Thank you very much for your personal testimony of your conversion to Christ, and your very clear recognition and understanding that that was just the beginning of a lifetime of growing in Him. I very much liked how you wrote about “the task of learning how to become a faithful servant of a new Lord — no longer my wretched self-curved-in-on-itself, but Jesus Christ. This latter project, it was soon clear, was demanding, open-ended, and lifelong — one never arrived, one was always on the way, there was always more to learn, more growing to do, more sin to repent, more Bible to read and (better and better) understand, more people to (better and better) love, more millions to evangelize… and of course more Sunday School classes, church services, youth choirs, Bible studies, and mission seminars to attend.”
This is very much, I think, to a very significant degree, how the Orthodox would understand conversion and subsequent spiritual growth. I think the Orthodox would like to say more explicitly that all of this is part of responding to our Lord’s calling for all of us to grow in real, actual holiness of life—growing in the process of sanctification, we could say—as St. Paul says so trenchantly and succinctly: “For this is the will of God: your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3; also 1 Thess. 5:23).
Furthermore, the Orthodox like to talk about our further, tremendously awesome calling to grow in the process of what we call “theosis,” or “deification,” which St. Peter refers to when he speaks of our calling to “partake of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Or as St. Paul says, we are all “called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2; Rom. 1:7). St. Athanasios the Great, writing in the mid-fourth century in Egypt, puts it this way: “God became man, so that man might become divine”—becoming by grace what God is by nature, while still remaining completely human. Indeed, we say that becoming like God to the extent that this is possible is the very path and process that makes us most fully human, fulfilling the very purpose our Lord had for us when He created us in the first place.
And we understand this ongoing process to unfold through a sublime combination of our Lord’s grace linked with our own willingness to cooperate with that grace, which ever draws and enables us to have deep mystical communion with the Lord. He’s constantly giving the invitation—“Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (Rev. 3:20); and we continually open more widely the door of our hears and minds and souls to welcome Him in, asking Him to dwell ever more fully and deeply within us, which necessarily includes His purging us ever more thoroughly of sins and sinful tendencies—including anxieties and misplaced attachments of all sorts—through our ongoing life of repentance.
This mysterious collaboration of God’s grace with our free-will we call synergism—a “working together” of God and humans, as we respond freely (for love is only ever really love when it’s freely given) to the profound love of our Lord, “Who desires all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the late fourth century in Antioch and Constantinople, gives us a taste of this synergism in action with these words: “Let us, then, draw Him to ourselves, and beseech Him to join us in the attack against our miserliness. And let us contribute our share—I mean, good will and eagerness. For He will not demand anything further; but if He can lay hold of only this much from us, He will by Himself provide everything else.”
We also understand that this growth in holiness, and this mystical communion with the Lord, do not occur in isolation. We always are in tremendous need of our brothers and sisters in the Faith, as we grow together in the ongoing life of worship and prayer in the community of Faith. Indeed, there’s a saying attributed to the Desert Fathers that’s so simple, yet so profound: “My brother is my life.” With this understanding, and realizing that ultimately every other member of the human race is my brother or sister, we understand the ongoing crucial responsibility of trying to serve not only their spiritual, but also their material needs—with our Lord’s words in Matt. 25:31-46 ever in mind.
And we can also greatly benefit from our communion with all our brothers and sisters in the same Faith who have lived before us, who are now alive with Christ in the heavenly realm—especially those recognized by the Church as Saints, whom we are encouraged to get to know personally through reading their Lives and their divinely-inspired writings (filled with profound wisdom about the spiritual life, forged in the fires of asceticism, prayer, and mystical experience, and wonderfully consistent through all these many centuries), and asking them for their prayers. This, I believe, is the basic Orthodox understanding of “the communion of Saints,” as mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed.
Thank you again, David, for your posting. May I close with a very hearty affirmation of your closing words: “The best possible human life is to serve Him as Lord.”
Yours, in Christ,
David C. Ford