St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church
Real Spirituality

2 Cor 11:31-12:9

The Holy Apostle Paul spoke of “a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”  While the Apostle did not say who this man was, it is apparent that he was speaking of himself, but in such a way that he could set aside any worldly praise and esteem that might arise from such an experience, for he also said, “of myself I will not glory, except in mine infirmities.”  Such an experience is certainly remarkable for it shows a man who is changed, who is no longer tied to this world, but who, having directly experienced the Kingdom of God is now focused solely on that place.  He is no longer a man of this world, but he is a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.

For the Apostle, the spiritual world was real, it was not something of ideas or theory, but something he had experienced directly.  Yesterday we celebrated the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God.  This feast is based on the experience of St Andrew the fool for Christ as he was praying in a church in Constantinople.  He looked up during the Vigil service and saw the Virgin Mary appearing in glory as she spread out her omiphore over the whole church, indeed the whole city.  This action demonstrated her role as the protectress of the Church.  She prays for us all constantly before the throne of God as though she were our own mother we were her own children (and indeed this is true inasmuch as we are united to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ).  In order that we might know that this was not just a product of the saint’s imagination or an hallucination, we are told that he turned to his companion, Epiphanus and asked if he could see it as well (and indeed he could).  Here again we see a person for whom the spiritual world is not simply something imagined or theorized, but something of which he had direct experience, something which he could not only see himself, but could show to others. 

The saints that we remember today, the Martyrs Cyprian and Justina, also directly experienced the spiritual world.  Cyprian, initially was a great sorcerer, one who was accomplished in the magical arts and who commonly would call upon demons to do his bidding.  For him, the spiritual world was real, but not in a way common to the saints, for he was constantly in the company of the demons.  He was engaged, by a young man who was enraptured by the maiden Justina, to lure her into agreeing to marry him.  This seemed a simple thing for such an accomplished sorcerer, however, every move that he made was nullified by the pious maiden Justina for she trusted in Christ as her guardian and protector.  No matter what he tried, Justina vanquished the power of Cyrpian by the sign of the cross.  Cyprian in his pride kept trying more and more powerful enchantments, calling upon ever more powerful demons until finally he called upon the prince of demons himself to ensnare Justina.  But even this great demon was vanquished by the sign of the cross.  Seeing that he was powerless against this maiden because she was guarded by the Lord Jesus Christ, Cyprian turned his back on his sorcery and renounced his entire life in the service of the evil one and himself embraced Christ.  For him the spiritual world was real and he saw first hand the futility and deception of the demons and the unconquerable power of Christ.  Justina, for her part also saw the real power of Christ and placed all her hope on Him.

Now here today we have the confluence of three great examples of the reality of the spiritual world.  How is it that such things seem so far from us, so outside our own experience? How is it that we do not experience the spiritual world in such a real manner?  What are we lacking? 

In our lives we have grown accustomed to giving the first place to science – we believe what we can see and touch and perceive by our senses.  In the last century and even before, science was ascendant as the tool of discovering and understanding the universe.  Everything was subject to the scientific method.  If something could not be demonstrated, proven and explained by scientific means, then either we had not yet discovered the proper method to do so, or it just wasn’t real.  As a result of this scientific movement, the spiritual world (and consequently religious faith) came increasingly to be regarded as unreal, for it could not be demonstrated, proven or reproduced by accepted scientific means.  The physical world was disconnected from the spiritual world.  The spiritual world was considered not “real” but at best only an idea used to explain that which we had not yet conquered and at worst simply a tool for the charlatan to practice his deception.  This attitude led to the rise of scientific atheism and the militant atheism of the 20th century.  The ideological atheism of western universities and academia as well as the militant atheism of Marxist/Leninist Communism are the best observed results of this movement.  However, the effect of this worldliness permeated all levels of society both in the west and in the east.  Even religious belief attempted to justify itself in the realm of science, trying to “prove” by scientific means such things as the existence of God and the truth of the Scripture.  But these efforts only gave credence to the scientific absolutism.

Towards the close of the 20th century, spiritualism made a comeback.  It became obvious that there were unexplained phenomena that science could not grasp.  This inspired a renewed interest in “spirituality” and religion.  Seeking some means by which these “spiritual” phenomena could be harnessed and understood, society began to look towards religion.  While this might appear to be a good thing at first glance, unfortunately there was a deep flaw in the process.  In discrediting “spirituality” in the first place, we lost any connection with a firm and reliable understanding of the spiritual world.  Now by blindly pursuing anything that seemed “spiritual”, the stage was set for overwhelming delusion.  Remember that the greatest weapon of the demons is deception (the devil is a liar and the father of lies).  This mass rush to embrace the “spiritual world” was a nothing less than an opportunity for mass deception.  Having lost the genuine experience of the spiritual world, there was no longer any way to discern what was genuine and what was deception. In fact the very idea of spiritual deception was lost.  It was lost, except for one place and that place was the Church.  Within the Church there were those who continued to pursue the spiritual life, who did not lose the ability to discern truth from error.  

Here in the Church, if we will submit to her guidance, the true reality of the spiritual life, the living encounter with God, continues to be available.  But we must conform our lives to the life of the Church and not to the world.  One cannot remain the person he was in the world and be transformed by the Holy Spirit.  Even in the ancient times this was true.  In the Old Testament even we can see that when a person was touched by the Holy Spirit, he was a changed man, and that change was noticeable to those around him.  When the Holy Apostles were indwelt by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, there was such a noticeable effect that people thought they were drunk (it was the only way they could explain that these people were “different” from themselves).  When we encounter Christ we are born again and when we are filled with Holy Spirit we are changed.  But too often we look at the world around us and becoming embarrassed we try to hide that change, we cover it up and try to appear as though nothing had happened.  We try to remain “like the world” on the outside and confine the new life in Christ to the inside.  As long as we do this, the real experience of the spiritual world will be out of our reach for we have not yet embraced it completely.  If we wish to share the reality of the spiritual life with the Apostle Paul and the other Apostles and with the saints such as Andrew and Epiphanus or Cyprian and Justina, then we must give ourselves completely to Christ, being willing to be “different” in the eyes of the world.  We need to commit wholly to the life in Christ and not hide the effect of the Holy Spirit on our lives.  You cannot be the “same person” that you were in the world if you wish to follow Christ.  Our Lord said that we must take up our Cross when we follow Him; St Paul speaks again and again about the fact that we are “crucified with Christ”; even in baptism we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism and rise with Him.  The sacrifice of our old life is necessary in order to fully experience the new life in Christ – the “real” life of the spiritual world. 

The saints experience the spiritual life as an immanent reality.  For them, there is no separation between their life in the world and their life in Christ.  There is no hiding, no cover-up, no compromise.  If we would fully experience this life in Christ for ourselves, then we must leave behind our worldly life and become the new creatures that He wishes to make us – new creatures that no longer bear the image and imprint of the world, but who bear His image and likeness.  Then for us the spiritual world will become the “real world” and we will be only pilgrims and wanderers in this world, not belonging here but only “passing through” as we seek out our true place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

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