The below was written based on several Bible Study talks conducted by Father Emmanuel, in an effort to convey some of the key points from our lessons.
To begin with, it is important that we first have an understanding of what our faith is.
Our faith is not something that is cultural and acted on out of habit but instead is something that is living. It is something that can transform a person from a state of sin, to a child of light. When we say faith, we mean to trust in and believe in the One Living God. However, it does not end there but transcends beyond this understanding and becomes a kind of love that cannot be expressed in words. God is love, and this love that we feel is God’s presence within us.
In our lives, for whatever reason, God may choose to reveal Himself to us. The way in which He reveals Himself and the extent of it is different for everybody.
Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), the disciple of Saint Silouan the Athonite, in his book, refers to the experience of the uncreated Energies of God. He describes that, at times, the presence of God may be felt as a feeling of intense love and warmth. This feeling can vary in its duration but is usually brief and is a state of grace to encourage a person’s initial interest and progress towards God.
The manner in which people progress towards to God varies enormously. Nevertheless, this progression can be categorised into three distinct phases; the action of God’s revelation to His people in a personal manner, the departing of this revelation, and the action of choosing to dwell with God wholly.
In the first stage, God can enter into the hearts of his people, and filling them with His love, they may be overcome with joy. Some Saints for example are moved to a state of ecstasy, and this ecstasy is difficult to explain. This experience may spiritually transport the Saint to place outside themself. God reveals Himself to them, so that they may draw near to Him.
Once a person experiences this revelation, it cannot be ignored. God has called out to them and has filled them with His love. The only question is, how will they respond?
In the second stage, God withdraws temporarily, so that the person might draw near to Him. This withdrawal is not because God doesn’t love them. To say such a thing would be absurd; nothing is more important to Him than each and every one of us. The reason, however, is that now that the person’s eyes have been opened and they have been shown a glimpse of God’s Truth, they themselves must choose to follow it or deny it.
When a person feels the withdrawal of God’s love, it can leave them in a state of despair but just as steel is strengthened through fire, so too does it serve to strengthen them. This can be likened to how Saint Peter, seeing Jesus walking on the water and being overcome, ran out to meet Him, and having later doubted, began to sink. So too, the person, being surrounded by the passions, loses sight of God and begins to fall. However, if they call out with a repentant heart and a true desire for correction, God never fails to protect and to guide them.
This second stage is a stage of purification and cleansing. Through self-examination and repentance the person can correct themselves and put off the old self.
We must deny ourselves and carry our cross, that we might walk in newness of life.
"For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin." (Romans 6:5-6)
Having progressed through the first two stages, the person is ready to receive Him; God has revealed Himself, and the person, through repentance, has corrected themselves, choosing Him above all else.
As a child, having learned to walk, draws near to his father, so too does the person draw near to God in all His majesty.
When a person reaches this third stage, they are no longer subject to the passions; they have no control over him. They have emptied themselves and given themselves entirely to God, becoming almost Christlike. We do not say here that a person who has reached this stage is perfect. Likewise, we do not say that a person who has reached this stage is no longer capable of sin. For there is only One who is perfect, and One without sin, and that is God. Instead, we say that the person has chosen and returned to God. They have put off the old self with its passions, emptied themselves and found peace in God.
While effort has been made to summarise these stages, it is a personal experience and it cannot be explained so easily. This progression is a life-long pursuit, that may be a movement of progress and then regression, back and forth. As difficult as it may be, the prize at the end is beyond words and understanding. We must strive each and every day to carry our cross that we may draw near to God and remember Christ’s words, "he who endures until the end will be saved."