Communion & Theosis
Verily I say to you, there hath not arisen among those born of women a greater than John the Baptist; but the least in kingdom of the heavens is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of the heavens is being taken by force, and the forceful seize it. “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye are willing to receive it, he is Elias, who is about to come. The one who hath ears to hear, let him hear.12 (Matt. 11:11-15)
In other translations, forceful may be translated as violent. Preaching the violence of repentance, the Forerunner suffered a violent death, gaining heaven as a witness of truth. Nailed to the Cross, the One Who the Roman Governor declared "King of the Jews," cried out in a loud voice; the Roman executioners infused vinegar with bitter wormwood (gall) to offer a single bitter drink to one anguishing and thirsting for life, and used a spear as a lance to confirm death: blood and water flowing from the wounded body.
The night before The Master had spoken to His disciples of the unity of His two substantive natures (in philosophical Greek of the time, hypostases), praying that they be one and He one with them, even as He and the Father are one, the unity of the fullness of Love:
I do not make a request that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest guard them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in Thy truth; the word which is Thine is truth. Even as Thou didst send Me forth into the world, I also sent them forth into the world. And on behalf of them I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. And I do not make request for these only, but also for those who shall believe on Me through their word; in order that all may be one, even as thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us, that the world might believe that Thou didst send Me forth. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given them, in order that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected into one, and that the world may know that Thou didst send Me forth, and didst love them even as Thou didst love Me. Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold the glory, that which is Mine, which Thou gavest Me; for Thou didst love M before the foundation of the world.
The vinegar-gall on hyssop masked suffering, the blood and water poured out as emblems of the death of Love, and when combined with a three-bar cross they form the distinctive "Calvary Cross," commonly found in Orthodox churches. It should not be taken lightly.
In the Slavic monastic tradition, an expanded version of this design known as the "great schema" is incorporated into the formal garments of the most advanced ascetic monastics, "great schema-monks."
Few monks are capable of the level of asceticism required of this degree of monasticism and it is often reserved for those known to be approaching eternal repose. The few that take it earlier are highly regarded as spiritual elders, and spend most of their time in the exhausting work of hearing difficult confessions. These are true spiritual warriors for the Love of God, embattled by demons of the middle-air who delight in pulling Christian souls ascending the spiritual ladder to maturity, unity with God (theosis), into deepest depths.
There is no sentimentality or romantic gauziness in the Orthodox understanding of what it means to seek God or to participate in the Holy Mystery of Communion, yet it brings sublime and joyful gratitude (Eucharist) to the soul, and is the common work (Liturgy) of coming together (synaxis) in the unity of the entire Body of Christ (the Church), both within and beyond time.
The mortal condition of humanity is unnatural. Indeed, possessed of a rational soul and capable of aspiring to eternity, death is the supreme violence of being ripped apart, the soul from its home in the body, the body corrupted and degraded as it returns to its dust. As "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23), each little sin is an agent of corruption, a worm anticipating the grave, hence a contradiction of person and character of the Life Giver present in the Holy Mystery of the Divine Liturgy. For Orthodox Christians, the ritual for Preparation for Communion is well defined, fasting from the evening before, as the day is defined as being from evening to evening (Gen.1:5), recitation of a moderate set of prayers intended to soften the heart and ready the mind for what the body is about to do, and to make a personal confession witnessed by a priest and able to act as spiritual father, and to receive his blessing to make communion. As the Mystery of Confession, or Reconciliation, is independent of Holy Communion, the time, place, and frequency of Confession varies somewhat, being a combination of personal need, availability of the pastor, and the size and customs of the local community.
While the rites and piety associated with the Orthodox understanding of Holy Communion are complex, spirituality of the Orthodox Liturgy as the coming together of the community to perform the common work of the people to seek unity with God through remembrance of God With Us is quite simple, though not simplistic. This consists of four principal parts: achieving a synaxis of the worshiping community, performing intercession for the universe, edification of the heart in furtherance of conversion, and a sharing of the confession of the unity of God consistent with the in spirit and truth, through a ritual of peace and love instituted by Christ God. Though elements of each are distributed throughout the Divine Service, from the beginning these have been clustered into two projects – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Faithful- the former being a public work that extends the ordinary morning prayer service (Matins or Orthros), the major public praise and teaching service- the latter being a corporate mystery, or hidden truth, and an instance of the worship of perfect and eternal High Priest (Heb. 4:14-5:10, 7:11-10:36, 12:1-13:24). The underlying purpose is the work of making known the reality of God with Us, from past example and through bringing about spiritual maturity in the faith, leavening the world through Divine Grace on the part of the community and of the individual.
Orthodox Divine Services are punctuated with many exclamations of the Greek “amen" and entries of "Lord have mercy" in the local languages. Indeed, a common experience for visitors to a local parish is learning how to say "Lord have mercy" in one of the several languages of traditionally Orthodox countries. Together, acclamation of "True" (Amen) and the aspirational prayer "Lord have mercy" are refrains in the "verse and response" pattern used throughout Divine Services.
More significantly, however, they are essential elements of Orthodox personal spirituality and devotional life in general, and monastic life in particular, the paradigm of which can be found in several versions in the Gospels:
And it came to pass, as He was drawing near to Jericho, a certain blind man was sitting by the wayside begging. And having heard a crowd passing by, he kept on inquiring what this may be. And they related to him, “Jesus the Nazaræan is passing by.” And he called out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” And they who went before were rebuking him, in order that he should keep silent; but he kept on crying out much more, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And after he drew near, He asked him, saying, “What dost thou wish that I should do to thee?” And he said, “Lord, that I might recover my sight.”And Jesus said to hi9m, “Recover thy sight; thy faith hath made thee well.” And immediately he recovered his sight, and began following Him, glorifying God. And all the people, having seren it, gave praise to God. (Lk. 18:35-43).
Declaring the truth of salvation polishes the philanthropic reputation of God, and glorifies Him. Following the twin parables of the Persistent Widow and the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk. 18:1-14), this full epitome of persistent prayer is "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," (or a similar form) known as "The Jesus Prayer."
The Jesus Prayer is the foundation of Orthodox monastic spirituality, as well as part of popular lay practice. The anonymous Russian 19th Century spiritual classic "The Way of the Pilgrim" promotes the general use of The Prayer as a means for spiritual growth leading to unification of a person with God. This follows the guidance of the 18th Century compendium of essential ascetic writings for monastics selected by Sts. Nicodemus the Hagiorite and Makarios of Corinth known as the "Philokalia,”meaning the love of the holy, in the edition of St. Paisius Velichkovsky.
Deep, continuous praying of The Prayer is a core monastic practice from earliest time (cf. Irenee Hausher, "Name of Jesus,” Cistercian Publications), with the practice being especially promoted with the revival of hesychastic spirituality by St. Gregory Palamas and St. Nil Sorksy. An essential component today of monastic life on Mt. Athos, this Prayer of the Heart was brought into English Orthodoxy through the labors of St. Sophrony of Essex, the spiritual heir of St. Siloan the Athonite, and spiritual father of Archimandrite Zachariah, whose teachings are spiritually important to our own monastic endeavor at St. Demetrios Monastery.
The goal of making the heart mindful of the presence of Christ with Us is spiritually very violent and forceful as the passions must be destroyed, so it should be approached cautiously while working with a spiritual father, as much discernment is needed to heal the soul. Nevertheless, as the Russian bishop, St. Ignatius (Brianchaninov) taught, the measured use of The Prayer employing a prayer rope is beneficial to all. Certainly, it is not uncommon to observe Orthodox of all ranks with a prayer rope in hand.
The spiritual intention of The Jesus Prayer, as with Holy Communion, is the total purification of mind and body to bring the person fully into unity with the Divine Presence (theosis), illuminating the person with the uncreated light as they are restored to the limped stillness of Paradise so that with the sensitivity of a cosmically expanded heart the suffering of all creation can be relieved through the person's intense participation in the energies of God.