Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Freedom of the Saints by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos


What has been said is needed in order for us to understand the limits of human freedom and also to understand how freedom, independence functions in the saints. As we shall see in what follows, the saint's independent will, precisely because he is favoured with divine grace, always moves naturally towards the good. When I speak of a saint I mean the deified person who partakes of God's deifying energy.

The Apostle Paul offers this witness: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2,11). He has the certainty that Christ lives in him, and so elsewhere too he says: "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Cor. 11,1). St. Gregory Palamas, bearer of the same Revelation, interpreting this teaching of the Apostle, says: "Do you see clearly that grace is uncreated? Not only is such grace uncreated, but also the result of this sort of energy of God is uncreated; and the great Paul, no longer living the temporal life but the divine and eternal life of the indwelling word, came to be without beginning and without end by grace". And a little further on: "Paul was a created being until he lived the life which had come about by God's command; then he no longer lived this life but a life which had become indwelt by God, become uncreated by grace: and wholly possessing only the living and acting word of God".

In the Apostle's words and in the interpretation by St. Gregory Palamas, champion of the theologians, it is clear that a man who has been united with Christ, who has attained illumination and deification, by grace becomes uncreated and without beginning, because he has the living Christ within him.

And St. Maximos the Confessor, interpreting the words of the Apostle Paul that Melchizedek, who is a type of Christ, was "without father, without mother, without genealogy" (Heb. 7,3), writes: "The person who has mortified the earthly aspects of himself, thoroughly extinguishing the will of the flesh within him and repudiating the attachment to it which splits asunder the love we owe to God alone; who has disowned all the modalities of the flesh and the world for the sake of divine grace... - such a person has become, like Melchizedek, 'without father, without mother, without descent'. For because of the union with the Spirit that has taken place within him he cannot now be dominated by flesh or by nature".

Every Christian, when he is united with Christ, is deified, sanctified, and his whole being, and somehow also his freedom, which is always subject to God's will, is shown favour. In this sense we say that by His incarnation He granted us freedom. He freed us from sin, death and the devil and we enjoy this freedom in our spiritual rebirth. Nicholas Kavasilas says characteristically: "It was when He mounted the cross and died and rose again that the freedom of mankind came about, that the form and the beauty were created and the new members were prepared".

We have already seen that the challenge for freedom is the given fact of existence, and this creates an existential problem. But by rebirth in Christ, which takes place within the Church, the people overcome this existential problem. Just as great as the difference between biological birth and spiritual birth is the difference between the struggle over the fact of existence and the possibility of self-determination of the new existence. Man is born spiritually by his own will. This spiritual birth has great meaning and importance. St. Gregory the Theologian speaks of three births. The first is the biological birth from the parents, the second is through the mysteries of holy Baptism, the father of which is God, and the third is through tears, and the father of this birth is the man himself. To express ourselves through St. Maximos the Confessor, by the first birth we come into being, by the second into "well-being" and by the third, which is identical with resurrection, into "ever well-being".

Thus man is called to this new life, and if he responds, he is born into "ever well-being", overcoming the provocation and temptation given in his existence. And since the deified person becomes "uncreated", "without beginning" and "without genealogy" - by the grace of God - for this reason he acquires a freedom which is absolute within human limits and facts. Since his freedom has an impulse towards God through love, there is no ambivalence in him, his independence functions naturally and so he becomes perfect by grace, since he has abandoned the imperfection of his nature, which is indicated by the battle for single-mindedness.

St. Symeon the New Theologian says that our self-determination, our free will, is not removed by Baptism, "but it grants us freedom no longer to be held against our will in the devil's tyranny". Baptism grants man the freedom not to be tyrannized by his desire, by the devil. After Baptism it again depends on us whether we remain self-willed towards God's commandments or we depart from this way and go back to the devil through his cunning practices.

St. Diadochos of Photike, referring to the desire for self-determination, says that independence is a desire of the rational soul, which moves readily "towards whatever it desires". Therefore he urges us to persuade it to move only towards the good. When it is moving towards the good, it is fulfilling its purpose and moving naturally.

The same saint writes that all men are formed in the image of God. "But to be in His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom into subjection to God". "Only when we do not belong to ourselves do we become like Him who through love has reconciled us to Himself". From these words of the saint it can be seen that the likeness belongs to the saints who have mortified their passions and subjected their freedom to God through love. He emphasizes the subjection of freedom to God, but this comes about through love. For in fact it is only then that freedom moves and functions naturally.

It can be added that "the only exercise of freedom, in an ontological manner, is love". True freedom cannot be expressed without love; it loses its ontological content. And this means "that personhood creates the following dilemma for human existence: either freedom as love, or freedom as negation".
In the saints we encounter the co-existence of love and freedom. They love God really, I could say ecstatically, and therefore their freedom, having been released from different admixtures and ailments, is directed towards God, it moves naturally. And in this way the saints are true men, what we have usually called persons.

Since, however, I do not wish to take my stand on a philosophical and theological level, which may seem abstract - although I do not think it is, for the theological position is necessary - I shall go on to present some expressions of freedom, as it is experienced in the ascetic life of the Church. One is man's freedom from death, another is the freedom of the nous from logic and the senses, and the third is man's freedom from the environment. These topics will reveal clearly the great value of freedom, as the members of our Church experience it.

An excerpt from the book "The Person in the Orthodox Tradition" by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos