Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed
Historical Development of Orthodox Spirituality
In its present condition, orthodox spirituality is the result of twenty centuries of growth and development. And it is a growth in which many different cultural factors including many nations, such as Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, as well as the Ethiopian, Armenian, Greek, Slavic, and Indian people. However, its homogeneity has been secured by the presence of the dogmatic Christian faith that is common to all of these nationalities and cultures.
We may notice that several elements appeared in consecutive times in this growth, but we should not think of these elements as though they are superimposed layers, each of which finishes where another starts. These are, actually, dynamic streams rising one after the other. They may diverge, cross one another, meet, and continue down to the present time.
The Main Elements of the Orthodox Christian Spirituality
We may distinguish, in the growth and development of the orthodox spirituality, at least five main elements. These are:
1- The Scriptural element
2- The Early Christian (Patristic) element
3- The intellectual element
4- The early monastic element
5- The liturgical element
1- The scriptural element:
The Word of God present in the holy and divinely inspired Scriptures remains the foundation of the whole of Orthodox spirituality. As the Lord Jesus said: “The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). He also said: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” (John 15:3) and “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth (John 17:17). And the apostle Paul said: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. That the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
In the Orthodox churches, the four gospels – wrapped in an expensive metal cover – are put on the altar after the prayers (Oushia) for the Gospel. The priest carries it as he prays and blesses the congregation with it. The clergy and the members of the congregation kiss it at the end of vespers and matins prayers.
The Holy Bible is the very substance of the dogma and liturgies of the Orthodox Church and, through them, impregnates the piety of Orthodox souls.
In addition to this central point, there are other points that attract our attention.
+ The Orthodox Church is a “Biblical Church”: as she reads many chapters of the Holy Bible during her worship. Every day of the year, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox church in particular has arranged nine readings from the Scriptures: Three readings of the Psalms of the Gospels (vespers, matins and the holy liturgy), three readings from the gospel (vespers, matins, and the holy liturgy), two readings from the epistles of St. Paul (Pauline) and the other apostles (catholic epistles) and one reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This great amount of listening to the words of inspiration nourishes the souls of the believers and helps them to know the spiritual way that was delivered to them since Jesus Christ and His disciples through the holy fathers.
+ Also, the Orthodox Church has always recommended and encouraged the reading of the Holy Bible. In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom was the stubborn champion of assiduous Bible reading, even among the laity. There is found among the simplest Orthodox folk a personal and intimate intercourse with the Gospel. Harnack, who saw in Orthodoxy a mixture of Greek metaphysics and ritualism, nevertheless emphasized this fact: “Jesus’ words … take the first place in this Church too, and the quiet mission which they pursue is not suppressed … They are read in private and in public, and no superstition avails to destroy their power. Nor can its fruits be mistaken by anyone who will look below the surface. Among these Christians, too, priests and laity, there are men who have come to know God as the Father of mercy and the leader of their lives, and who love Jesus Christ, not because they know Him as the person with two natures (the theological controversy of Chalcedon), but because a ray of His Being has shown from the Gospel into their hearts, and this ray has become light and warmth to their own lives … I need only to refer again to Tolstoi’s Village Tales.” 1
+ Certain Books of the Holy Bible have had a particular influence on Orthodox spirituality.
The Psalms: Psalms hold a great place in public worship of the church. Since the time of the desert fathers in the fourth and fifth century, the psalms became the nourishment that strengthened the individual monastic piety. Certain psalms in their entirety are commonly recited by the Orthodox people such as: psalm 50, “Have mercy upon me, O God …”, psalm 22, “The Lord is my shepherd …”, and psalm 26, ”The Lord is my light and my salvation …”. Even among people who are practically detached from the Church some words of the psalms, learnt during their childhood, often give a concrete shape to a longing for God.
The Gospels: The first three Gospels (synoptic Gospels: Mathew, Mark, and Luke) have deeply entered the Orthodox popular conscience. The simple and unconditional precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, and the call of Christ to all them that suffer and are heavy laden, have found a special echo there.
The Gospel according to the Apostle John: We also find that the Gospel according to Saint John has a great and penetrating influence in the Orthodox spirituality and it is held in great veneration in the Orthodox Church and her worship.
We notice that the Gospel reading of the holy resurrection feast is read from the gospel according to St. John. The prologue of this Gospel is read in Matins of Christmas liturgy. Also the Gospels of the second day of Christmas and of Epiphany are from St. John’s. This is in addition to all the readings of Sundays, as well as the great majority of the Gospel readings during the Holy Fifty days following Easter, and the Gospel of the feast of Pentecost.
Also, all readings of the Catholic Epistles during the fifty days after Easter, including Sundays and other days, with few exceptions, are from the Epistles of St. John. This clearly points to the influence of St. John the beloved, with his Gospel and Epistles, with his mystical spirit that is practical, simple and deep at the same time. Thus, it has attracted simple, pious souls by the sweetness of its radiance, and at the same time captivated speculative intellects by the depth of its thought, and by its Logos- and Light-metaphysics. The great teacher, Origen, in the third century, pored over it, meditating with great affection. St. Cyril the Great, in the fifth century, entered into the depth of the relations of Divine love between the Father and Son as pointed out in the Gospel of St. John.
The Epistles of St. Paul: Regarding these letters, the Coptic Orthodox Church has assigned a special part in every liturgy of Eucharist (Mass) as well as other liturgical prayers (such as baptism and weddings), for their reading. St. John Chrysostom (at the end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth century) has been the special interpreter of the Pauline Epistles [to the Greek-speaking East as was St. Augustine to the Latin West. Both of them deeply entered into St. Paul’s thought concerning Christ’s Mystical Body, but while Augustine mainly deduced from Paul a theology of grace, Chrysostom rather drew from him practical ways of life].2 St. John Chrysostom is considered to have been inspired by St. Paul himself in his interpretations. St. Isidore of Farma said about him in his interpretation of the letter to the Romans: If St. Paul himself tried to explain this letter, he wouldn’t do it any different from what St. John Chrysostom did.3
- A. Harnak. What is Christianity? Translated by T. Bailey Saunders (London 1901). PP. 242-243. ↩
- The section between square brackets is not in the Arabic book of Dr. Abdel-Shaheed. It is taken from the book by a “Monk from the Eastern Church.” ↩
- See the introduction of “The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans By St. John Chrysostom”, p. 19, published by The Orthodox Center for Patrology, Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 2004,translated and introduced by Dr. Said Hakim. ↩