March 21, 2021

First Sunday of Great Lent - The Secret Life of Orthodoxy (Metr. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos)

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

"...hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (Jn. 1:51)

Nathaniel is surprised because the Lord revealed the guilelessness of his heart and the place where he was. Answering his question, the Lord offers a new revelation: "I assure you that hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." This gives us the opportunity to make a small comment and to present very quickly the greatness of Orthodoxy, which we honor today.

The Vision of God Takes Place Through Theosis

Obviously with this answer the Lord wants to emphasize the great truth that Jesus, as the Son of God, is the greatest and foremost revelation of God to man. Indeed, His disciples and the saints in general were found worthy to see many times the opening of the heavens and the glory of the God-man Jesus. This happened before Pentecost, but also after Pentecost. Even the Protomartyr Stephen at the Sanhedrin confessed: "I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" (Acts 7:56).

But we know well from the experience of all the saints that the vision of the glory of the God-man takes place through the theosis of man, that is, through inner transformation, and therefore it is not a simple vision with the bodily eyes. On Mount Tabor "the eyes of the Apostles are transformed by the power of the divine Spirit" and are found worthy to see the glory of Christ. And the Prophet Elijah "did not sensibly see" the incarnate Word, that is, Christ, since his face was covered with the sheepskin. Thus, through inner purification and the perceptible eyes, which are transformed by the Holy Spirit, one sees the glory of Christ, as He Himself revealed: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matt. 5:8).

The Secret Life of Orthodoxy

These things show a characteristic feature of Orthodoxy, that Orthodoxy is secret, that is, all theology and its life is secret. When we say "secret" life we do not mean the existence of various "secrets", but the life that moves beyond the surface, therefore beyond what we see. This is clear in three places.

First, Orthodoxy without ignoring reason moves beyond it. We usually say that man is a rational being. This is especially true because man was created "in the image" of the Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Orthodoxy does not neglect human reason, but neither does it absolutize it. He knows that the reasoning function is one of the functions of the soul, since the soul is both single and multifaceted. Apart from reason, there are other energies such as desire, mind, will, imagination, etc. This is also known by modern psychology, which finds the existence of the subconscious, in which there are things that have not been evaluated by reason. So if Orthodoxy has always turned its attention to this secret and hidden treasure called the heart (the center of the whole spiritual world), it therefore seeks to purify and liberate it. The Prophet David sings: "Create in me a clean heart O God." The heart lives in communion with God and reason expresses its experiences. But when man wants to understand everything with his reason, then he ceases to be Orthodox. He becomes scholastic, that is, heretical.

Secondly, Orthodoxy, without ignoring the bodily senses, moves beyond them. Man is made up of body and soul. As the body has senses, so does the soul. They are the so-called noetic or spiritual senses. With the sacramental Orthodox life the bodily senses are transformed, that is, they become senses of the Body of Christ. At the same time the noetic inner senses develope. The Holy Fathers say that the true element of human rebirth is the development of the noetic senses. For example, Saint Isaac tells us that “life in God is the fall of the senses. When the heart is alive, the senses fall. The resurrection of the senses is a death of the heart."

Within the Church there is another secret language through which the bodily senses are sanctified and the noetic senses are developed. And this is the language of the symbol. The lighting of the candle, the burning of the lamp, the candle before the Gospel, the way of giving a blessing, these want to show something internal. Also, Orthodoxy with its icons, the restoration of which we celebrate today, does not just want to decorate the churches or to satisfy the vision, but to transmit other experiences to the praying Christian. Orthodox iconography shows the transformation of human nature and the world, the pouring of the Taboric Light on the human body, the great love and philanthropy of God, the love of the saints in God and all their inner experiences. It is observed that when man knows how to see icons, he is transformed. And the more he transforms, the more he can appreciate the great value of Orthodox iconography.

Thirdly, Orthodoxy, without ignoring the phenomena, moves beyond them. The Orthodox Christian does not see or is influenced by external things, but sees the Providence of God, which lies beneath all historical and natural events. This is done through internal transformation. Usually we, being unclean, ignore the will of God and attribute to Him all our passions and thoughts resulting in our wrestling with God! The Orthodox bless with the cross all these phenomena. Saint Maximus says somewhere that "the phenomena are always seen on the cross and the noumena require burial" and then our reason is raised and salvation comes. This means that we must daily bless with the cross every relationship with the senses, with immediacy and seek the liberation of the mind from the deadly energy of external stimuli. Crucified we can know the blessed spirit of our Orthodoxy and see the glory of Christ.

It is true that the above needs more development. But space is limited. Yet it is equally true that a personal struggle is required in order to be able to experience this secret life of the Church. It requires a struggle against sin, purification of the senses, obedience to a spiritual father and then we will know this secret life of the Church, which is unfortunately unknown to many Orthodox. Then the incomprehensible becomes known and what seems very confused is very simple. That way we can become Missionaries and do the right mission.

Source: From the book Όσοι Πιστοί. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.