Daily Meditations

Father Maximos and the Key Themes of Eastern Orthodox Spirituality

Fr. Maximos went on to say that he was going to speak about the Ecclesia, or the Church, which includes the practices, homilies, and teachings of the holy elders of Christianity throughout the ages, not just the formal organization. He proceeded to state some well-known presuppositions of the Christian faith: that the Bible holds that God created human beings in His own image, that a human being is an icon of God and a reflection of how God is in His very nature, in His very essence. The true state of health, therefore, of human beings is their state prior to the primordial Fall. It follows that, to understand what the natural and healthy state of a human being is, we first have to contemplate the nature of God.

Fr. Maximos went on to summarize the key themes of Eastern Orthodox spirituality: that God is love and that human beings made in the image of God are also love in their very depth. Therefore, to be truly healthy means to think, feel, and act in conformity with our innermost nature. The Fall shattered our original healthy state, and the divine gifts we were originally endowed with degenerated into destructive passions. Egotism, not love, became the primary motivation in human affairs.

Fr. Maximos then explained that Christ’s historic presence, the Divine Archetype becoming manifest, was meant to help us heal our estrangement from God. It was a “therapeutic event.” According to Fr. Maximos and the Orthodox tradition he represented, the Church must be seen as a spiritual hospital. Its real mission is to help human beings overcome their existential, spiritual illness. Fr. Maximos then elaborated on the meaning of askesis, or spiritual exercises such as fasting, systematic and ceaseless prayer, study of the scriptures and the lives of saints, charitable activities, all-night vigils, confession, and communion. This is the methodology employed by the Ecclesia for the restoration of humanity’s wholeness and spiritual health. He described what could be considered the Threefold Way of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Orthodox elders speak of three distinct stages that every human being must traverse on his or her path toward reunion with God: Catharsis, or purification of the self from egotistical passions; Fotisis, or the illumination and enlightenment of the soul that follows Catharsis; and Theosis, or union with God, the final destination and healing of the human soul. In my years of exposure to this tradition, I understood these three stages as archetypal in that the elders consider them part of the structure of the human soul and its ultimate destiny. That means, regardless of one’s religion or religious beliefs, salvation implies a movement through these stages. Simply put, you cannot reach or know God without first purifying your heart from lowly passions.

“The verification of the Gospel and the claims of the Church about its therapeutic promise,” Fr. Maximos went on to say, “is the presence among us of the very people who have been healed, that is, the saints. We are talking not about some extraterrestrial beings but people like you and me who, after implementing the therapeutic methods of the Ecclesia, have witnessed it in themselves and have proved to the world that its pedagogy leads to the healing and the salvation of human beings. During the last two thousand years, the saints offer witness to the fact that the Grace of God heals human beings at their very core.

“When we speak of the salvation of a human being in this world, we are talking not about someone who prays and reads all day long by himself or herself but about a human being who may live an ordinary, normal life. The perfected human being in Christ manifests certain characteristics that demonstrate the presence of God. St. Paul, following Christ’s message that one can understand a tree by its fruit, goes on to enumerate for us the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

Fr. Maximos ended his talk by saying that if we demonstrate these qualities in our way of thinking, feeling, and acting, it is a sign that the Holy Spirit is manifest in our lives. This, he concluded, is the real healing of human beings according to the Gospel and the real goal of the therapeutic pedagogy of the Ecclesia.

~Adapted from Kyriacos C. Markides, Inner River: A Pilgrimage to the Heart of Christian Spirituality