I have previously written about the great benefits that I have received from the writings of great Orthodox theologians and monks. My own experience of Orthodoxy began as a direct result of a deep friendship. My former pastor, and one of my dearest friends, Fr. Wilbur David Ellsworth, became an Orthodox priest and along the road of his conversion experience I shared and read a lot of Orthodox thinking. I learned so much, and still do, that our friendship is not only deeper but the differences we experience because of our respective choices makes us stronger in a way I cannot fully explain.
For the purpose of honesty I have to say that I have seriously considered becoming Orthodox and Roman Catholic, for different reasons and at very different times. The principal reason for this consideration is related to my view of the church and to ecclesial history. I do still see, however, several compelling reasons to remain outside the Catholic Church. Some of my best friends have found home there and I rejoice. I also see several reasons to not become Orthodox. In both cases the problems related to Eucharist remain a big obstacle. I cannot, for the life of me, adopt a position that refuses to commune validly baptized members of other valid Christian churches. (This is at the nub of a much larger issue I realize but again I am simply sharing why I remain a Protestant while at the same time I long for the unity of the church in every way possible. I do not believe we have to find one visible church communion to practice the unity of John 17, as I’ve shown in my book, Your Church Is Too Small.) In the case of Catholicism the whole structure and defense of the papacy is not convincing to me at all. At the end of the day this is a very personal issue, and one I admit to be of great importance to each Christian believer. I respect my friends who choose differently than I do. I have encouraged dozens of my friends who have gone in very different directions than I have been led. But I believe with all my heart that the Lord has called me to live out my vocatio (or calling) as a minister of Word and Sacrament in a very positive Protestant context that bears witness to the oneness of the whole church. The Reformation is over, as Mark Noll proclaims, at one level. But at another, as Noll also makes clear, it is not over at all. This kind of talk confuses some conservatives, on every side. For me it is just the world I inhabit by the grace of God. We are living in times that are really very unique. After one thousand years of division new realities are forming and developing like never before. Each of us must be faithful in the way God calls us to be faithful. But along the way my missional-ecumenism pushes me to listen to all the church and to benefit from every part of Christianity.
All of this to say that I recently stumbled upon a used copy of Wisdom From Mount Athos: The Writings of Staretz Silouan 1866-1938 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974) in my local Half Price Books. The foreword to this most interesting collection of simple sayings is written by Archimandrite Sophrony. The term staretz, used here as a title, means one who is “a spiritual adviser” in Eastern Orthodox practice. Silouan lived as a monk on the mountain called Athos in Greece. Such monks have lived and prayed there for well over a thousand years, making it the center of Eastern monasticism. The community of Mount Athos represents the universal nature of Orthodoxy and has born some wonderful fruit that I did not discover until very late in life. I would guess most of my readers have never discovered this treasures of this kind of spiritual writing so perhaps this simple introduction might influence you to try it.
Staretz Silouan answers some of the most basic questions serious Christians will inevitably ask: How can I pray without ceasing? How, living in this world, can I avoid sin? How can I be certain that the spirit operating within me is really the Holy Spirit? What state of our human spirit indicates that we are truly bearing the image of God?
I will share more from Staretz Silouan in several future posts. Today I want to focus on what he has taught me about love. The monk writes: “The Lord so loved His creature that He gave man the Holy Spirit, and man knew his Creator and loved his Lord.” He adds, “The Holy Spirit is love and sweetness to the soul, the mind and the body; but when the soul loses grace, or grace is diminished, once again the soul will seek the Holy Spirit in tears . . .” (Note: The soul will seek for love, since God is love!)
Saretz Silouan adds: “Great and inapprehensible is our Lord, but for our sakes He made Himself small that we might know Him and love Him, that for love of Him we might forget the earth, and live in heaven and behold the glory of the Lord.”
This sounds like the writing of a monk who wants us to escape this world but what follows must not be missed by the ordinary reader:
“The Lord bestows such grace on His chosen that they embrace the whole earth, the whole world, with their love, and their souls burn with longing that all men should be saved and behold the glory of the Lord.”
Finally I quote: “On earth the soul has only to touch upon the love of God for the sweetness of the Holy Spirit to transport her with wonder at her beloved God and Heavenly Father. O how the Lord loves His creation!”
I have found again and again that too few Christians have experienced, at least very deeply, the deep reality of God’s love for them. They live in terror and doubt because they are unsure that God truly loves them. To know that God’s love embraces “the whole earth” not only rings true with Holy Scripture but with the wisdom of Mount Athos, where Scripture has been meditated upon for over a thousand years.