Awareness of God: Thoughts on theism vs. atheism

“The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one. The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that did understand and seek God.”

– Psalm 14:1-2 (Douay-Rheims Bible).

“The Lord loves us so dearly that it passes all description. Through the Holy Spirit alone can the soul know His love, of which she is inexpressibly aware. The Lord is all goodness and mercy. He is meek and gentle, and we have no words to tell of His goodness; but the soul without words feels this love and would remain wrapped in its quiet tranquility forever.” 

St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938).

The divide between atheism and theism ultimately reduces to a question of whether one believes and is aware of the existence of another world, a spiritual dimension, or whether one does not believe such a dimension exists. Belief or disbelief in a higher power, in a force or dimension directed by something beyond what our cognitive rational mind can recognize, is a natural and logical consequence of where one falls in answering this question.
 
Ultimately, as decent as we can and should be in our dialogues and day-to-day encounters with those who differ from us in this regard, we have to recognize that we as theists adhere to a fundamentally different worldview and understanding of existence compared to atheists. We should remember that our particular worldview and understanding of existence as Orthodox Christians especially sets us apart in Western society from atheists whose primary engagement with Christianity is with Roman Catholicism and the vastly different Protestant denominations. 
 
At the core of who they are by their declared belief that Goes does not exist, atheists must inevitably think that those of us who believe in a spiritual dimension and who avow prayer as a means of communicating with the divine are hopelessly deluded. Likewise, all theists, but most especially we as Orthodox Christians, have to recognize with sadness that atheists are blind and deaf to the spiritual reality of God’s presence, of which we are intimately and experientially aware, for God is “everywhere present and filling all things”.
 
Thanks be to God that His design for all people to come unto Him and to know Him by His love – the will of the Father through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, communicated to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit – can and does illumine the hardest of hearts. As much as many of the recent sacrilegious public acts by those promoting militant atheism and other radical ideologies horrify us as Orthodox believers, we must remember that no theist can become an atheist without first losing trust in those whom they have seen speaking for or acting on behalf of God. We should be moved out of genuine love for their souls to pray for atheists – many of whom are kindhearted and fundamentally decent people – but we must always strive to answer the hatred of militant atheists with love, with silence when we are mocked, and kindness when we are scorned.

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“. . . chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.”

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“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.”

-St Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938), my patron saint.

A beautiful description of the invisible links which hold together heaven and earth, this world and the next, through the prayers of the faithful to the saints and the saints’ active prayer and unceasing love for us. 

Thoughts on the grace of God in our lives and the transforming power of His love

How this suffering world would be transformed if we could more freely acknowledge to each other the real presence of God in our lives! Think of how society would be transformed if more of us could understand and connect with each other on this deep spiritual level! These moments, which so deeply transform and illumine us, are little theophanies, moments of revelation of divine love and whisperings of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

These manifestations of our Savior’s love for us touch the very soul and warm the heart of the man or woman open to receiving them. It is these moments which serve to convert and orient one’s soul towards her Creator, which can and should inspire us to seek after God with all our being.

How transformational and glorious these manifestations of divine love and grace are in the lives of those who discern them! If men and women felt free to acknowledge to their fellows this abundant grace of God and manifestations of His love in their lives, the whole world would realize how much more united in His love it actually is. They would see how, in the words of St. John of Damascus (675-749), “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. The Lord who has created all existence, who has painted this icon of His children whom He has fashioned in His image, works with human soul in tapestries of grace and love, His Spirit like a fire warming the noetic hearts of the faithful.

If only more people in the Church felt that they could share their experiences of divine grace, which can come upon any person at any time when they have opened themselves to receiving it! This grace, always a miracle when it visits a person by the power of the Holy Spirit, is bestowed on the heart and soul of someone who seeks after God daily and at all times, who discerns Him as that which is “everywhere present and fillest all things”. Those who have discerned this grace know what it is to live and believe the words of Blessed Augustine (354-430) even if he or she has never heard them: “To fall in love with God is the greatest romance.”

Such a person who truly loves Him and discerns His presence in their life constantly remembers the Lord’s chief command, both to those of the Old and New Covenant, to the blood of the House of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:5) and to the new Israel of the New Dispensation, that we must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and all our might (Matthew 22:37-40). The person who remembers the Lord’s commandments, truly endeavoring to love God with all their being, is on the path to that mystical union with His divine energies and love which shines in the faces of the saints. Such a person is immersed in the lifelong process of theosis: the miraculous and mysterious awakening and transformation of the noetic inner heart and soul of man in union with God’s loving grace through which he or she is divinized.

“God became man so that man might become God”, wrote St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria (296-373) in his treatise On the Incarnation. St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (130-202), who died almost a century before St. Athanasius’ birth, wrote similarly, “In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” This teaching is a universal witness of the early Church, present in all the writings of the earliest Fathers who knew the apostles of Christ or who were trained by their disciples and their disciples’ disciples, and so on.

How can man become God when he is so clearly imperfect? St John Climacus (“John of the Ladder”), St Isaac the Syrian, St Silouan the Athonite, Elder Cleopa (Illie) and so many other holy men and women write of the process of salvation and divinization- for man can only be divinized to the degree that he allows himself to be completely opened to the saving and transformative loving grace of God- as a ladder of gradual, lifelong spiritual ascent. Elder Cleopa (+1998) offers beautifully clear instruction on the ladder of ascent in prayer and spiritual introspection and communion with God here.

The ladders of spiritual growth and increasing discernment through prayer, fasting, repentance and love for God are mutually interconnected to the point of pursuing the same end, reaching for the same transformation in and through and by Christ. First comes the recognition and aversion to sin as anything which separates us from God’s grace and love of the other. Then comes the ceasing of sin and the promptings of repentance, turning away from sinful mindsets and actions, and turning anew to the love of God, With this increasing discernment comes the ability to pray with the lips and the mouth and gradually, the mind; that is, to remember how to pray and what one wants to pray, and to increasingly understand the significance and meaning of what one prayers. Still, this is not the highest level of prayer, which the saints call “prayer of the heart”, the deepest level of communion with God when one’s mental comprehension of what one prays, one’s psyche, descends into the nous, the spiritual eye or the inner heart of one’s soul. Without a lifelong cultivation of ceaseless prayer (1 Thess. 5:17) and repentance, we may mount the ladder rungs again and again, but never truly begin to ascend in prayer.

We cannot become God by our very essence, which is created, no more than a child can ever become identical in essence to its parent, but we are gradually transformed as our noetic heart and soul open more to the energy and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Man can thus mysteriously and miraculously  become united to His Creator by the most intimate adoption of sonship. Insofar as man, a created being endowed by God with an immortal spirit, can be united to Him through immersion and participation in His illuminative grace and love, he can be transformed and made divine.

To receive true forgiveness, we must truly forgive others

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“This is the rule we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you. But if you refuse to forgive, then your own sins remain with you.”

-St Silouan of Mount Athos

“He who has not completely forgiven those who stumble, and has not brought his heart to God free from grievance and illuminated with the light of reconciliation with his neighbor, will fail to attain the grace of the blessings he has prayed for.

Indeed, he will justly be handed over to temptation and to evil, so that, having retracted his judgments of other people, he may learn to purify himself of his own sins.

Scripture here means by temptation the law of sin, of which the first man was free when he was created. And by ‘what is evil’ it means the devil, who has mixed this law of sin with human nature, deceitfully persuading man to transfer his soul’s desire from what is permitted to what is forbidden, and to turn aside to the transgression of the divine commandment.

The result of this is the loss of the incorruptibility which had been given by grace.”

-St Maximos the Confessor, d. 662

A former aid to Byzantine Emperor Heraclius who entered monastic life, St Maximos the Confessor, also known as Maximos the Theologian and Maximos of Constantinople, was a monk, master theologian, and prolific scholar who lived from 580-662.

Dear Readers

“Blessed is the soul that knows her Creator and has grown to love Him, for she has found perfect rest in Him. The Lord bids us love Him with all our hearts and all our souls—but how is it possible to love Him Whom we have never seen, and how may we learn this love? The Lord is made known by His effect on the soul. When the Lord has visited her, the soul knows that a dear Guest has come and gone, and she yearns for Him and seeks Him with tears: ‘Where art Thou, my Light, where art Thou, my Joy? Thy trace is fragrant in my soul but Thou art not there and my soul yearns for Thee, and my heart aches and is sad, and nothing rejoices me because I have grieved my Lord and He hath hidden Himself from my sight.’” – St Silouan.
~   ~   ~
Christ is with us! Wherever you are in the world, if you are observing the solemn liturgies of Holy Week, or if you have forgotten to attend them, were too busy, or are not yet Orthodox, I hope you are well! This Holy Week, my first as an Orthodox Christian, I have been thinking of my fellow Orthodox, especially those newly illumined in the Faith, like me, and also the catechumens preparing for their chrismations at Pascha. Yesterday’s service of the Anointing was absolutely remarkable, and the anointing at the end reminded me very much of my chrismation.
In these holy days, when God’s grace fills the hearts of all of us who are partaking in the beauty and majesty of the Holy Week services, I think constantly of my family members, both Catholics and lapsed Catholics, and how I so wish they could be a part of the fullness of this Faith, experiencing the incomparable richness and profound depth of our observance of Holy Week leading up to the Passion Gospels of Holy Thursday. In the Liturgy of St Basil’s Mystical Supper this morning, the Church remembered her Bridegroom Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Super two thousand years ago in Jerusalem.
The twelve Gospels of the Passion of our Lord which we heard tonight recall in vividly transportive and soul-stirring detail the dramatic final hours of Jesus’ earthly life as a Man: His betrayal by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, His trial and humiliation, Simon Peter’s denial of Him three times, the chief priest and the blood-minded crowd’s mockery and hatred for Him, Whom they would not know or believe, and His Crucifixion whereby, by submitting to death on the Cross, He opened the possibility of eternal life to all who believe in Him.
I’ve just returned to my flat from the chanting of the 12 Gospels of the Passion at St Andrew’s church here in Edinburgh. Holy Thursday is always profoundly moving for me, in part because it was two years ago at the Holy Thursday Liturgy at St Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington that I first experienced Orthodox worship and liturgical life. Since that day, my life has truly never been the same!
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Tonight I was more conscious than ever before of the words of the fifteenth antiphon of the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday. Here the Orthodox Church in America’s late Archbishop +Job (d. 2009, Memory Eternal!) sings the beautiful antiphon:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung on the tree, 
The King of the angels is decked with a crown of thorns. 
He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy passion, O Christ. . . 
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”
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The services of Holy Week so far has been so ethereal, so other-worldly, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced! In the kathisma chants tonight between the Gospel readings, I was struck by the enormity of the cosmic shift presented in the words of the Church’s fifteenth antiphon of the Matins for Holy Friday, which St. Andrew’s parish here chanted on Thursday night. As we all stepped forward to venerate the icon of Christ hanging on the Cross, I recalled the words of St. Paul in Romans 8:21-22:
“The creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”
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How the Crucifixion altered the cosmos, all of creation, I cannot hope to rationally understand, but only contemplate in wonder! What an earth-shattering contrast, what a horrifically awe-inspiring sight it must have been for those who believed in Christ as the Son of God and God Incarnate- His disciples, male and female, and His mother – to behold Jesus allowing Himself to be put to death on the Cross! That the God who created the heavens and the earth let Himself be nailed upon the Cross, that the God who led the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus and protected them as His people is mocked, abused and condemned by the very chief priests of Israel and a Jerusalem mob! What an extraordinary, horrifying, fearfully awesome thing!
As we wait for the risen Lord, beseeching that He “show us also Thy glorious Resurrection”, I hope you know, wherever you might be, that right now, there are thousands of holy people, nuns and monks, priests and bishops praying ceaselessly for you. Every Orthodox Christian prays for you in the antiphons of the Liturgy- whether these people are your brothers and sisters in faith, or strangers unknown to you, they still pray for you. The saints pray continually for us. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Saints grieve to see people living on earth and not knowing that if they were to love one another the world would know freedom from sin; and where sin is absent there is joy and gladness of the Holy Spirit. The Saints in heaven though the Holy Spirit behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in this same Holy Spirit they see our lives too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our burning prayers. When they were living on earth they learned of the love of God from the Holy Spirit; and he who knows love on earth takes it with him into eternal life, where love grows and becomes perfect. The souls of the Saints know the Lord and His goodness toward man, wherefore their spirits burn with love for the peoples. They were chosen by the Holy Spirit to pray for the whole world.” 
If you are not yet Orthodox, I earnestly hope you will seek out the fullness of the original Faith, a fullness which, in all my own searching, I have never experienced anywhere else, in any other faith tradition or community. I know many wonderful men and women living in the Roman Catholic faith in which I was raised, and I met many people in the different churches, synagogues and mosques I have visited who truly love God. But truly there is nothing like the Church’s liturgical worship and its Orthodox Faith.
The prayers of holy men and women especially are jewels to be valued above any other earthly thing (See James 5:16). These saints, living on earth and those now departed, alive in Christ, love each of you, Orthodox or not. Christian or not, believer or not. As St Silouan reminds us,
“The Holy Spirit is love; and the souls of all the holy who dwell in heaven overflow with this love. And on earth this same Holy Spirit is in the souls of those who love God. All heaven beholds the earth in the Holy Spirit, and hears our prayers and carries them to God.”
Wherever you are, I hope you have a joyous Pascha! If you are not Orthodox but want to experience the indescribable beauty and other-worldly mystical transcendence which the Orthodox liturgy alone offers, do not delay: visit your nearest Orthodox church and attend the Paschal Liturgy, the feast of feasts, the miracle of miracles! This time of year, more than ever, you will behold people exuding a quiet radiance, an inner joy which comes from participating in the full richness and mystery of this ancient Faith, the reservoir and the jewel of the timeless Church.
~   ~   ~
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“There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man, but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God by the Holy Spirit she feels without a shadow of doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest, the best and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourselves.” -St Silouan.