“Founded on spiritual experience”

[March 1, 2016]

This is the main thing:

“Our religion is founded on spiritual experience, seen and heard as surely as any physical fact in this world. Not theory, not philosophy, not human emotions, but experience.”

—St. Nikolai Velimirovic

I think that, for much of my life writing about eastern / Orthodox Christianity and ancient Christian spiritual disciplines, I have been going about it wrong, based on some inaccurate assumptions I had.

My main assumption was: Wow! Orthodox Christianity has preserved a way to actually become one with Christ! This is what I always wanted! Western Christians are going to love this!

One mistake was that Western Christians inevitably heard it as if I were saying, “Hooray for my church! My church is the best!”

When what I meant was, “Ancient Christians worked out a safe and effective way to cultivate awareness of the presence of God! It actually works! It’s been practiced continually in the East but kind of got lost in the West! Here’s how you do it!” Instead—inevitably, I realize now—it sounded like only “Rah rah my church!”

A followup question would be, “Well, do you have to become Orthodox to do it?”

And the answer is, “This is the heritage of all Christians. We all go back to the early church. Of course you can use whatever parts you want without becoming Orthodox, and you will benefit from them.

“I think you get the most from it when you do the whole program, without picking and choosing. When you choose the parts you like, they reinforce what you already think and expect, and don’t challenge you as much. I think you get more out of it if you become Orthodox and do the whole thing. But even if you don’t, you’ll get something out of it, sure.” I use the analogy of flowers in a vase, which are wonderful for brightening the beauty of a room, but eventually die because they’re not connected to their roots any more.

I think that was one problem, that I didn’t anticipate how difficult it is to communicate this subtle thing, about people being welcome to pick and choose parts of it, but knowing that it’s not the same as doing the whole thing. Like, if your doctor says you have to diet and exercise, and you do only diet or only exercise.

But the other thing I didn’t anticipate is even more surprising to me, that all Christians don’t crave more of an experience of Jesus in their daily lives. I thought everybody knows how intoxicating and overwhelmingly beautiful and joyous his presence is, and everybody would be eager to know more and practice this ancient way. To me, it was such an amazing discovery, that this “way” has been able to take root in all cultures all over the world, and been practiced for 2000 years. That shows it really works!!! It can work for anyone anywhere!!! Let’s get started!!!

See, not everybody wants that. Such a surprise. To me, union with Christ is the whole point of Christianity. Every other thing a person does is meant to flow out of that connection. Christ directs and empowers us every day, every moment; or rather, every moment that you pay attention, and the whole thing is about learning how to pay attention. How to discern the right, real voice of Christ, and how to follow.

(As you follow this way you begin more and more to see how the miraculous invades everyday life, if Christ is there present in you, present in the situation, bringing his life. Miracles fit right into the flow. Sometimes I say that, even though in a liturgical and historical sense you could say Orthodoxy looks like Catholicism, from another point of view you could say that Orthodoxy looks like Pentecostalism.)

The icon of the Transfiguration below, from about AD 550, at the monastery on Mt Sinai—that’s where we’re going. That’s Christ’s plan for us.

Anyway, that was the biggest surprise to me, that a lot of people really don’t crave union with Christ that much. Perhaps they see the Christian life as being about doing many different things, many different courses you can take, and “Prayer” is a required course for everybody, but not everybody keeps taking Prayer courses and eventually getting up to Prayer 401. But for me, like I said, union with Christ is the whole point of our life on earth, the whole point of the Incarnation. It’s as basic as breathing, and any other courses we take have to be grounded in listening to Christ, through the ability to hear and discern that we cultivate by means of prayer.

I’m repeating myself, but basically that’s it; I was surprised to learn (and it took me a long time to grasp this) that many Christians aren’t that interested in growing in union with Christ. In the West, that seems like something for over-emotional kooks, perhaps. Even though it happens independently of emotion, because it is happening in real life; like if it rains, it rains in real life, no matter what emotions you are having at the time. And a basic step of the path is getting self-control so that emotions don’t throw you around. It’s victory over emotionalism, because instead you’re watching and following Christ.

St. Nikolai’s quote above summed it up for me; it’s all about experience, actual real-life experience. It just took me a long time to realize that not everyone is interested in that.

(Mosaic icon of the Transfiguration from the apse of the church at the Orthodox monastery on Mt Sinai, from abt AD 550)

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service, Beliefnet.com, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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  1. Dear Frederica, thank you for this blog post. My wife and I both enjoy your books and learning from you. I'm compelled to respond to this post because it's an issue I've thought a bit about, and I'm not sure you have hit the nail on the head. I don't doubt that many people, even Christians, do not desire the type of experience of God—union with Christ—that you describe. Nevertheless, I suspect that many people do have this desire but don't find it necessary to be Orthodox to fulfill it. Although I'm a Protestant by background, I am drawn to Orthodoxy in many ways, and I think Orthodox doctrine is right in many respects and corrects aspects of Western thought, especially, as you've pointed out, in the way that Orthodoxy articulates union with Christ as the goal of the Christian life. I would also agree that from a historical perspective the Orthodox church is the true apostolic church—the root in your analogy. Yet I also think that Christians in other traditions do have genuine experiences of God and also that they have traditions and practices, unique to their contexts, that are designed to facilitate such experiences. After all, prayer, fasting, confession, Scripture reading, and even liturgy are not entirely unique to Orthodoxy. So I believe we must grant that other traditions—the various parts of the body of Christ—possess gifts (my wife's word) in themselves, and for that reason Christians in those traditions may not feel the need to become Orthodox—because they are already on a journey of union with Christ through his Spirit.

    FMG: I'm sorry I gave that impression–yes, I know that Christians everywhere, in every church, experience the presence of Christ. Even if they did not expect to, the Lord draws near them and they come to know his presence. What was exciting about the Orthodox way was that it is not haphazard, or tangled up with emotionalism, or restricted to 20th century expectations, or anything else like that. I felt like all my life in Christ before Orthodoxy I was just going from one thing to another, and not even able to tell what was truly healthful and of his Spirit and what was just temporarily engaging. There was so much wandering, just looking for the next thing, the next book, the next teaching series, the next video series…it was so haphazard. What was exciting about Orthodoxy, and which no one talked about ahead of time and I only gradually came to realize as the years went by–is a whole, complete program that has been field-tested an proven in so many different cultures and centuries. Amazing! It actually works. it is dependable, because its been tested and tried. The results are the same in all cultures, all over the world. Do you see what I mean? The Orthodox way has unity. They figured out, from experience, how to fast, to name just one thing. It's not like it was when I was a W Xn, when I was going from one possibility to another, making it up as I went along, in terms of fasting. That this was 1. a unified complete "program," that it was 2. demonstrated to work and confirmed by miracles, on a reliable and almost predictable basis, and 3. was ancient, going back to the early Christians, which is huge–the early Christians who actually wrote the bible and canonized the bible. To me that was just amazing. That's what I found so exciting. And that's where I was surprised, that this just doesn't attract Western Christians so much. I think most W Xns don't prioritize union with Christ that much; it isn't assumed to be the whole point of life as it is in Orthodoxy (not that there aren't plenty ofg people who attend Orthodox services and don't bother with this Way; but there isn't any alternative idea of what the faith is, this is the only point of Orthodoxy. Whereas in the West it's so easy to find people who think Christianity is really about serving the poor, or evangelizing, or working for a moral cause. To them, prioritizing union with Christ is just one of the different choices you and make / courses you can take.

    I'm sorry this is so disorganized; I am trying to type while grandchilcdren are listening to a video and it's distractinng. But I hope I showed that i am not doubting that all kinds of Christians know Christ personally and understand union with him, and many of they prioritize and pursue that union; I don't understand why it isn't automatically compelling that this early church program has existed all along, and now we can practice it.

  2. Thank you for your response and clarification, Frederica. I agree that much of modern Western Christianity is haphazard in its approach to spiritual transformation and cut off from centuries of wisdom and practice. Many would benefit from a greater familiarity with Orthodoxy or (as some would say) with the Great Tradition.

  3. "To me, union with Christ is the whole point of Christianity. Every other thing a person does is meant to flow out of that connection. Christ directs and empowers us every day, every moment; or rather, every moment that you pay attention, and the whole thing is about learning how to pay attention." – Frederica Matthewes-Green

    John 14:23 New International Version (NIV)

    23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

    What if we already have Union with Christ and our entire Neptic Theology is one long continuous act of deciding what we will do with it?

    The Israelites called those trans-significations and symbolic reifications (loosely called “theophanies and prophetic-incarnational symbologies”) of His Real Presence (Exodus 16:4) – “this worthless bread” (Numbers 21:5b; Matthew 6:11; John 6:51) – but not you. Why? Because you are hungry and that Divine Hunger for more of His Real Presence is where His Word becomes alive in us…because the Holy Spirit will always break open the Bread of His Real Presence in us…that is how He works with Scripture. And we are sustained and strengthened…

    “Teach me to press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” – Philippians 3:12 – He clearly has. Real Intimacy is taking hold of that Bread of His Real Presence and realising He allowed Himself to be broken open for us that we might be Participants in the Promises (2 Peter 1:4).

    " the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit" – Seraphim of Sarov in conversation with Motovilov

    What if we have already aquired the Holy Spirit and our entire Ascetic Theology ("the Discipines") is one long continuous act of deciding what we will do with having "another dwelling in us"?

    When people talk about pursuing the Presence of God – they are really talking about Neptic Theology. What do I have to do to reach that state of Inner Stability; Viligance; Watchfulness; Stillness; Perseverance where I am continually immersed in the Presence of God….actually simply start working with the Holy Spirit who is dwelling within you on altering your Spiritual DNA – because He is watching with you and knows exactly how to see Jesus as He really is and knows exactly where He is at any given moment….cf. John 3:2.

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