2 Cor 6:1-10
“We… beseech you that you receive not the grace of God in vain.” This is the prayer of the Apostle for his spiritual children and his prayer for us as well. How is it that the grace of God could be made of no account in us? What does it mean to receive it “in vain”? In order to illuminate this statement, it will be useful to look briefly at the Gospel parable of the talents which we heard read this morning as well. Each of the servants received from their master a share of his wealth but each one did not receive the same reward. The first two servants, having used the wealth that they were given to earn more, were praised by the master upon his return, however, the last servant chose to hide the wealth that he had been given in the ground, that it might not be lost by ill chance or some other misfortune and so he was able to return to his master that which he had been given. This servant, however, was not praised for his caution or for his prudence, but rather was cursed by the master for he did not do even the minimum with what he had been given and allowed it to lie idle. For this he was stripped of what he did have and was cast into prison. This tells us what it means to receive the grace of God in vain. God bestows His grace upon us – indeed upon every one who has ever lived upon the earth – and we will be judged not on how much grace we received, but rather on what we did with what we had. It is necessary to use the grace of God wisely to our spiritual benefit and profit – otherwise we will have received it in vain. If we do nothing with the grace of God but allow it to lie idle in our lives, if we do not exercise it and work with it, if we make no effort in our lives, then that grace will have no beneficial effect in us and when we stand before God we will have no profit to present to Him. We will have received the grace of God in vain.
Therefore it is obvious that we who have received grace from God must work with it to our spiritual benefit – to bring forth a spiritual profit. St Seraphim, our patron, instructed his spiritual son, N. Motovilov, that the goal of the spiritual life was the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. He described this process with the image of how a merchant in the world does business. He said that a merchant judges all his transactions by the amount of profit that he will receive and makes choices based on what will bring him the greatest return on his investment. In the spiritual life, he said, we must do the same thing. We must look at the choices we face in this life with an eye toward what will bring to us the greatest return in the grace of God.
Our spiritual fathers, in many ways have described the spiritual life and spiritual progress in terms of three steps or stages. First there is the purification of the nous (that is the spiritual center of the person), then there is the illumination of the nous and finally purification. These three steps are also described as practical, natural and mystical vision. Too often we look at these steps and desire to enter right into the last stage – the mystical vision of God – without laboring through the first two. But this is not possible and those who seek mystical experiences without first going through purification and illumination are subject to deception and error. The reason for this is that the demons are only too eager to give us “mystical visions” and the un-purified, un-illumined person does not have the discernment to detect the error and so will fall subject to the deception of the demons and end up with nothing. We must begin at the beginning – we must begin with purification of the nous.
How is this purification accomplished? For that let us return to the words of the Apostle as he describes his own labors. The process of purification involves patient endurance of affliction, distress, necessity and various forms of adversity. The apostle also mentions ascetic labor: “watchings” (that is, keeping vigil in prayer) and fasting. These are the means by which we undergo purification of the nous. By patient endurance, we can understand the struggle to resist the temptations that are hurled against us by the demons as well as by our own fallen passions. Patient endurance indicates that although we are pulled this way and that by these temptations, we remain unmoved and unchanged, enduring the discomfort and even suffering the pain of resisting these allures, holding consistently (sometimes even desperately) to our faith in God. When we are overcome by weakness and suffer a fall, all is not lost, but we then return to God in repentance and sorrow for our sins and leaving behind our errors, grasp again the anchor of faith and renew the fight of patient endurance leading to purification. In addition to remaining steadfast in faith, we also have the labor of prayer and fasting which serve to strengthen our hearts and which shield us against the fury of the assaults of the temptations.
It is this purification which clothes us in the armor of righteousness and which is confirmed in us by the presence of the Holy Spirit. As we are freed from the bonds of sin, we can experience more and more fully the love of God which surrounds us and in turn begin to love others as God has loved us. We begin to act in purity and righteousness.
In addition to this struggle of purification, there is the natural illumination of the nous, or to say it another way the illumination of our mind so that it begins to see things in the light of Christ rather than to be blinded by the darkness of sin. When, by purification, the nous is freed from the inclination to sin, it then must be filled with the light of Christ which illumines all. Notice here that we do not yet perceive the light directly, but because it now begins to fill us, we can see things which before were hidden but now which are revealed by the presence of light. This is not unlike the dawn – the transition from night to day. Long before the sun actually rises, its light begins to fill the sky illumining the world around us. What before was simply a deep darkness, a formless void, now begins to take shape and definition. We see the outlines of the world around us and those outlines gradually gain more and more definition and detail as the light of the as yet unrisen sun increases. This is how the stage of the illumination of the nous occurs in us. As we break free from the black night of sin by purification, then the light of the Risen Christ begins to fill our hearts and we begin, little by little, to see the form and shape of the spiritual world and the path of salvation which lies before us.
Although we are progressively flooded with the light of Christ, we cannot just passively let it flow over us without using it. This is the place of retraining our mind to understand the truth and to begin no longer to reason according to the fallen world, but to work in harmony with the light. This is accomplished by us by learning the true theology and teaching of the Church. The Church is our teacher in this spiritual school of enlightenment. We should all read the scripture, but do not trust your own fallen reason to understand it – turn instead to the teaching and understanding of the Church, conforming your mind to the mind of Christ. Read also the lives and sayings of the saints – their letters, their sermons, their advice to their spiritual children. It is even possible at this point to begin reading the elevated theological writings of the fathers, however, again care must be exercised to always understand them in the light of the Church. In this way we use the light of Christ to reshape and restore our mind and so prepare for the full brightness of the mystical vision of the Risen Christ.
This final step of “mystical theology” is one that, for many, even most, of us, will occur in the next life. For a few who have dedicated their entire lives to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, to walking this path of purification and illumination, it is granted by God in this life to experience mystical vision of the uncreated energies of God – to directly see the light of Christ. This is a great gift of God and not in our control. We can only work to prepare to receive this gift and trust God that at the proper time He will reveal Himself to us in full clarity and directness.
Beyond this it is impossible to speak of such a great thing. Even those who have experienced this can only do so in limited fashion. Let us therefore focus on the task that is set before us today – to prepare by purification and illumination for the moment when we will see God no longer as in a mirror darkly but directly, “face to face” perceiving the fullness of His glory.