In this excellent article, Father Lev Gillet, an Orthodox monk, discusses what it means to have a "heavenly vision", and the importance of pursuing that vision in today's age. Father Gillet is also widely known throughout his writings as "A Monk of the Eastern Church."
“Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” -Acts 26:19
Let us place these words of the Apostle Paul within their historical context. Paul is a prisoner at Caesarea, in the hands of the Roman procurator Festus. Accused by the Jews, but privileged as a Roman citizen, he is to be transferred to Caesar's tribunal in Rome. The coming to Caesarea of the Jewish King Agrippa and the princess Bernice provides Festus with the opportunity of elucidating a difficult case. Paul is therefore summoned before the procurator and his distinguished guests. He recalls to them the history of his life, putting both as a starting point and a center the vision that he had on the road to Damascus and that decided the further orientation of his existence. And he does not hesitate to sum up this last in a short, but extraordinarily loaded with meaning, sentence: “King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” (Acts 26:19)
It is on this theme - the vision - that I should like to say here a few words. What is this Vision we shall be referring to? I shall answer: any true, any genuine vision coming from God. By “Vision”, I do not mean a physical sensation, fit to be compared with those that may be expressed in words such as: I see this tree, I see that table. Nor do I mean a mere product of the imagination, a fiction of our mind. I am speaking of an inner impression, of an immaterial, incorporeal perception, more or less clear, more or less confused, brought to us from further on than ourselves, from higher than ourselves. The Vision I speak of is "supernatural.” It is something sent by God.
One may say that each philosophy, each global conception of the world, each work of art, starts with a certain image that a man carries with him, in him, and that he will but repeat with multiple variations and names. Even the "pure” line drawn by an “abstract painter” may become a durable and overruling inspiration. But the Vision I now refer to has a divine origin. It takes many forms, always slightly vague, always mixing light and shade in some indefiniteness. It may assume human features. It may raise before us a certain image of Christ. It may evoke other personages, or certain scenes always endowed with an ideal vague, a stimulus, a challenge, a violent rupture from the limited and narrow realities hardened by our selfishness.
The Vision introduces what is new. St. Paul's vision on the road to Damascus was a vision almost complete and perfect (I say “almost” because visions granted to men can never be perfect and complete). The Damascus vision united features or components that appear essential to a divine, authentic and far reaching vision. Paul is suddenly surrounded with light, but he at the same time becomes blind for a while. He falls down as thunderstruck, unconditionally self-surrendering to the unknown Power. He interrogates that Power: who are You? And, when the Lord answers: “I am Jesus”, Paul, trembling and astonished, says: “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:3-6)
Here we find all the elements present to the Vision (for visions are but modalities of the Vision): the light that makes everything new, the God-sent blindness which temporarily shuts us from what is alien to the Vision, the prostration or more exactly the lying flat on the ground that makes it impossible for humility to throw itself further down, the divine word which is heard and finally the decision, the act of radical and sacrificial obedience that confess to the Vision its practical value: What do you want me to do? This is the Vision almost perfect, almost complete, the highest Vision that can be given to a man. We are not Paul. But, in each God-given vision, whatever its form may be (and the Vision may take the most various aspects and even express itself through non-Christian symbols), we find the most fundamental elements of the Vision of Paul.
Let us for instance take the representation or inspiration (so mixed!) that the image of Jesus not seldom evokes in the minds of our hippies, of our drugged boys and girls, of our "sex perverts”, of the mass of men and women who refuse the definitions and structures of the Churches, but regard with some respect the Person of Jesus and even love Him in a confused way. Let us think of the “Jesus movement” or, better said, Jesus movements and "Jesus kids”. What do these youth think, whom do they see when they pronounce the name of Jesus?
As far as my impression has been, they see in some indistinct appearance a kind of whiteness, a Purity, a welcoming Love, two arms, two hands extended towards men. And there is the ocean of human suffering, the multitude of the heavy-laden whose troubled eyes look towards the Compassionate, the Merciful. Here is the Vision in the incipient state, a vision very imperfect, very incomplete, very intermittent. It may come and disappear, but the Vision has been there, is there. Let us remember the words of the Gospel, "They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” (John 19:37)
Is the Vision before us? I believe that the Vision is offered to every one of us. I am persuaded that in the life of each one, there has been a minute when he had a glimpse of a reality that was both far above us and acting within us, even if we did not know how to name it. And he who experiences this vision cannot entirely forget it. In the midst of many tumults, the inner voice continues to call: "The Master has come and is calling for you.” (John 11:28)
You are young. Thinking of you whom I don’t know, and who perhaps read these lines, I think of the words of Joel quoted by St. Peter on the day of Pentecost: "I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophecy; your young men shall see visions, and your old men sha1l dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)
And the old man, in his “dream”, prays that the powerful blessed Vision should launch on the roads of the Ancient World and New World small groups of young people having had a personal experience of this unique Vision - not necessarily priests or theologians or preachers, but simple young laymen who, without discussing, would say: This is what I saw, will you too see it? They would not claim to be the Church, but only to actualize, according to their measure, in the power of Pentecost and with the blessing of the Church, the essence (not parasitic accretions) of what the Church proclaims. Of course, they would emphasize peace and justice and the liberation of man from all oppressions, but they would find again accents (now rare) to announce the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Master of the Vision. Is this impossible?
Only the Vision can give unity to our life - the Vision seen in our immediate circumstances and yet infinite. Shall we, when the end will come, be able to repeat the words of Paul: “I was not unfaithful to the Vision”?
Beirut, Theophany, 1973.
Credit and Attribution
Originally published in "Syndesmos News", an Orthodox youth publication, in 1973.
HOMILY FOR THE CONVERSION OF ST PAUL
preached today in the monastery of Pachacamac
preached today in the monastery of Pachacamac
Today is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, an event that had repercussions all over the world, an event that changed history and, more than anything, an event that gave us St Paul. However, I do not wish to dwell on the significance of St Paul's conversion as such, but rather upon what it has to tell us about our own conversion and mission. To what extent are we like St Paul, and can something like his vision be the basis of our holiness and mission as his vision was for him.
I have known people who have had a genuine, strong, dramatic conversion in which they have met with the Lord beyond any doubt on their part, just like St Paul; and it was a meeting that changed their lives for ever. However, although this has happened to many people, most of us find that God not only contacts us through word and sacrament, through the teaching of the Church and through prayer, but also through ordinary things, through every day events, in passing moments. In fact, once we wake up to the fact that every moment is a kind of sacrament, in which God in his providence teaches us, challenges us, invites us, and loves us, we wonder why we ever thought that He is the silent partner: He speaks to us all the time; but we had forgotten or had never learnt to listen.
In fact, whether he comes to us in a dramatic conversion experience or in "baptism of the Spirit", or whether we hear his voice in a small, gentle breeze, or whether he comes to us by filling everyday events with his presence, - and he treats each one differently, it is the same Lord and the same Spirit; and it cannot be said that miraculous events are more filled with God than ordinary, humdrum events. The important thing is that you respond to him in whatever way he comes to you, with humble, loving obedience.
The Christian life begins when we can say with Christ, "Not my will, but yours be done!" and with Mary, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord! May it be done to me according to your word;" or with Paul, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" To be a Christian, we must put ourselves in God's hands, transfer ownership of ourselves from us to God, so that what the Holy Spirit does in us for our sanctification and through us as his instruments, he may do in complete harmony with us. In this way, our activity may become theandric by grace, as Christ's activity is theandric by nature.
Without this obedience, our Christianity is false: with this obedience, through the action of the Holy Spirit, we become nothing less than the physical presence of Christ on earth. Without this obedience as a response to Christ who is in contact with us, our religion is second hand; and the world does not need to be preached a second hand religion, nor will it listen. With this obedience, we become witnesses to the presence of the Holy Spirit and, through him, to the fact that Christ is risen and is alive and active. Humble, loving obedience is an essential mark of our Christian credentials, and the way of obedience is the only Christian way to God.
Monasticism became popular in the fourth century because people doubted that they could live an authentic Christian life when the world smiled at them, after the conversion of Constantine. It could be said that the religious life is a search for authenticity. For this reason, whether we are Guadalupanas who teach, Dominicans who preach,(1) or Benedictines who just stay at home, obedience is very central to our lives, for, how can we give up our auto-sufficiency and obey God who we can't see, if we cannot obey the human authorities who we can see, and whom God in his providence has placed over us?
Once we have eyes to recognise God's providence, ears to hear God speak through his providence, minds to discern God's providence, and wills to obey him, when we reply to his providence with a humble and loving "Yes", then is our faith fully alive. The contact won't be perfect. It can always improve and there is always something to learn. The art of listening can be exercised in Lectio Divina, in participating in the Liturgy of the Church, in interior prayer, and in different levels of contemplation until we become involved in the prayer of fire. It can also be exercised and God can be obeyed in ordinary, everyday acts, because God is just as much present in them. In all and every circumstance, we must make our own, St Paul's question, "Lord, what do you want me to do?"
Let us ask St Paul today that, through his prayers, we may truly encounter Christ and recognise Christ's presence in our lives and that this presence may be the basis of all we do.
1) The sisters of Guadalupe and six Dominican postulants who are to receive the habit on February 2nd were makes separate retreats and were at Mass.