You would think that I, as a Christian, would always love God and Jesus Christ, and would want to know Him and do His will. Intellectually speaking you’d be right, but in the manner that I actually live my life, and within my spirit—in my heart—this can often be something different.
I’m talking about something common to man (I believe) regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, or merely calls themselves one, or is actually something quite different: an atheist, a Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, Jew, or something else, or none of the above.
Man is a body and a spirit. I believe this is true, and this fact is foundational and must be assumed in order to understand the rest of my argument. Even if one doesn’t know that they are spirit, and can’t find a way to experience this aspect of themselves, and believes that they are only body, this makes no difference to the truth that man is body and spirit.
In fact, those that might insist that they are only body—and deny that there is a spirit world, and a God who is spirit, through whom all things came into being—these illustrate the very thing that I am hoping to explain and convince the reader about: that the direction and manner that each of us move our own spirit, how we direct the deepest and innermost aspect of our being, is the primary thing that either draws us into closer relationship with God, or causes us to fall away and ultimately to lose sight entirely of all things spiritual, and to become blind to the existence of things beyond the physical realities.
The movement of our spirit is first, and any name we may call ourselves (Christian, Buddhist, atheist etc.) follows only after, and as a result of that specific movement. But what is this movement of the spirit that I am referring to, and how does it affect our daily life? It is the primal cause active within us, which results in our thoughts and feelings and how we respond to our environment. Often we only see cause and effect as it occurs on the physical level, but there is a more fundamental cause on the spiritual level, with more essential effects on how we interact with everything in our daily life. It can be very difficult to perceive this movement of our spirit within us, and it becomes more and more difficult the further we move in the direction away from God. Yet, as we draw closer to God it becomes clearer and easier to see.
If we are unable to perceive the movement of our spirit, we at least can see by our thoughts and feelings the deeper orientation of our spirit. An atheist, for instance will have no belief in God, and no interest in what he believes to be unreal; his thoughts and feelings are indifferent or perhaps even antagonistic towards the concept of God. How could he ever turn back in the direction of a God he doesn’t believe exists? In his or her case probably only by divine intervention can his spirit be turned back in the direction of God, and only by this divine grace will he discover new thoughts—an epiphany, a road to Damascus experience—in which his thoughts and feelings, as if by a miracle, flip and he is converted.
And what of a professing Christian, one who believes and seeks deeper relationship with God, yet maybe they have a weak relationship with God, or one that is basically cold, unfulfilled, or maybe even dead in a sense? They too may be unable to see the state of their spirit as it truly is—its true orientation—because it is hidden beneath the abundance of thoughts and feelings that they have, and the ideas of who they are, or how the ‘should’ be acting and feeling. If they can see their spirit as it moves within them they may see that it is moving without God, and even in opposition to Him. But if they can’t see this, they may be able to notice that their thoughts are not about God at all, but rather about many other things instead; and they may see that their feelings are cold and indifferent or even hostile to God, maybe angry with Him for some reason or another. These thoughts and feelings can show them the true orientation of their spirit, even if they can’t perceive it outright, and these thoughts and feelings give explanation for why they have no connection to the God whom they profess to love.
Because the spirit is difficult to discern, it is often easier to focus on the level of our thoughts and feelings, and maybe to decide that this is really the only realm to be concerned about, and possibly to imagine that this is the only place to focus our attention. It can be very helpful to address our thoughts and feelings, but it can be much more powerful if we are able to address the movement of our spirit. Turning our spirit in one direction or the other has much greater impact upon the course of our life. Like the turning of the rudder on a ship—where the movement in the moment is small and quick—but the change in direction over time can become monumental.
Similarly, the movement of the spirit within us is very fast, like lightning, but after it moves, in its wake thereafter grows a greater and greater impact on the direction of our life, and the flow of our thoughts, and the direction these thoughts will take us. I will share one example from my own life that may illustrate this phenomena, and hopefully I can describe it accurately.
A little over six months ago, in late July, I had been praying for a period of time. Typically I pray standing or sitting before my special place, where I have a number of crosses given to me by people whom I love, as well as some icons of Christ and various saints, and one or more oil lamps. As I was coming near the end of my prayer time I suddenly experienced a shift deep in my being. It was very quick and almost imperceptible to me but I felt it unfold on many levels, and in various ways within me: in one sense it felt like a magnetic change in polarity whereas the moment before I had felt myself pulled, in a sense, in the direction of my prayer nook towards the crosses etc. and then the next moment, I felt my being turning away and drawing back and away from my place of prayer; emotionally I experienced a feeling of anxiety and fear, or concern; and in my thoughts I considered that this was a significant change and something that I needed to take seriously, then I thought that I was overreacting and was making it up, then I thought it may not be serious at all and I laughed a little about it, and then I decided I should take it at least a little seriously and I tried mentally to recreate the experience I had previously enjoyed, but then discovered that I was unable to do so with my mind.
I ended my prayer and over the next couple weeks I didn’t notice much of a difference at first, but slowly my routine spiritual life and activities began to unravel. I continued to pray several times each day but had lost the focus and attention I previously enjoyed. I continued to attend church services, but lost interest in attending vespers and other services apart from the Liturgy on Sunday. I continued to read the Bible but my heart was not in it. Confession, which had been a weekly joy for me, I began to do less and less and I started to lose my understanding of its purpose and no longer felt the inner freedom that it had previously afforded me. I began to realize that the inner shift I had perceived back in July during that prayer session was beginning to take a significant and serious toll on my spiritual life. The problem though is that I couldn’t motivate myself to make a change, I was just losing interest in my spiritual life; and this progressed further over subsequent months so that I began to lose memory of my own first-hand experiences of God, so that I began to question these experiences, so that my thoughts about my spiritual life became more pessimistic, ironic and even sarcastic.
I was startled to see that I was becoming much more secular in my approach to life and losing the insight I had once had towards the spiritual life. And what was worse, I noticed that this didn’t bother me very much, it seemed to me at the time that whatever spiritual life I lost, I could easily replace with an equally absorbing, interesting and meaningful material life. I began to understand how it is very possible to become an atheist, or agnostic or just one who doesn’t think or care much about spiritual reality and truth.
But I wondered about what had happened to me, and why I couldn’t get back to where I had been in July. Fortunately, by the end of the year I discovered a deep reservoir within me of anger and blame towards God, and despair, all related to the terrible and awful facts of disease and death—the eventual loss of everything that we love, and finally the loss of our own lives. Only after struggling for some time with this, and finally coming to understand that God is not to blame for death, and that He actually is the only one who proclaims victory over death and offers us eternal life—only after coming to peace with God in this way, was I able to allow myself to shift again back in the direction of God, away from my flight into worldly and material oblivion. Though I had still wanted to be close to God during this entire time (at least in theory), I realized that it would be impossible to truly seek Him and truly draw near to Him in my spirit, if at the same time I am genuinely angry at Him and blaming Him for all my losses. I don’t believe we can hate and truly love at the same time, we aren’t multitaskers in that way.
It has now been a couple months since I was first able to turn my spirit back in the direction of God, but my spiritual life is still far from what it had been back in July. Real damage happened in the interim, I truly went in the wrong direction and it appears that it will take time and God’s mercy to restore me. However, real healing is taking place and I can sense that my inner orientation is directed towards Him again and this is making a great deal of difference. The secular approach is lessening within me and the material world is becoming less opaque; I am beginning to experience and see spiritual life and reality once again. The subtlest movement of the spirit, which may be barely perceptible to us can have a great impact upon us and is something to be taken seriously; it is worth searching for and learning to direct in the Way that is truly best for us.