Experience of Grace

A Hymn to the Theotokos

Thou didst conceive without seed and didst give birth ineffably to Him Who doth put down the mighty from their thrones and exalteth the humble; and Who raises up the horn of His faithful who glorify the Cross burial and glorious Resurrection of Christ.  Therefore since thou art the mediatress of so many good things with silent hymns we bless thee as she who ever prayeth for the salvation of our souls.  (The Dogmatic at Lord I Call from Small Vespers, Tone 4)

Experience of Grace

How can we tell if something we experience is from God?  This question has been raised in reaction to the November post.  Perhaps the only safe answer to this is: Go and speak to an experienced spiritual father about what you have undergone.  Nevertheless, having brought up this question, to now continue with an all-around answer is best. 

In the November post, the concept “worship in spirit” was explained to the best of my capacity.  In this, warnings were interwoven to those who come to Orthodoxy from other confessions of faith and consider themselves to “know God” and to be “spiritual” and to have “experiences of the grace of the Holy Spirit”.  As I formerly pointed, out many such people alter some of their beliefs to be compatible to Orthodoxy but remain ignorant of the rich tradition of our teaching on the life in Christ.  So I shall begin by attempting to lay something of a general foundation of our ascetic life and in the next post say something more specific in reply to the above inquiry.

Since the question at hand concerning experiences from God would usually be something that occurs when one is at prayer, we shall deal with stages of prayer and also stages of grace.  In reference to the latter, we can turn to Joseph the Hesychast; thus he writes to a correspondent:

The prayer must be said with the inner voice* But since initially the nous [or mind] is not accustomed to it, it forgets to say the prayer.  This is why you say it at times orally and at other times noetically [or mentally]. This happens until the nous gets its fill and grace begins to act within.

This “action” of grace is the joy and delight you feel within yourself when you say the prayer, and you want to say it continuously. So and when the nous takes over the prayer and this joy that I am writing about occurs, the prayer will be said unceasingly within you, without any effort on your part. This is called perception of the action of grace, because grace acts without man’s volition. He eats, walks, sleeps, awakes, while internally he cries out the prayer continuously. And he has peace and joy. (Monastic Wisdom, The Letters of Joseph the Hesychast, p. 44)

As he continues, he speaks of three stages of grace, and we can see that the above action begins to manifest itself in the first stage.

The spiritual life is divided into three stages, and grace acts in a person accordingly. The first stage is called purification, during which a person is cleansed. What you have now is called the grace of purification. This form of grace leads one to repentance. All the eagerness that you have for spiritual things is due to grace alone. Nothing is your own. It secretly acts upon everything. So when you exert yourself, this grace remains with you for a certain period of time. If a person progresses with noetic [or mental] receives another form of grace which is entirely different.

As we mentioned earlier, this first form of grace is called “perception of the action of grace,” and is the grace of purification. That is, one who prays feels the presence of divine energy within him.

The second form of grace is called the grace of illumination.  During this stage, one receives the light of knowledge and is raised to the vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition. For this to occur, the person praying must have much stillness and an unerring guide.

The third stage—when grace overshadows—is the grace of perfection, truly a great gift. I shall not write to you about this now, since it is unnecessary. (Ibid. pp. 44-45)

Concerning the former of the abovementioned, that is, stages in prayer, Archimandrite Sophrony gives us an outline when, in reference to the Jesus Prayer, he writes:

It is possible to establish a certain sequence in the development of this prayer.  First, it is a verbal matter: we say the prayer with our lips while trying to concentrate our attention on the Name and the words.  Next, we no longer move our lips but pronounce the Name of Jesus Christ, and what follows after, in our minds, mentally.  In the third stage mind and heart combine to act together: the attention of the mind is centered in the heart and the prayer said there.  Fourthly, the prayer becomes self-propelling.  This happens when the prayer is confirmed in the heart and, with no especial effort on our part, continues there, where the mind is concentrated.  Finally, the prayer, so full of blessing, starts to act like a gentle flame within us, as an inspiration from on High, rejoicing the heart with a sensation of divine love and delighting the mind in spiritual contemplation.  This last state is sometimes accompanied by a vision of Light. (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 113 )

Bishop Kallistos Ware gives us a number of definitions of prayer which have some relation to the stages explained above. He first refers to a definition in an English dictionary that describes prayer as “a solemn request to God.”  This can correspond to the first two stages spoken of by Archimandrite Sophrony.  Prayer being described as an act of petition of man to God can be either verbalized or pronounced in one’s mind.  In a second definition, he quotes St. Theophan the Recluse, who says concerning prayer that “the principle thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.”  Bishop Kallistos points out that to pray “is no longer to ask for things,” but it is “to stand before God, to enter into an immediate and personal relationship with Him.”  This can correspond with the third stage mentioned above, yet this is still predominantly an action initiated by man.  As Bishop Kallistos continues, “stress is laid primarily on what is done by man rather than God.”  The third definition given by Bishop Kallistos relates to the fourth and fifth states spoken of by Archimandrite Sophrony.  He quotes St. Gregory of Sinai who says, “‘Prayer is God, who works all things in all men’– it is not something which I initiate but in which I share; it is not primarily something which I do but which God is doing in me — it is to cease doing things on our own and to enter into the action of God.”  It is this stage of prayer that is a participation in the action or energy or life of God that many of our Holy Fathers reached and brought to a degree of perfection through their asceticism. [The end of this state is a “manifestation of baptism”, for it is a birth from God; therefore it is a new beginning, a new mode of life in which the grace of the Holy Spirit is perceptible and operative.] (All quotes in this paragraph are from The Power of the Name, Bishop Kallistos Ware, pp. 1-2)  

Before a concluding comment, I would like to offer a few more quotes about grace and prayer.  Somewhere St. Peter Damascus says that the beginning of grace is to see one’s sins.  Concerning the acquisition of higher stages of prayer, Archmandrite Sophrony writes: “According to ancient tradition mind unites with heart through Divine action when the monk continues in the ascetic feat of obedience and abstinence; when the mind, the heart and the very body of the ‘old man’ to a sufficient degree are freed from the dominion over them of sin; when the body becomes worthy to be ‘the temple of the Holy Ghost’”.  (His Life is Mine, Archimandrite Sophrony, p. 112)

My hope is that these outlines of the stages of grace and prayer give a bit of a foundation of the knowledge of our ascetic tradition and can act as a measuring device to help give the reader some idea of where he is stands spiritually. 


*In the glossary of the book quoted “inner voice” is defined as such:                          St. Nicodemos the Hagorite explains the “inner voice” or “inner reason” in this manner: Once you have brought your nous into the heart, it should not just stay there, looking and doing nothing, but should find reason, that is, the inner voice of the heart through which we think, compose essays, make judgments, analyze, and read whole books silently, without saying a single word with the mouth.