Friday, May 18, 2012

the Holy Spirit, Part 05

We all need spiritual guidance.

St. John counsels us, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” (I John 4:1) Discerning the Holy Spirit, however, is not always easy. In fact, the ability to do it is itself a gift from the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:10) Therefore, the cardinal rule of discernment is always: have the humility (and common sense) to ask your spiritual father (or mother)! Lack of humility is never from the Holy Spirit. Every Orthodox Christian needs a spiritual mentor and coach. Ideally, he or she should be a saint overflowing with spiritual gifts like healing and prophecy. In practice, you can get by nicely with anybody who is markedly more mature in Christ than you are. (You only need him to coach you along that part of the path which lies between where you have arrived and where he has arrived.) For most of us, that makes finding someone, if not easy, at least not terribly difficult. Usually it is the parish priest, but it can be anybody, whoever is the most Christ-like Orthodox Christian you know, willing to undertake the task. Your spiritual father will know far better than you if what you have experienced is the Holy Spirit or is from Him.

The following guidelines 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.)
• 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 you.
• contradictions of holy scripture, the Creed, or the prayers and worship of the Church.
• pointless, meaningless happenings.

Be suspicious if:

• you think you were cured. Consult your doctor before throwing away crutches or discontinuing medications!
• you think you 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.
• you think you 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 your mind.
• the alleged spiritual experience leaves you feeling satisfied or pleased with your spiritual condition. It should do the opposite: show you how far you still have to go.

It’s an encouraging sign if our experience bears spiritual fruit (rather than 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 solution to our problem, which solution wasn’t apparent before because it required humility
• a doctrine of the Church or passage of Scripture suddenly making clear, immediate, obvious, perfect, practical sense

Do not 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. Always check everything with a wise and mature spiritual father (or mother). This is how the genuine, living Treasure is passed down, from person to person, through all the centuries.

How do we encounter the Living Jesus? It can happen in many ways. Perhaps most often, Christ comes to us in preaching, as happened to the crowd on the Feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:37) Sometimes He suddenly makes Himself present to us as we are reading the Bible and the words seem to leap off the page and stab our hearts. other times, He comes when we are not doing anything “religious” at all. Sometimes He discloses Himself in a dramatic manner, as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. (Acts 9:1-20, Acts 22:6-16, Acts 26:9-18) Sometimes He reveals Himself as a “still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12) Sometimes the encounter is sudden, and sometimes it steals upon us.

Spiritual experience, a pure gift from God, can happen to anyone at any time – but the Holy Spirit first comes to live within a person in Holy Baptism/Holy Chrismation. Before then, the Holy Spirit works from outside a person; afterwards, from within.

Bishop Kallistos Ware, in The Orthodox Way, notes:
A distinction, however, needs here to be made between ‘experience’ and ‘experiences’. 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. (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 1990, p. 22)
Notice, too, that “spiritual experiences” are not what a person ought to seek, for such a search is self-serving. Our striving, rather, should be to find and to love and to serve the Truth. Those who do seek spiritual experiences are all too likely to encounter the wrong kind.

Finding God, or rather, being found by Him, is strictly His gift. It cannot be accomplished by all our striving nor is it merited by our striving – but it just as surely will not be accomplished without it, either. This is because seeking itself is already the first phase of being found. (Put another way, the extent to which we actively search for Truth is the extent to which we have come to value it.) In the Scripture, we read, “He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6) Jesus said, “Seek and you shall find, ask and it shall be given to you, knock and it shall be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9) And, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) He is here echoing Deuteronomy 4:29, "… you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul.”