My godson Chrys attended the “Called & Gifted” Workshop recently hosted by the parish I serve. He sent me some very helpful, if mildly provocative, observations about the event. What is especially helpful in his comments, or so it seems to me, is precisely his willingness to put into sharp focus the general difference between Western and Eastern approaches to the spiritual life.
These differences are not necessarily a matter of right and wrong, but of emphasis. And our difference in emphasis ought not to be taken as an excuse to minimize or exclude the other approach. Rather as I think the workshop itself demonstrated, our differences can serve to highlight our need for the gifts that the other brings to the conversation.
So for your consideration, I offer you Chrys’ thoughts on the recent “Called & Gifted” Workshop.
Called and Gifted – Some initial thoughts
November 24-26, 2008
Discerning one’s spiritual gifts offers a constructive approach to appraise and appreciate the work of God in one’s life. In a sense, it is the positive corollary to confession in which one honestly assesses one’s sinful failings: how one departs from the grace of God. As a complement to confession, reflecting on one’s charisms offers an opportunity to explore how one participates with the grace of God. One can – and probably should – lead to the other. Both together should lead to a deeper commitment, greater integrity and richer faithfulness.
The lives of the Saints are particularly important in illustrating the charisms at work. First, the Saints show us most vividly how the charisms have been applied – and applied faithfully and to praiseworthy effect. This is both inspiring and illuminating.
At the same time, approaching the saints in this manner also de-mystifies them. Hagiography has a tendency to produce characters that are almost ontologically alien; that is, they seem to be of another order of being altogether different from us. In learning about the Saints through the lens of applied charisms, we see them set on a path similar to our own: inspired, enlivened and empowered by the same grace as we have been given (albeit more fully and transparently expressed) and thus like us. This helps us see more clearly that we are like them. Approaching them in this manner can help us to more readily and eagerly walk the same path that they walked.
There are differences, however, that would color an Orthodox approach to the cultivation of the charisms.
First, unlike either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant, the Orthodox starts with a firm understanding of ascetical practice as a foundational element of discipleship. The priority given to this practice is directly tied to the purpose of discipleship and the goal of salvation: theosis. Since this understanding tends to be absent, forgotten, misunderstood or diminished in the West, it can be difficult for Catholics and Protestants to understand. Many western Christians simply move from conversion to mission with only a vague notion as to the ultimate purpose or meaning of the Christian life.
For the Orthodox, however, theosis expresses in a clear and focused manner the goal of our life in Christ. As such, it defines, directs and informs everything we do (or it should). It is the lode-star, the framework, the diagnostic by which we assess the purpose, value, and application of any practice, whether personal or corporate. Thus, while asceticism may seem quaint, misguided or simply a method of personal development to someone in the West, the Orthodox views ascetical discipline as an integral part of the path to theosis. (Through daily discipline that constrain self-centeredness and focus our heart on Christ, we seek to make ourselves more available to God and more able to participate in His Trinitarian Life.)
In the same manner, the meaning and value of individual experiences or corporate efforts are judged, shaped and guided by this clear goal. This is a critical difference between the current states of the various formation traditions and where it is absent, the loss can be devastating. This perspective explains why the Orthodox tend to view and evaluate the experiences of the Saints in a manner that is somewhat different from the way in which Roman Catholics do.
For many Catholics, ecstatic experience has pride of place. Despite the rigorous examination applied by the Catholic hierarchy, spiritual experience is given a presumption of validity in the West that it does not have in and is fundamentally alien to Orthodoxy. In the Orthodox Church, such experiences and revelations are initially suspect. There is a prevalent distrust that views such moments as the likely expression of the fallen human imagination or worse. This distrust reflects the consistent lessons of ascetic insight, born of the desire for genuine Communion with the real Person of Christ rather than the self-serving illusions to which the ego is unusually prone. It recognizes (well before modern psychotherapy did) the many deep layers of entrenched selfishness that make up the human personality.
In Orthodox ascetical practice, we continually discover how deeply sinful and false our fallen selves are, and how much we resist, distort or seek to manipulate grace to serve that self. The ascetical process is designed to help us discover how deeply rooted sin is in us and how much of our defiance of grace is not even conscious. We discover that our self awareness tends to be remarkably self-serving, and that much of what we really are is kept well below the level of our conscious awareness. However unpleasant this maybe, it is necessary if we are to undergo the ever-deepening conversion necessary for theosis. Only by allowing grace to expose these evasions through extensive and diligent effort to die to the old self do we tend to come to a reasonably accurate assessment of ourselves and a deeply genuine repentance.
As a result of going through this process of discovery and disclosure, we do not tend to have the same reflexive acceptance of either conscious intentions or emotional experience. By looking to those whose hearts given evidence of having been more fully shaped by Christ, we find that authentic experiences tend to be different in both character and how they are treated.
We find that they are both more common, more miraculous and – at the same time – far less important (indeed, often hidden) among the living Saints we know. As a result, many of the more colorful experiences of the Catholic saints are viewed with suspicion, and sometimes shock, by the Orthodox. Indeed, when an Orthodox does have such an experience, it is held at arms length, carefully “bracketed” as potentially deceptive in either content or – if authentic – in effect, and placed at the feet of one’s spiritual father, before vesting it with authority. Thus, the Orthodox does not embrace “experience” in the same manner or to the same degree as the Roman Catholic does. While welcome if genuine, experiences are neither as important nor necessary; the goal is true theosis – full participation in the life of the Trinity and the indwelling of Christ in the heart for the transfiguration of both the self and the world.
This posture toward experience may account for the readiness of Catholics to embrace the charisms. It may also explain Orthodox reticence in the matter. If so, it may be necessary to re-work the application and understanding of the charisms using an Orthodox framework that is rooted in an ascetical discipleship that is founded and focused on theosis.