Friday, October 8, 2010

Meeting Up with St. Neophytos the Recluse

Have come across in this present moment, a book detailing the writings, and thus the life of sorts, of St. Neophytos the Recluse (1134-1214, Cyprus). The author extensively researched Neophytos' writings and the historical-cultural element of his day, as well as the history and trends of sanctification and holiness. 

The book, The Making of a Saint: The life, times and sanctification of Neophytos the Recluse, [Galatarioutou, C., Cambridge University Press, 1991] is the author's extension of doctoral thesis. Thus, the viewpoint is that of researcher, with an investigative, documented treatment.  Spiritual life is presented by critical analysis of written hagiography, with no subjective leanings or imputation from the mystical view. 

However, what St. Neophytos shares of his life in writings, life history, and his writings of holy men prior and of his time, rings true to those who have faith and believe, who read with experiential understanding. In three examples of Neophytos' life story, written at three stages of his life, the author suggests that Neophytos' story alters, imbuing his life with sanctifying identity in progressive versions.  To a person looking back on life, it is feasible to see divine intervention and understanding of life events more from a spiritual view than discerned when writing of one's spiritual life in youth or mid-years.  

The interventions of God most often find comprehension in later years, long after the fact. The Gospels are a prime example of the wisdom and spiritual understanding of review, when there was little or less comprehension for the apostles at the time of the events. Thus, the suggestion that Neophytos embellished his own life, or made himself appear holy in his later years, is unfounded based upon spiritual reality and experience.  Alterations in one's life and spiritual view of said life, therefore, are to be reasonably accepted.

St. Neophytos' conception of sanctity in themes is most helpful to any of us striving to know Christ and to climb the stairway to heaven. Between Neophytos' personal insights and of the numerous saints' lives of which he wrote, the author gleans key themes of sanctity and depictors of Christian holiness of Neophytos' and previous eras, as follows:

  • an initial act of withdrawal from the world, sometimes objected to by family or if already in a monastery, by the abbot (anachoresis; anchorite)
  • this may be followed by a subsequent flight from fame, when people begin following the holy person's hesychia, contemplation of God
  • a clearly defined passage into sanctity (major conversion from illness, near death encounter, vision or other turning point), or this can be gradual or unspecified in defined manner or time
  • this passage may be seen as resulting from holy person's ascetic life (abstinence from sex and some or most food), but also as the activation of God's plans in the holy person's life--sometimes depicting predestination
  • working of miracles is not prerequisite for sanctity, nor are they frequent, but they can be proof of sanctity
  • more important are divine signs that show protection of holy person by God, or the revealing of the saint's holy status to the world
  • a continuous fight against the devil, in which the holy person eventually triumphs.
Each of these themes resonate with what we know of saints in the 800 years since St. Neophytos' time.  What is important to comprehend, is that the depictors ought not be viewed as external actions only. We may, for example, apply withdrawal from the world and flight from fame to include if not initiate from interior actions of the soul. Thus, we may learn to remove ourselves from the world in essence and spirit, not exclusively physically.  We may flee from fame by virtue of humility and not exclusively by denial of outer admirers.

However, once the soul has been touched by the Holy Spirit, or in some way recognizes a great desire for Christ in the present moment and to climb the stairway to heaven, there will be resultant outer effects. That the holy person determines consciously to not eat is a questionable premise. More spiritually probable is that as the soul's desire for Christ predominates, the physiological appetite wanes. Likewise, once the soul intensely desires Christ above all else, the body's yen for an earthly mate or sexual encounter may dissipate.  

For some, the physical aspects may need conscious effort to manage. However, strengthening the heart, the desire for God, seems a more positive, natural, spiritual means of passage from the temporal to the spiritual and mystical. That God initiates this movement of the soul to God, is assured us in Scripture. God created us in His image and likeness, to love us, deigning as our purpose: to love God. He first calls us, yet those desiring to love Him above all things, will respond to the call, respond to God's loving movement of Spirit to soul. Soul may will to respond to Spirit, in love. Holy souls, will.

As for miracles or no miracles, but signs of protection by God, and continuous but eventual, successful fight against the devil--these events occur as affirmations of God's predisposing love as well as for the strengthening of the soul that is seeking Christ to the exclusion of the distractions of the world and earthly loves.  Again, these events are not by the soul's choosing, but may and do accompany the aspiring soul's, the spiritual adherent's, spiritual journey.

Whether or not the world, or the spiritual adherent's social or ecclesial milieu recognize the holy person as such, is not significant. However, the author studying the topic relative to St. Neophytos' life and other writings considers sanctity to be dependent upon society's recognition based upon those attributes conceived by saints and society as that which form approved traits of sanctity. To some extent, the making of a saint is qualified by the traits deemed by the society of that particular culture as holy.  But in the spiritual view, in the mystical realm, God qualifies holiness of souls in spiritual terms and attributes. 

These traits of sanctity include the above list, yet are formatted within the soul by love, grace and the soul's desire for God. From within to without, is the spiritual movement toward sanctity, and then from without to within. God moves through the Spirit, exemplified with and in the Son, Jesus Christ. Again, there is no set formula, no calculated way to make holiness happen, yet there are inspirations of the soul, affected by the impetus of God's love.

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