We reached an elevation of 17,000 ft after about 15 minutes in the air; we were on our way from Sacramento to Atlanta to catch our connection to Tel Aviv. The captain came over the PA system and informed those of us on the right side of the plane that we now had a bird’s eye view of Yosemite. It was magnificent! Many of the mountaintops were frosted and the lakes within view already appeared to be frozen.
The ascent of their Delta Airline flight gave the group on pilgrimage to the Holy Land a most unique vantage point from which to view God’s Creation. Remarkably though, if the topography of our great land is such a splendor to behold, so much more is life when we allow ourselves to ascend to spiritual heights, viewing the world not simply by our physical eyes, but with our noetic eyes, that is the eyes of our soul.
Only in union with the life of the Trinity through the Mediator, the Word made flesh is man enabled to love God with his whole heart, soul, and mind, and his neighbors as himself and to spiritually experience what the ordinary senses are unable to perceive through the noetic eyes. Saint Clement of Alexandria, an early Father of the Christian Church provides the concise and Orthodox teaching of the means by which the faithful are united synergistically with God. He explains that two unequal, but equally necessary forces must be present for this to take place - divine grace and human will. Note that it is the will and not the intellect which is the chief human instrument of the union with God, for there can be no intimate union with God if our own will is not surrendered and conformed to the divine will.
Surrendering a will to God takes place by living an ascetic life. Too often when we hear the words asceticism or ascetic we think of those individuals living in monasteries, deserts or caves of the earth. The qualities of the ascetic life however, are not to be left in these locales; they might be perfected here, but they are to be embraced by each and every Christian if he or she desires to be united with God.
Although various spiritual fathers of our tradition will elevate and or expand aspects of the ascetic life, all find basis in the teachings and life of Christ. His Sermon on the Mount for instance, reminds His disciples that there remain three needed disciplines: sincere prayer, dedicated fasting and almsgiving done in secret. How do we know this for sure? The Lord did not say “If” you pray, “If” you fast, and “If” you give alms. The Lord with great clarity said, “When” you pray, “When” you fast, and “When” you give alms. We must therefore pray, fast, and give alms to be a disciple and through these disciples, train the eyes of the soul to see.
Both in private and within the context of the corporate body, that is, the Body of Christ, a soul must pray – interceding for others, supplicating and glorifying God and at times, sitting or standing in silence, contemplating His Undivided Persons while listening for His voice.
The physical body must likewise be tamed, starting with the stomach; man does not live by bread alone, but also by the Word of God. Only through fasting can one hope to subjugate each and every deadly passion, deadly as it is through these passions that the demons not only entice, but also eternally grab hold of the struggling Christian.
After we have met our obligation to God and His Church through our tithe, again not a gift that is given to Him out of excess or a gift that is stingily offered in fear, but a gift offered back to Him in love, we also give as true philanthropists, true friends of man. We responsibly meet the needs of others in secret, expecting nothing in return, all the while realizing that whatever wealth we may have was first given to us by Him and is therefore meant to be used throughout our years to His glory. There is never a minimum or a maximum. We give ourselves entirely to Christ and therefore contribute toward what is needed to the best of our ability.
When we pray, when we fast, when we give alms, our noetic eyes are opened and we begin to understand that our existence is a blessing. Communion with God is not theory or speculation; it is an unfolding mystery that permeates every aspect of our being. Again, experiencing what our ordinary senses are unable to perceive.
Imagine the smell of incense being the sweet fragrance of salvation. Imagine the mouth only uttering words of wisdom and the taste buds being so enlivened that you actually taste the cup of salvation. Imagine the ears hearing the voice of God in Gospel, in the writings of the Fathers and in the lives of the Saints as well as the voices of the bodiless angels who offer perpetual praise to God. Imagine the hands being instruments of healing and imparters of God’s Grace. Imagine your feet treading upon the asp or the viper as you walk in the Lord’s commands. Imagine feeling the Cross of Christ upon your back, not as a heavy burden, but as a light and an honorable yoke. This is living a mystical life, a life in communion with the saints, a life in which the soul has been perfected in and experiences the energies of the Triune God.
None of this is to be left to chance or even worse accepted with complacency. Christianity is not simply an ideology, but an awakening, an ascent. Our spiritual eyes are opened by His Grace and our humble efforts so that we gaze with amazement upon and in His uncreated Light, emboldened by the Spirit to likewise proclaim, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. Amen.