At an international conference in Northern Europe last summer organized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which had as its theme environmental issues related to the Baltic Sea, we had the opportunity to stop for a few hours in Helsinki, Finland. During that occasion we met for one hour with the President of Finland. We were just a small group of four bishops led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. The President of Finland, without any delay, opened the discussion by asking: "Can you please talk about spirituality, spirituality versus the materialism and technological dominance which prevails in the contemporary world?" Thus, for one hour, in the Presidential Palace of Finland in Helsinki, we did not discuss political issues, international affairs, or social issues, but rather Orthodox spirituality, spirituality as a modus vivendi, as a mental attitude, as a behavioral determinant in view of the modern conditions of life. The topic is, of course, of critical importance in today's world and in contemporary America.
The dynamism of the Orthodox faith is strongly present and active in this important issue of spirituality in our American reality. Spirituality could be defined in various ways. When we use the term "spirituality," we normally mean the practicing of prayer, of meditation, of reading religious literature, of worship, of community medification, of a sense of the sacred and the holy in the personal as well as in communal life and similar things.
Tonight, however, allow me to focus on another aspect and to approach the subject from a different avenue. Let me define spirituality as a basic Orthodox understanding of a human condition or attitude in which God is the priority. Let us then see the priority of God versus any other priority as an expression defining and describing the dynamics of faith as spirituality.
Spirituality, as the priority of God in human life, brings to this life the sense of the holy, the beyond, the ineffable, the sacred, and the transcendent. Spirituality becomes a liberation from our bondage to material reality, and it opens refreshing perspectives beyond the palpable and statistically verifiable. The priority of God in human life as a central characteristic of spirituality is brilliantly evidenced in the lives of the martyrs and the saints. The Church offers high honor and constant homage to them because she sees them as the embodiment of the precious principle of the priority of God, the priority of God as the expression par excellence of spirituality in any and every human condition, even and mostly when facing death. It is important to note that the lists of saints and martyrs include people of all social strata: poor and rich alike, young and old, men and women, clergy and laity, bishops, priests, monks, theologians, soldiers, farmers, public officials, gardeners, cooks, inn-keepers, physicians, lawyers, ascetics of the desert, and people of the busy cities. We commemorate them everyday. Orthodox people live constantly in their spiritual company and feel that the dynamics of faith that has produced the hundreds of thousands of martyrs and saints in history is active also in the present time, in the present society, no matter where this society is located.
Here in America, the dynamics of Orthodoxy as spirituality, i.e. as a living witness to the priority of God in human life, following the example of the saints and martyrs, faces,among other, two major challenges. The first of these challenges comes from the existing and prevailing lifestyles in our society, which are characterized by a hectic rhythm of business, by the domination of technology, and by a consuming anxiety for survival and success. People seem to have no time for dealing with spiritual issues, with the meaning of their life vis-à-vis God or with what lies beyond what they see and touch. They have no time, which reminds us of the famous question posed by the French thinker Blaise Pascal: "Peut-être auront le temps de mourir?" "Perhaps, will they have time to die?" They don't have time, even to die!
Orthodoxy has no magic solution to this problem. What the Church offers is the dynamics of faith, which radically influences personal human conditions and attitudes which in turn are open to the growing of a vigorous spirituality. In this case, the dynamics of faith acts as a catalyst, as a transforming factor introducing spirituality within the most technologically advanced environments and within the fully contemporary contexts of a busy life.
The second major challenge has to do with spirituality understood as a human attitude that is based upon the priority of God. The problem here is the number and attraction of priorities that claim the attention and final espousing by the people of today, especially here in America. As a result, you have plenty of wrong classifications of priorities in the lives of people; you have a loss of what is first and what comes second or third in importance; you have conflicted foci and a ruining of lives as a result of wrong priorities; you have a terrible waste of gifted individuals who have fallen victims of worthless priorities.
The dynamics of Orthodox faith enters the scene by forcefully proposing a radical rearrangement, making God the priority. In this instance, we may very well hear the voice of Christ addressing the issue in a superb way from a different angle in the Gospel of Matthew. He says, Do not be anxious, saying "What shall we eat," or "What shall we drink," or "What shall we wear?" ... but seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. (Matthew 6: 31-33)
The Orthodox faith intensely and completely adheres to this dominical exhortation. If God and His Kingdom is the absolute priority, then any other priority of relative value will follow. Thus, spirituality, as the priority of God in life, will naturally, so to speak, create a healthy and robust inner core of properly classified values, needs, and secondary priorities of all kinds. Thus, spirituality will become not only an expression of religious devotion and experience, but also a tremendous, multifaceted enrichment of human life in all its aspects.