Interview with Archimandrite Zacharias (part 1) – The Experience of the Holy Spirit

25 June 2020

Question: Saint Silouan and Saint Sophrony speak repeatedly about the Holy Spirit. How do we experience the Holy Spirit according to their teaching?

Answer: Everything begins from our faith in Christ and accepting His word. When we make His commandments the unique law of our life, then we gradually acquire a certain mystical depth. We become mystical, just as the Person of the Holy Spirit is mystical, secret, invisible. The Spirit of God works in us in diverse ways. Father Sophrony once explained to me that the prayer, ‘O God, cleanse Thou me, a sinner’ is addressed to the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Holy Spirit first of all cleanses us from our sins, heals us from the wounds of sin and gradually builds the holy temple of God in us, that is, the image of Christ. Christ is par excellence the Temple of God, the House of God (1 Pet. 4:17), ‘for in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col. 2:9). Then, man’s nature is strengthened to bear the perfection of the love of Christ (cf. Eph. 3:19), all the truth into which the Comforter will guide us (John 16:13).

There is a unity in the Holy Trinity. Everything begins from the Unoriginate Father and is performed through Christ in the Holy Spirit. There is a certain order, one life, one nature, one energy which has the Father as a source, and is imparted to all of us through Christ, in the power and perfection of the Holy Spirit. The Son came to the world to give witness of the Father: ‘All things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you’ (John 15:15). He comes in perfect obedience to the Father, in order to glorify Him and transmit the truth of His word, and He speaks of ‘another Comforter’, Who shall testify of Him (John 15:26). We see something wondrous in the Holy Trinity: every Person gives witness and glorifies the other Two. We see this ‘perichoresis’ of the Hypostases of the Holy Trinity, this common life where each Person lives through the other, this marvellous competition of love, perfection and humility.

We see the indescribable humility and kenotic character of the Son. He Who is ‘impalpable in His divinity’ was well-pleased to come down from the height of His glory to the abyss of our corruption and be united with our human nature so as to take upon Himself all the wounds which came as a result of our iniquities, but without sin. We see the same kenotic humility in the Holy Spirit. When He comes into the world, the Holy Spirit acts in a mystical, secret manner. The great theologian Fathers say that even the Name of the Holy Spirit gives witness to His kenotic character. The other two Hypostases have a specific Name which signifies Their particularity, the Father without beginning and the coeternal Son and Word of God. Whereas, in essence, the Holy Spirit does not have His own hypostatic name, but shares the same name of ‘spirit’ with the other two Persons of the Holy Trinity. About all the Three we say that ‘God is a spirit’ (cf. John 4:24), whereas about Christ we say that ‘though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more’ (2 Cor. 5:16). The Holy Spirit is characterised by the same utter humility like the Son and the Father without beginning. For this reason, He is the secret and delicate Person of the Holy Trinity, ‘the secret Friend’ as Saint Symeon the New Theologian calls Him, Who comes to give witness to Christ. Christ says, ‘My Father worketh hitherto, and I work’ (John 5:17); but the Holy Spirit can likewise say, ‘and I work hitherto in order for Christ to be formed in the heart of every man that believes in the word of Christ’.

The Holy Spirit is a secret Person, Who is revealed in the gifts that He gives to His Saints. The Sunday of All Saints is in fact the day which certifies and glorifies the grace of the Holy Spirit. If the image of the Heavenly Father is the Son and the image of the Son is the Holy Spirit, Who depicts the image of Christ in our heart, the image of the Holy Spirit is depicted by the gifts in which the faithful partake. The Holy Spirit gives ‘a particular gift’ (cf. 1 Cor. 7:7) to all of us who believed in Christ and were baptised in His Name, if we truly live according to His word, so as to make us members of the Body of Christ. In this way we are enriched and our hypostasis is enlarged. We become ‘members one of another’ (Rom 12:5) and partakers of the gifts of all the Saints, and all things are shared in common, as in the apostolic community: ‘They had all things common’ (Acts 4:32). The first Christians had one life, one breath, one heart, and were all gathered together ‘with one accord’, with one desire, continuing ‘in breaking of bread’ and the invocation of the Name of Christ (Acts 2:42, 46). It is as members of the Church that we become strong and perfect, for we are given to comprehend ‘what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of Christ’ only together with all the Saints (cf. Eph. 3:18).

 This is how God ordained all things. Our perfection within the Body of the Church does not lie in how crafty we are, nor in our ability to snatch one gift or another, but in humbling ourselves so that we may come to know that we are ‘members of one another’ and partakers of the gifts of all the Saints. Then, we become universal, as Christ is universal, for through the communion into which He leads us, the Holy Spirit grants us the enlargement of the New Adam, of Christ, and makes us human beings with an universal heart that embraces the whole humanity. This is the greatness of Christianity which we find in the Church. God has never given all His gifts to only one person, no matter how great that person may be, whether he is called Peter or Paul or Maximus or Basil the Great. He gave each one a particular gift so that we may be members of one another and keep a humble spirit. Father Sophrony told me one day: ‘Those who are regenerated by the Spirit have one competition, who will humble himself more in front of the other.’

How do we experience the Holy Spirit in our life? The Holy Spirit perfects man as a hypostasis because He enlarges the heart to embrace every human being from Adam till the Second Coming, leading man to hypostatic prayer for the whole world. The Holy Spirit enlarges the heart to be able to accommodate grace and acquire compassion for the ‘little ones’ of our brethren (Matt. 18:10). This enlargement enables us to call upon the Name of Christ in the Holy Spirit. Through the invocation of the Name of Christ, we attract the Holy Spirit, Who depicts the image of Christ and builds the temple of God in our heart. The Apostle says that ‘no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost’ (1 Cor. 12:3). Therefore, when we say ‘Lord, Jesus Christ’ ‘from a pure heart’ (2 Tim. 2:22), with humility and attention, we have Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit reminds us of the words of Christ and opens our understanding to their meaning; He inspires us to utter perfect words, as Saint Silouan says, and enables us to become prophetic in the Liturgy by perfecting this exchange of lives through the Holy Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit that sanctifies the Gifts and transforms them into the Body and Blood of Christ. All these means, the Name of Christ, the word of God and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist through the enlargement of the heart because of compassion for the ‘little ones’ witness to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian and they all become one life in the heart of man, as Saint Sophrony says.

Question: We have become more familiar with the Person of Christ in our life. Can we develop a similar relationship with the Holy Spirit?

Answer: There was a period when I persistently thought: ‘Why should I pray only to Christ? I want to feel the proximity of the Father as well.’ So I started to pray with great desire to the Heavenly Father, but after a few minutes I found myself praying to the Son, because Who is the Father? He Who ‘so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16). You start praying to the Father and without realising it, you end up praying to the Son. We continually know the Father from the words of the Son, and it is not even necessary to think of having a special relationship with the Father, for the Father is well-pleased for us to become the disciples of His Son, and when we become like unto His image, the Son will deliver us as children unto the Father for all eternity. It is the same with the Holy Spirit: we begin to pray to the Holy Spirit and without realising it, our prayer turns again to Christ, because it is He Who sends the Holy Spirit to us.

Often when we pray to the Father, we have the same energy in prayer as when we pray to the Lord. However, the Lord says: ‘No one comes to the Father but by me’ (John 14:6). No one receives the Holy Spirit but through His gift, because He is the One Who ascended on high, led captivity captive and gave the gifts of the Holy Spirit to men (cf. Eph. 4:8). Christ said, ‘Unless I go, the other Comforter will not come’ (John 16:7), because He had to go and present Himself before God after having accomplished the work of salvation, so that the Father may be pleased to send the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon earth. The more the grace of the Lord works in us, the more grateful we become to the Holy Spirit as well. ‘According to the gift of Thy Christ,’ as we say in the Presanctified Liturgy, and according to the increase of the gifts in the soul, we begin to have a communion with the Holy Spirit, too.

The Son accepted to become the Author of our salvation with the cost of His life, showing His love to end, but this was the will of God the Father, and the Holy Spirit accompanies the work of the Son, putting the seal of perfection on every act He performs. Therefore, if we have a relationship with Christ, we surely have a relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit also. Saint Silouan says that he did not know that the Holy Spirit existed before his vision of Christ. Then, he experienced the personal existence of the Holy Spirit, Who witnesses that Christ is God and that He gives the Holy Spirit. How did he know that it was the Holy Spirit Who witnessed in his heart to salvation? He recognised the Holy Spirit because He filled him with this immense love for Christ and enabled his nature to bear the fulness of this love, for unless the Holy Spirit strengthens his nature, man cannot bear anything divine.

Consequently, what should preoccupy us continually is how to have a better and stronger relationship with Christ, so that ‘neither death, nor life, nor any other creature’, if there is any other creature, should be able to separate us from the love of Christ (cf. Rom. 8:38-39). Do we have Christ? Then we have the Father and the Holy Spirit, too. We have the Father’s word in its pure form, as Christ gave it to us, and we also have the depth of understanding which the perfection of the Holy Spirit bestows on us. Our God is not like the Greek gods which were quarrelling with one another. In our God, there is this indescribable, incomprehensible communion of perfect love and perfect humility.

(to be continued)