BEYOND ATHEISM AND RATIONALISM
In my last post, I discussed how many of us experience moments of transcendence that leave us with an inexplicable knowledge that there is more to this life than the material world that immediately surrounds us. The mindset of this world and forms of atheism attempt to belittle or deny us this knowledge because it is supposedly not rational or scientifically provable.
However, according to some recent research, atheism is declining in numbers. While numbers are not everything, it reveals the atheists are fighting a losing battle because humans are naturally predisposed toward spirituality. It takes effort to shut down this aspect of our being, and it is rewarding when we don’t do so. Many people are now considering themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Droves of young people are leaving the institutional church, but wanting to maintain some form of belief in God and the spiritual life. Consequently, divorced from the roots of authentic Christianity, there is a lack of guidance in spiritual exploration in addition to a loss of understanding regarding God. “God is love” can now mean “God is the spiritual force that makes me feel good.”
The spiritual but not religious crowd recognizes a subtle reality that surrounds us. However, because our society lacks roots in divine Truth, we have little knowledge of how to properly understand spiritual feelings and experiences. A common misconception has become the standard rule: “If I have a real spiritual experience, then it follows that it must be good,” which flows from the above concept that God is what makes us feel good.
ANCIENT WISDOM: A PRACTICAL FAITH
Something that I greatly love about Eastern Orthodoxy is that our theology is based on divine revelation and our teachings on experience in that revelation. What that means is you will not find any arm-chair theologians who became saints. None of our saints sat down and wrote books based on clever sounding ideas that occurred to them while reading the Bible. Divine revelation was faithfully passed down from Christ and the Apostles, put into practice, and those who taught otherwise were proved wrong through experience.
It was confirmed that those who are living in divine Truth will manifest the “fruit of the Spirit,” with the most certain indicators being love for enemies and true humility. With 1,700+ years of monastic experience in community, the Eastern Orthodox Christians have found their spirituality and teachings to be true and have ascertained the deepest possible understanding of the human psyche and spiritual experiences. This wisdom is time-tested.
With such wisdom, the saints have proved to be valuable guides in understanding spiritual experiences. We see that real spiritual experiences, including ones that leave us with good peaceful feelings, have multiple sources.
A BENEFICIAL STORY
St Ignatius in The Arena tells of a young monk who desired to live in solitude so that he could deepen his spiritual life. His abbot opposed the idea, but the young monk insisted and eventually the abbot allowed him to do as he wished. For several days the young monk wrestled with evil thoughts and temptations when one day,
Having transformed himself into an angel of light, [a devil] appeared to him and said: “Be it known to you that for the sake of your purity and moral life, the Lord sent me to serve you.”
“What good have I done,” the monk replied, “that an angel should serve me?”
“All that you have done is great and eminent,” retorted the devil. “You have left all the beauties of the world and have become a monk. You labor in fasting, prayer, and vigil. And now you have left your monastery and have settled for life here. How can angels not serve your holiness?”
In this way the soul-destroying snake led him to arrogance and pride, and began to appear to him continually. Once, a man who had been robbed by thieves came to the monk. The unclean demon who, to deceive him, kept appearing to him in the form of an angel, said to him:
“This man has been robbed by thieves. What they stole is hidden in such and such a place. Tell him to go there and take it.”
The man who had come to the cave bowed, but the monk said to him from above: “All right, brother, I know why you have come. You are in distress because thieves came to you and stole so and so. Do not be sad! They put what they stole in such and such a place. Go there and you will find it all, and pray for me.”
The narrative continues to explain that this was the first of many similar occurrences in which the young monk was able to tell people where lost or stolen objects were in addition to giving many other “prophetic words.” People flocked to him in great numbers and believed him to be a prophet. One day the demon in disguise came to him and said,
“…for the sake of your irreproachable and angelic life other angels will come and take you, in the body, to heaven…”
So saying, the devil vanished. But the most merciful God Whose love for us is so great and Who does not desire the destruction of men, put into the monk’s heart the idea to tell the abbot what had happened…
When the abbot received the message he came at once and discussed the young monk’s visions and prophetic abilities. The young monk, truly believing himself to be humble, credited his spiritual abilities to the abbot’s prayers. In return, the abbot declared him to be deceived, but refused to leave the young man, wanting to be present in case the “angels” came for him to carry him to away.
Not surprisingly, the demons returned for the young monk and began their attempt to fly away with him. The abbot clung to the monk while crying to the Lord Jesus Christ for help. With much prayer and wrestling, the demons could snatch only the monk’s mantle and they carried that away into the sky. It floated out of sight and disappeared, only to reappear a few minutes later: free-falling from the sky to the earth below. The abbot rebuked the monk,
“Foolish and wretched man! You see what the demons have done with your mantle. That is what they intended to do with you, too. They intended to raise you in the air like Simon Magus and then let you drop, so as to crush you and fatally cast out your wretched soul.”
Afterward, the young monk repented and returned to a simple, humble life in community with his brothers.
The above narrative provides a powerful lesson: the devil can and does come in the guise of an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). That is not limited to angelic visions, but also to feelings that are joyful, peaceful, and seem as if they are from God. More to come on how this relates to today’s spiritual environment and the Charismatic movement in the next post.