Posts Tagged mysticism
Isaac of Nineveh – 7th century ascetic and mystic, born in modern-day Qatar, was made Bishop of Nineveh between 660-680. Here he speaks of the importance of silence in monastic life.
“Love silence above all things. It brings thee near the fruit which the tongue is too weak to interpret. At first we compel ourselves to be silent. Then from our silence something is born which draws us toward silence. May God grant thee to perceive that which is born of silence. If thou beginnest with this discipline, I do not know how much light will dawn in thee through it. Concerning what is said about the admirable Arsenius: that Fathers and brethren came to see him, but that he sat with them in silence and dismissed them in silence – do not think, my brother, that this happened by the action of his will alone, though in the beginning he had to compel himself. After some time some delight is born in the heart from the exercise of this service and by force it draws the body towards remaining in silence.”
“If thou placest all labors of this discipline [solitary life] on one side and silence on the other, silence will outweigh them.”
~St. Isaac of Nineveh, from Ascetical Treatises 65
Evagrius Ponticus (c.346-399) – was originally from Pontus, on the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is modern-day Turkey. He served as a Lector under St. Basil the Great and was made Deacon and Archdeacon under St. Gregory of Nazianzus. In order to deal with his personal sin, Evagrius retreated to the Egyptian desert and joined a cenobitic community of Desert Fathers. As a classically trained scholar, Evagrius recorded the sayings of the desert monks and developed his own theological writings.
In AD 375, Evagrius developed a comprehensive list of eight evil “thoughts” (λογισμοι; logísmoi), or eight terrible temptations, from which all sinful behavior springs. This list was intended to serve a diagnostic purpose: to help his readers (fellow desert monks) identify the process of temptation, their own strengths and weaknesses, and the remedies available for overcoming temptation.
The “thoughts” (logísmoi) that concern Evagrius (cf., Skemmata 40–62) are the so-called “eight evil thoughts”. The basic list appears again and again in his writings:
1. Gluttony – (γαστριμαργία; gastrimargía);
2. Lust or Fornication – (πορνεία; porneía);
3. Avarice or Love of money – (φιλαργυρία; philarguría);
4. Dejection or Sadness – (λύπη; lúpe);
5. Anger – (ὀργή; orgé);
6. Despondency or Listlessness – (ἀκηδία; akedía);
7. Vainglory – (κενοδοξία; kenodoxía);
8. Pride – (ὑπερηφανία; huperephanía).
The order in which Evagrius lists the “thoughts” is deliberate. Firstly, it reflects the general development of spiritual life: beginners contend against the grosser and more materialistic thoughts (gluttony, lust, avarice); those in the middle of the journey are confronted by the more inward temptations (dejection, anger, despondency); the more advanced, already initiated into contemplation, still need to guard themselves against the most subtle and “spiritual” of the thoughts (vainglory and pride). Secondly, the list of eight thoughts reflects the threefold division of the human person into the appetitive (επιθυμητικόν; epithymitikón), the incensive (θυμικόν; thymikón), and the intelligent (λογιστικόν; logistikón) aspects. The first part of the soul is the epithymikón, the “appetitive” aspect of the soul. This is the part of the soul that desires things, such as food, water, shelter, sexual relations, relationships with people, and so on. The second part of the soul is the thymikón, which is usually translated the “incensive” aspect. This translation is a bit misleading. The thymikón is indeed the part of the soul that gets angry, but it also has to do with strong feelings of any kind. The third part of the soul, the logistikón, is the “intelligent” or “rational” aspect of the soul. The part of the logistikón that thinks and reasons is called the diánoia (διάνοια), but it is not as important to Evagrius and the other Greek Fathers as the nous (νου̃ς), the “mind”, or to be very precise, the part of the mind that knows when something is true just upon perceiving it.
Gluttony, lust, and avarice are more especially linked with the appetitive aspect; dejection, anger, and despondency, with the incensive power; vainglory and pride, with the intelligent aspect.
Evagrius’ disciple, St. John Cassian, transmitted this list of the eight “thoughts” to the West with some modification. Further changes were made by St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome (AD 590 – 604) and these came down to the West through the Middle Ages as the “Seven Deadly Sins” of vainglory, envy, anger, dejection, avarice, gluttony, and lust.
Fr. Andrew Louth is Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, England. In the last chapter of his book, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Dr. Louth writes the following about “Universal Salvation” :
“Origen hoped for the ‘restoration of all’, apokatastasis panton… His conviction did not simply rest on a philosophical belief that ‘the end is like the beginning’ a principle he affirmed several times in On First Principles… There is a deeper reason for Origen’s conviction of final restoration for all: for him it is inconceivable that Christ is to remain in sorrow for all eternity on account of the failure of any rational creature to respond to his love and benefit from his sacrifice.
Whereas in Western theology, such a conviction rapidly dies out, in Orthodox theology hope in universal salvation, based on a conviction of the boundlessness of God’s love, has never gone away. St. Gregory of Nyssa interprets the words of the apostle Paul’s teaching that God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15.28) to mean the ‘complete annihilation of evil.’ St. Maximos the Confessor likewise holds out the hope of the salvation of all. The grounds for this are principally the long-suffering love of God for all creation, and also the conviction that evil is without substance, but is rather a corruption of distortion of what is good. These two motives find striking expression in St Maximos’ contemporary, St. Isaac the Syrian, who asserts that,
‘there exists within the Creator a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting… No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernatural kingdom’
and then adds, quoting Diodore of Tarsus, ‘not even the immense wickedness of the demons can overcome the measure of God’s goodness.’ The pain of hell is the result of love: ‘those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love… For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment.’ Evil and hell cannot be eternal: ‘Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.’
This conviction that there is nothing outside God’s loving care finds expression in the prayers of the Orthodox Church. In the service of kneeling at Vespers on the evening of Pentecost, we pray ‘for those who are held fast in hell, granting us great hopes that there will be sent down from you to the departed repose and comfort from the pains which hold them’. This hope, amounting to a conviction, that there is nothing beyond the infinite love of God, that there is no limit to our hope in the power of his love, at least regards as a legitimate hope the universal salvation of all rational creatures, maybe even of the devil himself and his demons. Such a belief has found its defenders among modern Orthodox theologians, such as Olivier Clément, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It was also the conviction of one of the greatest Orthodox saints of recent times, St. Silouan of Athos, manifest in a conversation with another Athonite hermit, who declared ‘with evident satisfaction’,
‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in hell in everlasting fire’.
Obviously upset, the Staretz said,
‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire – would you feel happy?’
‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault’, said the hermit.
The Staretz answered with a sorrowful countenance:
‘Love could not bear that’, he said, ‘We must pray for all’.”
Kyriacos C. Markides (born November 19, 1942) is a professor of sociology at the University of Maine. He has written several books on Christian mysticism including Mountain of Silence, Gifts of the Desert, and Inner River. The following excerpt is from the book Gifts of the Desert, and gives what I consider an enlightened interpretation of John 14:6b. The context of the excerpt below is a QA session following a lecture on Eastern Orthodox spirituality.
“Just as I was about to thank the participants for their attentiveness and end the workshop, a woman who had earlier identified herself as a “born again Christian” raised her hand with marked intensity.
‘Christ taught that only through him can one go to the Father. How should we understand this statement?’ Given my audience, it was the most challenging question I faced.
I had the feeling that she needed affirmation for her beliefs and consciously or unconsciously wished to prompt me into declaring that only Christians will inherit heaven. Feeling somewhat uneasy, I reflected for a few seconds. I knew that, whatever answer I could possibly come up with, someone might feel offended or excluded. ‘Furthermore,’ I added, ‘I am not a biblical scholar who can offer an authoritative exegesis of scripture. I am certainly not a theologian.’ Inwardly, I asked for guidance as I placed my left hand in my pocket and fiddled with a komboschini [a string of black knots made out of wool that the Athonite monks use for ceaseless prayer]. Father Maximos had given it to me after pulling it off his own hand. It offered me a sense of security at that moment.
‘Look,’ I replied finally. ‘There are two possible ways to answer your question. The first is to interpret that passage in the New Testament literally, the way many Christians today would interpret it. In this sense, nobody who is not a baptized Christian can be saved. Some denominations would even make the claim that only through their specific community can a human being find salvation. This is, let us say, an ‘exoteric’ belief shared widely among fundamentalist Christians. It is a belief, however, that divides people, raising serious questions about God’s fairness and love for all his creatures. The typical objection is this: Does it mean that the billions of people who are not born Christians and who may have never heard of Christ will be lost for eternity? From a more esoteric, ‘inner Christian’ perspective such a conclusion seems misguided, to put it mildly. It denies the possibility of salvation to the overwhelming majority of the human race. Surely this could not have been Christ’s intention when he made that statement.’
I was encouraged by the facial expressions of the participants and continued. ‘Why then don’t we make an attempt to interpret that statement in a more inclusive way? Why don’t we try to look at it in terms of its possible inner meaning? I believe the Gospel of John offers us guidelines to answer questions like yours. Christ, according to the Gospel, is ‘the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world’ [John 1:9]. Do you agree?’ After she nodded I continued. ‘Well, that says it all. Every human being has the Christ within his or her very nature. Furthermore, we are told that Christ is total and unconditional Love. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to conclude that whoever wishes to go to the Father, i.e., God, must attain the state of absolute and selfless love that Jesus embodied? If Christ is Love, then anyone who reaches the state of purification reaches the Father. No one can go to the Father, therefore, outside of total and selfless love. This is, I believe, the true spirit of the Christian message and this is what I understand the great saints of Christianity have taught either explicitly or implicitly.”
Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou) , Ph. D., is a disciple of Elder Sophrony, who was a disciple of St. Silouan of Mount Athos. Presently, Fr. Zacharias is a monk in the Monastery founded by Elder Sophrony: The Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, Essex, England.
“The heart is within our chest. When we speak of the heart, we speak of our spiritual heart which coincides with the fleshly one; but when man receives illumination and sanctification, then his whole being becomes a heart. The heart is synonymous with the soul, with the spirit; it is a spiritual place where man finds his unity, where his nous is enthroned when it has been healed of the passions. Not only his nous, but his whole body too is concentrated there. St. Gregory Palamas says that the heart is the very body of our body, a place where man’s whole being becomes like a knot. When mind [rational faculty] and heart [noetic faculty] unite, man possesses his [whole] nature and there is no dispersion and division in him any more. That is the sanctified state of the man who is healed.
On the contrary, in our natural and fallen state, we are divided: we think one thing with our mind, we feel another with our senses, we desire yet another with our heart. However, when mind and heart are united by the grace of God, then man has only one thought — the thought of God; he has only one desire — the desire for God; and only one sensation — the noetic sensation of God.” ~ Very Rev. Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou)
Dr. Norris J. Chumley is on the faculty of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, in the Kanbar Institute for Undergraduate Film and Television. He is also the author of several books including, “Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence” and “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”, a companion book to the feature film and public television special.
“The practice of silence of the Greek, hesychia, the withdrawal from the external world with focus on inward stillness, contemplation, and prayer, and hesychasm, the later Athonite movement of prayer and bodily positioning in Orthodox monasticism, is a method of experiencing God predicated on the belief that a direct spiritual experience and union with God is possible. Long lines of hesychasts, from the second century to the present day, spoke and wrote about the fruits of their experiences.” ~ From the book Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence. 2014
The following excerpt is from an anonymous 1851 manuscript called The Watchful Mind. It was penned by an unknown monk on Mount Athos, the “Holy Mountain”, the continuous home of the “hesychastic” contemplative Christian prayer tradition for more than a thousand years.
“Beloved, when you wish to pray noetically from your depths, let the prayer of your heart imitate the sound of the cicada. When the cicada chirps, it does so in two ways. At first, it softly chirps five to ten times, but then its ending chirps are more pronounced, drawn out, and melodic. And so, beloved when you pray noetically within your heart, pray in the following manner: First say, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” about ten times, forcefully from your heart and clearly with your intellect from your depths, one time with each breath. Restrain your breath a little each time you say the prayer as your heart meditates from its depth on the words. Once you have said the prayer in this fashion ten times or more until that place within you has become warm where you meditate upon the prayer, then say the prayer more forcefully, with greater tension and forcefulness of heart, just as the cicada ends its song with a more pronounced and melodic voice.
This prayer, which is referred to principally as noetic prayer, is also called prayer of the heart and watchful prayer. When you say the prayer with your intellect and repeat it mystically within you in stillness, using your inner voice, it is referred to as noetic prayer. When you say the prayer from the depths of your heart with great tension and inner force, then it is referred to as prayer of the heart. It is referred to as watchful prayer when, because of your prayer or because of the infinite goodness of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit visits your soul and touches your heart, or you are granted a divine vision, upon which your mind’s eye becomes watchful and fixed.
When you practice noetic prayer and reverently repeat it as you should, and the grace of the Holy Spirit visits your soul, then the name of Christ that you are meditating upon with your intellect becomes greatly consoling and sweet to your mind and soul, so much that you could never repeat it enough.
When you practice prayer of the heart and the grace of God touches your heart (that is, when your heart happens upon it), causing it to conceive compunction, as the Lady Theotokos [“God Bearer”, the Virgin Mary] conceived the Word of God by the Holy Spirit, then the name of divine Jesus, and all of Holy Scripture, becomes ineffable sweetness to the heart, and every spiritual notion of the heart (if I may put it this way) becomes a sweet flowing river of divine compunction that sweetens the heart and wondrously makes it fervent in eros and love for it Creator and God.
Sometimes, when you practice prayer of the heart with pain of an enfeebled heart and with sorrow of a humbled soul, then your soul clearly feels the consolation and visitation of the Lord. This is what the prophet says: “The Lord is near those who are brokenhearted.” The Lord invisibly draws near you when you crush your heart with the prayer, as we said, in order to show you some mystical revelation. He shows you some vision in order to make you more fervent in the spiritual work of your heart.
And so, beloved, when, by the grace of Christ, your soul beholds some vision and is filled with compunction because of your prayer, then you understand that watchful prayer is nothing other than divine grace; it is the noetic and divine vision your mind beholds, your intellect firmly fixed upon, and your soul watches. And that the divine grace of the Holy Spirit visited your soul, gently touched your heart, and ineffably sweetened your mind, only you can understand and comprehend within yourself, because compunction ceaselessly from your heart as from an ever-flowing spring, while your mind experiences an inexpressible sweetness and your soul consolation. At that moment your soul possesses some spiritual boldness and mystically supplicates God, its Fashioner and Creator saying, “Remember me, Oh Lord, in your Kingdom,” or some other verse of Holy Scripture.
This holy and pure supplication that takes place within the soul has such power that it penetrates the heavens and reaches the throne of the Holy Trinity, before whom it stands like sweet-smelling and fragrant incense. The prophet said about this prayer, “Let my prayer arise as incense before you.” The God in Trinity receives this holy supplication in an inexpressible and wondrous manner, and the supplication in turn receives the fruit of the Holy Spirit. This fruit, received reverently and modestly, is offered and sent to the soul as a priceless and heavenly gift from the God of all as a pledge of the future kingdom and adoption. The soul that receives the heavenly and divine fruit of the Holy Spirit because of its supplication, that is, from pure prayer, acquires divine love, spiritual joy, peace of heart, and great patience during the hardships and temptations of this age, excellence and goodness in everything, unwavering faith, Christ’s meekness, and passion-killing self-control. All of these are called “fruit of the Holy Spirit.” To our God be glory and power unto ages of ages. Amen.” ~ The Watchful Mind, pp 123-125.