Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
The stages of the spiritual life
The attempt was made very early to distinguish ascending stages in the spiritual life, i.e. the stages that describe growth of man’s life in Christ.
The era of the Apostolic Church:
We notice in the letter to the Hebrews the differentiation between the child who partakes only of milk and the adult who is of full age and whose senses are exercised to discern, “For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." (Hebrews 5:13, 14) The apostle Paul later distinguishes between the elementary principles of Christ, meaning the beginning of faith in Christ, which includes repentance and receiving baptism etc., and perfection or advancing towards perfection, “Therefore leaving the discussion of elementary principles of Christ, let us go unto perfection.” (Hebrews 6:1)
Also, in the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul prays for those who already believed in the Lord Jesus that they may also receive inner illumination in the knowledge of God. In this illumination the Spirit reveals to them "the hope of His calling" and “the richness of the glory of His inheritance in the saints”; also revealing “what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Ephesians 1:17-20). Here we notice that the apostle distinguishes between the beginning of faith and love on one hand, and having the eyes of their heart illuminated within them on the other hand. This illumination is the work of the Holy Spirit, whom the apostle calls here the Spirit of wisdom and revelation.
In the third chapter of this epistle, the apostle bows his knees unto the Father so that He grants the believers “to be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man.” This strengthening in the inner man ascertains believers that "Christ dwells in their hearts" and materializes this experience in their life. He later mentions also their knowing of “the love of Christ which passes knowledge" and adds "that you may be filled with all the fullness of God”. (Ephesians 3:14-20)
This shows us that the apostle seeks through preaching and teaching as well as by kneeling and prayer that the believers, after they began by entering to Christ through faith, may advance and grow that they may attain the state of being filled with all the fullness of God. We can notice this also in the fourth chapter which states clearly that the goal behind the ascension of Christ and the pouring of the Holy Spirit is perfecting the building of the congregation of believers till they come in unity of faith "unto a perfect man , unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. (Ephesians 4:10-16).
Saint John also mentioned in his first epistle what may be considered as two stages in the Christian life: the youth stage and the fathers stage. The youth are those who recently entered the faith in Christ. This stage is characterized by strength through submission to the word of God and by overcoming the wicked one. The fathers are those who advanced in faith and knowledge due to steadfastness in Christ and obedience to his commandments. That is why he tells them “you have known Him who is from the beginning”, i.e. you have known that Christ is the Word of God and He is the Word by whom all things were made. This knowledge is not mental or theoretical but comes from illumination of heart and mind through the work of the Holy Spirit in those who obey the commandments of Christ the Lord. Therefore the apostle John calls them fathers because they are advanced in their life in Christ.
In addition to that, it is to be noticed that the early church insisted that whoever is chosen for any service in the church, even as deacons, that they must be advanced in faith, of good report, and full of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3-8). This is also what the church should follow all the time. Paul the apostle advises regarding choosing a bishop that he should not be “a novice" meaning he has to be chosen faithful, mature, and advanced in spiritual life (1 Timothy 3:6).
The era of Church Fathers:
After the era of the apostolic church we see an attempt to distinguish between the consecutive stages of spiritual life: Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) mentions that there are three levels of Christian life: the first level is that of the "introduced", or newcomers; who are mainly concerned with the practice of virtues (praxis). The second level he calls the "middle one" to whom contemplation (theoria) and the suppression of passions (apatheia) are particularly suitable. The third level he calls the "perfect", who is qualified for the true experiential knowledge of God (theologia). These stages are the same for many of the Alexandrine fathers and for Diodore of Photike.
St. Basil (329-379 A.D.) along with John Cassian distinguish between the beginner, proficient , and perfect.
Dionysius the Areopagite distinguishes between three stages in the spiritual way, (1) purgative, (2) illuminative, and (3) unitive. These three, which originated in the East, have become classical in the West around the sixth century. Under different names these classifications generally recur and they contain a nucleus of truth; but none has an absolute value because the various states penetrate each other. The soul rises and falls back from one to the other without following any rule. Moreover these classifications express states of the soul rather than the objective data of God’s action. They mark some moments of our own human existence rather than moments of the life of our Savior. They are anthropocentric rather than theocentric. Finally they represent the interesting views of eminent spiritual writers but they lack the authority of the church. It is possible to discover an itinerary of spiritual life officially proposed by the church and emphasizing the divine operation rather than the psychology of the soul of man as he treads in the way.
Church mysteries and stages of spiritual life:
The church classification of the stages of spiritual life can be found in her books of liturgical prayers which include all ritual services performed by the church for her members from the beginning of their life in the church to the end of their journey on earth(1). The order in which the church presents the sacraments to her new members exemplifies her thought of the ascending stages of spiritual growth of the soul and its sanctification. Therefore, the holy mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Unction) , and Eucharist may be considered three essential stages in the way that leads to union with God.
The other sacraments and other practices given by the church to its members may be connected with one or another of these three sacraments and stages.
Thus, repentance, the first monastic profession, the second wedding, and the unction of the sick are connected with Baptism. Matrimony (first wedding, originally considered the only wedding) and the ordination (Priesthood) are connected with the Eucharist. The ordination is connected also with Chrismation in addition to the Eucharist.
Not only the sacraments, or solemn rites respected almost as sacraments, but all the aspects of life of prayer of the church, her feasts, her calendar, and her hymns, are focused in these three mysteries. All the feasts of the church whether related to the life of Christ, the virgin Mary, the angels or the saints are celebrated within the liturgy of Eucharist (also called the sacrament of Thanksgiving).
We find that those three sacraments, Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist, collectively constitute the Lord’s liturgy. The first part of the liturgy is called the liturgy of the catechumens because the candidates for baptism are allowed to be present in it. The next part (anaphora) that begins by “where are your hearts” and culminates with the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) to descend on the believers and the Eucharistic offerings, is particularly linked with Chrismation because the Holy Spirit comes on the believers and on the bread and wine every time it is prayed. The part of the liturgy constituted by the communion is the Eucharist itself, the meal of the immolated body and blood of the Lord Jesus. It is the feast supper of the slain lamb and of the union with God through the glorified body and blood of His Christ.
(To be continued)
(1) This idea about dividing spiritual life according to sequence established by applying the church sacraments to the newcomers is originally the idea of the late archimandrite Lev Gillet (monk in the Eastern Church ). He published it in his book “Orthodox Spirituality”, published in English in the year 1945 in London.