Sunday, October 24, 2010

Authentic visions

Gregory of Sinai in retelling about his meeting a holy monk by the name of Maximus Capsokalivite says that the latter not only had visions, but also disagreed with those who rejected them. Maximus wondered why some people rejected visions despite God Himself offering them to His people through the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28)…

Thus, the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord uplifted upon a high throne and surrounded by seraphim. The first-martyr Stephen saw the heavens opened and the Lord Jesus on the right of the Father, and the rest. In the same way, today also the servants of Christ are given to see various visions, which some do not believe and do not accept them as truthful, but consider them deceits, and those who see them they call being in a state of deceit.

It is unclear whether Maximus would have considered most Roman Catholic ecstatic visions to be from God, but he does add a qualifier, “When this grace of the Holy Spirit descends upon someone, then it shows to him not something usual from the things of this sensory world, but shows that, which he has never seen and never imagined.”

A very similar thought is contained in the teachings of Bishop Ignatii, who, while being one of the most outspoken critics of visions, contends that some of them are true…

True spiritual visions and feelings belong to the next age, are fully non-material, cannot be explained in the area of senses, through a material word: such is the true sign of that which is truly spiritual.—The voice of the Spirit is non-material; it is fully clear and fully non-material: it is a noetic voice. In the same way, all spiritual feelings are non-material, invisible, cannot be explained or clearly relayed through human material words…

Yet, even Ignatii would probably acknowledge that some visions “relayed through human material words” were nonetheless “truly spiritual.” I am not aware of any Orthodox authors, for example, disputing the spirituality of hagiographic accounts of the visions of an angel as told by Abba Dorotheus of Gaza (505-565), or the visions of the Theotokos by Saints Andrew and Epiphanius (10th century), Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), Sergius and Herman of Valaam (14th century), Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724-1783), or Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833), whom Bishop Ignatii revered as a master of prayer, or the vision of the Lord by the same Seraphim during a liturgy.

It appears that the seeming inconsistency in relation to visions in Orthodox patristic writings, may come from their (the writings’) pastoral nature. While the Fathers are aware of true visions from God and experience them, they are also aware of the real dangers along the spiritual path and warn less experienced adepts to not accept any visions until a certain level of spiritual maturity and a skill of discerning spirits is reached.

In other words, the Fathers warn the novices not to have the Satan for an iconographer. Having founded prayer on repentance and humility, rather than on visions and revelations, a person stays on the correct path and is able to overcome the temptations and attacks of the devil regardless of the presence of any visions or their absence. Founding prayer on ecstatic visions, on the other hand, according to the Orthodox thought, puts the soul, especially that of a novice, on the path of great danger.

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