July 15, 2014

Concerning the Book "Elder Paisios of Mount Athos" by Hieromonk Isaac (2 of 3)

2. Empirical Ecclesiology

By reading this book one will see a God-seeing Elder ascetic who went through all the stages of the spiritual life, such as detachment, landlessness, martyric obedience, asceticism of many years, the purification of the heart, the illumination of the nous, noetic prayer of the heart, experience of the vision of God, love for God. One will also see a monk who developed, to a large degree, philotimo and spiritual bravery, which is why he constantly spoke to Christians about acquiring philotimo and bravery.

This book is a spiritual Synaxarion, similar to the Synaxaria of the ancient ascetics of the desert, as well as the various old Sayings of the Elders that are read even today and where we encounter authentic Orthodox empirical theology.

This blessed Elder lived it all. He came to know the attacks of the demons, the "diabolical stonethrowers", the demonic teases of the "tangalakia", out of envy due to his high spiritual state. Demons appeared to him many times to confuse him and harm him, but the man of God faced them with the power of the Holy Spirit, with deep humility and spiritual wisdom.

The Elder had a sense of what the Church was, that the Church is the communion of saints, and these saints have a relationship with Christ. The Elder saw an angel who brought him food, he saw his guardian angel taking care of him when he had need. He saw saints like the Three Hierarchs, Saint Katherine, Saint John the Theologian, the chorus of the venerable Fathers, Saint Isaac the Syrian, Saint Euphemia, Saint Panteleimon, Saint Loukillianos, Saint Arsenios, etc. A Saint appeared to him in the midst of light, and when the Elder asked him who he was, he responded he was Saint Vlasios from Sklavena. One night he was made worthy of a visit from the Panagia, and another time he saw the Panagia in white and repeatedly received the affection of the Mother of God. He spoke with her and received "food from her immaculate hands". The Panagia was like a mother to him, and Saint Euphemia he would call "my Saint Euphemoula".

One time he experienced and saw sensibly the Grace of God that supported him and kept him for ten entire years. He pursued noetic hesychasm and the prayer of the heart. His nous was grabbed by theoria when he prayed. He saw the "most sweet light" that, as he recounts, was "stronger than the light of the sun. The sun lost its brilliance before it. I saw the sun and the sunlight seemed pale, like the light of the moon during a full moon. This light I saw for a long time. After when the light waned and the grace decreased, then I found no consolation or joy." Such was the blessed state that when the heavenly experience finished and he needed to eat, to drink water, to work with his hands, he felt "like an animal". He was even made worthy to see Christ Himself, even when he was fifteen years old. Regarding another Theophany he recounts: "In an instant it was as if the wall of my cell was gone. I saw Christ in the light, at a distance of about six meters." He empirically experienced Divine Communion as the Body of Christ.

Elder Paisios had all the characteristics of the Prophets and the great venerable men. He saw everything clearly. He saw the soul of Elder Philaretos the Romanian in the hour he departed for heaven "like a small child of around twelve years of age, with a bright face and within heavenly light, rising up to heaven."

He lived all the doctrines of the Church (Theology, Christology, Ecclesiology, Demonology, Eschatology) empirically in his personal life.

For this reason, reading his spiritual biography I was reminded of the important words of the ever-memorable Fr. John Romanides, who also was a Cappadocian and came from the region that Elder Paisios came from. He said that ecclesiology, or words about the Church, has two sides: one is negative, which belongs to demonology, that is to say the war against the demons, and the other is positive, which belongs to Christology, that is to say the partaking of the glory of Christ. And in a strange but true way, the degree by which one lives the so-called positive side of the Church (Christology), is related to how one faces the so-called negative side of the Church (Demonology). This means that as much as one lives within the limits of their personal life the victory of Christ over the devil, sin and death, so will they be able to experience the glory of the Resurrection of Christ. Besides, as John the Evangelist says, Christ came into the world to "destroy the works of the devil" (1 Jn. 3:8).

Within this framework can be found Orthodox ecclesiology, or the theology of the Orthodox Church in general. This is evident throughout the text of the book Elder Paisios of Mount Athos. A theology that is not related to a polemic against the devil, death and the passions is foreign to the theology of the Orthodox Church, which is the theology of the Prophets, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Venerable Ones, the Fathers of the Ecumenical Synods, and it is a demonic theology. Saint Maximus the Confessor says: "Knowledge without praxis is the theology of demons."

Therefore, the great contribution of this book is that it shows us what the Orthodox Church is and how one can be a living member of the Church. The Orthodox hesychastic tradition regarding purification, illumination and theosis is the infrastructure of the doctrines of the Orthodox Church, for through the purifying energy of God man is cleansed of demonic powers, through the illuminating energy of God he acquires unceasing remembrance of God, and through the God-seeing energies of God he has personal communion with God, the Panagia and the saints, he empirically experiences the Church as the Body of Christ and a communion of theosis, so that then he becomes a teacher of the Church, an exponent of empirical theology.

This is how the divinely inspired teachings of the Elder are explained, the gift of the discernment of spirits, since it separates the divine from the diabolical, which constitutes true theology. He healed the spiritual and physical illnesses of man, and worked many and great wonders, causing spiritual changes in those he spoke with, led by the Holy Spirit. The book speaks of many such gifts that belonged to the Elder, which we briefly mentioned earlier when speaking of the contents of the book. God gives to his children with philotimo the gifts of His love, and so they become in Christ "priests of Divine Grace", a "spiritual priesthood", supplicating for and consoling afflicted people.

Spiritual gifts, as gifts of the Holy Spirit, are not independent from the free search of man. This means that man seeks God with all the strength of his soul and God gives the fullness of life.

The ever-memorable Fr. Paisios, as we see in this comprehensive biography, did great ascetic feats, excessive and beyond measure compared with other human sacrifices for the love of Christ, and this is why God filled him with His rich gifts, because He richly rewards his children with philotimo.

Saint Maximus the Confessor analyzes theologically that God the Creator put within human nature the powers for divine searching and studying, but divine revelations come from the Holy Spirit by Grace through His outpouring. Therefore, Divine Grace alone does not energize knowledge of the mysteries of God, nor of course did the saints acquire true knowledge of beings by studying this divine knowledge with only their natural powers, without the Grace of the Most Holy Spirit. This means that it takes both factors, namely the search for the divine with our natural powers and the freedom of man, as well as the revelation of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, according to Saint Maximus the Confessor, this Grace of the Holy Spirit does not give wisdom to the saints without the appropriateness of the mind, nor does it give knowledge without the receptive ability of the words, nor does it give faith without the information of future things and the invisible to the mind and words, nor does it give the gift of healing without the person having natural philanthropy, nor does it give other gifts without the receptiveness and strength of each person, nor does a person acquire such gifts naturally without the divine power that gives them.

The relationship between natural and spiritual gifts appears in the relationship between the light of the sun and the eyes. Healthy eyes can see the sunlight and everything illumined by it, but, as Saint Maximus says, without the light of the sun it is impossible for the eye to grasp the sensible.

Elder Paisios purified his noetic soul and received wisdom from the Holy Spirit, he developed the receptive power of words and acquired existential knowledge, he experienced the information of future and hidden things which is why he received the gift of faith, and he developed philanthropy to a great degree, being pained daily for the brethren of the family of Adam, which is why he received the gift to heal.

And because this book which we are commenting on also records various miraculous interventions and actions of Elder Paisios, we should note that all these miraculous events he performed were the natural outcome of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were given according to his natural gift of philanthropy. His great love for the living and the reposed, manifested by his incessant prayers and sacrificial martyric ministry, was recreated by the Holy Spirit into the gift of wonderworking.