Monday, 4 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 14 — The Charism of Discernment

A reader posted the following comment in the last post:
"This is what St John of Sinai had: a very strong charism of discernment in its highest degree, which he himself describes as the light of the Holy Spirit illuminating the dark parts of the soul of the other."
I'm having a bit of difficulty comprehending this notion of the "light of the Holy Spirit." My novice discernment constantly leads me into making a complacent judgement of excessive abstraction. How is St John of Sinai so inspirationally guided by the inner acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit?
Furthermore, I would like to complement you for posting the most intellectually stirring material on the net. Unfortunately, although born a Christian Orthodox, I have not practiced the faith properly throughout my adolescent years. Recently I have become increasingly interested in my faith and its potential role within my life. What reading should I do to not only become aware of the rudimentary concepts of Orthodoxy but to also gain further knowledge on the monastic life?
There are really two questions here:
1 What is the light of the Holy Spirit?
2 What reading should I do, a man born Orthodox, to increase my faith and learn about monasticism?
Let us take the first question. In general, until the Christian has an inner personal experience of the presence of Jesus Christ, he cannot understand anything. However, because of the danger of getting involved in Evangelical born-again movements, we recommend to all that they cultivate this inner personal experience through the mysteries (sacraments) of the Orthodox Church, beginning with baptism. This is the only sure road.
When we are baptized, even as infants, our mind or nous is cleansed and the Holy Spirit takes up its abode in our mind. In Orthodox teaching, the mind or nous is the inner spirit of man; it is not merely his power to reason to conclusions. The Fathers of the Orthodox Church insist that this reception of the Holy Spirit is the foundation of all further spiritual progress whether as a lay person, priest or monk. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church, the newly baptized infant (or even adult) is immediately chrismated for the reception of the Holy Spirit in the way that the Apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
An Athonite Elder has remarked that we lose the presence of the Holy Spirit that we received in baptism only in cases of the denial of Christ. That is why an Orthodox man is re-chrismated after joining another religion—historically, this has been Islam—and why he is not re-chrismated even after committing murder: even murder does not drive the Holy Spirit away. Moreover, in the Orthodox Church, it is customary for the infant to receive communion regularly as soon as he is baptized (there is no ‘first communion’); the result is that the Orthodox, even if he does not want to practise his religion, has an intuitive understanding of what his religion teaches: he has had Christ abiding in him from his infancy; he has been a companion of Christ up to the time of his adolescent rebellion. Infant communion is practised even by parents who themselves do not otherwise practise their Orthodox religion. St Diadochos of Photiki is clear that it is the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism which illuminates our mind, and a modern Western convert to Orthodoxy who has been baptized in middle age will speak often of his ‘illumination’. But what is the nature of this illumination?
This is a very difficult question. Fr Theophanes (Constantine), whom we mentioned in our last post, has written a work which discusses this sort of thing, but his work is very difficult. Basically, the mind of man—what the Greeks call the nous—is the spirit of man; it is the principle of his being alive as a man; it is the principle of his personhood. It is the principle of his consciousness. In a way that man does not understand with his reason, the nous of man unites with the Holy Spirit in Orthodox baptism after the nous has been cleansed of all other spirits. This union illuminates the nous. This cannot be explained; it can only be experienced. After this experience, a man through this illumination understands things about the Orthodox Faith that he could not really grasp at first. Now, to the question at hand of how St John of Sinai was able to see the inner world of others through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
Although the Fathers emphasize that the foundation of the Christian spiritual life is the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism that we have just described, they teach that the Holy Spirit comes in power to the Orthodox believer at a certain stage of his spiritual journey, at a time when God wants and determines. There is nothing a man can do to hasten this ‘second reception’—it is not really a second anything—but he can certainly pray to receive the Holy Spirit, just as St Luke teaches us in his Gospel. However, in general, because of the dangers of deception and arrogance, rather than praying for the reception of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox customarily prays the Jesus Prayer, where he understands the ‘mercy’ for which he is asking Jesus Christ to include Christ’s response to all his needs, including his spiritual needs. However, St Gregory Palamas did pray continually to be illuminated. Now when the Holy Spirit descends, if it does—since it is not something we order at McDonald’s for take-out—it gives those charisms in power that it wishes. God knows better than we do what charisms to give us. People who have prayed for gifts out of season have usually repented of their folly: God knows what is to our advantage and what isn’t.
In this regard, it is worthwhile to mention Tatiana Goricheva, a Russian dissident. She was a bit of a hippy in St Petersburg during the Brezhnev era (not exactly a career with a future) who had reached the stage of praying like a mantra the ‘Our Father’. One day God said, ‘Okay,’ and the next instant Tatiana was a devout Orthodox believer (recall that all Russian children were baptized). What happened? God sent his grace and turned Tatiana’s head around. How did it happen? Who knows? She herself speaks thus: ‘…from the nothingness of a meaningless existence bordering on desperation we had come into the Father's house, into the church, which for us was paradise.’
Now before we continue with a discussion of the connection between the charism of discernment and the above, let us clarify our terminology.
There is a variety of terms that overlap in meaning. The terminology is precise, but we who lack these charisms flail about like little children learning to swim. Discernment (Greek: diakrisis) is the first term. Then there are clairvoyance (to dioratiko) and prevoyance or prophecy (to pooratiko or to prophitiko). St John Cassian speaks very highly of the charism of discretion (sorry, we don’t have the Latin word available), which appears to be related to one meaning of discernment. St John of Sinai in the Ladder uses the term discernment with a somewhat different meaning than what St John Cassian has in mind, which is a sense of ‘the proper measure given the time and place’.
Let us look at the full definition that St John of Sinai gives of discernment, to be found in Step 23, 1 of the Ladder:
23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.
Or perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.
First, it should be obvious that the degree of discernment that St John assigns to the perfect is rare.
Next, from what we have said it should be clear that this has nothing to do with the exercise of reason by the mind or nous, although the mind or nous certainly has the faculty of reason. However, what is involved is a higher faculty of the mind or nous, what the philosophers call ‘intuitive cognition’. That means ‘seeing directly without using the reason’. So when the Holy Spirit illuminates us, we see directly what it is that we see. This seeing is knowing. It is a spiritual seeing that becomes a spiritual knowing.
We can further see that there are stages in the evolution of the charism of discernment in the man as he proceeds on his spiritual road, and that personal purification plays a very important role.
Wounded by Love contains spiritual reminiscences by Elder Porphyrios, who had the gift of clairvoyance in power. Elder Paisios of Mount Athos is quoted as remarking about his own gift of clairvoyance in relation to Elder Porphyrios’ gift: ‘I have a black and white television set, but Elder Porphyrios has a colour television set.
On pp. 27 – 33 of Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios describes his reception at the age of 16 of the Holy Spirit in power, his resulting illumination, and his simultaneous reception of the gift of clairvoyance. These things were transmitted to him through another Athonite Elder, Elder Dimas, without Elder Dimas’ having anything to do with it: the Holy Spirit ‘jumped’ from Elder Dimas to the young monk without Elder Dimas’ knowledge. Why? How? Who knows?
The translation of the Greek text of the passage has a few problems, but the essential message gets through. Note that ‘clear sight’ in the text is clairvoyance; the original Greek is to dioratiko.
Here we have an account by a modern Elder of how he received the gift of clairvoyance, and if what he says isn’t clear, we are not in a position to make it any clearer.
Moreover, as is clear from the sequel, coupled with the gift of clairvoyance in Elder Porphyrios was the gift of discernment in its highest degree: here we have a 16-year-old boy with the charism of discernment of the perfect. This was the basis of Elder Porphyrios’ long career as a confessor starting from his early twenties. To give an example of the sort of thing that he was known for, it is recorded somewhere that he once confessed a fellow he knew, beginning thus: ‘You have always wanted to make a life-long confession and the time has come. But it will be tiresome for you to try to remember all your sins, so I will tell them to you.’ The fellow remarks that Elder Porphyrios then told him sins that even he had forgotten.
Elder Porphyrios also received at the same time the gift of prevoyance, which is the gift of receiving revelations of what will happen to a person or place.
However, it should be understood that generally the terms are often used in an overlapping way, so that someone might use to dioratiko or even to prooratiko to refer to what St John thinks is the highest degree of diakrisis. This can cause some confusion if the person listening or reading is not careful to figure out just what in fact is being discussed. Moreover, the gifts usually appear together and are in fact somehow related spiritually.
To return to the thread of our post, at a certain stage of spiritual growth, the Holy Spirit comes in power. It gives such charisms as it wishes. There is no sense in the texts and lives of the Orthodox saints that when the Holy Spirit comes it will necessarily give you discernment and clairvoyance and prevoyance. For example, Motovilov received the Holy Spirit in power from St Seraphim of Sarov (see the life), but there is no evidence that he received those charisms from St Seraphim. Indeed, after his experience with St Seraphim of Sarov, Motovilov had a very bad experience with the demons, from which he was healed only at the service of canonization of St Tikhon of Zadonsk (if we remember correctly the saint's name), by St Tikhon. There is no guarantee either what you will receive when you do receive the Holy Spirit in power, or that life will be a bed of roses after. Usually life gets more difficult after, not less.
That brings us back to St John of Sinai. St John is emphatic that the higher gifts are reserved for monks (he remarks that if it were not so, no one would bother to become a monk since they could get everything spiritual they wanted as laymen). The other thing that St John of Sinai emphasizes is that the beginner needs a guide. That brings us to the reader’s second question, what he should be reading to deepen his knowledge of Orthodoxy and Orthodox monasticism.
We will continue with that answer in the next post, ‘Orthodox Monasticism 15’, before getting back to discussing passion and dispassion in St John of Sinai.


  1. On pp. 27 – 33 of Wounded by Love, Elder Porphyrios describes his reception at the age of 16 of the Holy Spirit in power, his resulting illumination, and his simultaneous reception of the gift of clairvoyance [Deep Spiritual and Prophetic Discernment]. These things were transmitted to him through another Athonite Elder, Elder Dimas, without Elder Dimas’ having anything to do with it: the Holy Spirit ‘jumped’ from Elder Dimas to the young monk without Elder Dimas’ knowledge. Why? How? Who knows?

    WE KNOW!

    Do you know why they can receive nothing in the HOLY Spirit? Because they have no understanding of what is to be in the radius of the Divine Radiance of a [HOLY] Spirit-Bearer and to receive an Impartation!

    They ask the same questions about Seraphim of Sarov and Motovilov - how could Seraphim of Sarov shine and how could Motovilov see his shining face - the Impartation that comes from being in hte Radius of the Divine Radiance of a [HOLY] Spirit-Bearer!

    The reason Dimas was oblivious to this is because he was having what the Salvation Army used to call a "Glory Fit", he was in an ecstatic state BUT this young man was secretly watching him and asked in his spirit to receive the same Mantle, the same Anointing and dared to believe for an Impartation! in and from the HOLY Spirit and they keep asking why??? how??? who knows???

    WE KNOW!!!

    The greatest sadness is that it is what the Salvation Army used to call a "Glory Fit" - I wish they had those fits today! The last experience I had of this of this type of BURNING Anointing was the Toronto Blessing ALTHOUGH it is now happening at Bethel Church, Redding, California - Marvellous!!!

  2. We have responded to this comment in the post Plani

    Orthodox Monk