From the Again Magazine – Volume 18, Number 3 September, 1995 Page 13-15
It started out as a normal school day. The children and their adopted “Baba” (Russian for “grandmother”) and I had gathered for third hour prayers before beginning our daily lessons. The children and Baba (Angelina) were standing in the nave and I was standing on the ambo, facing the altar. The “doors” were open, since we were still in the process of building our iconostasis and the royal doors had not yet been hung.
As we began to chant the forty-fold “Lord, have mercy,” I noticed something strange happening around the altar. A cloud of incense smoke, approximately two feet thick, arose from the right corner of the altar and settled about twelve inches above it. The cloud slowly began to descend, then rested upon the altar. From the right-hand corner of the altar, this same cloud of incense began to come out towards me through the open royal doors. When it came to where I was standing, the cloud split, went around me and reunited behind me. Slowly it filled the entire nave. Since it was a chilly winter day, the heater was running, but the cloud of incense did not move. It did not settle onto the floor, nor did it rise to the ceiling. It hovered about four feet off the ground.
As I continued to pray, I noticed movement around the altar. It was very subtle, almost imperceptible, but I could see that the altar itself was being censed. And the one doing the censing appeared in the shape of a man, but he was not physical like you and me-he was “made of” light. When I turned around to give the blessing, I notice that Angelina was prostrate on the floor and the children were dumbstruck.
After the dismissal, the children departed to go to recess; Angelina and I remained in the Temple. We stayed for about fifteen minutes and then the incense lifted. It didn’t just fade away; it left, dissipated all at once. When I came down from the ambo, Angelina met me and the first words out of her mouth were, “Father, I’ve been Orthodox all my life. I’ve been Orthodox in China and in America. I’ve never seen anything like this. Father, we’ve just witnessed a miracle.”
But miracles don’t happen today! They were for the apostolic period, and ceased when the last Apostle died. At least, that is what I had been taught as a Protestant. Now that I was an Orthodox Christian, God was graciously showing me at the same time both the shallowness of my former faith and the richness of true Orthodoxy.
NO MORE MIRACLES
I was raised a conservative fundamentalist Baptist. My father began his ministry in the Conservative Baptist denomination, but about the time I was born, he found John Calvin. Having accepted Calvin’s teachings, my dad then became a leader in the “Reformed Baptist” movement.
In its initial stages, the Reformed Baptist movement pretty much limited itself to preaching against Arminianism. At a young age, we were taught the “Five Points” and learned about the dangerous doctrine of “free will.” After we had mastered this, dispensationalism was the next target. Out went the charts; we learned the “real truth” about Scofield, and dropped Dallas Theological Seminary from our list of acceptable institutions. Then along came the charismatic movement. In no time at all, we were trained to become expert “charismatic bashers.”
One of the camps on whose board I served actually had a written policy that the camp was open to any Christian denomination except those which embraced charismatic views. When I went to a seminary deeply committed to the anti-charismatic position, before they would allow me to matriculate I had to promise that if I believed in “the gifts” I would never practice them on the grounds of the seminary! Of course, at the time I had no intention of engaging in such behavior. Miracles did not happen, speaking in tongues was a psychological gimmick, and prophecy was always fake (or worse, satanically inspired). I knew this and believed it with all my mind.
However, there was one problem. We didn’t quite know what to do with the Holy Spirit. So we conveniently ignored Him. The theological textbook we used at seminary didn’t even have one chapter on the Holy Spirit. And in three years of heavy theological study, we only had one mini-course on His work in the world. It was appropriately entitled, “The Cessation of the Spirit’s Gifts.”
A THIRST FOR FULLNESS
Looking back, I can see how this rational approach to Christianity created a tremendous spiritual void. As a Calvinist, I was taught that God had predetermined all events of history from “before the foundation of the world.” As an anticharismatic I was also taught that any desire for the miraculous, for the sense of His ongoing wonder-working presence in the lives of men was dangerous, if not downright heretical. But in my soul, what I longed for was exactly what I was told I could not have. My spiritual desire was not quenched by a Christianity which only satisfied my mind.
So I began to search. Ultimately, this search led me to the Orthodox Church. Many things attracted me to the Orthodox Church: her faithfulness to Apostolic Tradition, her maintenance of true apostolic succession, her heavenly worship. But above all, what drew me and continues to draw me is the richness of her spirituality. Everything that was denied me as a rationalist Calvinist Protestant has been given me in its fullness within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
This is because true Orthodox spirituality involves the whole man. The problem with my Protestant upbringing was that it dealt almost exclusively with my mind and my external behavior. Salvation was something that happened outside of me. My relationship with God was based on some sort of legal transaction which took place up in heaven, outside me. God was always “out there somewhere” to be thought about correctly and to be carefully obeyed. But, although we talked about a “personal” relationship with Jesus, in reality there was very little truly personal about it.
In contrast to this, Orthodoxy teaches “the total transformation of the believer into the image and likeness of God.” 1 As a Western Christian I had understood this transformation exclusively as a “legal” reality. I thought a holy and pious person was one who thought all the “right” thoughts about God and kept all the “right” rules. But if we approach Orthodox spirituality with this legal framework, we miss the teaching of the New Testament and of the Fathers.
To be transformed into the image and likeness of God is to be made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); it is to have intimate union and communion with God; it is to be deified—to be filled with God that our life is His life, our thoughts His thoughts, our will His will, our body His body, etc. Here we are introduced to what Saint Seraphim of Sarov called the goal of the Christian: “the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” Through His activity what is deified in us “is our entire human nature. It is a new nature, a restored creature which appears in the world. It is a pure body, free from all taint of sin.” 2
What makes this truly life changing is that salvation is something which takes place inside of me and involves all of me. God is not “out there,” but in here – in my heart. And the relationship which He has established with me is both intimate and personal.
Saint Basil the Great describes the richness of this relationship in these words: “Souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spirit, and send forth their grace to others. Here come foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and highest of all, being made God.”3
In union with Him, I can transcend all the “natural” limitations of this fallen world and become by grace, through ascetic struggle, not a better man of this world, but a man of the world which is come! As Saint Seraphim says, this is the goal of the Christian life. Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that this is also the gift of the Christian life, given us through Holy Baptism and Chrismation. 4 Both are true. For what has been given us from the Father through Christ in the Spirit must be taken by us and lived by us. Saint Symeon says we must preserve the grace which has been given; Saint Seraphim speaks of us as trading to acquire more.
A GLIMPSE OF HEAVEN
Which brings me back to what happened on that winter morning. What we experienced was a glimpse of spiritual reality, a brief exposure to the “connectedness” of heaven and earth, an insight into the “kingdom which is to come,” which in Christ has already been given to us. As Orthodox Christians, although we live in the world, we are not of the world. “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). This faith enables us to see the end, to anticipate in our lives the reality of the Kingdom which is to come, to experience something of those good things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
A monk of the Eastern Church explains, “We should not feel reluctant to acknowledge direct divine interventions, which break the so-called natural laws. For the network of physical laws and the determinism that it seems to involve (occasioning as it does, catastrophes, diseases, etc.) manifests a distortion of primitive order and results from original sin….Saints and charismatics are the liberators of the world. ‘Miracles’ are a return to the primitive ‘free’ state of creation, i.e. a world entirely transparent to the glory of God; they express the normal condition of creation before the fall, and still more after Pentecost.”5
One of my favorite monastic stories was told me by a priest who visited Athos, the Holy Mountain, several years ago during the paschal season. During the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at a particular monastery, he noticed that the huge candelabra was swinging, even though there was no breeze and nothing else was moving. When he inquired afterwards, he was told that the candelabra had begun swinging during the paschal Liturgy and had continued since then every time the Liturgy was celebrated.
My friend, of course, was completely awestruck by this miracle. When he arrived at the next monastery he was to visit in his pilgrimage, he immediately began to speak of this miracle to the monks.
“Oh, yes,” he was told, “we have heard of such things.”
“Well, have you been to see it?” he hurriedly continued.
“No,” they answered simply.
Although the monastery was less than half a day’s walk away, these monks had not visited. Why? Because, as my friend explained it, for the monks the miraculous is ordinary. Not that they take it for granted, but rather they believe that God does act, that God does enter human history to make His presence known, that God does in His love stoop to touch us, to speak to us, to listen to us and to heal us of all our infirmities.
How much we have to learn from these holy men! They live with a constant sense of God’s presence. They experience His wonders. But they do not abandon their labors, they do not try to trade on or make money off of God’s good gifts. They accept them and they labor on in fasting, prayer and love for their brethren. They are not wonder-seekers. They are God-seekers. And thus they experience the fulfillment of His promise: “You will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).
It is imperative that we understand our “theology of signs and miracles” within this larger context of Orthodox spirituality. If we do not, we are sure to err. If we seek “signs and miracles” for themselves, by themselves, then we will surely receive the verdict of Jesus: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). This is not to deny that the gifts of the Spirit exist (for they do), nor is it to deny their importance. It is rather to place them within the proper perspective. As Metropolitan PHILIP has written, “What we seek is not an ‘experience’, but God himself.”6
Ultimately, signs and wonders are given by God to us sinners to remind us to raise our eyes from earth to heaven. They are given to humble us, to show us our own sinfulness and our need of God’s grace. They are given that we might more fully immerse ourselves in His kingdom and His righteousness. They are given so that, having tasted a bit of heaven, we might leave behind the things of this world in pursuit of that world which is to come. They are given to encourage us to persevere in our ascetic labors of fasting, prayer and almsgiving.
Most of all, they are given to motivate us to cling more firmly to our Holy Mother, the Orthodox Church, “the eternal keeper of this grace.”7 If we want to know God, there is no other place and there is no other Faith. For only those in communion with the Orthodox Church can truly sing, “We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true Faith, worshiping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us.”8
The Holy Spirit is alive and well—in the Orthodox Church!
1. John Warren Morris, The Charismatic Movement: An Orthodox Evaluation, Holy Orthodox Press. p. 16.
2. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p. 155.
3. On the Holy Spirit, par. 23.
4. The First-Created Man, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1995, p. 54.
5. Orthodox Spirituality, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987, p. 72.
6. Out of the Depths I have Cried, p. 8.
7. St. Seraphim of Sarov, quoted by Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990, p.219.
8. Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Father John Mack is the priest of Saint Timothy’s Orthodox Mission in Fairfield, California