Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | May 15, 2008

Counsels on Conversion of the Heart

Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov’s “The Arena” offers much humbling advice for monks. But there is also more as well for those of us who aren’t advanced as spiritual warriors but simple lay folks busy in our everyday backsliding lives (me!). The attention to the detail and its close reading in scripture is not overlooked in the Orthodox Church, and the good Bishop is no exception here:

“You are the temple of the living God. As God has said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people.”           (2 Corinthians 6:16)

Thus begins Ignatius’s discussion of the union of the mind with the heart as the “union of the spiritual thoughts of the mind with the spiritual feelings of the heart”; and it is the core of his description of the joy the christian experiences as “ordained a priest or high-priest by the Holy Spirit”… for the “worship of God in the Spirit and in Truth.”

And as there is much truth in Archimandrite Zacharias’s note that there is a three-fold experience of this structured as: 1) foretaste, 2) withdrawal and purification, and finally 3) re-union (please forgive that I’ve simplified his words here from memory), in some respects the process of conversion to the depth of faith found in this ancient church may seem to involve something of this foretaste though perhaps on a smaller scale. For it is indeed a yearning for the love of God that brings us here, but this is not the end, not deification, but only a beginning of a beginning. Yet all the same, it may offer a glimmer of understanding of what the whole is all about.

Thus when Ignatius continues his discussion of this union, there seems a parallel to the difficulty we OBC’s (Orthodox By Choice) have in describing our conversion to a deeper and more demanding relationship to those we love around us – for all has truly changed, and In so many ways those on the other side can scarcely comprehend – other than that we must be in love:

“The fulfillment of the commandments which precedes the union of the mind with the heart differs from the fulfillment of the commandments which succeeds the union. Before the union the ascetic fulfills the commandments with the greatest labor and difficulty, forcing and compelling his fallen nature; after the union the spiritual power which unites the mind with the heart impels him to fulfill the commandments – makes it easy, light, sweet, delightful. I ran the way of Thy commandments, when Thou didst enlarge my heart, says the Psalmist (Psalm 118:32).”

Again, Ignatius is speaking of something far deeper than entry into the Church.. for it is not the church per se that we enter, but union with the Church as the Body of Christ. It is this Body, seen and joined here to us in the sacrament of Chrismation (and in his deeper discussion – theosis).. that offers not an earthly experience of the sort we had known before, but something indescribably different that we are called to, chosen out of the world for… and not strictly by our reasoned choice, but by what we experience as almost a necessity of our heart’s longing for God… for we “find no rest until we rest in thee”. And it is for this reason that the Church is not an earthly vessel seen as any other institution, but as a divinely instituted sacramental body wherein we are blessed to experience true worship for the first time. It is beyond words.

Sadly the wonder that lies herein is something like the sword that divides incarnational faith from all other, and as sweet as it is, there is this incommunicable pain as well for those we leave behind and can no longer reach except as they see the animation of our hearts lit upon our faces. If only they could, if only they would…taste and see that the Lord is good… our joy would be that much greater.

Quotations taken from pp. 86-87.


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