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December 14, 2022

St. Porphyrios: The Joy of Being with Christ in His Church

 By Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis

Saint Porphyrios, a Greek Orthodox monk who died in 1991, was formally glorified as a saint by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in November 2013. He stands in the long tradition of charismatic spiritual guides in the Orthodox Church. His book Wounded by Love narrates his life and teachings, expressing the richness of the ascetic, mystical Orthodox tradition. His theology reflects Orthodoxy’s authentic, charismatic aspects, a fruit of prayer, ascesis, and love for God and others. St. Porphyrios, based on his ascetic and mystical experience of living with Christ in the Church, shares his understanding of how the faithful should understand their relationship with Christ in the Church and what that entails.

St. Porphyrios went to school for only one year, and while looking after the sheep as a young child, he read on his own, "syllable by syllable," the life of St. John the Hut-dweller. As a result of this reading, St. Porphyrios wanted to become a monk. Later, when he went to Mount Athos, he was introduced to the spiritual and ascetical traditions of the Church by his elder, to whom he was obedient and learned to read by reading the Lives of the Saints, the Psalter, the Book of Eight Tones and the Menaia. In our judgment, St. Porphyrios exemplifies the authentic Spirit of Orthodoxy, an essential reminder that the authenticity of Orthodox theology depends primarily on the Church's liturgical, hagiological, and ascetical tradition and practice. His writing aimed to inform the faithful about the significance of the Church, its origins, its identification with Christ, and how the faithful should understand and sustain their relationship with Christ within the Church.

For St. Porphyrios, the Church is rooted in God's trinitarian life and creative Love (Eph. 1:4). "The three persons of the Trinity constitute the eternal Church. The Church is a divine institution, and in her dwells the fullness of divinity." ¬¬ God created humans in His image and likeness, aiming for humanity and Creation to live within the "eternal Church," the communion of three persons of the Trinity. He bestowed everything to humans so they become gods through the gift of grace. Yet, humans used their freedom poorly, lost their original beauty and righteousness, and cut themselves from God. Thus, they alienated themselves from God and lost Paradise. However, God, in his compassionate Love, did not abandon humanity and Creation in their estranged condition. The incarnation of His Logos opened the gates of Paradise and granted salvation to the world. Through Christ, humanity entered "the eternal Church," which is the trinitarian communion. "On entering the uncreated Church, we come to Christ; we enter the realm of the uncreated." In the words of St. Porphyrios, the vocation of the faithful is "to become uncreated beings by grace, to become participants in the divine energies of God, to enter the mystery of divinity, to surpass their worldly frame of mind, to die to the 'old man,' and to become immersed in God."

The Church, after the incarnation, is the very presence of God in history that embraces humanity and the whole of Creation. Christ is the head of the Church, and the faithful are His body. The Church and Christ are one. "The body of the Church is nourished, sanctified, and lives in Christ. He is the Lord, omnipotent, omniscient, everywhere present and filling all things, our staff, our friend, our brother: the pillar and sure foundation of the Church." The Church for St. Porphyrios is a cosmic reality. In the Church, Christ unites all Creation. "Christ united the body of the Church with heaven and earth: with angels, men, and all created things, with all of God's Creation – with animals and birds, with each tiny wildflower and microscopic insect. The Church became the fulness of Him who fills all in all, that is, of Christ. Everything is in Christ and with Christ. This is the mystery of the Church." 

A faithful relationship with Christ in the Church is not simply a relationship of an individual with Him, independently of or apart from the rest of the faithful. St. Porphyrios insists that people's unity and Love for Christ are revealed in the Love that each of them has for one another: "On my own, I am not the Church, but together with you. Altogether, we are incorporated into Christ and become the Church" (I Cor 12:27). People's entrance into the Church unites them with their fellow men with their joys and sorrows; they feel the suffering and the affliction of others to be their own and pray for everyone to be saved. They do everything for their suffering brethren just as Christ did for them.  

It is a mistake for someone to pray in the Church only for their own individual salvation. "We must love others and pray that no soul be lost, that all may enter into the Church." St. Porphyrios insists: "When we set ourselves apart from others, we are not Christians. We are true Christians when we have a profound sense that we are members of the mystical body of Christ, of the Church, in an unbroken relationship of Love." The oneness with Christ that we experience in the Church includes all people throughout the world regardless of the geographical space in which they find themselves. "However far away our fellow human beings may be, we must stand by them…when Christ unites us, distances don't exist." We pray to God to enlighten and change them so they may come to Christ. In their unity with Christ in the Church, the faithful embrace love, compassion, and prayers for all human beings, including those who are not close to the Church, those who are distant to Christ.

To be Christian in the Church is to live with and in Christ. Life in Christ becomes humanly possible primarily through God's grace and personal efforts. This kind of life leads humanity into a different state of being, "another, enviable state" of existence. In that state of being, "there is no fear: neither of death or the devil nor hell. All these things exist for people who are far from Christ, for non-Christians. For Christians who do God's will, as the Gospel says, these things do not exist." What St. Porphyrios here means is that by renouncing "the old self" with its passions and desires, one gives no importance to the devil or evil. It does not concern those who are truly united with Christ. What concerns them is Love and service to Christ and their fellow man. If they feel joy, Love, and worship of God without any fear, they say, it is no longer I who lives; Christ lives in me (Gal. 2;20). We become authentic human beings loving Christ, the Church, and our neighbor. Christians must love, worship, and desire to be with God as they strive to be with Christ, their neighbor, and everyone, including their enemies. The Christian cares for everyone; he wants all to be saved and all to taste the Kingdom of God. "That is Christianity: through Love for our brother to arrive at Love for God…when we love our brother, we love the Church and Christ."
St. Porphyrios states that in the liturgical life of the Church, in worship, people experience here and now Paradise; they participate in God's trinitarian life. In his view, Paradise begins here and now. The different images that identify Paradise with gardens, with flowers, mountains, streams, and birds, are mediums for envisioning the beauty of Paradise. These images must not be taken literally since "Paradise is something else, something very exalted."  He identifies Paradise with Christ. Those who experience Christ here on earth experience Paradise. The Church is Paradise on earth, the same as Paradise in heaven.

The experience of Paradise is accessible to the faithful through their participation in the sacramental life of the Church. In the sacraments and, above all, in the Holy Eucharist, "Christ offers Himself to the world." The sacraments express the Spirit of Orthodoxy, which is nothing else than unity with Christ. The Church is the new life in Christ. In the Church, there is no death and no hell. Saint John the Evangelist says: "Whoever keeps my word will never taste death" (John 8:52). Christ does away with death. Whoever enters the Church is saved; he becomes eternal. Life is one, an unbroken continuity: there is no end, no death. Whoever follows Christ's commandments never dies. He dies according to the flesh, according to passions, and, starting from this present life, is accorded to live in Paradise in our Church, and after that, in eternity. “Death becomes the bridge we will cross with Christ instantly to continue living in the unsetting light." Thus, there is no despair in the Church. Asking the compassionate and loving God to forgive us, and through our participation in the sacramental life of the Church, "we progress towards immortality, without anxiety and fear."

For St. Porphyrios, the Orthodox faith (our religion) originates in God's revelation. It is "the authentic and true religion." What differentiates the Orthodox from other faiths (beliefs) is that "other religions" do not know the greatness of the Triune God. They do not know that our aim, our destiny, is to become gods according to grace, attain likeness with the Triune God, and become one with Him and among ourselves." Here the work of Christ finds completion.

St. Porphyrios recognized that for some, living the Orthodox faith is a struggle, a source of agony and anxiety for many. They do not experience "the deeper meaning of their faith," their faith is reduced to "an illness, and indeed a terrible illness." They are "filled with agony and anxiety." They do prostrations and weep and practice their faith as coercion, forgetting that whatever is done under pressure always causes the soul to react with rejection. Such people experience their faith as a kind of hell. Despite their good intentions, it is not unusual for some of them not to receive God's grace through their labor, prostrations, and crossing. He attributes this failure to the fact that they are not humble and do not go beyond the formal aspects of the Church practices to the heart of the matter, which is to do everything with love. "Love attracts the grace of God. When grace comes, then the gifts of the Spirit come. The fruits of the Spirit are Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control. These are the things that a healthy soul in Christ should have."

Christ is the joy that transforms those who are genuinely united with Christ in His Church. "Have Christ's joy. It is the joy that lasts forever, that brings eternal happiness. The joy of our Lord gives assured serenity, serene delight, the all-joyful joy that surpasses every joy" (John 16:24 & I John 1:4). Christ desires to enrich us with joy. Most of all, this is what He wants to fill us with - joy - because He is the well-spring of joy.