From The Orthodox Way
Not I, but Christ in me. (Galatians 2:20)
There is no life without prayer. Without prayer there is only madness and horror. The soul of Orthodoxy consists in the gift of prayer. (Vasilii Rozanov, Solitaria)
The brethren asked Abba Agathon: “Amongst all our different activities, father, which is the virtue that requires the greatest effort?: He answered: “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than praying to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, try to prevent him; for they know that nothing obstructs them so much as prayer to God. In everything else that a man undertakes, if he perseveres, he will attain rest. But in order to pray a man must struggle to his last breath. (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)
The Three Stages on the Way
Shortly after being ordained priest, I asked a Greek bishop for advice on the preaching of sermons. His reply was specific and concise. “Every sermon,” he said, “should contain three points: neither less nor more.”
It is customary likewise to divide the spiritual Way into three stages. For Saint Dionysius the Areopagite these are purification, illumination, and union – a scheme often adopted in the West. Saint Gregory of Nyssa, taking as his model the life of Moses, speaks of light, cloud, and darkness. But in this chapter we shall follow the somewhat different threefold scheme devised by Origen, rendered more precise by Evagrius, and fully developed by Saint Maximus the Confessor. The first stage here is praktiki or the practice of the virtues; the second stage is physiki or the contemplation of nature; the third and final stage, our journey’s end, is theologia or “theology” in the strict sense of the word, that is, the contemplation of God himself.
The first stage, the practice of the virtues, begins with repentance. The baptized Christian, by listening to his conscience and by exerting the power of his free will, struggles with God’s help to escape from enslavement to passionate impulses. By fulfilling the commandments, by growing in his awareness of right and wrong, and by developing his sense of “ought,” gradually he attains purity of heart; and it is this that constitutes the ultimate aim of the first stage. At the second stage, the contemplation of nature, the Christian sharpens his perception of the “isness” of created things, and so discovers the Creator present in everything. This leads him to the third stage, the direct vision of God, who is not only in everything but above and beyond everything. At this third stage, no longer does the Christian experience God solely through the intermediary of his conscience or of created things, but he meets the Creator face to face in an unmediated union of love. The full vision of the divine glory is reserved for the Age to come, yet even in this present life the saints enjoy the sure pledge and firstfruits of the coming harvest.
Often the first stage is termed the “active life,” while the second and third are grouped together and jointly designated the “contemplative life.” When these phrases are used by Orthodox writers, they normally refer to inward spiritual states, not to outward conditions. It is not only the social worker or the missionary who is following the “active life”; the hermit or recluse is likewise doing so, inasmuch as he or she is still struggling to overcome the passions and to grow in virtue. And in the same way the “contemplative life” is not restricted to the desert or the monastic enclosure: a miner, typist, or housewife may also possess inward silence and prayer of the heart, and may therefore be in the true sense a “contemplative.” In The Sayings of the Desert Fathers we find the following story about Saint Antony, the greatest of solitaries: “It was revealed to Abba Antony in the desert: ‘In the city there is someone who is your equal, a doctor by profession. Whatever he has to spare he gives to those in need, and all day long he sings the Thrice-Holy Hymn with the angels.'”
The image of three stages on a journey, while useful, should not be taken too literally. Prayer is a living relationship between persons, and personal relationships cannot be neatly classified. In particular it should be emphasized that the three stages are not strictly consecutive, the one coming to an end before the next begins. Direct glimpses of the divine glory are sometimes conferred by God on a person as an unexpected gift, before the person has even begun to repent and to commit himself to the struggle of the “active life.” Conversely, however deeply a man may be initiated by God into the mysteries of contemplation, so long as he lives on Earth he must continue to fight against temptations; up to the very end of his time in this world he is still learning to repent. “A man should expect temptation until his last breath,” insists Saint Antony of Egypt. Elsewhere in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers there is a description of the death of Abba Sisois, one of the holiest and best loved of the “old men.” The brothers standing around his bed say that his lips were moving. “Who are you talking to, father?” they asked. “See,” he replied, “the angels have come to take me, and I am asking them for more time – more time to repent.” His disciples said, “You have no need to repent.” But the old man said, “Truly, I am not sure whether I have even begun to repent.” So his life ends. In the eyes of his spiritual children he was already perfect; but in his own eyes he was still at the very beginning.
No one, then, can ever claim in this life to have passed beyond the first stage. The three stages are not so much successive as simultaneous. We are to think of the spiritual life in terms of three deepening levels, interdependent, coexisting with each other.