Most of us live a worldly life with a spirit that is locked up in our heart by all our desires, resentments and cares of daily life. In reality this spirit is free, but we have covered it up, bound it, with all our cares. All we need to do is remove the obstacles that block our awareness of its powers. It appears to be asleep, because our worldly cares make it appear this way. It is by God’s Grace that we are awakened revealing to us this condition. Saint Theophan points out that this can happen as the result of grace working either directly on it or indirectly. When divine grace through direct action reveals our true condition, it arouses dissatisfaction with one’s current way of life and leads to a desire to change.
Saint Theophan puts this aroused dissatisfaction this way:
The person is not satisfied by anything around him; not by his accomplishments or possessions, even if he has incalculable wealth; and he walks around as if heart broken. Because he finds no consolation in visible things, he turns to the invisible, and receives it with a readiness to acquire it for himself sincerely and to give himself over to it.Psychologists have termed this condition as a mid-life crisis or it is also misdiagnosed as depression. Commonly, when we reach our forties, we develop a feeling that something is missing, all our successes have not led us to an inner happiness or satisfaction. If we respond by following this awakening spirit we will return to the Church, begin to seek a deeper understanding of the Gospel and the Orthodox way of life, discover a deeper meaning in life and a peace and joy we did not know existed. If we ignore it, we may begin a new path of worldly seeking and the spirit within remains asleep.
Saint Theophan outlines some of the indirect ways grace works on us. The first he describes is self-indulgence. By this he means that through our worldly way of life we have become dependent on the physical and mental aspects of our way of life, all the attachments we have to what makes up our current life. Everything that we think nourishes us is embodied in this worldly life. We are dead to the nourishment of the Holy Spirit. To think of changing our way of life becomes unthinkable. We can’t conceive of an alternative that would be better. We are stuck in our own self-made patterns. This self-indulgence is very strong and are the bonds constraining the spirit.
What divine grace does, which may seem cruel, is to destroy one of these indulgences that supports our current way of living. This could be an illness, accident that limits us, loss of job, loss of family or friends, or financial loss. Saint a Theophan describes some of the ways this can happen depending on how we have created this false foundation of our life:
He who is enslaved by pleasing the flesh shall fall ill, and, by weakening the flesh, shall give the spirit freedom and power to come to its senses and become sober. He who is preoccupied with his own attractiveness and strength shall be deprived of this attractiveness and kept in a state of exhaustion. He who finds refuge in his own power and strength shall be subject to slavery and humiliation. He who relies greatly on wealth shall have it taken away from him. He who shows off great learnedness shall be put to shame. He who relies on personal connections shall have them cut off. He who counts on the permanence of the order established around him shall have it destroyed by the death of people he knows or the loss of essential material possessions.When this happens there is the opportunity for a positive change in one’s life. When we feel weak, humbled, we are apt to turn towards God for help. When we are struck with something that takes something important to us give thanks to God and seek His help. Look for new opportunities to serve Him, new spiritual practices, renewed participation in the sacramental life. Open you heart when something unthinkable happens and allow grace to awaken our spirit.
There are other bonds that constrain our spirit. These are the structures of society such as its rules, laws, principles and ideas. We often feel helpless in going against the waves of our culture. We have been raised to fit in with the norms of society. We often forget we have free will and can choose even in a world with strong societal constraints. Saint Theophan tells us that these forces are not physical but reside in our imagination. He says,
“one has only to dispel this imaginative power of the world, and the opportunity for abstaining from its charms becomes more likely.”This can be overcome by contemplating divine creation or the Church. Time in silence, surrounded by the beauty of a traditional Orthodox Church, we can be moved by grace, find peace of mind, and suddenly choosing to commit to service of God. Or, one may go into a natural area, a walk along a natural lake or creek, a desolate seashore, or a mature wooded area and be uplifted by the beauty of God’s creation untouched by human hands. This experience may cause an opening for divine grace to work on opening the heart and freeing the spirit within. Both of these I find personally very powerful. I am humbled every time I enter into a traditional Orthodox Church. I feel God’s presence and my hardened heart is opened. I regularly take a short walk along a creek lined with mature trees, all is untouched by human hands. God’s handiwork, it’s beauty, it’s complexity also opens my heart to a God who is in all places and all things.
Saint Theophan says,
Nature and Church completely wrench the human spirit from the bonds of the world. In this capacity they dispel, dissipate, and oust the charms of the world of vanity with its many illusions.When we awaken to the constraints of society, grace will bring new strength to go against the current, to desire to live a God-pleasing life without any concern what old friends may think of you. They are some of the bonds that need to be broken if you are to become a true child of God. When a path is found that is not based on norms of a modern society, then there will be experienced true joy.
In addition there are other ways such as an encounter with a spiritual person who is not bound by such societal forces. There are many ways we can encounter our loving God who is constantly seeking to awaken our spirit so we can be perfected. We are the prize of His creation made in His image and likeness. He wants us to see that our purpose in this worldly life is to be perfected and to become united with His will. This is necessary if we are going to deserve eternal life in His Kingdom. This is why He sent His Son to show us the way through His suffering in Crucifixion and then His glorious Resurrection, Ascension into heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit to heal us all in His Church.
This is why catechistic teaching is so important and helps nurture all the approaches to an awakening of a sleepy soul. We all need to proclaim the universal Truth of the Gospel and it’s message of divine salvation. This needs to be done in a simple way without philosophizing. Saint Theophan says,
“depict the truth as it is, not cluttering it with intellectual concepts and especially speculation about probabilities... Just explain the truth in a simple way; say what it is, and the spirit will be overcome.”References: Path to Salvation by Saint Theophan the Recluse, pp 111-118.
Awakening Our Heart to God (3) Awakening our Heart to God (5)