The Apostle Paul and knowledge of God
I am writing this as something of a supplement to my last post: “Do you know the Lord”. I want to continue to say something about the erroneous notions of spiritual life among those who come into the Church from Protestant, Charismatic or Pentecostal backgrounds. It is the holy Apostle Paul whom I would like to take as an example since it is he that many of the above mentioned claim to be following. St. Paul is honored by the Church as one of the greatest of the Apostles. He is commemorated together with the Apostle Peter while the remainder of the apostles are remembered the next day. Despite his prominence, he was still mortal, he was still a man, and actually a great sinner. He was a persecutor of the Church and participated in the murder of St. Stephen. However, he writes to Timothy: “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (ITim. 1:16) So let us now look to him as a pattern of repentance, and the acquisition of the grace of the Holy Spirit together with knowledge of God. In doing this I will both look at the Scriptural information we have on the Apostle Paul and make reference to the book “St. Silouan the Athonite” by Archmandrite Sophrony
While journeying to Damascus with the intent of persecuting the Christians there, Paul (then Saul) was called by our Lord Jesus Christ. We read in the Acts:
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. (9:3-7)
We read that the other travelers heard a voice by saw “no man”. It was the Apostle Paul only who saw the Light and spoke directly with the Lord. This was surely an experience of the self-same Light that shone on Mount Tabor—the Uncreated Light; the experience of which has continued until this day among chosen ascetics of the Orthodox Church. But what did the Apostle Paul experience within? We can make a comparison with the experience of St. Silouan the Athonite.
While still a novice and in a struggle with depression during a Vespers service he beheld the living Christ at His icon on the iconostasis. Archimandrite Sophrony relates that a great light shone around St. Silouan, and in spirit he was transported to heaven and received a new birth from on high. Archimandrite Sophrony further points out concerning Silouan that: “Again and again in his writings he repeats that he knew the Lord by the Holy Spirit, that he saw God in the Holy Spirit. He also used to declare that when the Lord appears to the soul, the soul cannot help recognizing in Him her Creator and God.” We also know from this saint’s writings that he was taught the love of God directly by the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul likewise recognized the Lord, for he said, “Who art Thou Lord?” But what happened within him? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) Could we rightly conclude that it was an experience very similar to that of St. Silouan? I believe so, especially when we consider how the Apostle Paul affirms that the Gospel he preached came: “by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Gal. 1:12) He further relates that God was pleased to reveal His Son in him. (cf. Gal. 1:15-6) Now I pose a question for us to ponder: Did he immediately assimilate this experience of grace and so at once exist in a spiritually mature state?
I would like to begin to answer the question turning to Archimandrite Sophrony and the Chapter “Grace and Consequent Dogmatic Consciousness” from his book: St. Silouan the Athonite. He writes:
The history of the Church together with personal contact with many ascetics has led me to the conclusion that the experience of grace in those who have been granted visitations and visions is only assimilated deeply after years of ascetic endeavour; grace then taking the form of spiritual knowledge that I should prefer to define as ‘dogmatic consciousness’ (but not in the academic sense of the term).1 (p. 185)
The historical experience of the Church, in which I include the Apostles and the Holy Fathers both ancient and modern, makes it possible to calculate this period of assimilation as lasting at least fifteen years. Thus St. Paul’s first Epistle (to the Thessalonians) was written some fifteen years after the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus….Most of the Holy Fathers acquainted the world with their visions and experiences only when their ascetic course was nearing its close. More than thirty years elapsed before the Staretz set down in writing, with final and mature dogmatic consciousness, his own experience. The assimilation of grace is a lengthy process…. (pp. 185-6)
In general, the process is as follows: the initial experience of Divine visitation strikes a man to the core and draws his whole being into the inner life of prayer and struggle against the passion. (p. 188)
This is ongoing repentance which is characteristic to Orthodox life. In our Holy Fathers the spirit of repentance worked systematically and was ongoing. It led them first from one degree of purification to another and continuing it led them from one degree of enlightenment to another. And thus, they assimilated grace as “dogmatic consciousness”. So we, if we accept the aforementioned teaching of Archimandrite Sophrony, we could rightly conclude that the Apostle Paul experienced this process of assimilation of grace which is a process of repentance. This would have had its beginning during his time in Arabia of which he mentioned only briefly and about which he kept quiet. (cf. Gal. 1:17) How did he spend his time there? The Apostle Paul was a new convert. He had recently persecuted the Church, blasphemed our Lord Jesus Christ and participated in the murder of St. Stephen. Was he perhaps going through a period of deep repentance for his sins? It is certainly logical for us to arrive at this conclusion.
It was many years later that the Apostle Paul began to write his epistles. The estimation by scholars is that his first epistle was to the Thessalonians about the year 50AD. He did write about practical matters that concerned the Church, but where do we find the fruit of his “dogmatic consciousness”? It is in the prayers he offers for the early Christians. Again I will make a comparison to St. Silouan. The outcome of his vision of Christ was knowledge of the love of God for man. St. Silouan had an experience of the love of God for man. This engendered in him a desire for the salvation of all and he prayed fervently for all to be enlightened. Let us take some examples of his prayers for his fellow men:
O merciful Lord, bestow Thy grace on all the peoples of the earth, that they man know Thee; for without Thy Holy Spirit man cannot know Thee and conceive of Thy love. (p. 273)
O Lord, send Thy mercy on the children of the earth, whom Thou dost love, and give them to know Thee by the Holy Spirit. With tears I implore Thee, hear my prayer for Thy children, and grant that all may know Thy glory through the Holy Spirit. (p. 364)
Finally, I will quote those words which appear on icons of the saint:
I pray Thee, O merciful Lord, for all the peoples of the earth, that they may come to know Thee by the Holy Spirit. (p. 274)
With his visitation from God, St. Silouan, found “a treasure hidden in a field” (Mat 13:34), and he longed to share it with “all the peoples of the earth.”
Let us go back to the Apostle Paul, we can similarly say of him that the outcome of his vision of Christ was knowledge of the love of God for man. He had an experience of the love of God for man. This engendered in him a desire for the salvation of all. In his epistle to the Romans he writes: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” (Rom. 9:3) He also prayed fervently for all to be enlightened. Let us take examples of his prayers for the early Christians:
I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from Whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which surpasseth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-9)
Since the day we heard it [that is, their faith in Christ], we do not cease to pray for you, and imploring that ye might be filled with the full knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual insight; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord in all things pleasing to Him, being fruitful in every good work, and growing into the full knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, Who hath enabled us to have a portion of the inheritance of the saints in light. (Col. 1:9-12)
And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in full knowledge and all perception so that distinguishing things that differ ye may approve what is excellent; that ye may be sincere and blameless in the day of Christ; being filled with the fruits of righteousness, through Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. (Php. 1:9-11)
The Apostle Paul also found “a treasure hidden in a field” (Mat. 13:34), and longed to share it with the Christians of the early Church. So this is what we must consider: He was writing to the early Christians and was praying for them to have a further enlightenment. Although they had accepted Christ they needed a further enlightenment, knowledge of God and experience of the love of God. And if they were to have a deeper experience of such, it would still take years of struggling to assimilate this through repenting in an Orthodox manner. So let us all sincerely and truthfully ask ourselves the question: “Do you know the Lord?”
1 In another place he says it “is the fruit of spiritual experience, independent of the logical brain’s activity”. (p.186)