Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Is What I Experience(d) Really the Holy Spirit?"

This is one of countless areas in which we need a spiritual father or mother. He or she will know far better than we if what we have experienced is the Holy Spirit or is from Him. Here are a few guidelines that may be helpful, but they must never replace being mentored by someone who is already a close friend of the Holy Spirit.

Flee! Run; do not walk, if what happened to you involved:

-- paying any money for it, even indirectly, for tickets or seats. Conferences, involving fees for food, transportation, lodging, or study materials, are not included in this warning. But we should never have to pay just to hear a Christian preacher preach.

-- any whiff of showmanship.

-- insults to your human dignity, such as groveling on the floor or making animal noises.

-- loss of self-control. The Spirit of the true God does not do that to us.

-- contradictions of Holy Scripture, the Creed, or the prayers and worship of the Church.

-- pointless, meaningless happenings.

We should be suspicious if:

-- we think we were cured. Consult your doctor before throwing away crutches or discontinuing medications!

-- we think we were given a glimpse of the future. Acting upon false premonitions of the future obviously can have unfortunate consequences. Consult your spiritual father.

-- the experience involved high emotions and bodily sensations. Spiritual realities cannot be discerned except by spiritual means. Emotional/bodily “highs” are pleasant, often thrilling, and may even help a person get through the week, but they are not what the Holy Spirit is all about. In fact, their presence makes spiritual discernment more difficult than it is in their absence; their presence obscures the Holy Spirit.

-- we think we have received the Holy Spirit in other than an Orthodox setting. It can happen, for the Spirit blows free and certainly isn’t confined to the Church, but such an experience should raise some red flags in our minds.

-- the alleged spiritual experience leaves us feeling satisfied or pleased with our spiritual condition. A true visitation of the Holy Spirit invariably shows us how very far we still have to go.

-- we were seeking an exotic experience. Such seeking is self-serving. Moreover, as Metropolitan Kallistos reminds us,

Direct experience can exist without necessarily being accompanied by specific experiences. There are indeed many who have come to believe in God because of some voice or vision, such as St. Paul received on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). There are many others, however, who have never undergone particular experiences of this type, but why can yet affirm that, present throughout their life as a whole, there is a total experience of the living God, a conviction existing on a level more fundamental than all their doubts. Even though they cannot point to a precise place or moment in the way that St. Augustine, Pascal or Wesley could, they can claim with confidence: I know God personally.
(The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press, Crestwood, New York, 1990, p. 22)

It’s an encouraging sign if our experience bears spiritual fruit (as distinct from emotional fruit) such as:

-- new insight into our true spiritual condition, insight otherwise known as humility

-- repentance, meaning sorrow over the ways we have “grieved” God, turning from those ways, and having faith in and rejoicing in His measureless forgiveness. True contrition, turning, and faith are all works of the Holy Spirit. (But subtle counterfeits abound.)

-- ability to forgive someone we couldn’t forgive before

-- liberation, as when an issue that had blocked our prayer is resolved

-- receiving understandings we needed, answers that are suddenly so obvious we marvel we couldn’t see them before

-- courage to do the right thing, of which we were incapable before

-- seeing the right course to take, the right way to resolve an issue, which wasn’t apparent before because it required humility from us

-- a doctrine of the Church or passage of Scripture suddenly making clear, immediate, obvious, perfect, practical sense

Again, we should never try to discern these things alone, whether by these few guidelines or any others you may find elsewhere. There are always exceptions and evil is often very subtle indeed. We should always check everything with a wise and mature spiritual father (or mother).