Love and cognition merge into a single act when we feel ourselves loved by God. This is what it means, in Paul’s language, to be “in Christ.” We are mystically brought into the reality of the divine Logos. Here we are “consumed with love” says Archimandrite Sophrony.
This personal revelation to the heart draws us into the “so great salvation” that is entirely of God’s grace. This revelation may be granted suddenly, as was true with Paul in his dramatic conversion. But even if this is true, as it was in my case as well, we can only assimilate this love by degrees. And this is true only after we have endured long ascetic struggle. We must grow into this complete salvation and this means “death and resurrection” are recurring experiences in our journey. “From the first instant the vital content of the revelation is clear and the soul feels no impulse to explain in rational concepts the grace experienced” (His Life Is Mine, 44).
Words fail me when I seek to describe this transforming vision. The knowledge given to me by God is, however, objective. This is true in the sense that it is sui generis in character. (Sui generis is a Latin expression which literally means “of its own kind/genus,” which means something unique in its characteristics. The term here means that this knowledge we have is a reality which cannot be included in any wider concept.) What I mean is that we can observe this knowledge down through history in the lives of many persons who share in what is a largely identical and self-determining experience. I believe that this is the meaning of texts like Matthew 18:20, “where two or three are gathered together” and 1 John 1:1 which says, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life.” Paul expressed the same knowledge when he says “we know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12) nevertheless the gospel can be truly preached and false gospels can be seen and recognized for what they are (Gal. 1:8-9).
Because we are loved as persona, by a God who is persona, we enter into other hypostases. In creating Adam God says “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). But can the created being meet with the Creator? “When the human persona stands before Him Who named Himself ‘I AM THAT I AM’ (Ex. 3;14), his spirit, his whole being not only glories but agonizes over his own littleness, his ignorance, his wrong-doing. Suffering is his lot from the moment of his spiritual birth. Conscious that the process of transforming our whole earthly being is still far from complete, the spirit wearies” (His Life Is Mine, 45).
Thus we are back to Galatians 5. Christian life is the result of the Spirit’s presence in us. The human soul “knows” him. The Holy Spirit convinces us that we shall not finally die even though our bodies fail and will decay and see physical death, unless the Savior returns before our death comes.
What checks the Divine breath that is now in us? The answer clearly is sin! God, who is altogether holy, cannot blend his light with the darkness of our sinful flesh. This is why a great battle begins when we come to Christ. God does not coerce us but he will not manifest his grace when we withdraw into sin. The consequence of all sin is separation from God. (I am not undertaking the debate here about whether we can ever loose eternal life or not.) But we must avoid the consequences of sin by confession and repentance. This will never end until our salvation is whole, complete, final. We cannot avoid sinning because the flesh is still strong and still with us. But we can, with repentance and the increase of grace, experience the reality of the divine triumphing over our fallen flesh. This is what I believe Paul is saying in Galatians 5.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
This is the point of verse 25. We “live by the Spirit” so let us also “keep in step with the Spirit.”
The liberal theologian John Cobb is quite right when he says, “The gospel is now presented briefly in psychological terms, vaguely related to common sense morality. Since it responds to more urgent needs, it can quietly be believed and accepted with little effect.”
But this gospel is not what Paul preached to the Galatians. And this is why Christian spiritual formation is not a passing fad. It is a vital point of real recovery in the modern church. The true disciple must be formed and shaped in the knowledge of Christ. The church fathers rightly understood that this salvation was progressive, dynamic and an on-going condition energized by the triune God himself.
The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner noted that “on the scales of God only the heart has weight.”
What has eviscerated the soul of so much modern Christianity is the idea of individuality. But individuality is a Greek idea, not a Christian one. Personhood, rooted in persona (hypostasis), is the Christian idea. We are being saved as persons in communion with God, who is perfect communion. We walk in the Spirit of this communion. We keep in step with the Spirit in order to stay in this communion. This communion is life in God and life with one another, thus it leads to “life together” if we share in it day-by-day. Sin is real. It draws us away from fellowship with God and one another. We cannot stop sinning but we can avoid the deep consequences of sin by Spirit-led formation and asceticism. May God grant us more and more to see this profound reality.