|“Knowing Him Comes Gradually”
A review of
Reviewed by Josh Wallace.
I often find myself in the last scenes of John’s Gospel. First I am with Jesus’ followers in the upper room, bewildered by the ordeal of Jesus’s crucifixion, hearts harboring the faintest hopes of a rumored resurrection. Suddenly, though the doors are bolted shut, Jesus stands among us, raising wounded hands to bless us. And though the doors are bolted shut, he sends us out with the same purposes for which his Father sent him.
Next, Jesus breathes on us the Spirit, to comfort and encourage, to authorize and to empower. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit, the ongoing presence of Immanuel, God with us, our share in Christ’s baptismal anointing, the love of Christ which compels us to unlock our doors and go out as ambassadors of reconciliation. Jesus’ has given us his Spirit.
Then I read chapter 21: Peter says, “Let’s go fishing.” Commentaries on this passage tell me that the apostles (for Jesus has indeed sent them) needed time to understand the full significance of their commission. Apparently. Only after Jesus shows up on the beach, after he shares breakfast with his friends, after he pulls Peter aside for a private conversation do we begin to realize with Peter the Spirit’s work: Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me” (John 21:19).
Two thousand years later, I am still with Peter on the beach, slowly coming to realize who this Spirit is, his intimate participation in the life of God, the life of Christ. Father John Oliver in Giver of Life: the Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition leads his readers in a similar patient, gradual unveiling of the Spirit’s significance.
Simone Weil, political mystic and trinitarian philosopher, wrote that love of God and love of neighbor “have attention for [their] substance” (Waiting for God, 114). Oliver waits upon the Spirit with this love, a patient attention that avoids the impatience that contradicts love. Weil writes elsewhere that error is due, fundamentally, to a lack of love: it is “due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea to hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth . . . We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them” (Waiting for God, 112). Oliver is patient with the Spirit he loves.
The historical development of a theology of the Spirit also recommends patience. The mystery of the Holy Spirit has not been disclosed us with an abrupt clarity. In fact, for the better part of three centuries, the Spirit remained in the background of theological conversation, a presence to be confessed but then footnoted (or, perhaps, a presence to be practiced and celebrated but not theorized or formulated).
While the later New Testament era testifies to a growing interest in the Spirit (compare John’s discussion of the Paraclete and Luke-Acts thematic devotion to the Spirit with the by-the-by references in Mark or even Paul), the Apostolic Fathers mention the Spirit only in traditional formulations: the Spirit inspired the Prophets, etc. Similarly, the Apologists of the later second century testify to the Spirit but turn the majority of their attention to the thorny question of how Christ was divine. Justin Martyr, for instance, mentions the Spirit predominantly in baptismal or eucharistic contexts.
Irenaeus of Lyon is an important second century exception, tying together the divinity of the Son with the divinity of the Spirit in the redemptive economy of the Trinity. He speaks of Son and Spirit as God’s two hands, God’s Word and God’s Wisdom, which work together to accomplish God’s desires. In his words: “Those who bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son, while the Son presents [them] to the Father, and the Father furnishes incorruptibility. Thus, without the Spirit it is not [possible] to see the Word of God, and without the Son one is not able to approach the Father” (On the Apostolic Preaching, §7).
Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen mark out a similar role for the Spirit during the Monarchian controversy of the third century. But another century would pass before contentious exchanges with Arius and his followers would prompt Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus, to theorize robustly the full divinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Against claims of substantial difference among Father, Son, and Spirit, Gregory Nazianzus proclaims in On the Holy Spirit, §3,
Light thrice repeated; but One Light and One God. This was what David represented to himself long before when he said, In Thy Light shall we see Light. And now we have both seen and proclaim concisely and simply the doctrine of God the Trinity, comprehending out of Light (the Father), Light (the Son), in Light (the Holy Ghost).
But this high-water mark of pneumatology in the fourth century tells only how to think about the Spirit. It tells nothing of how we experience and participate in the work empowered by the Spirit. Roughly three hundred fifty years after Pentecost, and we still stand on the beach with Peter, puzzled about what Jesus is asking of us.
Father John Oliver does what is best in this complicated history: he prays. Giver of Life could be read quickly; its prose flows graciously and simply even when touching on the highest mysteries of God. But the text itself invites patient, reflective, even prayerful reading. More than just a page-by-page textual invitation to slow reading, Giver of Life takes it structures from a simple, common prayer of Orthodox tradition:
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life; come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Gracious Lord.
Each chapter meditates on one of this prayer’s acclamations or petitions. Oliver explains, “While a book like this one about the Holy Spirit may transmit information, an interior awakening is the real goal. This is why Orthodox theological insight is embedded in our liturgical life. As we pray, so we believe; as we believe, so we pray. Prayer opens the heart to the penetrating presence of God.” Giver of Life is best read as a confession, a prayer of faith, offered to share the vision of God the Holy Spirit one priest has found within his tradition.
The nine chapters that expand each moment of the prayer have an expansive reach, embracing the development of pneumatology, perspectives on world religions, and nearly devotional meditations on the sacraments. Giver of Life is as comprehensive as it is concise.
Set like jewels within these ruminations are stories of Orthodox saints, including those who set out for the desert before Constantine as well as those who practice spiritual direction while driving a pickup truck. These stories, alongside snatches of liturgy, wait for the Spirit’s self-revelation through narrative and poetry.
I found chapters four and five particularly compelling. Chapter four, “Who Art Everywhere Present and Fillest All Things” subtly negotiates the paradox of God’s immanence and transcendence under the rubric of Evagrius of Pontus’ meditation: “Humans are better suited to experience God than to explain Him.” Within this paradox, Oliver addresses the question of union with God outside of the church. He muses,
Everything outside the visible expressions of the Christian Church cannot be undifferentiated darkness, for the Spirit of truth is “everywhere present and fillest all things.” Genuine yearning for God, for truth, for beauty, for peace, for love, for justice–the kind of yearning that consumes a person and organizes one’s priorities–may render a person “not far from the kingdom of God.”
At the same time, Oliver vigorously maintains that that “the Church is the unique revelation of Christ . . . that is to say, truth is definable: a particular God came to earth a s particular Man to preach a particular Kingdom and establish a particular Church in which alone is found a particular Salvation.” But then he adds, “An impenetrable mystery, however, is who is and who is not, from God’s point of view, truly part of that Church. With Saint Paul, we ‘judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes.’”
Oliver ends the chapter with a beautiful account of one young man’s revelation on drive with Elder Paisios up a mountain road. He recounts, “Suddenly, I began to feel God’s presence everywhere: in the car, out in the hills, and to the reaches of the farthest galaxies. He was ‘everywhere present and filling all things,’ without being identified with any of them.’”
Chapter five, “Treasury of Good Things,” is perhaps the most devotional and yet at once theological of Giver of Life. In it Oliver meditates on the Spirit’s fruit and the difference between desire for good things and desire for the Spirit who comprehends all good. He writes, “Christian life is about becoming a new creation in Christ; it’s the daily renewal of the inward man. It is to follow Saint Seraphim’s advice to acquire not peace in and of itself, but the Spirit of peace.” The chapter concludes with Nicholas Motovilov’s encounter with Saint Seraphim. Giver of Life would be a worthwhile read if for none of its other excellent writing and content but for this story.
Chapter by chapter, Giver of Life sharpens our attention and guides us deeper into the lived (and prayed) mystery of the Spirit. But this is a necessarily slow process. Oliver places on the final page of Giver of Life the words of Father Sophrony Sakharov: “The Holy Spirit heals us from the consequence of the fall, regenerates us and hallows us. But all this He accomplishes in an invisible manner, like some marvelous diffident Friend Who does not want to burden us with gratitude to Him. The great blessedness of knowing Him comes gradually.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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