The Dnevnik interview with Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica
What should contemporary man know about spiritual life?
Spiritual life is ineffable joy, a guarantee for fullness of all our yearnings for love, freedom, personal relationship, knowledge, and eternity. Spiritual life is the last hope, comfort, and remedy for modern man—lost, empty, tormented, and scared by continuous failures, by passions, by sin, by disease, by the demon that follows him, and by death. Every misfortune comes from unspiritual or incorrectly led spiritual life. We all are in want of spiritual life and spiritual guidance. Spiritual guide is a man bearer and witness of the energy of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, we know quite a little our own spiritual heritage. We all share the fault, yet personal responsibility is always the greatest. We live on a volcano beneath our feet, while seeking light and warmth at distant and questionable centres. It is natural, sincere, and honest to respect, come to know, and examine one’s own spiritual tradition at first, and then other spiritual traditions, if necessary.
The twenty-first century is one of fast communication and easily available information; a century of printed and electronic media. The entire experience in Orthodox spiritual life has been written down by the holy Fathers-ascetics. At present, it is available to a large extent in printed and electronic form in the Macedonian language as well. It takes only having an internet connection in our home. Even our spiritual father can give us counsels by the mobile phone or through the Internet. The written knowledge, for its part, can always be checked in practice, through personal experience.
The thing I would like to emphasise in particular, sufficiently checked through my own experience as well, is the existence of amazing order and harmony in Orthodox spiritual life and struggle. According to the ascetical Fathers, there are three levels (or stages) of spiritual development connected with the state of the heart—the spiritual centre of man: ‘purification of the heart from passions’, ‘illumination of the mind’, and ‘deification of the person’. The entire spiritual life goes on in harmonious succession on these three stages. The clearly established, verified and witnessed harmonious order does not tolerate any improvisation. If we do not lead a spiritual life in conformity with the holy Fathers’ Tradition, that is, if we improvise rather than properly pass the road from purification of the heart from the passions to acquisition of the mind-and-heart prayer and illumination, then we should have no doubts that most of what is happening to us—which we reckon to be a spiritual experience—in fact belongs to the category “sentimentality”.
What do You mean by order and harmony in spiritual life?
As we have mentioned, three stages of spiritual life are distinguishable in the spiritual development of every man’s person: purification, illumination, and deification. For each of the previously mentioned stages of spiritual development there is a correspondent kind of prayer and internal process of transformation. Then, at each of the stages we can distinguish a specific spiritual struggle and specific kind of temptations. At each of these three stages takes place certain, specific, and different for each level, spiritual relationship of the spiritual child with the spiritual father. Depending on the spiritual level at which man is, he bears witness to God in a different way and with different power. There are three degrees of the knowledge of God, etc… None of the mentioned can be overlooked or skipped. All is mutually harmoniously and perfectly connected.
Would You explain us some more about the types of prayer?
Let us first see what kind of prayer is suitable at each of the stages. By the kind of prayer he has, everyone can determine his stage or level of spiritual growth. At the first level—that is, in the struggle for purification of the heart from the passions and the consequences of sin—at which are the majority of Christians, the ‘oral prayer’ or the ‘prayer of the intellect’ is characteristic, which the struggler should continuously strive to utter with the lips, in a low voice or silently. At that, the mind humbly and mournfully is collected in the words of the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and as a change in the mind, the purification and illumination of its energy can be perceived.
For the second level, called illumination of the mind, at which are very few people, most often monastics, the ‘mind-and-heart prayer’ is typical, which the struggler utters inaudibly in his heart with the inner voice. At that the mind, with humility and with mourning, collected in the heart, focuses itself on the prayer words, and man knows nothing else except about God within him. At this level we can observe the opening of the heart and the purification and illumination of the essence of the mind, which is in it (heart), as well as correspondent transformation of the body.
The hallmark of the third level of spiritual growth, called deification of both the body and soul of one person, is the ‘unceasing mind-and-heart prayer’—a state reached by one man in each generation. In the graceful state of the unceasing mind-and-heart prayer, when God wills it, there occurs something that in the ascetical literature the Fathers have called ‘ecstasy’ or ‘rapture of the mind’ and ‘seeing the uncreated divine light’. Then the ascetic with his transformed physical senses can see what for the eye of the worldly man is hidden; he becomes filled with divine light, love, and joy; and to him are revealed the mysteries of the present age and of the one to come. The holy Fathers say that God does not leave His Saints constantly in this state, so that they can serve the Church with their experience and knowledge. The attainment of the third stage is a precondition for the most perfect knowledge of God.
Does this order also apply to clerics at their election?
According to Church Tradition, the awarding of clerical ranks should correspond with the three stages of spiritual growth. There are three degrees in the clerical rank, those of deacon, presbyter, and episcope. These three degrees refer to the three stages of spiritual development: ‘purification of the heart’ (praxis), ‘illumination of the mind’ (theory), and ‘deification’ (theology). He who is at the stage of purification from passions and passes through it properly under the spiritual father’s guidance, can be given the deacon’s rank. He who has reached the stage of illumination of the mind can be ordained into priesthood. He who has reached the stage of deification can be an Episcope.
Where do the many problems of the Orthodox Church come from then, in spite of these order and harmony which, as You say, govern Its spiritual life?
Exactly from the ignorance of and non-compliance with these order and harmony that govern spiritual life. These ignorance, inobservance, and relativisation of spiritual rules, particularly at ordination into the three clerical ranks—deaconate, priesthood, and episcopacy—cause grievously negative consequences in church life and wider. In this manner, it often happens someone who is not illumined to become a presbyter or episcope, to become a spiritual father and guide the people. Then the written in the Gospel comes true: the blind leads the blind. And there is no progress in the life of the Church. If one has not attained illumination himself, how will he then explain to others how to pass the road of purification from their passions and how to reach illumination? If the heart is closed for the mind-and-heart prayer, it is a sign that it is hold captive by some passion. When the heart is freed from the passions to a significant extent, then it opens to the mind and the man receives the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer. When the mind prayerfully abides in the heart, it becomes transformed by the Baptismal divine grace, present there, and in this way becomes illumined. If we do not nourish the passion, it weakens and dies out. When we satisfy the passion, it intensifies and inebriates us. If we give some power to a man ill with vainglory, we will only worsen his ill condition.
Will not someone find himself offended by what You said?
I am bound to relate what the holy Fathers say, but not in order to offend or condemn anyone—because first of all I condemn myself—rather to bring to light the darkness of ignorance. When man knows he is not worthy of the rank he holds and he is not worthy of the power he has been given in the Church, then he will think of himself more humbly and will not alienate people from the Church with his vain and egocentric conduct. The same applies to all in the Church. If we knew that without the mind-and-heart prayer we have neither an illumined mind, we would not dare so easily to state public judgments on Church issues or, without being called to—our place and role in the Church not requiring this from us—to take certain actions that afterwards only aggravate the anyhow complicated state of affairs. What answer will we give afterwards before God for such recklessness and for the damage done? Did the holy Fathers in vain live for years in monasteries and in deserts until they were purified from their passions and until they illumined their mind, and only then at the call of the Church to return to the world to help their fellowmen? That is why they are holy, and we are not! Today we aspire to instant spirituality. With a few books read or with three to four years spent in a monastery, or in a theological high-school, we think that we are something great, that we know a great deal of it and are called to do something in the Church. No! The only thing all of us, without exceptions, are called to is repentance—that is, a change of mind—that is, to purify ourselves from our passions (love of pleasure, love of money, and the greatest—love of glory) and to receive the gift of the mind-and-heart prayer and the illumination. If we receive this gift of God, all else is easy.
What exactly is the reason for the clash between the MOC and the SOC we have been witnessing in the recent years?
The external and public clash between Episcopes of two or more Churches, particularly when dogmatic and essential canonical issues are not the reason for it, is a consequence of the lack of illumination, that is, the passion by which they are, more or less, internally enslaved. That passion is always the vainglory—the desire for power and glory. Thus, if we remove one by one all the layers under which the problem is disguised— notwithstanding whether they are canonically or liturgically or etno-phyletistically or politically coloured—eventually we will get to its essence, which is the vainglory of the persons in question. The passion of worldly power and glory is inseparable with the non-illumination as well as with the demon linked with it.
As regards the MOC—SOC case, it is clear to all that, anyhow, the MOC Episcopes are not the ones who encroach on others’ territories and appropriate others’ people but, within their own spiritual power, are taking care of their faithful. Maybe, each one of us individually, as a man, has his own shortcomings, nonetheless, we do not make wrong political moves with such ruinous consequences as some Serbian Episcopes—they stubbornly deny and appropriate the Macedonian people, to the detriment of church unity and to the detriment of the overall witness to the Godman Christ in the world. We may even say that we have administratively given up parts of our people that are now on territories of our neighbouring countries and under the jurisdiction of the Local Churches active there, only for the sake of the peace in the Church. From the same reason, we have constantly been refusing the requests to help in the formation of a church organisation on the territory under the jurisdiction of the SOC (R. Montenegro).
Is there any violation of the canons in this case?
The same few influential Episcopes оf the SOC have unilaterally broken off the dialogue with us not because of disagreement over the canons but due to their not accepting the name—Macedonian Orthodox Church. All the essential liturgical and canonical issues were settled with the latest working document of the two Commissions for dialogue, except for the name issue. Can someone of the Serbian commission for dialogue indicate to me the canonical question on which we did not reach agreement? Naturally, there is no such thing except for the name issue. Therefore it was the fifth working document in succession, still the first to be signed. Their problem with the name of our Church immediately points out to the purely political nature of this dispute. The invocation of certain violation of the Church canons in the context of the mutual ecclesiastical and political clash is a mere abuse in the psychological warfare for winning over faithful, yet uninformed, people on their side.
The dialogue should continue where it was interrupted, so that we find the way how to immediately overcome the mutual misunderstanding rather than go back to the past. Since we have already sat at the dialogue table and have agreed on the main issues, it is such a pity that we should go back to the beginning. Not just that, we also have a moral obligation, confirmed with episcopal signatures as well, to find a solution that both the SOC Assembly and the MOC Synod will accept. And we are close to it. The adventure that in the meantime took place should not be an obstacle for serious people to continue further on.
If there are still such who wish to take us back, that is, who claim that certain former inobservance of the canons is what the problem is about, we will ask them to answer us, what is a greater miss of the church rules: a transition from already recognised autonomy in the year 1959 to autocephaly in 1967 (in conformity with the pastoral needs of our Local Church, in conformity with Canon 34 of the Apostles, and in conformity with the historical church continuity) without the political approval of the authorised administrative church centre—the thing we have done; or, the wrong pastoral approach—the thing they have been doing? Even if the entire truth were on their side, how will they communicate it to the Macedonian people, whose name and identity they do not respect and on whose basic human rights and dignity they have continuously been impinging? The unconditional respect of someone’s name and identity is the basic ecclesiastical pastoral principle and a precondition for communication! The liturgical “amen” of the faithful people, for its part,—which in this case has been and will be our support, not theirs—is the main theological correction for all pastoral failures, both present and future.
Is there a church solution to the problem?
The recognised autonomy in 1959 on the part of the SOC implies that the MOC has its own Synod, its own Head, and the right of free election of its Episcopes, as well as its own Constitution and its own
With the joint concelebration, the perspective from which the problem is observed would also radically change. Every church dispute seems much more awful than it really is after the break-off of the joint concelebration. The break-off is in essence the main problem. That is the church solution to the mutual disagreements, particularly because of the powerlessness to overcome alone, without the Lord, the domination of evil and disunity both within us and among us. We, as a matter of fact, in any case celebrate and concelebrate and receive Communion in several other Local Churches, but why should it be done in secret…? Hence, if we forgive, the demon that now rules over the developments will lose the power and we will all win. Then the people will also recognise us to be Christ’s disciples and our heavenly Father will be glorified. Otherwise, now, all together, in the eyes of every normal man we look much sad and funny…
What is Your message for Christmas?
In the graceful time and space of the Christmas Liturgy, God grants us once again to participate in the magnificent mystery of Christ’s Nativity, which, for its part, should be the foundation of our spiritual birth and spiritual life. We must not miss these moments of pouring out of special grace of God over the entire mankind; but instead, with fasting and prayer within our power, with fulfilment of God’s commandments and with confession of our sins we should prepare ourselves for the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, as the only seal and guarantee of our participation in the Divine life. Christ is born!