How Can Divine Presence Be Perceived? (Part 3)

What Can It Mean Then to Perceive and Be Introduced to Christ?

 

I have mentioned two places where Christ is especially manifest in the word today: the Eucharist and the life of a mature believer.

As for the one we invite to “Come and See” the Liturgy, I think the mere fact of coming into the Church is a sign of humility and submission and qualifies as an initial purification, allowing them to begin to “see” Christ in the Eucharist. As I have said, simply participating in worship opens the heart and mind to the presence of Christ.

Given the nature of the liturgical event, this is not just some naive or romantic illusion. Every time Orthodox believers gather to celebrate the Eucharist, they are, in fact, initiating a unique, one-time, non-repeatable event that, for lack of a better term, I will call a “happening.” So, this week’s Liturgy is not simply repeated the following Sunday. That is not even possible since each event is a completely separate occurrence, or instance, of the Liturgy. What is happening during the Liturgy is that ordinary time is being suspended, and the participants enter into the temporal space of the eternal Kingdom of God. When we speak of God’s Kingdom, we are not referring to some specific geographic space but rather the space, any space, where God’s absolute authority or dominion reigns completely. That this is the case during the Divine Liturgy is guaranteed by the very real presence of Christ, our King and our Lord, in the Eucharist. The other thing that is happening is that communion, a total interpersonal engagement, is established among those who partake of the sacred mysteries. It is bringing seekers into the very presence of Christ. So, what do we expect them to “see?” Well, I think that if we prepare the ground properly and give the visitor a little information on what to expect, and if we can help them prepare spiritually by humbling themselves and opening themselves to God, then we can expect nothing short of them “seeing” Christ. By that I mean that they will hear the voice of God in the reading of the Gospel and the other Scriptures. They will see the glory of God in the vestments, the candles, the icons, the power shimmering between the servers and off the Chalice. They will touch the divine in the icons, the cross, in the hand of the Priest who blesses them. They will taste the goodness of God in the welcoming offer of the antidoron they consume. They will smell the incense ascending as prayer to God. In other words, the Liturgy itself will sensitize their spiritual senses and prepare them to apprehend the living Christ especially present in the Eucharist.

The other place of divine presence is in the lives of mature believers. We are said to be the temples of the Holy Spirit radiating Christ’s light out into a darkened world. The possibility of this dynamic witness is captured in the famous Lorica prayer of St. Patrick of Ireland. There he prays that Christ would be in the heart of every man who thinks of Him, the mouth of every man who speaks of Him, the eye that sees Him, the ear that hears Him.[1] What this might look like is illustrated in the conversation between St. Seraphim of Sarov and the layman Motovilov. After much discussion on acquiring the Holy Spirit, a somewhat frustrated Motovilov asked, “How I can be certain that I am in the Spirit of God. How can I discern for myself His true manifestation in me?” At that point, Father Seraphim took him very firmly by the shoulders and said, “We are both in the Spirit of God now, my son. Why don’t you look at me? What do you see?” To which the startled man replied, “I cannot look, Father, because your eyes are flashing like lightning. Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.” After explaining, Seraphim continued “What to you feel?” “I feel such calmness and peace in my soul that no words can express it.” “What else do you feel?” Father Seraphim asked me. “An extraordinary sweetness,” “An extraordinary joy in all my heart.” “An extraordinary warmth.” “There is nothing on earth like this fragrance.”[2]

Given all that I have said about God’s ability to reveal Himself to us, there is no reason why this account needs to be dismissed. It is indeed remarkable, and it is painfully clear that most of us will never achieve the state of sanctity that will allow for such intensity of divine presence. But here several observations are in order. First, it was obviously not St Seraphim who was himself the light, the peace, the warmth, or the fragrance. It was Christ making Himself know through the Saint. According to the Scriptures, if we clear away those things that hinder His activity, there is no reason why he cannot make Himself know through each one of us. Second, we see again that Christ’s presence is mediated to Motovilov by means of the natural senses of sight, smell, hearing, etc. Speaking of the light, it is interesting that Seraphim prayed that God would let Motovilov see “with his bodily eyes that descent of Thy Spirit which Thou grantest to Thy servants when Thou art pleased to appear in the light of Thy magnificent glory.”  That being the case, then any human being properly prepared by the Spirit of God will be able to apprehend the divine presence in the life of a believer. Third, the intensity or vividness of these sensations may vary. As Seraphim points out, “Even to the greatest hermits, my son, the Lord God does not always show His mercy in this way. This grace of God, like a loving mother, has been pleased to comfort your contrite heart at the intercession of the Mother of God herself.” So, I wonder if these perceptual experiences might not grow in intensity as we develop relationships with those who need to be introduced to Christ and as we maintain our communion with Him.
Conclusion

I started this section out with the idea that perceptual experiences take place when some mind-independent reality (a) impresses itself on us, (b) enables our intentional directedness upon it in thought, word, or deed, and (c) is capable of determining whether or not the intentions grounded by such impressions are correct.”[3] I think we can now refine that definition in light of what we expect to happen when we introduce someone to Christ, namely that the divine, infinite presence of Christ a) makes Him know to the honest seeker by means of Spirit/Liturgy enhanced or extended natural senses, b) allowing him or her to formulate impressions, beliefs, and commitments, c) upon which they can act with confidence.

 

[1] http://www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/patrick.htm

[2] http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/wonderful.aspx

[3] Yadav, S. (2015). The problem of perception and the experience of God : toward a theological empiricism. Minneapolis, MN, Fortress Press.

 

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