Is There Spiritual Life and Sanctity Today?
The V. Revd. Archimandrite Kyrillos, Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Essex
Your All-Holiness, Your Eminences, Your Excellencies, Fellow Ministers, brothers
and sisters in Christ—I wish first of all to thank His All-Holiness for his invitation
to participate in this Conference, and for the opportunity to speak on the theme:
Is there spiritual life and sanctity today?
My immediate answer to both parts of this question is a very affirmative “Yes”.
God does not change. Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And
the nature of human beings has not changed either. Since Adam, humans are dignified
with such a power over their own destiny that they can to a great degree turn their
backs on God, on spiritual life, on the quest for holiness. But until the end of
the world, there will always be people who, even if they are in the minority, will
call down God’s grace upon the earth and their fellow humans. That the world continues
is proof that there is holiness today. Saint Silouan said, “I tell you that when
there are no more men of prayer on earth, the world will come Wan end.”
In other words, spiritual life, and holiness, which is its fruit, does not exist
only in the past. We can see holiness in our predecessors and learn from them, but
we are not examining spiritual life like an exhibit in a historical museum. It is
a living reality to which we are all called. Every human being has a spiritual dimension.
God is not partial: He calls each one into existence with personal love, and endows
each human with the potential to share His own life. St Peter using the terminology
of his time said that we are called to “become partakers of the divine nature” [2
Peter 1:4]. And that is what holiness is: “Be holy, for I am Holy, and I will that
you have all that I have, unreservedly.” This is God’s invitation to us all, whatever
our place in society, or our rank in the Church: the rank of the laity, or that
of the clergy. St Silouan writes: “Everyone in this world has his task to perform,
be he king or patriarch, cook, blacksmith or teacher, but the Lord Whose love extends
to everyone of us will give greater reward to the man whose love for God is greater.”
And again: “Not everyone can be an emperor or a prince; not everyone can be a patriarch
or an abbot, or a leader; but in every walk of life we can love God and be pleasing
to Him, and only this is important.”
Spiritual life is life which takes into account the spiritual dimension of human
beings. Working at our relationship with God is not like a hobby for a certain category
of person. As people say, “He or she is the religious type”. It is not an optional
extra. It is what makes our life really human. Biology and psychology, when they
exclude the divine input into the human make-up, give an incomplete picture. Secular
man is merely a superior animal, and actually subhuman. Without spiritual effort
we will not cultivate our spirit. It cannot be obliterated, but it can be stifled
and atrophied, ignored or denied. Only if we live a life which is spiritual will
we ever be fully ourselves, fully reintegrated as persons. Spiritual life includes
our psychological and our physical aspects. What I think and do on every level of
existence affects my soul. And when my soul is touched by God’s grace, my thinking,
my feeling and my body are also blessed.
Especially in Western countries, many people have abandoned Christianity. An English
author (G.K. Chesterton) wisely said that where people stop believing in the truth,
they do not start to believe in nothing, they start to believe in anything. Thus
although belief in God may remain when Christ is abandoned, in every country nowadays
one can meet all kinds of spiritualities. This is not surprising, because “man cannot
live on bread alone”, and spiritual hunger exists even where ideas about the Absolute
Being are confused.
Furthermore, many differing spiritual paths have features in common. There is, for
example, a core of ethical teaching common to the major faiths. The radical differences
between religions do not always show at the beginning of the path: only when people
go further do the divergences become clear. Some of our contemporaries teach that
the further you go in any religion, the closer the paths converge: but actually
the opposite is true. So those who are seeking must seek for truth, and find the
path which is based, on right theology, on a true vision of God as He Himself has
revealed Himself to us. Then our deepest intuition will confirm that indeed Jesus
Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The fullness of life in God is only accessible in the God-man, that is, in the One
who shares our human nature as well as having Divine Nature, as One of the Holy
Trinity. The Orthodox Church gives us a true Prototype: we can see, and hear, and
touch, and taste, the Absolute Being; we can experience the fragrance of God’s actual
Being. Thus we can go to the end of the Church’s path with confidence. No other
path, however noble its practices, its morals, and its aspirations, goes safely
to the very end. Though nobody is totally bereft of grace, fullness of sanctity
presupposes orthodox doctrine. Our teaching is unsurpassed; it is not out of date.
It has borne fruit in many different ages and circumstances and cultures. Orthodoxy
is for everyone; we can understand why Tertullian said that “every soul is innately
Thus spiritual life could be defined as “life in Christ”. Let us dwell on this for
a moment. This phrase has been used as the title of a book by St. Nicholas Cabasilas
about the Sacraments. Echoing him, the great wonderworker, St. John of Kronstadt,
who was a married priest living in Russia and who reposed in 1905, gave a similar
title to his “spiritual diary” when he was asked to publish it. An almost contemporary
author called one of the books where he shared his spiritual insights His—that
is, Christ’s—Life is Mine. To be “in Christ” means to be incorporated into
His actual Body, and to be anointed with His Spirit—Christ means “the Anointed One”—and
adopted as a child of His Heavenly Father. Christian faith is not only saying “yes”
to the Creed. It means “putting on Christ” [Gal. 3:27]. How? By Baptism, which,
precisely, is preceded by a confession of faith. We easily take this great gift
for granted, but those who are converted in the mission field or as adults can tell
us from their experience that it is a passage from darkness to light, from death
to life. We sometimes forget that at Baptism the priest said over us, “Thou art
washed, thou art sanctified, thou art justified, in the Name of the Lord Jesus,
and by the Spirit of our God.” These magnificent words, borrowed from St. Paul’s
letter to the Corinthians, can seem like a mere ritual formula if we neglect to
actualize the divine gift of Grace in our life. The seed of spiritual life has been
sown in us. We “are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” [1 Cor. 1:2].
That is our task.
If we are certain that we “have found the true faith”, we have nothing to fear from
the plethora of spiritual paths around us, even though it seems confusing. “For
God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound
mind” [2 Tim. 1:7]. If we remain faithful, and continually enrich our experience
and knowledge of the Church’s life and teaching, we will be all the better fitted
to help our contemporaries.
The basic question is always: What do you think of Christ? St John reminded his
correspondents that, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses
that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God. And every spirit that does not
confess that Jesus Christ is [the divine Lord] come in the flesh is not of God”
[1 John 4:2]. Of course, our exposition of what we think of the Lord will be humble,
not arrogant with self-assurance; it will be full of love and gratitude. Saint Silouan
says. “God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed
from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but
condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.
Certainly, not everyone is called to be a full-time preacher, but whoever witnesses
to Christ will be speaking of One who has made it possible for all humans to become
Spiritual life is, according to Orthodox doctrine, a collaboration between our free
will and the will of God. The best ambassadors of Christ will be those whose spiritual
life in Him has prepared them to speak prayerfully, so that others will want them
to explain their belief. “Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always
to give an answer to every man that asks you a reason of the hope that is in you,
with meekness and fear”. [1 Pet. 3:15] If we conform to the path on which alone
we can acquire what St Paul daringly calls the mind of Christ, it does not mean
that our individuality gets lost.
Our God is One in Nature and Three in Persons. Our Fathers teach us that we do not
divide the Nature or confuse the Persons. And so it is to be when humanity is one
as God is one. If the world lived in Christ, His commandments would be the first
goal of each person: love for God and for each other. Therefore each person would
be, not dissolved, but affirmed and fulfilled in loving relationships.
It is very instructive to read about holy people, canonised saints and others, such
as the twentieth-century holy elders, Iakovos, Porphyrios, and many more. I mention
those from the last century because it is almost “today”, and a century of great
suffering. I have in mind recognised holy men and women, because saints do not wear
a self-advertising label: “Look at me! I'm a saint!” The path of Christ is one of
humility, and some were honoured as holy while on earth, while some were not.
Our Church wisely does not bestow official recognition on someone until they have
passed through the gates of death, and even then usually not quickly. So it is too
soon to speak of twenty-first century saints. But if we only look at the twentieth
century, there is such a variety of personalities, educational levels, degrees of
piety in youth, religious backgrounds, and so on.
Then there are many different life paths that led to holiness. Mount Athos has given
the world many great saints such as Silouan, who reposed in 1938; but not all the
twentieth-century saints were in monasteries. There are the millions of martyrs
and confessors—men, women and children—from the Soviet Union; there is a parish
priest such as St. Nicholas Planas, and the new Parisian saints, Maria [Skobtsova]
and Dimitri [Klepinin]. There is St. Nectarios, whose astounding miracles show that
our God is a living God, and is at work until now. There are many who bore suffering
with faith, and even if they are not famous, they are now reaping their reward and
praying for the world.
All of these holy people went to the same services and accepted the same Creed.
Yet they vary like a garden with many kinds of flowers. They present us with proof
that God is with us and accessible to us all here and now.
Those with a scientific training know that proofs come mainly through experiment.
The best way for us all to answer the question posed by His All-Holiness to us today
is to experience for ourselves that “if you live after the flesh, you shall die,
but if through the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.” “The
flesh”, and “the deeds of the body”, mean here the sinful energies such as hatred,
pride, lust and other passions, which cause disintegration and close the door against
the Spirit of God.
Spiritual life will involve some “mortification” for all of us. One example of this
is the fasts that we undertake together at certain periods of the Church year, precisely
to help us to pray and to cleanse our heart of sinful passions. St. Paul goes on
to say that, “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received
the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father’.” “The Spirit itself bears
witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God” [Rom. 8: 13-16]. When
“the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us” [I Pet. 4:14], then it will be evident
that there is spiritual life and sanctity today.
This was a talk given at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople Second Orthodox
Youth Conference, July 11-16, 2007. Posted with permission on 11/12/2007.