Posts Tagged eastern orthodox theology
What it Means to be Human: Christian Anthropology, East and West
Before the 5th century, there was a general consensus amongst all five Patriarchates of the united Christian Church (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, and Jerusalem) on what it means to be human (anthropology). So, before AD 400 there was no significant variation in Christian Anthropology.
I will present a brief summary of that common doctrine as a baseline to explain and contrast the alternative anthropology developed mainly by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, of the Roman Patriarchate, around the beginning of the 5th century. Augustine’s unique views on anthropology became dogma in the Roman Patriarchate and later Roman Catholic Church after the Great Schism divided the united Christian Church in 1054. Augustine’s doctrines continue to dominate Roman Catholic and Protestant theology to this day.
For simplicity, I will refer to the original anthropology of the Christian Church as the Eastern Greek doctrine and the 5th century Roman alternative anthropology as the Western Latin doctrine.
In the next post in this series, we will discuss Eastern Greek Anthropology.
Eastern Greek Anthropology
Human beings are dignified creatures created by God. This very positive view of humanity was the position of all early Christian authorities and remained the conviction of the unified Church for nearly five centuries. The doctrine included the following points from Genesis 1:26:
- God created humankind intentionally. Humans are not an accident of evolution.
- God created humans in his image and likeness.
This means that humanity is theomorphic, having the form, image, or likeness of God. This is a very optimistic and positive view of anthropology.
Some of the Greek Fathers made a distinction between image (Heb. צֶ֫לֶם – tselem; Grk. εικονα –eikona) and likeness (Heb. דְּמוּת – demuth; Grk. ομοιωσιν – homoiosin) in Gen 1:26. They argued that image and likeness were not synonymous or rhetorical equivalents. They pointed out that in Hebrew, image (tselem) always indicates a “physical” or structural image of some kind. This distinguishes it from likeness (demuth), which usually refers to some kind of “functional” image, to be like, or resemble. I bring this up to point out that later Western Latin theologians would attempt to refute the distinction between image and likeness, calling it a simple example of rhetorical Hebrew parallelism or hendiadys.
To illustrate the Eastern Greek understanding, I quote St. Basil the Great (c. 330-c. 379), who said this about God’s image and likeness:
“Let us make the human being [he quotes God] according to our image and according to our likeness”. [Then he continues] By our creation, we have the first, and by our free choice we build the second. In our initial structure co-originates and exists our coming into being according to the image of God. By free choice, we are conformed to that which is according to the likeness of God.
Note also in this quote, Basil also alludes to two other very important early doctrines; “free choice” (free will) and “conformed… to the likeness” (synergy). We will encounter both of these doctrines further on.
This made human beings inherently valuable and dignified. This was the theological position of the early Church Fathers such as Sts. Basil and Ephraim in the East and St. Ambrose in the West.
For many Fathers, the metaphor of the Tree of Life served as a symbol and expression of humankind’s communion with God, participating in the very life of God in paradise.
But humankind was expelled from paradise when it freely chose to live without God, when it chose death over life in God. This is the “Fall”, the primordial sin.
So, expelled from paradise and stripped of his dignity, humankind suffered what St. Athanasius (c. 298— 373) described as an anthropological catastrophe. It disrupted and disfigured the intention of God for the human race. Athanasius wrote, “Because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in the process of destruction.” He termed this the “De-humanization of man”. Humanity suffered and waited for God to act.
God did respond and he responded positively through the Incarnation of his Son, the Logos, the Christ, to defeat sin and clearly teach humanity the path of salvation, to a restoration of a life in God. John the theologian describes it in John 1:14, “the Logos became flesh and tabernacles among us”. Through Christ man is re-created. In a famous passage from his book, “On the Incarnation”, Athanasius echoes the words of St. Irenaeus and other Fathers before (and after) him:
“God became man that man might become god.”
In other words, the early church Fathers declared that the deification of humanity was possible. This is a very, very positive affirmation of the dignity, value, and potential of every human being.
The Fathers of the Eastern Greek Church described salvation in many different ways. There was more than just one image of salvation, but one of the most common, compelling, and powerful was that of the forementioned deification (Grk, theosis), or union with God.
The role of baptism was vitally important to the early church in the process of salvation of man through deification. It was not just for the forgiveness of sins that baptism imparted, but also for the impartation of deification and the experience of paradise, bringing a person into the light of God himself. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313-386) explains:
Great indeed is the baptism which is offered you. It is a ransom to captives, the remission of offenses, the death of sin, the regeneration of the soul, the garment of light, the holy seal indissoluable, the chariot to heaven, the luxury of paradise, a procuring of the kingdom, and the gift of adoption.
St, Cyril also talks about the rite of chrismation, the impartation of the gift of the Holy Spirit. That distinct rite always followed baptism immediately. Effectively there was no separation of the two rites in terms of time. This is a further indication that baptism is not just for the remission of sins but also a gift of life in the kingdom of heaven; the opportunity for deification.
Again, we are presented with a very positive view of the human person.
There is another doctrine critical to an understanding of salvation as the deification of humanity: the understanding of the essence and energies of God. Appropriated from Aristotelian metaphysics by the early Greek Fathers, this doctrine states that God in his essence is simply unknowable to humanity, so great and so far beyond human comprehension that he will never be knowable. However, God, through his actions and activity in creation, shares his energies with human beings made in his image and likeness to know him and participate in his life.
Basil tells us:
While we affirm that we know our God in his energies, we scarcely promise that he may be approached in his very essence. For although his energies descend to us, his essence remains inaccessible.
As a result of this doctrine of divine essence and energies the Greek Fathers described how humans could experience the immanent presence and life of an otherwise transcendent and unknowable God: deification.
Yet again, a very positive, optimistic view of humanity.
There are two more doctrines which complete the Eastern Greek understanding of anthropology; Free will and Synergy. Humans possess free will (not to be confused with autonomy) and can exercise it in a way as synergy, or cooperation, with the energies God. So, human beings are assigned a great dignity as they participate with God in their own salvation, even if in an asymmetrical way (God initiates everything!). Part of this synergy requires a deep desire on the part of the believer for a purification (katharsis) that leads to an experience of God (theoria), and ultimately union with God (theosis).
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c.395), brother of St. Basil, sums it up beautifully:
The Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something theoretically about God, but to possess God in oneself.
This demonstrates that the Greek East maintained a very positive view of the inherent dignity and value of humanity, a very optimistic anthropology.
Again, I must emphasize that this positive, optimistic anthropology was the prevailing position of the united universal Christian Church for the first 400 years of its existence. In fact, it remains the doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day, including all five of the original Patriarchates of the united Church, with the notable exception of Rome.
We will deal with the anthropology of the Latin West, next.
Western Latin Anthropology
We now examine the Latin West and the foundation of an alternative anthropology, which became increasingly pessimistic about the human condition. This pessimism would grow to have a profound impact upon the Middle Ages and lead to the large-scale abandonment of traditional Christianity during the Renaissance.
The foundation of this pessimistic anthropology is based on the early 5th century thought of St. Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo Regius, in the Roman Province of Numidia on the North African coast (modern north-east Algeria).
Augustine outweighs, by far, the collective influence of all the other Latin Fathers (e.g., St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, Gregory the Great) and dominates the theological thinking and tradition of Western Latin Christianity from the 5th century all the way up to the present. By Western Latin Christianity I include the Roman Catholic Church and the vast majority of the 35,000+ denominations contained within Protestantism. As we shall see, the Protestant Reformer John Calvin will make much use of Augustine’s thought.
Augustine’s own life experiences, detailed in his book Confessions, and his disputes with British-born heretic Pelagius (c. 354- c.418) and his disciples did much to influence his thinking on the human will and grace.
Pelagius believed that humans are self-willed and autonomous in relationship to God. He even had a slogan for this belief: A deo emancipatus homo est. Man is emancipated from God.
How different this is from the Greek patristic understanding of human free will in synergy with God and totally dependent on God, finding fulfillment only in divine life.
But Augustine engaged Pelagius very differently. He took the opposite view of the human will from Pelagius, developing a doctrine of heteronomy; being ruled by another than oneself. Augustine believed that humans possess a free will, but that it has been vitiated, that is weakened and undermined and functionally powerless. Based on that conclusion, Augustine came up with his own slogan: non posse non peccare. [Man is] not able not to sin.
Not a very optimistic or positive view of humanity.
Therefore, to Augustine, salvation comes to depend on divine intervention in the form of a grace from God that precedes any action from a human being toward good; it came to be known as prevenient grace. It is prevenient grace that causes the human will to do good. Augustine saw this grace as created, and not God himself. How different this is from the Greek patristic doctrine of grace as the uncreated energies that really are God and penetrate and deify the believer and bring them ever more fully within the life of God himself.
To Augustine, if the human will is good, then it is through God and his prevenient grace activating the will. Of course, according to Augustine’s doctrine of heteronomy, there is the other (hetero) that could activate the human will as well. That would be the will of the devil. But in either case, it’s not the human will, but the will of another that leads the human in the direction he takes in life.
As a corollary, Augustine also developed the doctrine of “predestination”, which declares that, given that the human will as vitiated and powerless, God predestines those whom he has chosen as elect to save.
Again, not a very optimistic or positive assessment of the human will.
Augustine’s doctrine of predestination goes further than anything discussed to this point in undermining a belief that humans possess a free will and that they can work out their salvation in cooperation, or synergy, with God.
More than 1,100 years later, Protestant Reformer John Calvin would double-down and fully develop Augustine’s doctrine of predestination. If you believe that Augustine’s influence was limited to the Roman Catholic church and did not effect Protestant theology, I invite you to consider Calvin’s T.U.L.I.P., a summary of his principle doctrines; Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. Calvin drew directly from Augustine and is perhaps the most consistent theologian under his influence during the 16th century Protestant Reformation in the West. The Protestant Reformation bought Augustinian theology, pretty much in whole or at least in part.
Augustine, while rightly defending Orthodoxy against the anthropological heresy of Pelagius, had unfortunately taken positions that put him at odds with the consensus of the early unified church, East and West, concerning the condition of humanity, its inherent value and dignity, its place in this age, and the possibility of experiencing the divine, paradise itself, even in this world.
The last of Augustine’s unique doctrines we will discuss is arguably his most controversial; original sin. This doctrine goes well beyond the conception of the Fall and primordial sin of Adam and Eve that had been developed by Eastern Greek Fathers and even by Western Latin Fathers before the 5th century. For Augustine, the Fall resulted in humankind’s actual participation in the guilt of Adam’s original sin. This is a fundamental difference between the Eastern Greek patristic understanding of the Fall and the subsequent Western Latin Augustinian understanding.
This gets a little tedious but stay with me.
Augustine was led to this interpretation of the Fall by the translation of the Bible that was now being used in the West in his time. In the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the Latin Vulgate bible), and in a very important passage from the epistle of Paul to the Romans 5:12, the original Greek was mistranslated by Jerome. Scholar David Bentley Hart, author of the recent The New Testament, a Translation, remarks that this “notoriously defective rendering in the Latin Vulgate (in quo omnes peccaverunt) constitutes one of the most consequential mistranslations in Christian history.” Below is the original Greek of Romans 5:12 (underline mine):
Διὰ τοῦτο ὥσπερ δι’ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου ἡ ἁμαρτία εἰς τὸν κόσμον εἰσῆλθεν καὶ διὰ τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ θάνατος, καὶ οὕτως εἰς πάντας ἀνθρώπους ὁ θάνατος διῆλθεν ἐφ’ ᾧ πάντες ἥμαρτον
The key here is that in the original Greek, above, the word “ἐφ’ ᾧ” (transliterated as “ef ho”), underlined near the end of the passage, is usually translated as “because” in English, as you can clearly see, underlined in the New King James Version (NKJ) translation, below:
Therefore, just as through one man [Adam] sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned…
So, “Death and sin entered the world and spread to all human beings because all sinned.”
But in the Latin Vulgate, Jerome mistranslated “ef ho” and entirely changed the meaning of Romans 5:12. Jerome’s Latin translation of “ef ho” was “in quo”, which means “in whom”, and relates, in this passage, to Adam himself. This would mean that entire human race itself participated in Adam’s sin, in a willful act of transgression.
Augustine’s poor skills in Greek would not allow him to read the original Greek New Testament, so he was forced to rely solely on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
So, with this flawed translation of Romans 5:12 in hand, Augustine was able to assert that in Adam, in the person of Adam and in his very act of willful rebellion against God in the Fall, in the original sin, all human beings have sinned; all human beings have willfully participated, as descendants of Adam, in Adam’s personal sin.
Adam’s sin, for Augustine, was grounded in his concept of concupiscence, or evil desire. As a result, all of Adam’s descendants (all of humanity) participated in that act of will and are personally guilty for the transgression. His inclination toward this interpretation of the Fall came from his doctrine of grace and free will, that he had worked out early in his life in response to his personal experiences with lustful desires (cf. Confessions) and from his response to the earlier Pelagian controversy (both earlier in this summary).
It goes without saying that this reflects a negative, pessimistic view of humanity.
Augustine’s doctrine of original sin had important corollaries that were worked out in the Western Latin church over time. Some of these corollaries were worked out by Augustine himself. For example:
1. One corollary states that: if all human beings have sinned in Adam through original sin and been conceived in sin and have therefore come into the world personally guilty of original sin, then all human beings are deserving of punishment by God. The human condition is understood as one deserving of punishment, universal punishment.
2. Another corollary that grew out of Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was that unbaptized infants who died before they could be baptized were destined for hell because they were born with the guilt of Adam and, not having that guilt washed away by baptism, were destined to be punished in hell for it.
3. Yet another corollary to the doctrine of original sin is that baptism increasingly becomes understood as a sacrament exclusively of washing away, of remission of sins. Baptism lost its earlier traditional aspect of also imparting deification, the gift of the Holy Spirit deifying the believer.
4. Finally, a corollary to Augustine’s doctrine of original sin is that humanity became characterized by the condition of depravity: a moral bankruptcy. Augustine used the term massa damnata, a damned mass, for the entire human race awaiting punishment were it not for the life-creating sacraments of the Church.
Augustine’s anthropological pessimism saw the human condition in the world as one of misery, almost unmitigated misery. Salvation was seen as a release from punishment in the afterlife.
As Augustine reflected on these miseries, which result from the reality of original sin, he also discussed the role of punishment and the value of punishment, arguing that punishment can, and often does, play a valuable role in bringing the saints who have been predestined for paradise to that experience which awaits them after their death.
So, paradise, from which humanity was expelled, has no place in this world. It is something predestined saints will experience after death in this world. This life is penal, a place of punishment. But that punishment is good, purificatory, for the numbered elect saints being prepared for paradise.
For everybody else, it’s just punishment.
A very negative and pessimistic anthropology, indeed.
Kyriacos C. Markides (b. 1942) – Dr. Markides is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He has written several books on Christian mysticism including Mountain of Silence (2001), Gifts of the Desert (2005), and Inner River (2012). Dr. Markides is a contributor to Transpersonal Psychology, a sub-field or “school” of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. Based on the early works of Carl Jung, William James, and Abraham Maslow, it is also possible to define Transpersonal Psychology as a “spiritual psychology”. Dr. Markides is trying to introduce Eastern Orthodox Mysticism into Western secular Psychology, something that is long overdue and desperately needed.
I attach a paper written by Dr. Markides and published in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, in 2008 (Vol. 40, No. 2). It is entitled, “Eastern Orthodox Mysticism and Transpersonal Theory”. As a “teaser” to the paper, I include Dr. Markides’ abstract:
ABSTRACT: Christianity has remained relatively peripheral to the intellectual processes that shaped transpersonal theory. Eastern religions on the other hand provided the base upon which transpersonal theory was founded and developed. Spiritual traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism paved the way towards the exploration of states of consciousness beyond the rational mind. My basic claim in this paper is that the eastern branch of Christianity, or Eastern Orthodox Christianity, has preserved and developed over the centuries a mystical theology and practice that may enrich and perhaps expand what eastern religions have contributed so far to the emergence of transpersonal theory. This paper is an introduction to the mystical pathways of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is informed by seminal literature and scriptures, several years of participant observation and depth interviews of Eastern Orthodox practitioners (mystics, monks and hermits), and complemented by experiential data related to my own journey of discovery.
Click on the blue hyperlink or the graphic, below, to open Dr. Markides paper:
Saint Ignatius (Brianchaninov), (1807–1867) – was a bishop and theologian of the Russian Orthodox Church. His two most important books translated into English are: The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism; and On the Prayer of Jesus.
“The correct practice of the Jesus Prayer proceeds naturally from correct notions about God, about the most holy name of the Lord Jesus, and about man’s relationship to God.
Approach Prayer with Humility
God is an infinitely great and all-perfect being. God is the Creator and Renewer of men, Sovereign Master over men, angels, demons and all created things, both visible and invisible. Such a notion of God teaches us that we ought to stand prayerfully before Him in deepest reverence and in great fear and dread, directing toward Him all our attention, concentrating in our attention all the powers of the reason, heart, and soul, and rejecting distractions and vain imaginings, whereby we diminish alertness and reverence, and violate the correct manner of standing before God, as required by His majesty (John 4:23-24; Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:29-30; Luke 10:27). St. Isaac the Syrian put it marvelously: “When you turn to God in prayer, be in your thoughts as an ant, as a serpent of the earth, like a worm, like a stuttering child. Do not speak to Him something philosophical or high-sounding, but approach Him with a child’s attitude” (Homily 49). Those who have acquired genuine prayer experience an ineffable poverty of the spirit when they stand before the Lord, glorify and praise Him, confess to him, or present to Him their entreaties. They feel as if they had turned to nothing, as if they did not exist. That is natural. For when he who is in prayer experiences the fullness of the divine presence, of Life Itself, of Life abundant and unfathomable, then his own life strikes him as a tiny drop in comparison to the boundless ocean. That is what the righteous and long-suffering Job felt as he attained the height of spiritual perfection. He felt himself to be dust and ashes; he felt that he was melting and vanishing as does snow when struck by the sun’s burning rays (Job 42:6).
The name of our Lord Jesus Christ is a divine name. The power and effect of that name are divine, omnipotent and salvific, and transcend our ability to comprehend it. With faith therefore, with confidence and sincerity, and with great piety and fear ought we to proceed to the doing of the great work which God has entrusted to us: to train ourselves in prayer by using the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. “The incessant invocation of God’s name,” says Barsanuphius the Great, “is a medicine which mortifies not just the passions, but even their influence. Just as the physician puts medications or dressings on a wound that it might be healed, without the patient even knowing the manner of their operation, so also the name of God, when we invoke it, mortifies all passions, though we do not know how that happens” (421st Answer).
Our ordinary condition, the condition of all mankind, is one of fallenness, of spiritual deception, of perdition. Apprehending—and to the degree that we apprehend, experiencing—that condition, let us cry out from it in prayer, let us cry in spiritual humility, let us cry with wails and sighs, let us cry for clemency! Let us turn away from all spiritual gratifications, let us renounce all lofty states of prayer of which we are unworthy and incapable! It is impossible “to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 136:5), in a heart held captive by passions. Should we hear an invitation to sing, we can know surely that it emanates “from them that have taken us captive” (Ps. 136:3). “By the waters of Babylon” tears alone are possible and necessary (Ps. 136:1).
Rule for Practicing the Jesus Prayer
This is the general rule for practicing the Jesus Prayer, derived from the Sacred Scriptures and the works of the Holy Fathers, and from certain conversations with genuine men of prayer. Of the particular rules, especially for novices, I deem the following worthy of mention.
St. John of the Ladder counsels that the mind should be locked into the words of the prayer and should be forced back each time it departs from it (Step XXVIII, ch. 17). Such a mechanism of prayer is remarkably helpful and suitable. When the mind, in its own manner, acquires attentiveness, then the heart will join it with its own offering— compunction. The heart will empathize with the mind by means of compunction, and the prayer will be said by the mind and heart together.
Do Not Hurry
The words of the prayer ought to be said without the feast hurry. even lingering, so that the mind can lock itself into each word.
Persevere bring attention Back to the Words when the Mind wanders
St. John of the Ladder consoles and instructs the coenobitic… “God does not expect a pure and undistracted prayer. Despair not should inattention come over you! Be of cheerful spirit and constantly compel your mind to return to itself! For the angels alone are not subject to any distraction” (Step IV, ch. 93). “Being enslaved by passions, let us persevere in praying to the Lord: for all those who have reached the state of passionlessness did so with the help of such indomitable prayer. If, therefore, you tirelessly train your mind never to stray from the words of the prayer, it will be there even at mealtime. A great champion of perfect prayer has said: ‘I had rather speak five words with my understanding … than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (I Cor. 14:19). Such prayer,” that is, the grace-given prayer of the mind in the heart, which shuns imaginings, “is not characteristic of children; wherefore we who are like children, being concerned with the perfection of our prayer,” that is, the attentiveness which is acquired by locking the mind into the words of the prayer, “must pray a great deal. Quantity is the cause of quality. The Lord gives pure prayer to him who, eschewing laziness, prays much and regularly in his own manner, even if it is marred by inattention” (The Ladder, Step XXVI11, ch. 21).
It Takes Time
Novices need more time in order to train themselves in prayer… Asceticism needs both time and gradual progress, so that the ascetic can mature for prayer in every respect. In order that a flower might bloom or the fruit grow on a tree, the tree must first be planted and left to develop; thus also does prayer grow out of the soil of other virtues and nowhere else… Pulled hither and thither by its acquired predilections, impressions, memories and worries, the novice’s mind constantly breaks its salvific chains and strays from the narrow to the wide path. It prefers to wander freely, to stroll in the regions of falsehood in association with the fallen spirits, to stray aimlessly and mindlessly over great expanses, though this be damaging to him and cause him great loss. The passions, those moral infirmities of human nature, are the principal cause of inattentiveness and absentmindedness in prayer. The more they are weakened in a man, the less is he distracted in spirit when praying. The passions are brought under control and mortified little by little by means of obedience, as well as by self-reproach and humility—these are the virtues upon which successful prayer is built. Concentration, which is accessible to man, is granted by God in good time to every struggler in piety and asceticism who by persistence and ardor proves the sincerity of his desire to acquire prayer.
Begin by saying the Prayer Aloud
The Russian hieromonk Dorotheus, a great instructor in spiritual asceticism, who was in this respect very much like St. Isaac the Syrian, counsels those who are learning the Jesus Prayer to recite it aloud at first. The vocal prayer, he says, will of itself turn into the mental.
After much vocal prayer there comes Mental Prayer
“Mental prayer,” he continues, “is the result of much vocal prayer, and mental prayer leads to the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer should not be said in a loud voice but quietly, just audibly enough that you can hear yourself.,’ It is particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when assailed by distraction, grief, spiritual despondency and laziness. The vocal Jesus Prayer gradually awakens the soul from the deep moral slumber into which grief and spiritual despair are wont to thrust it. It is also particularly beneficial to practice the Jesus Prayer aloud when attacked by images, appetites of the flesh, and anger; when their influence causes the blood to boil. It should be practiced when peace and tranquility vanish from the heart, and the mind hesitates, becomes weak, and—so to speak—goes into upheaval because of the multitude of unnecessary thoughts and images. The malicious princes of the air, whose presence is hidden to physical sight but who are felt by the soul through their influences upon it, hearing as they mount their attack the name of the Lord Jesus—which they dread—will become undecided and confused, and will take fright and withdraw immediately from the soul. The method of prayer which the hieromonk suggests is very simple and easy. It should be combined with the method of St. John of the Ladder: the Jesus Prayer should be recited loud enough that you can hear yourself, without any hurry, and by locking the mind into the words of the prayer. This last, the hieromonk enjoins upon all who pray by Jesus’ name….
Establish a Daily Rule for Prostrations
The novice who is studying the Jesus Prayer will advance greatly by observing a daily rule comprising a certain number of full prostrations and bows from the waist, depending upon the strength of each individual. These are all to be performed without any hurry, with a repentant feeling in the soul and with the Jesus Prayer on the lips during each prostration…. Twelve prostrations suffice in the beginning. Depending upon one’s strength, ability and circumstances, that number can be constantly increased. But when the number of prostrations increases, one should be careful to preserve the quality of one’s prayer, so that one not be carried away by a preoccupation with the physical into fruitless, and even harmful, quantity. The bows warm up the body and somewhat exhaust it, and this condition facilitates attention and compunction. But let us be watchful, very watchful, lest the state pass into a bodily preoccupation which is foreign to spiritual sentiments and recalls our fallen nature! Quantity, useful as it is when accompanied by the proper frame of mind and the proper objective, can be just as harmful when it leads to a preoccupation with the physical. The latter is recognized by its fruits which also distinguish it from spiritual ardor. The fruits of physical preoccupation are conceit, self-assurance, intellectual arrogance: in a word, pride in its various forms, all of which are easy prey to spiritual deception. The fruits of spiritual ardor are repentance, humility, weeping and tears. The rule of prostrations is best observed before going to sleep: then, after the cares of the day have passed, it can be practiced longer and with greater concentration…. Prostrations stimulate a prayerful state of the mind and mortify the body as well as support and strengthen fervor in prayer.
These suggestions are, I believe, sufficient for the beginner who is eager to acquire the Jesus Prayer. “Prayer,” said the divine St. Meletius the Confessor, “needs no teacher. It requires diligence, effort and personal ardor, and then God will be its teacher.” The Holy Fathers, who have written many works on prayer in order to impart correct notions and faithful guidance to those desiring to practice it, propose and decree that one must engage in it actively in order to gain experiential knowledge, without which verbal instruction, though derived from experience, is dead, opaque, incomprehensible and totally inadequate. Conversely, he who is carefully practicing prayer and who is already advanced in it, should refer often to the writings of the Holy Fathers about prayer in order to check and properly direct himself, remembering that even the great Paul, though possessing the highest of all testimonies for his Gospel—that of the Holy Spirit— nevertheless went to Jerusalem where he communicated to the apostles who had gathered there the Gospel that he preached to the gentiles, “lest by any means,” as he said, “I should run, or had run, in vain ” (Gal. 2:2).”
Translated by Stephen Karganovic from The Alphabet of Orthodox Life, Belgrade, 1974. This appeared in Orthodox Life, vol. 28, no. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1978, pp. 9-14. Reprinted with permission.
“Thus, St. Thomas will say, ‘Concerning God, one cannot say what God is, but only what God is not.’ In this manner the apophatic way recalls the transcendence of God, that divine otherness which neither the mind, nor the senses of anything can grasp. […] Apophasis is the direct apprehension of the Real just as it is, without the projections of the discursive mind that distort the Real. It is to see without eyes, to comprehend without the mind.”
“Proceeding directly from this apophatic tradition, hesychasm will be profoundly Christocentric. Without Christ, in fact, divinization is not possible. Christ’s incarnation establishes the full communion between God and humanity. God became human so that humans might become God. ‘God became the bearer of flesh so that humanity might become the bearer of the Spirit’, said Athanasius of Alexandria. […] This paradoxical union, which is realized in the Spirit, recreates us in the image and likeness of the Son of God. Humanity rediscovers the beauty for which it was created.”
“This union also leads the hesychasts to affirm with Gregory of Palamas the reality of the experience of God, while continuing to affirm His transcendence. […] Two affirmations characterize hesychastic experience: the affirmation of divine transcendence, of God’s inaccessible essence, and the nearness of God, God’s immanence and presence in each of us, the divinization of humanity through the energies of the Word and the Spirit.” From, Being Still, pp. 56, 59, 61, 62, 64
Dr. Jean-Claude Larchet (1949-) – is a French Orthodox researcher who is one of the foremost Orthodox Patristics scholars writing today.
“By His Incarnation, Christ has overthrown the barrier which separated our nature from God and has opened that nature once more to the deifying energies of uncreated grace. By his redemptive work, He has freed us from the tyranny of the devil and destroyed the power of sin. By His death, He has triumphed over death and corruption. By His resurrection, He has granted us new and eternal life. And it is not only human nature, but also the creation as a whole which Christ heals and restores, by uniting it in Himself with God the Father, thereby abolishing the divisions and ending the disorders that reigned within it because of sin.” From The Theology of Illness, pp. 40, 41.
Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia – (b. 1934) is a titular metropolitan of the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain. From 1966-2001, he was Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford University, and has authored numerous books and articles pertaining to the Orthodox faith.
“The true aim of theology is not rational certainty through abstract arguments, but personal communion with God through prayer.”
– Met. Kallistos Ware
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) – (1945- ) is a Greek Orthodox metropolitan and theologian. He graduated from the Theological School of the University of Thessaloniki and is one of the finest Patristic scholars living.
“Man has two cognitive centers. One is the nous, the organ suited for receiving God’s revelation which is then formulated by our reason, while the other is reason, which knows the tangible world around us. With our nous we acquire knowledge of God, while with our reason we acquire knowledge of the world and the learning offered by the science of sensory things.” From The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, trans by Esther Williams, Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1998. p. 28
John Romanides (1927 – 2001) was a prominent 20th century Orthodox Christian theologian, priest, and writer. He was Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, MA and later Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
“The chief concern of the Orthodox Church is the healing of the human soul. The Church has always considered the soul as the part of the human being that needs healing because She has seen from Hebrew tradition, from Christ Himself, and from the Apostles that in the region of the physical heart there functions something that the Fathers called the nous. In other words, the Fathers took the traditional term nous, which means both intellect (dianoia) and speech or reason (logos), and gave it a different meaning. They used nous to refer to this noetic energy that functions in the heart of every spiritually healthy person. We do not know when this change in meaning took place, because we know that some Fathers used the same word nous to refer to reason as well as to this noetic energy that descends and functions in the region of the heart.
So from this perspective, noetic activity is an activity essential to the soul. It functions in the brain as the reason; it simultaneously functions in the heart as the nous. In other words, the same organ, the nous, prays ceaselessly in the heart and simultaneously thinks about mathematical problems, for example, or anything else in the brain.
We should point out that there is a difference in terminology between St. Paul and the Fathers. What St. Paul calls the nous is the same as what the Fathers call dianoia. When the Apostle Paul says, “I will pray with the spirit,” he means what the Fathers mean when they say, “I will pray with the nous.” And when he says, “I will pray with the nous,” he means “I will pray with the intellect (dianoia).” When the Fathers use the word nous, the Apostle Paul uses the word “spirit.” When he says “I will pray with the nous, I will pray with the spirit” or when he says “I will chant with the nous, I will chant with the spirit,” and when he says “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” he uses the word “spirit” to mean what the Fathers refer to as the nous. And by the word nous, he means the intellect or reason.
In his phrase, “the Spirit of God bears witness to our spirit,” St. Paul speaks about two spirits: the Spirit of God and the human spirit. By some strange turn of events, what St. Paul meant by the human spirit later reappeared during the time of St. Makarios the Egyptian with the name nous, and only the words logos and dianoia continued to refer to man”s rational ability. This is how the nous came to be identified with spirit, that is, with the heart, since according to St. Paul, the heart is the place of man’s spirit.
Thus, for the Apostle Paul reasonable or logical worship takes place by means of the nous (i.e., the reason or the intellect) while noetic prayer occurs through the spirit and is spiritual prayer or prayer of the heart. So when the Apostle Paul says, “I prefer to say five words with my nous in order to instruct others rather than a thousand with my tongue,” he means that he prefers to say five words, in other words to speak a bit, for the instruction of others rather than pray noetically. Some monks interpret what St. Paul says here as a reference to the Prayer of Jesus, which consists of five words, but at this point the Apostle is speaking here about the words he used in instructing others. For how can catechism take place with noetic prayer, since noetic prayer is a person”s inward prayer, and others around him do not hear anything? Catechism, however, takes place with teaching and worship that are cogent and reasonable. We teach and speak by using the reason, which is the usual way that people communicate with each other.
Those who have noetic prayer in their hearts do, however, communicate with one another. In other words, they have the ability to sit together, and communicate with each other noetically, without speaking. That is, they are able to communicate spiritually. Of course, this also occurs even when such people are far apart. They also have the gifts of clairvoyance and foreknowledge. Through clairvoyance, they can sense both other people’s sins and thoughts (logismoi), while foreknowledge enables them to see and talk about subjects, deeds, and events in the future. Such charismatic people really do exist. If you go to them for confession, they know everything that you have done in your life before you open your mouth to tell them.”
- 1 Corinthians 14:5.
- Romans 8:16.
- This means that the Spirit of God speaks to our spirit. In other words, God speaks within our heart by the grace of the Holy Spirit. St. Gregory Palamas in his second discourse from “In Behalf of the Sacred Hesychasts” notes that “the heart rules over the whole human organism”. For the nous and all the thoughts (logismoi) of the soul are located there.” From the context of grace-filled prayer, it is clear that the term “heart” does not refer to the physical heart, but to the deep heart, while the term nous does not refer to the intellect (dianoia), but to the energy/activity of the heart, the noetic activity which wells forth from the essence of the nous (i.e., the heart). For this reason, St. Gregory adds that it is necessary for the hesychasts “to bring their nous back and enclose it within their body and particularly within that innermost body, within the body that we call the heart.” The term “spirit” is also identical with the terms nous and “heart.” Philokalia, vol. IV (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), p, 334.
- Cf. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, who notes: “Man has two centers of knowing: the nous which is the appropriate organ for receiving the revelation of God that is later put into words through the reason and the reason which knows the sensible world around us.” The Person in Orthodox Tradition, trans. Effie Mavromichali (Levadia: Monastery of the Birth of the Theotokos, 1994), p. 24.
- 1 Corinthians 14:19.
- In Greek, the Prayer of Jesus consists of exactly five words in its simplest form, which in English is translated as “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” “TRANS.
- “Thus as Saint John of Damascus puts it, we are led as though up a ladder to the thinking of good thoughts”. Saint Paul also indicates this when he says: “I had rather speak five words with my nous”.” St. Peter of Damascus, “The Third Stage of Contemplation,” in Philokalia, 3, page 42 [my translation: cf. also English Philokalia, vol. XXX, p. 120] and St. Nikitas Stithatos, as cited below.
- With respect to this, Venerable Nikitas Stithatos writes, “If when you pray and psalmodize you speak in a tongue to God in private you edify yourself, as Saint Paul says. ” If it is not in order to edify his flock that the shepherd seeks to be richly endowed with the grace of teaching and the knowledge of the Spirit, he lacks fervor in his quest for God”s gifts. By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue, that is, by praying in the soul ” you edify yourself, but your nous is unproductive [cf. I Corinthians 14:14], for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God”s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile nous five words in the church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private with a tongue [cf., I Corinthians 14:19], surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd”s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.” St. Nikitas Stithatos, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 4, pp. 169-170.
From “Patristic Theology – The University Lectures of Father John Romanides”, (Thessaloniki, Greece: Uncut Mountain Press, 2008), pp. 19-23.