Monday, February 18, 2013

Acquisition of the Holy Spirit

     One of the chief aspects of Byzantine spirituality is our asceticism. This is best expressed by St. Seraphim of Sarov when he demonstrated that ascetic practices can lead to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. As he says, “The true goal of our Christian life consists of acquiring God’s Holy Spirit. Fasting and vigil, prayer, mercy, and every other good deed performed for Christ — are means for acquiring the Holy Spirit of God”. This statement could be said to be a summary of Byzantine spirituality However, in approaching this teaching about our spirituality I have often encountered some extreme positions. These positions tend to center on beliefs that the Holy Spirit is someone that we can or cant earn. For there are some that see are ascetic traditions as the only way and others who see no use for them at all.
     For those that don’t know, St. Seraphim’s teaching about asceticism is based on the assumption that a person is already a baptized Christian. In addition, he is speaking about participating more in the life of God rather than the Spirit being something that is missing. For in Byzantine theology at baptism the follower of Christ is given everything that God is. There is nothing additional that God gives of Himself rather it’s on our part through faith to present more of our lives to the Spirit, which is to say to acquire the Holy Spirit. It is to this end that the teachings concerning Byzantine asceticism find purpose.
    When it comes to acquiring the Holy Spirit in the Byzantine tradition there is something essential we must all understand. As Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) states: “The inter-relationship between divine grace and human freedom remains always a mystery beyond our comprehension (How are we Saved pg.36)”.Based on this, there really is no guarantee that our actions will automatically give us the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we do know that if we seek God through faith He will respond to us (Matthew 7:7). At no point are we guaranteed anything but at the same time our effort is essential. For without our effort it would not be possible to acquire the Holy Spirit.
    Concerning the effort in acquiring the Holy Spirit I generally find an extreme position. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that I was told that the only way we can receive more of the Spirit is to do it the way the fathers did by long prayer and fasting. It was as if this person believed that God restricts himself to certain aspects of our ascetic tradition. There is no doubt that God uses our ascetic traditions but to restrict Him to certain forms of spirituality goes against the Gospel. In this regard, I believe the Apostle Paul had great struggles in dealing with this mentality For example, in the book of Galatians we read that there was a belief that real participation in the Spirit could only be found by a return to certain Jewish practices. The Apostle Paul had to rebuke these people and demonstrate that what they received from the Spirit was based on their faith alone (Gal.3:1-5). This goes to say that any real acquisition of the Spirit is always rooted in that it is a gift and not something restricted to the way our traditions approach it. Consequently, at no point will taking on specific traditions automatically lead to the acquisition of the Spirit.
     Saying that a certain Christian tradition is the only way to acquire the Spirit is wrong. However, in this position there is often another extreme. One that says that our ascetic traditions do not matter. The problem with this is that it discounts the gift of God working through our traditions. As I stated at the beginning of this post the Byzantine tradition is primarily an ascetic tradition. A tradition that has been built on the successful application of our spiritual fathers use of asceticism in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that there is only one way but it does demonstrate something that has worked so well that it became a foundational element of the Byzantine tradition.
     When it comes to spiritual traditions at their root we find something that has allowed for a successful response to acquiring the Holy Spirit. For this reason we are called to seek and make the most of what works best for us in responding to God. When it comes to this seeking we find in the Church a grand diversity of spiritual traditions that have been given to us. There are even new traditions that are being formed in every age. In my own experience I have had the privilege to participate in some of the various traditions in the Church only to find myself now a practicing Byzantine. To some degree I kept looking for what worked best in helping me to love God. In one way all Christians should be trying to do the same and seek to refine their spiritual traditions. Not necessarily to create new ones but to make the most of what we have been given in order to acquire the Holy Spirit. For me the Byzantine tradition has given me a hunger for God like no other. However, I do not discount the traditions that have allowed my other Christian friends to seek after God .For in giving the gift of the Holy Spirit God does not show favoritism with us or with our traditions(Rom. 2:11).


  1. Glory to Jesus Christ!

    With all due respect, I find the phrase "acquiring the Holy Spirit" to be very foreign to me. My understanding is that we receive the Holy Spirit at Chrismation. I wouldn't even consider that God would hold back His Spirit, unless the proposed person is totally blasphemous.
    I suggest that instead of "acquiring the Holy Spirit" God grants us the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Then we consciously consider which Gifts God has granted, and we embrace deification through our accepting and using the Gifts. The more we share the graces of these Gifts we become aware that God is changing us and enveloping us into his Being. You spoke of St Paul, he is the epitome of one embracing the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.

    Does this make sense to you? Certainly, as you suggested, ascetic practices are the recommended path to awareness of the Holy Spirit and His Gifts. It is through prayer and fasting that our thirst for God's graces delivers us to the awesomeness of God.

    1. Gifts no matter how sublime they might be are inferior to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The phrase acquiring the Holy Spirit is unique to the saint but it does demonstrate the aims of Byzantine spirituality.