation of imperfect man in the perfection and purity of God. Without Christ, there is no perfection and no Truth; only solitude (like in Buddhism), or paths that lead to the unknown. An "unknown" that is very well known - thanks to the experience and the wisdom of true peaceful warriors and teachers of mankind, who reached the highest point of spiritual progress that is possible for human persons: that of the saints.
All of the above, my brethren, you need not blindly accept as dogmas. Examine them in depth, and you will discover for yourself what the truth is. Be careful, however, in case you fool yourself that "truth" is whatever accommodates your ego (by telling you that you will find God "within you", or that you and God "are one", or that you will become virtuous, luminous, prescient and omnipotent by means of rigorous exercise), just because that which invites you to the thing most hated by fallen man will seem unpleasant to you, i.e., repentance and humility.