When we talk about existential knowledge of the Personal God, we have in mind community of being, not crude intellectual interpretation of the problem. Man-persona lives by God and in God. This reality can be expressed in another way—God takes possession of the entire man, mind, heart and body. The cognizant persona and the God Who is cognized are conjoined. Neither the one nor the Other in any way becomes materia circa quam in this fusion. Reciprocal cognition—by God of man and by man of God—is a ‘personal’ matter which excludes ‘objectivisation’. This alliance of love is a spiritual act through which the Beloved becomes our life. By its genus, virtue, majesty, harmony and power, Divine love surpasses all that the earth knows. This being so, it is a marvellous thing that such a state be apprehended as the only one natural for man. How wondrous that He is Other and at the same time mine!
Attainment of this love means, in essence, ‘to acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit’, of which St Seraphim Sarovsky speaks. There are three stages to the process. Firstly, an initial union with God is possible as a gracious gift bestowed at a moment that God judges to be favourable—when man will receive the visitation with love. This is an act of Self-revelation on the part of God to a given person, when the Divine Light affords a genuine experience of Divine eternity. This, however, does not complete man’s divinization. It may be looked on as the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’—in other words, Divine grace has not yet so flowed into us that our nature and grace have become one for all eternity [cf. Luke 16:9-12].
The second stage is a long spell of varying degrees of being deserted by God. In its extreme extent this is a dreadful experience. The soul feels her fall from Light as a spiritual death. The Light that has appeared is not yet the inalienable attainment of the soul. God has wounded our heart with love and then departed. We are faced with the prospect of an austere struggle which may last for years—many, many years. Sometimes grace moves nearer, bringing hope, renewing inspiration, only to desert us again. This alternating state is an extremely important period in man’s advance towards the possibility of self-determination in eternity. God leaves us so that we may show our liberty. And knowledge concerning the way to perfection we have inherited from the Fathers. It is noticeable that many who are unfamiliar with this feature in the spiritual growth of the Christian fall away from God when deprived of the grace that they have experienced. They tend to interpret their visitation from on High as some temporary psychological elation more especially peculiar to the approach of manhood. St. Silouan speak of it thus: ‘Everything that grace has ever taught one must be followed to the end of one’s life … The Lord sometimes abandons the soul in order to test her, so that she may manifest her understanding and her free-will. But if one makes no effort and remains inert, grace is lost. On the contrary, where there is determination, grace smiles on one and will not desert one’.
‘Grace will smile on one and not desert one’—thus the culmination of the ascetic struggle to acquire grace. This is the third and final stage. Its perfecting cannot be a protracted matter like the first, since the earthly body could not long stand up to the state of divinization through grace—the ‘passage from death to life’ must inevitably follow. And man himself has no wish to return to the wearisome old see-sawing. But if it please the Lord to prolong the ascetic’s stay in this world, He will preserve him in the degree of grace which will allow him to continue functioning, and competent therefore to ‘commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also’ [cf. II Tim. 2:2] what he himself received from the Fathers and directly from God.