The Spiritual Wisdom and Practices of Early Christianity
What is Christianity? This is a perennial question about which there are many divergent views among Christians themselves, which also explains the variety of ecclesial bodies within the Christian fold. Broadly speaking, they fall in three major groups: Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant. Although these three divisions came into being during the second millenium of Christian history, their origins can be traced to the very beginnings of Christianity and to the New Testament itself. For instance, the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are understood to interpret the major event of the Christian Faith, Jesus the Christ, within the context of history.
The claim is made that these Gospels teach that He provides history with the true knowledge of how human beings should live in order to find fulfillment as social beings. In this view, Jesus is an enlightened teacher and a better philosopher in comparison to other great luminaries in history. He provides humankind with better information about God and human nature. The key word here is information, for by following His teaching, humankind would finally realize the real homonoia, universal concord and social harmony. This is what humanity has been seeking through what the Greeks called Padeia, the education of humanity as beings endowed with reason. But this effort seemed to many to be an illusive dream and by the time of the rise of Christianity, philosophy which was thought to bring about homonoia, the universal accord, was not capable of being able to realize this ideal.
However, in the minds of many people who dreamed of homonoia, the appearance of Christianity seemed to be capable of achieving what ancient philosophy had failed to do and they pursued its realization by espousing the new religion. This “philosophical” view of the Faith became dominant in the Western Latin tradition of Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholic and Protestant). The aim of this new Christian Society was to change history by realizing the dream of ancient homonoia. This was to be achieved through bringing humanity in conformity to the will of God so that His reign might supplant that of Caesar. But this was not the only tradition of the Christian Faith. Along with the Synoptic tradition of Christianity and the interpretation of Christianity as our Divine information, there also stands the tradition of the Gospel of Saint John, as well as the writings of Saint Paul, which explicitly state that the Messiah Jesus is not just a bearer of Divine information, but of Divine Revelation. Jesus, the Christ, does not only inform us about God. He reveals God. This is not a matter of quibbling with words. Divine information and Divine Revelation are not the same.
The latter does not so much aim at changing history but seeks to transform human beings. In other words, human beings are not educated to create a better social order, but are instead incorporated into the Divine life. According to the Johannine and Pauline traditions, Jesus the Messiah came into history and not out of history. He came from the bosom of the Father in order to help human beings return to their Father from whom they have alienated themselves. In this vision of Christianity, God acts directly upon each human person, and not through intermediaries. According to Christianity as Divine information, intermediaries are necessary to the process of educating humankind for the Christian social order. According to John and Paul, God is directly raising sons and daughters to inherit the Kingdom prepared “before the foundation of the world” (Jn 17:24). There is no question here of a new enlightened society as a center of Divine concern but rather an issue of the hagios, the saint. The saint is born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, but of God” (Jn 1:13). God reveals Himself to the saints directly through the Holy Spirit who is God’s own unveiling of Himself to His children as their Creator and Savior.
As a consequence of God’s disclosure, there comes into being the communion of the Redeemed, i.e., the saints who are the Church, not as an organization but as the Divine-human organ, the mystical Body of Christ. Therefore, the Church is not so much an “observed” reality but is a spiritually discerned reality. This is important to remember because the Church thus understood is not dependent on the ambiguities and predicaments of the world but on the mercy of God, This is also the meaning of the words of Jesus: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). In other words, the Church is the Divine Creation in which God indwells in His saints. The saints are God’s own “household” with whom, in the words of the Medieval Byzantine writer Nicolas Cabasilas (14th century), “God shares His Kingdom, not as His servants but as His own family” (Life in Christ). In this vision of Christianity, the Church is essentially a communion rather than a community of like-minded people, for it is this communion (i.e., the bond of love between God in Christ and His saints) that makes the Church as a visible social organ possible. In this view of the Church, primacy belongs to the saints as God’s anointed friends and not to the cleros, who are only servants of God’s people.
This point is clearly underlined by the authors in the sixth chapter of this book. Structures and “principalities” in the Church exist for the sake of the saints and not the other way around as the proponents of the militant Church affirm. God’s Kingdom, though not as yet universally acknowledged, is universally revealed. There is a beautiful passage in the last chapter of this book which bears witness to this: “Through Christ, God has entered into history, that is, into time and space. Henceforth, there is not a single place or moment which is not filled with His Presence.” The two interpretations of Christianity continue to coexist in the Church. The Church of Christ the Teacher may be called the Church militant. It believes itself in duty bound to bring Christ’s Kingdom upon earth. Its monuments are great ecclesiastical establishments, such as bureaucracies, educational enterprises, missionary and social agencies. Its leaders are Christ’s vicars and deputies, as if Christ were absent from His Church. Here the Church is the visible presence meant to counteract the power of this world with its own power. A good Christian in this understanding of the Church, therefore, is one who loyally supports the ecclesiastical system.
The militant Church competes with the powers of the world for influence in the world. Its philosophers are theologians and canon lawyers, the guardians of its discipline. Its founding father is Saint Cyprian (died 258) who argued that the unity of the Church is based on the Episcopate holding the common profession of Faith. As a former Roman magistrate, he simply transposed the Roman law which undergirded the Empire into the idea of Christian Faith where bishops did the same for the Church. With Cyprian, the clergy became the new magistrates of the Church as the New Society. The Gospel simply became the New Law which was renamed the Divine Law. The fathers of the Church are its great legislators, Leo the First (fifth century), Gregory the Great (died 604) and Innocent III (died 1216), all were bishops of Rome. The objective, visible elements of this Church’s life are the true marks of its Christianity. The subjective and inner elements are to be avoided or condemned as being suspect of heresy! Alongside this Church of law and order there stands the Church of the Divine Revelation. Its center is not institutional but sacramental. Its patron Saint is Saint Ignatius of Antioch (martyred in 115). According to this vision of Christianity, the Kingdom of God and the union with God is its true aspiration, but this Kingdom does not come by “observation” (Lk 20:18). It is not an outward show but an inner invitation known through experience which is the intimation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the believers.
The agenda of the followers of this path is a journey through askesis (total surrender) in order to enter more fully into the life of Christ according to Saint Paul’s saying: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Ga 2:20). The pathfinders of the Way are the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, and ascetics. This vision of Christianity centers on the person of Christ as the Axis around which their whole life revolves. They profess the Faith as taught by the Orthodox Catholic Church through the ages, but they understand that Faith not as information or doctrine to be learned, but as a way of life to be lived. They believe Christianity to be the Revelation of God, i.e. the unveiling of the divine which unites the believer in Christ with God so that the believers may live in God and God in them. This revelation must be appropriated in order to become an inner illumination. Among Western Christians, this path has been followed by the great saints and mystics, but its true home has been chiefly the Orthodox Church for which this understanding of Christianity has been normative. This is witnessed to by the fact that to the Orthodox the only fully recognized theologians have been Saint John, the Fourth Evangelist, Gregory Nanziansus, one of the great Fathers of the Church (d. 390) and Saint Symeon the New Theologian, the great Medieval mystic (d. 1022). All three have made such an indelible impact on Orthodox Christianity that their vision is its authentic form, so much so that if ever the Orthodox Church should depart from it, it would lose its soul and become the salt that has lost its flavor, as Jesus said, and therefore become worthless for human use.
It is not surprising that Western Christians are discovering this Orthodox Christianity of the Holy Spirit and becoming her children. Among these are the authors of this book, Father Alphonse Goettmann of the Orthodox Church of France and his wife Rachel. Inspired by gratitude to God for vouchsafing to them the understanding of this inner vision of Christianity, they present in the following pages an eloquent interpretation of this way of transformation which I venture to say will be an eye opener to every reader who is seeking to enter into communion with God through Christ, the Revealer. The authors make available in this book their own discovery of Christianity as the tradition which bears witness to the New Covenant which God has written on the hearts of believers. Human beings will no longer need to teach each other about God, for He will reveal Himself in their hearts (Jeremiah 31). The translator, Theodore J. Nottingham, has given to the French text such English idiom that one meets the authors as honored members of both the English-speaking community and of the Christian spiritual community from whose experience they write so eloquently. Sola Dei Gratia!
Charles B. Ashanin, PH.D. (Glasgow)
In the following pages, readers will find themselves in the light of the Christian spiritual experience that exploded into the world two millennia ago. Early Christianity called for a vivid personal transformation among its adherents. A new way of being was found, one characterized by a self-transcending and all consuming love. Spiritual reality was unveiled as union with the Christ—the Anointed One who himself was at one with the unfathomable I AM of creation.
This union regenerated individual personalities thoroughly and completely. The wisdom of the early teachers, preserved in the spiritual traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, were amazingly insightful and pragmatic. These early Church Fathers were informed by the light of vaster awareness and vaster love. They called it the indwelling of the uncreated. The authors of this book, Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann, are living examples of the power of illumination available through these ancient traditions.
Here is found an utterly self-transcending love, that merger with the divine goodness which compels human beings to loving participation in the world. Here is encountered the warmth of souls on fire and their awareness of the presence of the living God in every moment. The reader is presented with the tools for this radical transformation. Surely, no one should be surprised by the seemingly rigorous asceticism required for such an ultimate, all-inclusive task. But we are all invited to discover the joy that is liberated through a certain discipline of living. It is not so much a matter of harsh physical control as it is a rechanneling of one’s attention and commitments in daily life. All seekers of spiritual awakening will find in this book instructions to guide them into their own inner furnace. There the new person is forged, made aware of his or her true nature, and alive in God’s love.
by Theodore J. Nottingham
Through a secret yearning, we human beings are today sensing that we are made for a joy and fullness of life completely different from the artificial paradise offered in myriad ways by our society. Tired of theories, promises which never come through, and religious teachings based merely on morality and good conduct, we have turned toward the distant East.
But this has only led us into traditions which are not our own. Returning from this search, or having never undertaken it, we are now bombarded by endless propositions which all pretend to have the answer to our fundamental questions: how to live happily, and deeper still, how not to die. There are more and more persons now turning to Christianity, often after having rejected it. But then they find themselves faced with another question: can we overstep centuries of historical deviation and truly rediscover the Christ and the tradition of the apostles? The answer to this fundamental question is already lived by many of our contemporaries. Christianity reveals itself to them in the power it held for the first Christians, not as a system or a religion with its structures and bureaucracies, but as a concrete Path of transformation. The “Come and follow Me” of Christ resonates today as it did yesterday and they become disciples of the Master whom they follow intoxicated with joy. This joy was not promised for “another world” only, or in some “afterlife,” but here and now! Christ resurrected means that He is alive now, and no joy can be greater than an encounter with Him.
Faith is not a cold intellectual adherence to truths which must be believed, but an experience of fire which divinizes us when we come in contact with this burning Presence. “Come and see” (John 1:39) says the Christ to all who seek, for “I am the Way” (John 14:6). The Way is therefore both Himself and the path of reaching the goal. It is actual physical experience, or it does not take place. God, who takes the path of the body to experience humanity, shows us clearly that it is through the body that we must experience God. This is the very logic of incarnation! In this book, we will consider the fundamental practices of the Christian experience. They are backed by two thousand years of history and a sea of witnesses who, down through the ages, have journeyed on this path that has led them to the summits of wisdom and holiness. The difficulty in the presentation of these “methods” is their inevitable and artificial juxtaposition when they only find their internal and organic coherence in the living Tradition.
They are all held together as in a living organism; each element comes at a particular stage in a life that gravitates around its axis: the Christ. That is why we will use a method which will make it possible for the reader not to remain on the exterior as a spectator: the repetition of key ideas. This is a teaching in the form of a spiral, an “eating of the word” where, as in liturgical chants and the experiential method of Scripture, we become that which we “eat” continually, we “are” what we have just read rather than merely “knowing” it. Each chapter is a new approach to the unique Reality. Rather that addressing the intellect, it speaks to the heart. If a particular passage strikes us, we must then have the courage to stop the reading. The Ancient Ones said: when a text suddenly “speaks,” it is the Spirit Himself who speaks to us, beyond concepts, through an experience which can become vivifying. The important thing is to stop reading, or we risk missing this visit from Being. Our joy is to listen.
In this contemplative attitude is manifested the work of life within us, revealing its very mystery to the one who listens deeply. The person who lets himself be touched in his center sees the center of life, its goal: the place where all things become new and transform us. A text therefore begins to live and to act when it finds a heart which beats in unison with it. This reading is then itself a way: that of the spiral which slowly penetrates into the depths and leads us from one level of consciousness to another. This path is not knowing but being; the maturity which is a rebirth in our very core, there where the word is Presence beyond all reading.
by Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann
THE CALL OF SILENCE
The world has forgotten silence. Yet it is in silence that the world has its origin and its end. God is also silence and, since we are in His image, the depth of our being is silence. This explains the rise of anguish and fear of death at the heart of the noise which reigns in the cities and now reaches the most distant countryside and the last corners of our forests. Technology in its varied forms never ceases to invade everything and slows down for nothing. Tormented by the unconquerable yearning for our original silence, people of our time are beginning to escape into the deserts, in the retreats of monasteries or in exotic vacations, the symbols of a lost world. Faced with this general asphyxiation, it is important to have these breaths of fresh air in order to survive in the short term. But in the long term, we must learn to live fully in each moment and not only during certain spiritual experiences.
The desert is our own being and our heart is a monastic cell, for the beyond is within our depths. There, in the very midst of the noise, is found plenitude. Yet in order to take this path, we must first learn about it. This requires an education in both humanity and God who meet each other only in the common language of silence. There is an alphabet and a grammar of silence. If we study it, if we daily spell out its reality, its mystery awakens within us and immerses us in its presence. There is a culture of silence: it is a manner of being which is acquired through practice. The aim is to make efforts which eventually lead to a permanent state. We first “do” exercises, then we become exercise; we say prayers but we must eventually become prayer; we go to the liturgy but our whole being is called to become liturgical and daily life is meant to be a celebration; we seek to experience God, but in doing so we ourselves become gods! That is why Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) says: “No spiritual exercise is as good as that of silence.” The role of the Tradition and of the Church is to constantly immerse us into this wisdom and give us the means to accomplish it.
THE SILENCE OF THE PASSIONS
The first of all the means is the clear gaze upon oneself which allows us to discern the opposite of inner silence and its great obstacle: the noisy tumult of the passions. When we are cut off from God, we do not live in our spirit, where silence dwells, but in our soul (our psyche), which is in duality. Instead of living through God, of seeing everything in His light and with His eyes, the soul sees and lives through itself in an autonomous way. This is the false self, non-being which no longer feeling the unique inner desire for God, feeds the multiple external desires born from this separation.
We seek to satisfy this absolute thirst in the relative (the material), and attach ourselves infinitely to the finite. Soon, all relationships are falsified: with oneself, with others, with God, with the whole of creation. This profound denaturation engenders in us a predisposition to misdirected faith, through which we always seek to make things other then what they are so that they may satisfy in every moment our appetite for pleasure, power, and arbitrary impulse. Our existence is fractured and pushes us endlessly into internal contradictions. Where does our pleasure come from and where is it going? This is the realm of asceticism, its primary focus and the very location where conversion occurs.
This is a watchfulness of every internal and external movement. Nothing is possible, no accomplishment, no happiness, no peace, as long as desire is turned in upon itself, egocentric and greedy! The Fathers unanimously agree that no spiritual path and no prayer is feasible without battle with these passionate desires; love itself can only be born when the self renounces its position of absolute autonomy. Confronted with the multiplicity of our desires, the most important step is for each of us to discover our greatest weakness. It is impossible to do battle on all fronts, but it is vital to struggle with one issue at a time. Christ proposes a method which allows us to discover it: what is my primary inclination where my preferences and aspirations are ceaselessly directed? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21) Everyone has their Isaac, their unique attachment which they are invited to sacrifice. There is no liberation nor wisdom without silencing that which cries the loudest within us.
FASTING: A FOUNDATIONAL EXPERIENCE
Fasting is the radical means to cut the “wings of desire.” It clears the boards and abruptly places us before the evidence of our inclinations. No longer nourishing them from the outside, we become the subject of an ancient revelation within: all our desires are but noise and lies; in reality, we are hungry not for bread but for God. Here fasting reveals its deep mystery: ultimately, all of our desires are inhabited by the unique desire for God. Fasting exposes this desire and when we come off the fast, the conscious satisfaction of any desire becomes in this light a communion with God. That is why the meal is always a eucharist, a communion with the Creator through the creatures who are on the table, for the whole world is the table of a universal banquet offered to humanity in order to assimilate God.
But if we do not do it with this intention, we fall into passions. The state of hunger shows us in what dependence we usually live. If we choose to commune with God through terrestrial foods, we become free and independent and the little ephemeral pleasures become eucharistic joy. We open ourselves through fasting to the life of the spirit, to continual thanksgiving, for everything is a gift of God. That is why fasting never occurs without prayer. The alliance of the two not only chases out the most resistant demons, but leads to a profound transformation of the entire person. We need to rediscover the weekly twenty-four hour fasting of the first Christians, from Thursday night to Friday night; also the fasting of Advent and Lent, along with those which are in rhythm with the feasts and the seasons. And let us not forget that the time saved during meals belongs to prayer, and the money saved belongs to the poor. “Fasting-Prayer-Alms” is the inseparable triad which restores the body, the soul and the spirit.
LISTENING: THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTITUDE OF THE DISCIPLE
It is at the heart of his fast of forty days that the Christ gives us the secret of this reversal: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). This is the fundamental habit of the disciple: listening. His whole being is an ear because is whole being is obedience (from the Latin ob-audire: to listen). “Hear, O Israel!” is the underlying framework of the whole Bible through which God both gives Himself and provides the method for opening ourselves to this gift. Indeed, the one who has truly practiced listening knows to what extent he is at that moment disconnected from all parasites, for everything is stilled, even distraction and multiple thoughts.
At the same time he is plunged into an absymal silence which brings him in touch with the mystery of a Presence. It is for this reason that hearing is the most exercised sense on the path of transformation. Listening should be permanent since God speaks to us in each moment through the events, encounters and all that occurs within or outside of us. But to recognize His voice on the outside, we must first learn to recognize it within: this is the act of listening to the Word in the Bible. There it is announced by the prophets and is incarnated in Jesus Christ. In contemplating Jesus, in letting ourselves be penetrated by His presence and His word, we are little by little penetrated by the ways of God.
The entire Bible is a real presence of Christ. It is not an ancient text to be read with the intellect but a matter of receiving the Word in communion: the Word assimilates us and we assimilate it. As Origen (2nd century) observed, the reading of the Bible is not added to life, but transforms daily life which becomes the place where the Word speaks ceaselessly. Listening is therefore an exercise of constant vigilance where the right attitude is to commune with the present moment, to become one with that which is here and now because it expresses the will of God; and what God wants is always that which is best for us. Since “everything is grace,” even that which is contrary to our wishes, we can “give thanks in all times and places!” This incessant listening to life creates within and around us a prodigious silence—a backdrop of peace, joy and love. This is a continual revelation of God.
MEDITATION: A LOVE STORY
Silent meditation is the indispensable axis of a life which seeks to reach the depths of understanding. It is the commandment of Christ: “When you pray, go into your room and shut your door” (Mt 6:6) and the whole Tradition is filled with this interior consciousness. Along with the Tradition, we take the word “meditation” not in the medieval meaning of reflecting on a religious theme, but in its etymological sense: itari in medio, to be led toward the center, the center being the human heart, the throne of God. Saint Macarius (fifth century) stated that “the heart is the deepest body in the body.” We inevitably pray with our body, since it is there, but we do it poorly and with a lack of consciousness. God has taken a body to experience humanity and by living fully in our body, we can experience God!
My body is therefore a dazzling path, a sacrament of the One who incarnated Himself in it. We hardly dare to believe the words of Saint John Chrysostom (fourth century): “My body is truly, effectively that of Christ, and not only through faith”; nevertheless, this is the very realism of the eucharist. Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century) cries out: “Flesh of my flesh!”
We must first learn to sit in silence and complete immobility, knowing how to rest corporally in oneself and in God: simply being here, conscious of one’s body, feeling it from within, inhabiting it. Breathing will then lead us to the silence of Being, for nothing is more intimate to God and to us than breath. My whole being breathes, I am breathed in . . . Feel this consciously, let yourself be seized by it. Especially, do not breathe voluntarily, let it occur by itself. At each inhalation “God breathes into my nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7), at each exhalation we open ourselves to this Presence, we relax our tensions and surrender ourselves like the clay in the hands of the potter.
It is with all His love that God breathes me in. I receive Him with gratitude and remain in this reciprocity of breath where everything is receptivity and gift, in the very image of that which occurs at the heart of the Divine Trinity. Nothing comes out of reflection, especially not God, for everything is in experiential and conscious feeling where, as the Fathers say, the “sensation of the Divine” is found.
THE PRAYER OF JESUS
It is not easy to come out of the multiple and unify oneself around an axis. That is why the Tradition recognizes in the “Prayer of Jesus” one of the greatest means to achieve this. Simple and accessible to everyone, it is repeated as a mantra, either in meditative sitting or in all times and places, inserting itself into the fabric of our daily life: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” The repetition is done slowly, in peace, without seeking emotion, but with love and adoration. To say each word facilitates from the beginning the union of the intellect with the heart. There are nevertheless great stages which must be gone through over years of practice, from the repetition of the prayer on the lips to the setting ablaze of the heart through grace. Before beginning the invocation, it is important to ask the help of the Holy Spirit, for “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor 12:3).
Besides, the ground of this Prayer is the ecclesial life with its sacraments and asceticism. Outside of them it cannot take root, anymore than a flower which is torn out of its soil. It is indeed a profession of faith, far beyond an incomprehensible mantra. It engages the whole of our being and structures its depths. The power of the Name is such that it provokes the real Presence of Christ. His Presence penetrates us, fills us, imbibes us, just as the oil stain silently expands on paper to render it transparent. The Person of Jesus literally fades onto us and modifies us in our smallest detail. By repeating the Name, He ultimately enters into us. His manners, His reactions, His thoughts become ours through a sort of osmosis. Little by little, our life finds itself radically changed. We become resurrected ones, and nothing of our daily life escapes this new orientation. It is as though everything is magnetized by this Name which progressively beats to the rhythm of our heart.
LITURGY: THAT WE MIGHT BECOME GOD
This incredible transformation is a eucharist. As the bread and wine, which are our extended body, become the body and blood of Christ, so is it for the one who prays. It is there, in the liturgy, that all prayer finds both its continual source and the summit of its expression. For it is not a matter of participating once in a while in a liturgy, but rather that our whole being become liturgical and our daily life a celebration, a cosmic liturgy of which we are the priest through all that we do. From this alone will come a new humanity—the Body of Christ—and the transfiguration of the world.
But the incandescent hearth of this universal eucharist will always remain the human heart. When the deacon sings at the beginning of a certain liturgy: “Rise, let us be attentive, in silence!” it is to tear us away from the spirit of the world and the wrong motives of its ideology that makes of us the measure of all things and leads us to believe that happiness is only found in economics, politics, or psychology. The world was not created to be exploited and delivered over to everyone’s whims, where humanity finds itself reduced to the slavery we know so well. The liturgy initiates us into another knowledge: human beings are priests, standing at the center of creation which we receive from the hands of God and which we offer to Him in thanksgiving. The world is therefore the primal matter for the eucharist, which transforms our life in each moment into a life in God. Everything is made in order to commune with God, and work itself is a sacrament. Since nothing has life without God, everything receives meaning or value from offering it to Him in love.
This is our daily food, our uninterrupted eucharist, the sacrament of our Joy. For God did not create the universe out of need, but so that His creatures could participate in His joy.
by Alphonse and Rachel Goettmann
Translated by Theodore J. Nottingham
Translated from the original French, Sagesse et Pratiques du Christianisme Droguet et Ardant, Paris, 1991
Biblical quotations from the New King James Version
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Call of Silence
- The Book of Our Destiny
III. The Surprising Practice of Praise
- The Icon: Transparence to Beauty
- At the Source of Life
- Paths of Healing
VII. Toward a Transparent Consciousness