09 July 2009

Getting Drunk with St. Macarius

The Makarian Homilies were attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt, a fourth-century desert father. In the eleventh century they were paraphrased by St. Symeon Metaphrastis. It is this text that appears in the Philokalia.

Like much of Eastern Christian spirituality he considers individual effort (heroic virtue) essential to spiritual perfection: We receive salvation by grace and as a divine gift of the Spirit. But to attain the full measure of virtue we need also to possess faith and love, and to struggle to excercise our free will with integrity. (1)

But, St. Macarius adds that through much prayer and faith, and by turning completely to God, we are able, with the help of the Spirit, to conquer the passions and root out sin (3). This is what distinguishes him from most Eastern Fathers. He emphasizes communion with the Holy Spirit and the need for more than human effort. In fact, he considers asceticism without the joy of the Holy Spirit to be empty:

[The Christian] may have fasted, kept vigils, chanted the Psalms, carried out every ascetic practice and acquired every virtue; but if the mystic working of the Spirit has not been consummated by grace with full consciousness and spiritual peace on the altar of his heart, all his ascetic practice is ineffectual and virtually fruitless, for the joy of the Spirit is not mystically active in his heart. (113)

To bear fruit, according to Macarius, requires participation in the Holy Spirit. He calls the Spirit a heavenly treasure and admonishes his reader to aquire it (87). For those who experience this release of the joy and love of the Holy Spirit, "Sometimes it seems they are in some realm greatly rejoicing and drunk with the inexpressible drunkenness of the mysteries of the Spirit, and then at other times they are full of grief, weeping and lamenting as they intercede for men's salvation." (89)

His descriptions of communion with the Holy Spirit sound very much like my experience in the Charismatic Renewal. I've seen similar emotional and physical reactions to the Spirit at prayer meetings. So, what we see is that such experience is not foreign to Eastern spiritual life. Of course, St. Macarius lived during the golden age of Church history before spontanaety succumbed to institutionalism.

Later, St. Macarius describes that the spirit-filled person at prayer, "...experiences an ineffible and measureless delight; his intellect wholly suspended and ravished, is overwhelmed, and during the time he is in this state he is mindless of every worldly concern. For his thoughts are filled with numberless incomprehensible realities and are taken captive by them. In that hour his soul through prayer becomes one with his prayer and is carried away with it." (91)

Those who have experienced the release of the Holy Spirit in their life know this delight and feeling of being carried away by love. The Charismatic Renewal did not invent this kind of prayer and worship, nor did we borrow it from Protestant Pentecostals--it was part of the undivided Church in the East and West.

What we see today is a rediscovery of refreshing, dynamic, active life in Communion with God the Holy Spirit. To my brothers and sisters in the Eastern Rite, I invite you to enter into joyful communion with the Holy Spirit by following the admonision of St. Macarius of Egypt:

We should eagerly drink spiritual wine and become drunk with a sober-minded drunkenness so that, just as those glutted with ordinary wine become more talkative, we too, brim-full with this spiritual wine, may speak of the divine mysteries. (99)

~David Samuel Thomas

*Quotations from "The Philokalia, Vol III". Palmer, Sherrard, & Ware, ed. trans. London: Faber & Faber, 1984

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