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: See part 15
The era of Church Fathers: See part 15
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 on 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 sum up: (1) Baptism, (2) Chrismation, and (3) Eucharist symbolize the three stages of spiritual life.
We must go beyond the letter, beyond the mere visible celebration of the three sacraments of Baptism, Chrisma, and Eucharist, and perceive the invisible graces which they express. Baptism, Chrisma, and the Lord’s supper are signs. Baptismal grace, Pentecostal grace, and Paschal grace are realities behind the signs.
In the church ritual the Chrisma precedes the Eucharist. We notice here that the apostles were given the Pentecostal grace after partaking of the Lord’s supper, i.e. after partaking of the Paschal grace. This is true only in appearance. At the time of the first laying of the foundation of Eucharist in the first supper, and the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, the apostles obtained only an incomplete experience of Pascal grace: they shared in the Lord’s Supper and in the joy of the Presence of the Risen Lord, but they did not fully share in the sacrifice of Christ. They knew the fullness of Paschal grace only at the end of their life, when their own martyrdom joined with Christ’s sacrifice. Pentecost was for them the necessary condition of this full Pascal grace, just as the gift of the Spirit is for us the necessary condition of a full Eucharistic life.
Three aspects of one grace:
The three graces – Baptismal grace, Pentecostal and Pascal grace – are but aspects of one and the same divine grace. They can never be kept asunder; they almost coexist. When we say that, in the mind of the church, they represent an ascending order, we mean that in the course of the normal and untroubled growth of the soul, each of these aspects should predominate in its turn and in its own time.
The three aspects in Christ’s life:
These three graces represent three moments in the life of the Lord Jesus Himself. This is an very important issue that we should notice, because our private spiritual experiences are but weak reflections of His life and come directly from Him. These three moments in the life of Christ our Lord, which are expressions of the three graces, are:
1- His own contact with the baptismal waters.
2- The descending of the Holy Spirit on Him after His baptism (and the sending of the Paraclete to us later).
3- His offering of Himself as a Passover sacrifice.
+ The baptizing Christ (who is also the forgiving and healing Christ),
+ Christ the sender of the spirit,
+ and Christ the Paschal lamb or rather our true Passover:
such are the aspects of our Lord, the revelation and the inner experience of which constitute the spiritual life of the Christian.
The Relation between the Stages of spiritual life and Sacraments:
A person who enters the church of Christ to walk in the way of the heavenly kingdom starts it by confession and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The church calls them Catechumen. When the Catechumen announces his faith in Christ the church baptizes him, and when he comes out of baptism he receives the Holy Spirit through Unction after which he is eligible to communion with the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. Those three sacraments that the faithful receives as he enters the church are received in this sequence:
2- Chrismation (receiving the Holy Spirit)
3- Eucharist (participation in the body and blood thus uniting with Him)
These three stages, in this sequence in which they are given to the Catechumen, express the consecutive stages the soul goes through in its spiritual growth and its sanctification.
Therefore a Christian person starts his renewal by faith and baptism to have a new relationship with God, becoming His son. Then he receives the Holy Spirit to dwell inside him and illuminate his soul, that he may live according to the Spirit with the strength given to him through the Holy Spirit. Finally the gift of the Holy Spirit takes us to the real union with Christ that we may be with Him as one spirit. This union will be completely realized when our bodies are changed and glorified in union with our spirits at the coming of our Lord Jesus to grant us participation in His full glory. This is the union that is given to us here in the Eucharist as a foretaste.
(This ends chapter 3 of the book; We'll continue with chapter 4 soon, God willing)
(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.