When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I thought in the manner of an infant, I calculated as an infant; when I became a full-grown man I abolished the things of an infant. For now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known. Now, then, there remain faith, hope and spiritual love, these three things; the greatest of these is spiritual love.
(I Cor. 13, 11 – 13.)
What role does hope play in the life of the Orthodox monk and, in general, the Orthodox Christian?
Let us look at the role of hope in the life of an Orthodox Christian who has a mystical orientation. One way to look at Orthodoxy is to treat it as the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity. This would be to treat Orthodoxy as a road to gnosis of the one true God—perhaps one road among many in various religions—whereas other forms of Christianity are hung up on institutional parameters or worse. From this point of view, hope really doesn’t play a role: what we are interested in is a set of techniques, notably the Jesus Prayer, which will bring us to gnosis. In this take on religion, Orthodoxy has embedded in it a particularly interesting form of yoga—perhaps without the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church really understanding that.
Let us consider St Paul, who wrote the above passage. St Paul was transported in an ecstasy to the Third Heaven where he heard words ‘which it is not lawful for man to speak’. He qualifies as a mystic. Yet in the passage above, he says: ‘now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known.’ The ‘then’ that St Paul is referring to is not a condition of gnosis of God in a mystical experience in the present life but a condition of gnosis of God in the Parousia; or, if you will, in the Second Coming; or even, again, in part after our death. Hence, St Paul, the mystic par excellence of the Orthodox Church, thinks that our gnosis of God before the Parousia is partial. Moreover, he says that in this life three things remain: faith, hope and spiritual love, of which the greatest is spiritual love.
Now the Parousia is the wedding of the Bridegroom, Jesus, with his Bride, the Church: this wedding is consummated with the Church as a whole, yes, but also with each member of the Church as an individual person: each Orthodox Christian’s union with Jesus and with God the Father in the Parousia is a personal matter: we are not kneaded into faceless bread.
This means that in the Parousia our gnosis is not merely a matter of an intellectual gnosis of God but also of a union in spiritual love of two persons. This union of spiritual love certainly includes a dimension of intellectual gnosis, we have no intention of denying that. We are merely emphasizing that that is not the only aspect of this union.
Hence when we enter into the bridal chamber of Christ, we consummate our union with him as a person. This marriage ultimately takes place in the Parousia.
Now we cannot expect the fullness of this spiritual marriage in the present life. This is not to say that even in this life there is not a spiritual condition of union with the Holy Spirit, and thus with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. However, because we are still in the flesh, ‘...now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror ... now I know in part’. In no case in this life is our union with the Holy Trinity consummated in fullness. Because of that, ‘...there remain faith, hope and spiritual love...’.
Moreover, because we are in the flesh, as Christians we live the imitation of Christ. By that we mean that just as Christ carried his Cross and was crucified, so we too must carry our Cross and be crucified with Christ. The Gospel is clear: ‘He who would be my disciple...’. Hence, although we may wish to overlay a yogic template on Orthodox Christianity so as to use it as a method of yoga leading to intellectual gnosis of God in this life, which intellectual gnosis would be our ‘enlightenment’, as baptized members of the Orthodox Church we are inserted into a different dynamic, that of carrying the Cross of Christ while we are in this flesh even if we are in fact mystics.
And that is where hope comes in.
Let us take the case of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ. The one blasphemed Christ in despair over his future—after all, there he was on the cross dying—while the other expressed faith and hope in Christ and was saved.
The good thief died in hope while the second thief died in despair. This stark choice is open to every Christian in the adverse circumstances that he encounters in his life.
As we have pointed out, because of the nature of Christianity as the imitation of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter the Cross. The Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter adversity. On that, both the Gospel and St Paul are clear.
Moreover, it might be pointed out that in early times Christians were often sent to the mines to labour until they dropped dead. In more recent times, in the greatest persecution of the Orthodox Church in its history, Orthodox Christians were sent to the Gulag to die. Some returned, having been transformed, as Solzhenitsyn remarks somewhere, into fire.
A small digression: We have wondered about ‘Supermax’ penitentiaries in the United States such as the one in Florence, Colorado. They seem to us ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ as banned by the US Bill of Rights. That is precisely because the penal regime seems calculated to induce despair in the inmate. By all accounts, after a short time the inmate ‘rots’. He is kept in solitary confinement in a cement cell without amenities for 23 hours a day and allowed 1 hour a day of solitary exercise in the prison yard. And this until he dies. While these men are dangerous, surely this regime is far beyond anything necessary for the security of the state: surely this is a vindictive punishment designed to destroy the man. It would take a spiritual giant to keep hope in such a situation.
We will encounter adversity whether we deserve it or not. Sometimes we are in the position of the good thief who is being punished justly for his sins; sometimes we are in the position of Job, tempted by the Devil through the permission of God as a test of his faith. And this despite the fact that we may be accomplished practitioners of the Jesus Prayer and therefore doing quite well, thank you, according to the false model of Orthodox Christianity as the ‘mystical road of Orthodoxy’ that leads us where all the mystics of all the Ages have gone.
What is the characteristic of hope? It is precisely that we do not fall into despair in adversity. It is not that we do not experience the adversity as adversity, that we do not experience the pain, whether of body or of soul, as pain, but that we do not succumb to despair. We do not lose our faith in Jesus; we do not lose our cool; we do not give up.
In this regard we might look at some hope substitutes. The classic substitute is the bottle: a shot of whiskey makes things look bright. Two shots of whiskey makes things look even brighter. Even a monk can fall into this temptation. Then there are the various ‘recreational drugs’ that take the place of hope, the various pills. These things are classically pursuits of a culture that lives for the moment; that is not oriented to the Parousia, whatever the culture might think it believes; that does not live in hope. (This is not to deny that everything from whiskey to pills has a proper use in its time and place: we are not anti-medicine.)
Someone we know who is quite wealthy is caught somewhere in this trap: mixed up, she has passed from cocaine to compulsive sex. She is in various therapies. She has studied meditation with the best teachers at the best oriental monasteries. Now she thinks she is an atheist. She is not stupid but she is chained in her own ‘Supermax’ of the spirit—‘without hope in the world’, as St Paul says.
The classic case is of course the cancer patient. There is really no cure for most forms of cancer and ultimately most cancer patients are going to experience severe pain and/or the conscious realization that they are dying. Here prayer is important, but even more important is hope: the cancer patient must not lose hope.
Those of us who suffer from emotional or cognitive disorders must also be careful not to lose hope.
Even if the adversities we suffer on a dreary Fall day are not as serious as all that, still as Orthodox Christians we must maintain hope. And that hope is something given to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. Does not the Divine Liturgy pray that God might send down upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit? But we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit and refuse the thoughts that lead us to doubt and despair.
—Best Wishes to All