Treasury of Blessings

by Fr. John Oliver

Pentecost painting by Duccio

Above: Pentecost painting by Duccio

“In the Holy Spirit is the fountain of divine treasures; for from Him cometh wisdom, awe and understanding. To Him, therefore, be praise, glory, might and honor.” This brief hymn to the Holy Spirit from the service of Matins reminds us that our blessings ultimately come from outside ourselves. The “divine treasures” we enjoy are not ours by nature but by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

These treasures include attributes described by the apostle Paul: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) These nine jewels beautify whoever possesses them – or rather they beautify whoever possesses the Holy Spirit, for Christian life consists not in reaching for the fruit but in acquiring the Spirit.

There is a difference between fruit and Tree, between treasure and King, between gift and Giver. The Christian receives the one but pursues the other. The prodigal son returns to the loving embrace of his father, not to the nice robe, rings, new sandals or the fatted calf. His relationship is not with the good things, but with his father.

Consider the counsel of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” At first we might hear Saint Seraphim saying: become a peaceful person; go and do peaceful things. In fact he is calling on us to acquire the Holy Spirit.

Is the distinction important? The prayer to the Holy Spirit refers to Him as the “Treasury of good things,” so to reach for the fruits listed by St. Paul is like trying to live like God apart from God. The goal of Christian life is not to force our behavior to fit categories of “love,” “joy,” “peace,” etc. If that were true, Christian experience would merely be like painting a house that needs a new foundation or trying to improve behavior without taming the heart. Deep change is needed.

Christian life is about becoming a new creation in Christ, a process of daily renewal. Such inner renewal brings the heart under the control of the Holy Spirit, who then releases the attributes St. Paul described through us according to His time, measure, purpose and glory.

Without the Holy Spirit, love degenerates into lust, sentimentality or mere companionship. We reach for another out of selfishness, insecurity or loneliness; we become motivated by needs that ignore boundaries. We crave intense feelings, even drama. Instead of pursuing something noble we settle for emotionalism. With the Holy Spirit, love makes both the giver and the receiver well, even holy. We suffer long and kindly. We do not envy or parade ourselves or act puffed up but rejoice in the truth and bear all things, believe all things, hope all things and endure all things. Relationships are born and grow in freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is,” Saint Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians, “there is liberty.”

Without the Spirit, joy degenerates into the pursuit of pleasure, a passage through life solely to avoid pain, pursuing only light while avoiding the darkness so necessary for spiritual growth. We imperceptibly knit ourselves to the fabric of this passing world and its transitory comforts. Living in search of good times, we grow weak. With the Holy Spirit, joy is not forced to become happiness. We are willing to sacrifice pleasure and happiness so that joy, which is not as dependent on circumstance, might emerge. We rest in the promises of God that run deeper than everything that troubles life’s surface. We know how to rejoice with those who rejoice, seeking nothing of our own and feeling no competition. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to embrace joy and reject its counterfeits.

Without the Holy Spirit, peace degenerates into conflict avoidance. We seek exterior tranquility as a distraction from inner turmoil. We lose principles worth defending and differences worth celebrating. We underestimate humanity’s capacity for evil, especially our own. With the Holy Spirit, peace reserves the right to a special kind of violence required to seize the kingdom of God (Mt 11:12). We wage war with ourselves, calmly battling passions that refuse to die easily. We discover an inner stillness. We do not react and we do not resent. We grow undisturbed by troubling thoughts as the heart enters a state of quiet listening. Because we have accepted this daily and quiet martyrdom, we grow into vessels of stillness that benefit others. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to become the peace that passes understanding.

Without the Holy Spirit, patience degenerates into sloth. We lose the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. We grow tolerant of inappropriate delay; we lose the relationship between justice and timing. We mistake laziness for perseverance. We neglect. With the Holy Spirit, patience pursues, but does not rush, a desired outcome. We do not force an agenda; we resist our need for control. We exercise the right restraint at the right time in the right way. We understand that no one can disturb our interior peace without our permission. We trust in God’s timing and in His way of doing things. We accept that true soul work is often slow, unhurried, mundane. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern the difference between waiting and hesitating.

“Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.” — St. Seraphim of Sarov

St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”

Without the Holy Spirit, kindness degenerates into a lack of resolve. We lose the ability to say no. We erode the boundaries that define our personhood. We pacify beyond what is healthy, even enabling another’s self-destruction. We draw near when distance is called for and remain distant when nearness is needed. We forget what anger is for. With the Holy Spirit, kindness is not defeated by fatigue or prejudice or argument. We learn when an acquaintance should remain an acquaintance, and when an acquaintance should become a friend. We become generous and are not devastated when there is no return. We are honest, but not cruel; warm, but not seductive. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to express kindness while a storm of irritability may rage within.

Without the Holy Spirit, goodness degenerates into mere morality. We focus on external behavior and forget the condition of the heart. We compare ourselves with others, and usually come out favorably. We grow smug. We become legalistic, shallow, bland. With the Holy Spirit, goodness becomes empathy. We grow sensitive to those in need, including ourselves. Being right becomes less important than becoming righteous. Our understanding of the good transcends contemporary trends and cultural taste. We learn where true good is from and where it leads; we discern the fingerprints of God. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to discern God in all good and all good in God.

Without the Holy Spirit, faithfulness degenerates into inertia. We favor predictability over risk; we get stuck. We mistake fear for perseverance. We lose identity, energy and those qualities that distinguish us. We waste time, accomplish nothing, and fail to make the world a better place because we were here. We lack vision. With the Holy Spirit, faithfulness means we become not stuck but still. Distractions do not reach a heart that abides in a state of constant listening, so that when God says to move, we move. We follow where He leads, willing even to enter the dark. We are obedient but free; we voluntarily suffer. We choose the way of God even when no one is watching. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to understand faith as inseparable from faithfulness.

Without the Holy Spirit, gentleness degenerates into a lack of boundaries. We lose will power; we become passive. Assertiveness looks too much like aggression, and decisiveness too much like violence. Men, in fear, swerve toward the safe, the joyless, the weak; women favor the shy, the sentimental, the self-protective. With the Holy Spirit, gentleness becomes hospitality. We keep a reign on ourselves and make room for others to grow in our midst. We learn how to resist forcing ourselves on others, in body, will and opinion. We use a light touch if it will put people at ease and a heavy touch when necessary, but with grace. Silence no longer disturbs but nourishes. To acquire the Holy Spirit is to harness the energy of meekness.

Without the Holy Spirit, self-control degenerates into self-suffocation. We lose vibrancy; we lose life’s vivifying energy. We grow rigid and legalistic and recoil from what appears uncontrollable. The proper goals of discipline are lost as discipline becomes the goal itself. We intimidate others and provoke their suspicion. With the Holy Spirit, self-control means we become God’s clean instrument. We embrace fasting and prayer, and understand the role of the body in acquiring or losing salvation. Moderation is seen as strength and not weakness. Because we neither indulge the self nor obsess over the self, we can restrain or celebrate as an occasion calls for. With the Holy Spirit, willpower is delivered from the tyranny of the flesh.

The prayer to the Holy Spirit calls this “Treasury of good things” to “come and abide in us.” We do not approach God as a cosmic slot machine, feeding Him with the right formula of prayers and good deeds for the purpose of gaining a jackpot of favors in return. Instead, we are like children, who, as we grow and mature, discover that our true relationship all along was not with the gifts given to us by our Caretaker but with the Caretaker Himself. To keep that relationship alive, God may grant His gifts to us in measure and withdraw them for a season. “Why did the tongues appear to be divided among [the disciples]?” asks Saint Gregory Palamas. “Because the Spirit is given by measure by the Father to all except Christ. . . . Each one obtained different gifts, lest anyone should suppose the grace given to the saints by the Holy Spirit was theirs by nature.” [St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, edited and translated by Christopher Veniamin]

And when grace falls upon the ready soul, the chest of treasures overflows. Nine becomes no longer a number but a symbol of the numberless gifts that pour from the Holy Spirit. St. Seraphim of Sarov gave us the counsel to “acquire the Spirit of peace,” but he also gave us a radiant example of what acquiring the Spirit can mean. Material treasures shine, but, as his experience of the Holy Spirit reveals, not as brightly as the person who fully acquires the immaterial “Treasury of good things,” an acquisition that begins, according to Saint Seraphim, in the cleansing waters of baptism. ❖

Fr. John Oliver is the priest of St. Elizabeth Orthodox Church, in Murfreesboro, TN. This is a condensed extract from his latest book, Giver of Life: the Holy Spirit in Orthodox Tradition (Paraclete Press, 2011). A graduate of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, he joined the faculty as instructor in Old and New Testament and American Religious History. He and his wife Lara have three daughters and two sons.

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

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