In this season that the Church celebrates in the Theophany (January 6) the Baptism of Christ, it is worthwhile looking at the role of Baptism in the spiritual life. St Diadochos and St Mark the Ascetic are insistent, writing in the 5th Century, that Baptism is the source and foundation of all Christian spiritual endeavour.
It is important to understand that a man is changed in his baptism: he dies with Christ and will live again in Christ: he receives the cleansing of his sins; he receives the Holy Spirit as the pledge of his new life in Christ. As St Mark the Ascetic says, it is Baptism which confers on us the Holy Spirit and, secretly, all the Grace that we experience as we grow in Christ. What St Mark means is that our reception in Baptism of the Holy Spirit is the source of all the Grace we can ever experience as Christians.
Therefore, in approaching the Jesus Prayer, a man has to consider his spiritual condition: to pray the Jesus Prayer systematically is to seek after the fullness of the Holy Spirit that the man has received in his Orthodox baptism. Those people are deceived who think that the Holy Spirit is found everywhere, even in non-Christian religions; and that it is an easy thing to pray the Jesus Prayer, perhaps not exactly as Orthodox Christians pray it, so as to enter into a relationship with the Holy Spirit, perhaps outside of Christ. They run the risk of doing serious damage to themselves and to others around them.
In the Orthodox Church, we locate the spiritual renewal, the spiritual being ‘born again’, of the person in his actual act of baptism. In the service which makes a person a catechumen, the person formally renounces the Devil and formally binds himself to Christ, reciting the Nicene creed. This is similar to an Evangelical Protestant altar call, but in the Orthodox Church, it is not a matter of a snap decision in the emotionally-charged atmosphere of a rally, followed by the extemporaneous prayers of a preacher, but of preparation, confession of sins, and, in the service of the catechumen itself, of the prayers of the priest. Nowadays, even for adult baptism the service of the catechumen usually precedes baptism by only a short time, but in the early Church, the service of the catechumen was an entry into a relationship with the Church which, although it fell short of Baptism, nonetheless was a living relationship with the Church and, through the Church, with Christ.
The Orthodox Church, however, has never seen Baptism as the merely symbolic fulfilment of a commitment made to Christ in the service of the catechumen, that commitment itself being the source of being ‘born again’, of all the grace that the man will receive over his life-time. The service of the catechumen with its renunciation of the Devil and its formal acceptance of Christ is considered to be merely the beginning of a relationship with Christ, a beginning which requires after catechism—that is, after instruction in the Christian faith—completion in Baptism. And it is this Orthodox Baptism which gives us the Holy Spirit.
‘O taste and see that the Lord is good!’
This approach frees the Orthodox Christian from dangers often associated with Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism: First, the reception of a false spirit in the name as it were of the Holy Spirit. Second, the emotional and psychological problems, including confusion, surrounding repentance and conversion. And, of course, the Orthodox Church emphatically believes that after his baptism a man must begin to remake himself by overcoming his passions and his tempting thoughts. St Diadochos of Photiki speaks much about this.
This Orthodox approach avoids the problem of a belief in Christ that is accompanied by systematic sin: the newly baptised Orthodox recognizes that he has not yet definitively been ‘saved’, that he could still sin, and that he has to work on his salvation—without however thinking that it is by his own efforts that he makes spiritual progress (St Mark the Ascetic). It is in this context that the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and even formal Hesychasm, is situated. This is the road of repentance and conversion as a life-long endeavour, an endeavour actualized in part in the practice of the Jesus Prayer.
It sometimes seems to us that, especially in
While there are certainly arrogant and narrow-minded Orthodox—Baptism does not make the person a saint; it gives him the possibility to become a saint—an Orthodox believer does not believe that whatever he does, he is saved. Most often, the Orthodox believer who sins knows quite well what he is doing, that it is wrong. He may repent; he may not; that is another issue. But he does not fool himself—normally—that he’s okay. He knows quite well deep down in his soul that he is on the road not of salvation but of the loss of his soul.
So, for the Orthodox believer the correct approach to the spiritual life is a humble turning to God in the Jesus Prayer; a humble recognition of his passions with efforts to overcome them; and the humble invocation of the mercy of Jesus Christ. It is this approach that produces those shining stars in the firmament that are the Orthodox Saints and Elders. And who has seen such a shining star of spiritual charity and compassion and has not been moved to the depths of his soul by Orthodox spirituality?