Sunday, September 9, 2007

Feelings v. Christian Experience

But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (I John 2:27)

The presence of the Holy Spirit in us is something perceptible; that is, not to our fleshly senses, nor yet to our emotions, but to our own spirit. That is not to say there will be no periods of doubt or of feeling out of touch with Him; every Christian experiences these things. God withdraws our awareness of his presence on purpose some­times, “to test us,” meaning, to give us opportunities to grow, to learn how to deal with doubt, to bring us even closer to him in the end. But the norm is that most practicing Orthodox Christians are at least dimly aware of the Holy Spirit, most of the time.

Here is an opinion of St. Symeon the Theologian. I neglected to note the source of the first quote, but it is likely the same as that of the second, which came from Vladimir Lossky’s book, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Lossky says it’s Homily LVII, 4.

When a man who is naked in body puts on something, he has a clear awareness of the completed act and perceives the type of garment he is wearing. How then is it possible for the naked in soul not to feel anything when he puts on God? If, however, he does not in fact feel anything, then there exist two possible explanations: either God does not exist, or else the man who puts Him on is insensate, that is, dead. And I fear that those who maintain that the faithful can possess the Spirit of God within themselves, while remaining unaware of this fact, are in reality dead and naked in soul.

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If anyone claims that all believers have received and possessed the Holy Spirit without having consciousness of experience of Him, he blasphemes by treating as a false­hood the words of Christ who says that the Spirit is a well of water springing up into eternal life (John 4:14), and again, He that believeth on me…out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water (John 7:38). If one spring gushes up within us, the stream which flows from it must of necessity be visible to those who have eyes to see. But if all this happens within us without our having any experience or consciousness of it, then it is certain that we shall not know the eternal life which comes thence, that we shall not see the light of the Holy Spirit; that we shall remain as dead, blind and insensible in the life of eternity as we are in this present life. Our hope will thus be vain and our life useless if we rest always in death, if we remain dead after the spirit, deprived of the knowledge of eternal life. But it is not thus in truth, it is not thus.

Despite the wording here, or perhaps the translation, St. Symeon is not talking about mere feelings. Eve was the first victim of the “If it feels good, do it!” lie and it ought to have been clear ever since that our feelings are notoriously unreliable guides.

But what St. Symeon is talking about is Christian experience. That is something very different. It occurs at a different and deeper level than emotions or fantasies or thoughts, or even words.

St. Symeon is not necessarily talking about “experiences” (plural), either. As Bishop Kallistos points out:

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 they 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. (Ware, Kallistos, The Orthodox Way, St. Vladimir’s Seminary press, Crestwood, New York (1990), p. 22.)

Provided we are faithful to Him, or at least take care to repent when we fail, the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence in us serves as God’s pledge and token to us of salvation. The Holy Spirit in us is, as it were, the down payment, what the King James Version calls “the earnest” of salvation.

  • Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, who also has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)
  • …you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
  • And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)

This could not be the case if we were unaware of His being within us. But in Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit has grafted us into Christ, making a person into an entirely new creature, and in Holy Chrismation the Holy Spirit has come to dwell deep within this new creature. He both promised to be in us and as a matter of experience is in us, facts to which the New Testament bears abundant witness (and even the Old Testament predicts); thus we can seek Him and find Him there.