The Eighth Day Word: On Luminous Lives

Feast of the Holy Prophet Elisha

All_Saints_square.jpgAs I continue to reflect on the Feast of Pentecost, particularly the account in the Acts of the Apostles that describes tongues of fire descending on the apostles, a passage comes to mind from the Philokalia by Niketas Stethatos, the eleventh-century disciple and biographer of St Symeon the New Theologian: “The external appearance of the face changes in accordance with the inner state of the soul: whatever the soul’s noetic activity, it will be reflected in the face. . . . When the soul is renewed in the beauty of Christ’s image, it becomes a light to others.” This week’s Daily Word thus offered stories of humans who either experienced or physically manifested the glorious light of God and two reflections on the nature of saints, i.e. holy people who display the glory of God.

The Romanian Orthodox theologian Fr Dumitru Staniloae (d. 1993), in his description of saints, points us to St Maximus the Confessor. According to Maximus, the saint has passed beyond the struggle between soul and body, between what they pretend to be and what the truly are. In other words, they are simple and have given themselves entirely to God so they can give themselves entirely to men. Or, in Staniloae’s words, “The saint is one who is engaged in ceaseless, free dialogue with God and with men. His transparency reveals the dawn of the divine eternal light in which human nature is to reach its fulfillment. He is the complete reflection of the humanity of Christ.” Fr Dumitru Staniloae asks: Are you becoming a complete reflection of the humanity of Christ? Read the full passage.

C. S. Lewis (d. 1963) describes saints in a way similar to Staniloae. According to Lewis, their voices and faces are different from ours: “stronger, quieter, happier, more radiant.” Moreover, Lewis goes so far as to characterize them as gods, i.e. followers of Christ who have risen up and allowed themselves to be taken out of nature. To become holy, Lewis concludes, is like joining a secret society. C. S. Lewis asks: Have you joined the secret society of the holy? Read the full passage.

One example of a human life reflecting the eternal light can be found in the highly educated and greatly esteemed monk Abba Arsenius the Great (d. 445 A.D.). When he consulted Egyptian peasants regarding the spiritual life, his admirers were wondrous because they knew he had studied Latin and Greek. When asked why he would seek a peasant’s advice, he said he still needed to learn the alphabet of the desert. This alphabet of the heart, according to Arsenius, is learned by hard work and bears fruit in the virtues. Abba Arsenius spent his life in the desert working hard to master this alphabet. And his virtuous life was manifested in a spectacular way to a visiting brother: “Waiting outside the door he saw the old man entirely like a flame.” Abba Arsenius asks: Are you learning the desert alphabet of the heart. Read the full passage.

St Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022 A.D.) once saw the glory of God and describes its effect on his body. According to his biographer Niketas Stethatos, while standing in prayer St Symeon saw an immense light shining on him and illuminating everything around him. While immersed in this light, he saw a bright cloud full of the ineffable glory of God. He also saw his spiritual father, standing in his usual clothes at the right hand of the glory of God, “gazing unwaveringly at that divine light and praying continually.” After the light eventually faded, Symeon said he felt “that his body had become light and airy as though it were imbued with the Spirit.” St Symeon the New Theologian asks: Has your body been imbued with the Spirit. Read the full passage.

Eight hundred years later, the Russian Orthodox monk and mystic St Seraphim of Sarov (d. 1833 A.D.) attempts to describe an experience of heaven that he says is indescribable. Nevertheless, in a conversation with his friend Ivan, he tells us that if you could experience it, “if you knew what sweetness awaits the souls of the just in heaven, you would be resolved to endure all the sorrows, persecutions and insults in this passing life with gratitude.” After attempting to describe this mystical experience, Ivan tells us St Seraphim closed his eyes, bowed his head, massaged his breast around the heart, and his face began to radiate light that became so bright it became impossible to look at him. After seeing light and joy emanate from St Seraphim’s face, Ivan concludes that St Seraphim “could be called an earthly angel or a heavenly man.” St Seraphim of Sarov asks: Does your life shine like an earthly angel? Read the full passage.

Experiences like those of Abba Arsenius, St Symeon and St Seraphim continue into our own time. Friends of Fr Sergei Bulgakov (d. 1944 A.D), for example, describe their experience of the other world with Fr Bulgakov during his final days of illness after suffering a stroke. Like St Seraphim, they describe it as indescribable. And yet their certainty of the experience was definitive: “These realities were of the same magnitude of the reality of the visible world, and perhaps one should rather have asked whether we believe in the visible world.” Shortly before Bulgakov died, his friends go on to describe his face like that of St Seraphim: “We were witnesses to an amazing spectacle: Father Sergius’ face had become completely illuminated. It was a single mass of real light. . . . in this light he sought the unfading Light.” Fr Sergei Bulgakov asks: Are you seeking the Unfading Light? Read the full passage.

Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.


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