Although grossly oversimplified, the differences between spiritual transformation in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy might be articulated as follows. The cross of Christ is central to spiritual formation in Roman Catholicism (i.e., imitating the pattern Christ set for us to follow by loving others sacrificially with humility). “The glorious light” is central to formation in Eastern Orthodoxy (i.e., allowing to heart to be exposed to the illumining glory of the exalted enthroned Christ who presently sits at the right hand of God the Father). In Eastern Orthodoxy PARTICIPATION in God’s grace as given by the Holy Spirit is central. In Roman Catholic spirituality IMITATION of Christ’s earthly humanity is the emphasis. In Catholic modes of contemplation (or meditation), the humanity of Christ in His earthly life and ministry serves as the focus. In Eastern Orthodoxy the glorious divinity of Christ is to be one’s focus. Imagination plays a key role in Catholic meditation, far lesser so in Eastern Orthodoxy. Both traditions would likely acknowledge the necessity of both imitation and participation. However, it seems that each tradition lends greater emphasis to one over the other.
The comparison I have just given is a bit too general. There are many varieties and sub-groupings within these two traditions. There is far more complexity to this matter than what I am presenting in this short post. Please don’t be too harsh in my attempt to bring such an elusive and enthralling matter to order.
There is one piece that is missing from both traditions: Paul’s theme of justification by faith alone in Christ’s death. In contrast to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century understood that justification by faith alone is the starting point of the spiritual journey. As Richard Lovelace aptly writes, “Few know enough to start each day with a thoroughgoing stand upon Luther’s platform: you are accepted, looking outward in faith [at what the Cross accomplished] and claiming the wholly alien righteousness of Christ as the only ground for acceptance, relaxing in that quality of trust which will produce increasing sanctification [holiness] as faith is active in love and gratitude” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 101).
The Reformers also believed that, according to Scripture, union with God is already, but not yet (Rom. 6:5; Gal. 3:27; 1 Cor. 6:17; 12:13; Eph. 1:6; 2:5-6). In other words, the Christian life begins and ends with union with God. This stands in contrast to union with God as a stage one reaches over a period of time, a prevalent view within certain Roman Catholic spiritual traditions.
John Wesley (1703-1791) read and appreciated certain Eastern Orthodox fathers. Yet, he observed that they were oblivious to justification as a starting point for spiritual growth. Wesley maintained that “[the] first point in the religion of Christ is the not having our own righteousness” (Sermons, 1:314ff.). Wesley believed that people must be first delivered from the condemnation of sin before they can be delivered from the power of sin.
All that said, spiritual transformation does involve BOTH imitation and participation. Though very closely linked, I maintain that participation MUST precede the imitation. The wisdom of Julie Canless is much appreciated: “When obedience is seen as response rather than participation, we end up with exhaustion. Furthermore, when obedience is not seen as participation in Christ’s own sonship, it is rendered contentless, only to be filled by a reaction to whatever is perceived to be vices in the culture” (Canless, Calvin’s Ladder, 252).
What all this means is this. When we attempt to imitate Christ without spiritual dependency, chances are we will become exhausted moralists–and quite possibly proud. Without the starting point of a justified status before God, and without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, the imitation of Christ can become a soul-exhausting duty. Duty to God and people without Spirit-empowered love can easily degrade into compulsive, guilt-driven, scrupulously self-focused religion.
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Heavenly Abba, I cannot do what you ask me to do as a follower of Jesus. Holy Spirit, I give You my heart, my thoughts, emotions, and choices; influence and guide them; may my heart be present and responsive to the Holy Spirit so that Jesus Christ is glorified in all that I do today.