Protestant Christians often emphasise very strongly the importance of a personal relationship with God, so strongly in fact that in some Coptic circles you can be labelled a closet Protestant if you speak too much about a personal relationship with God. I believe such criticism sadly misreads the Apostolic Tradition. If we examine that Tradition we will find quite to the contrary, everything depends on this personal relationship with Christ. However, if the Orthodox see it as equally important if not more so compared to the Protestants, there are also differences in the nature of that personal relationship, differences that stem from our understanding of God.
But first let us illustrate the central role that personal relationship with Christ plays in the Orthodox Christian life. For the Orthodox Christian, the whole life of Christ is crucial. It is not just that Christ died for us on the Cross, but that He took our human nature in the first place. By doing so, by being one of us, He sanctified and blessed all humanity. He shared our sorrows and our joys, struggled as we do against evil and sin and weakness, became in fact, like us “in everything, save sin alone” (Liturgy of St Gregory). St Athanasius put it thus: “He took what is ours, and gave us what is His”. This exchange forms the basis of our personal relationship with Christ. The closest relationships are those in which there is complete sharing. All that we have, we give to Christ: our joys and victories; our sorrows and failures; our strengths and weaknesses; the little and the large; the important and the trivial; in fact, all that we have, all that are and all that we say and do, we offer constantly, repeatedly to Christ, keeping nothing back from Him, keeping nothing for ourselves alone. There is no nook or cranny of our existence we hold back. And He Himself gave all of Himself that is possible. His love, peace and joy, His truth and wisdom, His power and majesty, His forgiveness and mercy, His hope and faith and much more besides – all this He gave to humanity and to each one of us individually through His incarnation as one of us, and His life, death and resurrection.
The only thing He could not give us is the essence of divinity. The world was made through the Logos, Christ, but He could not grant us to be creators of the world. Instead, He gave us a small reflection of creatorship in that we can make new human beings through the Mystery of marriage, or participate in the creation of a new person through the Mystery of baptism. In Christ, we share with God al that we are and he shares with us all that we can bear of all that He is. Orthodoxy falls down in amazed gratitude before this astonishing act of love and incomprehensible generosity. We do not just appreciate it with our minds, for relationships are more than merely intellectual. We live it with our hearts, souls and bodies.
And so we spend hours and hours developing this personal and intimate relationship with Christ. We develop it through the Orthodox life of prayer. This is not, as some think, a matter of fulfilling a duty to complete certain prayers each day. A book like the Agbia (the Coptic Book of Canonical Hours) is not our master, but our servant. We are not to slavishly trudge through it, but to use it in whatever way works to ignite the flame of love for God in prayer, and to share all that we are with Christ. In it we confess our sins and weaknesses, we express our gratitude for His incomprehensible generosity and most importantly, we lose ourselves in contemplating the unfathomable depths of the mystery of the God of love that took flesh in Christ.
We also understand that relationships have their ups and downs, and so we endure the times of spiritual coolness when Christ feels so distant, and rejoice in the times of spiritual warmth when Christ seems closer to us than our own hearts. We do not try to manufacture these warm feelings, but we humbly bow at His feet and await His grace to work in us whenever He sees fit. This is a real relationship. Human minds have an uncanny talent for artificially creating a fantasy world that suits their needs. It is almost irresistibly tempting to create for oneself a relationship with a ‘fantasy God’, a God created in my own image, rather than submitting to the reality of the God in whose image I am created. That real God is sometimes inaccessible to me. I do not know why this should be so, but it is a reality that I must accept if my relationship with Him is to be real. The Orthodox prayer Tradition is unflinchingly, brutally committed to authenticity in the relationship with Christ and in avoiding made-up emotions or experiences within that relationship. The Paradise of the Desert Fathers reflects this commitment page after page, story after story.
Space prevents me from elaborating in detail all the ways in which a personal relationship with Christ is central to the life of the Orthodox Christian, but perhaps a quick survey may be useful. The centrality of the relationship with Christ is reflected in the hymns of praise we sing (e.g. the Tasbeha or Midnight Praise), in the tradition of ceaseless prayer like the Jesus Prayer (“O my Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner”), in the architecture of a Coptic Church building that focuses the eye and the attention on the altar on which sits His Body and Blood, in the arrangement of icons in a church that draws the eye to icons of Christ in the place of greatest prominence, in the theology of the icons of the saints that sees each one of them as unimportant in themselves, but important only as the reflection of the divine love of Christ, in the honour and attention we give to the Gospels as we read them in Church with candles and incense, standing at attention … and I could go on and on.
These traditions teach us and train us to have a relationship with Christ that is more than just emotional. The Orthodox relationship with Christ is a holistic relationship, one that involves spirit and heart, mind and body. It is so personal that my body worships Him by bowing, or standing or kneeling; and my mind worships by contemplating on His life and personality on earth; and my heart worships by offering itself constantly to Him in humility and trust; and my spirit worships by loving Him unconditionally, and submitting eagerly to His incomprehensible mystery. For the Orthodox, a ‘good’ prayer is not just one that made me feel happy. There are prayers that end in tears of sorrow. There are even times when I can only honestly plonk myself in His presence, a presence I do not feel with my heart, yet my spirit and my mind know it to be real. All these are part and parcel of an authentic, raw, real relationship – that is what a personal relationship with Christ means for the Orthodox. But it doesn’t stop there.
I said earlier that there are perhaps some differences in how Protestants and Apostolic Christians understand the nature of the personal relationship with God. Orthodox Christians in particular emphasise a certain humility before God that acknowledges the reality of the huge gulf between human nature and divine nature. That is not to say that the Orthodox Christian therefore worships God from a distance, as the pagans worshipped their terrible gods, with fear and anxiety. Nor does it mean we worship God in a very cold, formalised way, as though He were forever beyond our grasp. In fact, Orthodox prayer life, especially as it is represented in the monastic traditions of the desert, is a very warm, profound, and deeply intimate relationship with God. But it is a relationship that allows God to be who He is. We do not try to put God into nice neat little boxes that we can cope with. We do not try to tame God to make Him amenable to our needs. We let God be God, with all the mystery and glory and transcendence and utter awe that entails.
And so of course, we let Christ be His own transcendent self. We are careful to submit humbly before Him, not to try to squeeze Him into pigeon holes we are comfortable with, not try to force Him to do our bidding. In fact, there is a beautiful concept in Orthodox theology that goes all the way back the ancient Fathers like St Athanasius and St Basil and St Gregory the Theologian that brings the human being into a relationship closer to Christ than any Protestant could imagine. It is called theosis, and it simply means becoming one with God, by becoming one with Christ. St Athanasius put it in typically startling terms when he explained the incarnation of Christ: “God became man, than man might become god”.
The centre of Orthodox Christian life is the Eucharist, and the centre of the Eucharist is Christ. By having Holy Communion, the Orthodox Christian becomes not just spiritually one with Christ, but physically so, for the molecules of that bread-become-Body and that wine-become-Blood are absorbed into her own body and blood, incorporated into her very muscle and fibre and bone, so that it is no longer possible to tell which is Christ and which is the human being. This is the most intimate of relationships possible. It is the fulfilment of St Paul’s desire: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me”, and of the desire of Christ Himself: “You in Me, and I in them”.
How could anyone possibly think that the Orthodox Christian does not enjoy a personal relationship with Christ? And of course, what I have said about the Eucharist uniting us with Christ also goes for other sacraments, as we shall discuss in a later post. Those who do not appreciate the unfathomable mystery of this relationship see only a bunch of people turning up to mass every Sunday to stand on their feet for two hours, come forward to eat a morsel, and then go home thinking they have pleased God. But I hope I have shown you just how wrong such a view is, at least for those who sincerely practice the Orthodox sacramental life.
Protestants also accuse Apostolic Christians of believing that if they pray and attend mass and do good deeds, they will earn their way into Heaven. How could all that possibly impress God, who after all has the heavenly hosts to praise Him far more worthily than us? The Protestant proclaims: “faith alone!” (to go nicely with “scripture alone!”) These works will not get you anywhere with God! This tension between faith and works is what we will look at in the next post.