Posts Tagged The “Nous” (series)
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.
The following is an excerpt from Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (b. 1934) in his Introduction to On the Prayer of Jesus , by Ignatius Brianchaninov, Kallistos Ware, Father Lazarus.
“Ignatius [Brianchaninov] distinguishes three main stages or levels on this journey inwards, which he describes as “oral”, “mental”, and “cordial”; that is to say, prayer of the lips, prayer of the mind, and prayer of the heart”.
“The third degree of prayer is attained when not only does the mind or intellect [nous] recite the Jesus Prayer with full attentiveness, but it also descends into the heart and is united with it. In this way our invocation [of Lord, Jesus, Christ, Son of God] becomes prayer of the heart, or more exactly prayer of the mind in the heart. When the hesychast tradition speaks of the “heart” in this context, the word is to be understood in its full Hebraic sense, as found in Scripture: it signifies, not merely the emotions and affections, but the moral and spiritual center of the total person, the ground and focal point of our created being, the deep self. Prayer of the heart, then, is no longer prayer of the faculty alone, but prayer of the entire person, spirit, soul, and body together. It is precisely at this stage that prayer becomes not just something that we do but something that we are – something, moreover, that we are not just from time to time but continually. In this way St. Paul’s injunction becomes a realized fact: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Nor is this all. Since the heart is not only the center of our created personhood but also the place where Christ and the Holy Spirit dwell within us, prayer of the heart is not so much something that we do as something that God does; not so much my prayer as the prayer of Christ in me (Gal. 2:20).”
Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, born in Greece in 1945, is one of the greatest living Christian theologians. The influence of fellow theologian, Fr. John Romanides, the study of the patristic texts (particularly those of the neptic hesychast Fathers of the Philokalia), many years of studying St. Gregory Pálamas, association with the monks of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos in northern Greece), and many years of pastoral experience, all brought him to the realization that Christian theology is a science of the healing of humankind’s fallen nature and damaged nous and that the early Church Fathers can be of immense help to modern society, so disturbed and afflicted as it is by its many internal and existential problems.
“In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Lord showed us several truths. As soon as the Samaritan saw the man who had fallen among thieves who had wounded him and left him half-dead, he “had compassion on him and went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn and took care of him” (Luk. 10:33f). Christ treated the wounded man and brought him to the inn, to the Hospital which is the Church. Here Christ is presented as a physician who heals man’s illnesses, and the Church as a Hospital.” ~ Orthodox Psychotherapy, p.27.
“What’s a “nous”?”
In the last 500 years, since about the time of the Protestant Reformation (16th century) and Enlightenment (17th century), Western culture has been obsessed with the rational, reasoning, logical mind. It has become so dominant in our thinking, that it is now the sole measure of human intelligence. Our fixation with the rational mind is not without foundation. The power of the rational mind has been the engine that gave us the scientific method of inquiry; it brought us the Industrial and Scientific revolutions; the Information Age. It has largely shaped the modern world. So, in modern society, when we speak of “mind” or “intelligence” we mean one thing and one thing only: the rational, reasoning human mind.
For Christians trying to understand the New Testament (originally written in Greek) and other early Christian spiritual writings (also predominantly in Greek), the exclusive association of “mind” and “intelligence” with man’s rational, reasoning faculties is problematic. In Christian spiritual tradition, the rational, reasoning faculty of man is not the only definition of “mind” and “intelligence”. In fact, it is not even considered the highest or most developed definition of “mind” and “intelligence”. That distinction belongs to the “nous”.
What? What’s a “nous”? I’ll bet most Westerners, even mature Christians, have never heard the word “nous”. The word “nous” (pronounced “nooce”) is Greek (νοϋς) and can be found throughout the Greek New Testament (it appears explicitly 22 times in the NT) and in scores of other early Christian (Patristic) writings.
The term “nous” can be thought of as a perceptive or receptive ability to hear God’s voice and to, perhaps, experience Him in His energies. It has often been translated simply as “mind”, as in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he wrote, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind [nous], that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (12:2)
More next post.
“…the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’…”
The word “nous” has been translated into English as “mind”, “intellect”, and a variety of other meanings as well. The word “mind” was the choice made by Bishop Kallistos Ware (now Metropolitan Kallistos) and others in their translation of the Philokalia (the collection of Christian mystic writings from the 4th to the 15th centuries). But our modern conception of “mind” does not really capture the meaning of “nous”. Some use the word “intellect” as an equivalent. This also misses the nuanced meaning of “nous”. The problem is that we in the modern world only think of “mind” and “intellect” in terms of our rational, reasoning faculties. We can start to get a sense of the real meaning of “nous” from the definition contained in the Philokalia itself. Here, it translates “nous” as “intellect”, but you can see that it is clearly different from our contemporary idea of “intellect”:
“the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God or the inner essences or principles … of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason…, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect [nous] does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St Isaac the Syrian). The intellect [nous] dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart… The intellect [nous] is the organ of contemplation…, the ‘eye of the heart’ (Makarian Homilies).”
A lot of confusion surrounded the term “nous”, clearly. As a result, many secular philosophers have used it to refer to quite different concepts. “Nous” has been used to refer to anything from personal mental qualities or abilities all the way to qualities ascribed to God or the cosmos.
“… the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy.”
Originally, “nous” was understood by ancient (pre-Christian) Greek philosophers, most notably Plato and Aristotle, as man’s highest intellectual faculty. By intellectual faculty, the ancient Greeks did not mean the ability to reason things out to a logical conclusion, but rather the intuitive and immediate grasp of the reality of things. To them, “nous” was more of a direct contact between mind and truth.
The Church Fathers borrowed the term “nous” from Greek philosophy and gave it a distinctive Christian meaning. They used it to refer to the noetic energy that functions in the heart of a person that is spiritually healthy. The “nous” can be used to explain another borrowed concept from philosophy, the Logos Doctrine of the church. Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr used the spermatikos logos (“seed” of the Word) to explain the universal indwelling presence of the Logos, the Word, or Son of God the Father within every human being (cf. the prologue to the Gospel of John, vv. 1:1-18). The idea of the “nous” also evolved over time among the Fathers. Early use of the term can be ambiguous as some early Fathers used the word “nous” when they were referring to the reasoning rational mind.
According to Orthodox theologian Fr. Michael Pomazansky (in his book, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology), it was the teaching of the overwhelming majority of the Church Fathers that the phrase ‘Image of God’ (cf. Genesis 1:26) refers to man’s soul, more precisely to the highest faculty of the soul, the “nous”. So, man is the “Image” by virtue of the spiritual nature of his “nous”. One common comparison made among patristic writers illustrates the relationship between body and the healthy “nous”. The analogy is that of the body being similar to a horse and the “nous” to the rider guiding and controlling the animal to move in the direction he would have it go.
” As a consequence of the “Fall”, the “nous” became dissipated and diseased…”
The “nous” in all of humankind was severely injured, diseased, and damaged in the “Adamic Fall” (The “Fall” in the Garden of Eden). The “Fall” is seen as the misuse of free will; of focusing on oneself rather than on God for guidance, wisdom and worship. Free will gave man the right to choose. And choose he did. In the “Fall”, humans shifted their focus from God to themselves (and any number of other idols). As a consequence of the “Fall”, the “nous” became dissipated and diseased, overwhelmed with increasing concerns for individual survival and the needs and desires of the body in the physical, material world. The “nous” became estranged from God’s grace and humankind’s whole nature became sick. This sickness was handed on to later descendants as the inheritance of ancestral sin.
The Orthodox do not understand the “Fall” in legal terms, as Western Christianity does, but rather in medical terms. When Paul says in Romans 5:19, “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners,” it is understood in a medical sense, not a legal one. In other words, as a result of one man’s sin, human nature became sick.
The Incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ is seen as a therapeutic (Greek therapeuo) mission of love from God to humankind in order to heal and restore our fallen sick souls. The key to this is the healing and restoration of the “nous”, the “eye of the heart”. Jesus possessed a complete human nature, not only on the lower side (body) but also on the higher spiritual side, the “nous”. His perfect human nature broke the grip of sin on fallen human nature, opening the possibility of restoring the diseased “nous” of every human being to its spiritual pre-Fall state.
In his book, Orthodox Psychotherapy: the Science of the Fathers, Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos (now Metropolitan Hierotheos) quotes Saint Maximus the Confessor (7th century) as saying “The nous functions in accordance with nature when it keeps the passions under control, contemplates the inner essences of created beings, and abides with God.” The “nous” is changed by every conceptual image that it accepts. When the “nous” is in a fallen state, confusion is created in the whole of the spiritual organism of man. In this “fallen” state, the “nous” needs therapy/purification.
“The aim is to restore the pre-Fall health of the ‘nous’…”
St. John of Damascus (8th century) says that the “nous” is the eye of the soul. The essence of the soul is the heart (kardia). The “nous” is that part of the soul that sees things most clearly and so it is important that it be purified of any impediment. When the healthy “nous”, the purest noetic power of the soul, is returned to its rightful place in the heart, it is then again capable of experiencing God’s presence through grace. It is this unification or return of the “nous” to the heart that constitutes the cure of the “nous”.
In “Orthodox Psychotherapy“, Hierotheos (Vlachos) speaks of the Church as a hospital which exists to heal those who are sick with sin. That is, to restore to health the diseased and dissipated “nous”, made sick by the “Fall”. The first step is to guard and protect the “nous” so that it can realize its origin in the “Image of God”. Then it can begin to be purified and restored to its intended role of leading the entire human being in “attaining to the likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26), or “deification” (theosis). In order to restore the diseased “nous” to this healthy state, it must first pass through a stage of purification. The church’s therapeutic work takes place in this stage of purification.
The “nous” can only be purified with the help of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, it is imperative that every believer be baptized in the Holy Spirit (cf. St. Symeon the New Theologian) and experience His indwelling presence. Through a regimen of self-discipline called ascesis (borrowed from the Greek word askesis, meaning athletic exercise or training), the “nous” can be purified and eventually healed. This only happens as a result of our active cooperation (synergeía) in this work with the Holy Spirit. The first result of this healing of the “nous” is a state which is called dispassion (apatheia) or a release of the “nous” from the influence and distraction of human passions and emotion. Real theology (i.e., a mystical experience of God) is another result, as are an authentic self-knowledge and an accompanying sense of freedom and joy.
“In Illumination, a vision of God is granted to the now-healed “nous”.”
When the “nous” is healed and restored, it is no longer dissipated among all the various senses and distractions of this world but is able instead to retire within itself to attain to a vision of God (theoria). A purified “nous” can be illuminated by grace, seeing the glory of Christ reflected in itself and seeing spiritual things clearly. In Illumination, a vision of God is granted to the now-healed “nous”. This vision of God is of His manifested energy (energeía), not His essence (oúsia), which remains beyond human conception and unknowable.
This is the spiritual development process of the early church: purification (katharsis), followed by illumination (theoria), culminating in deification (theosis). These three stages are the purpose of the mystical life of the church.
The manner of healing the “nous” is outlined by Hierotheos (Vlachos) in “Orthodox Psychotherapy“: First, the guarding of the “nous”; second, the purifying of the “nous”; and third, the returning of the “nous” to the heart through the practice (ascesis) of repentance and noetic contemplative prayer so that the “nous” might finally be illuminated by the “divine light” of God’s grace.
This noetic contemplative prayer is the Primitive Christian Prayer tradition of Jesus, Paul and the early church. This, Hierotheos assures us, is the common experience and teaching of the Church Fathers. They may have sometimes differed from one another as they sought to describe this common experience, but the variations in how they expressed themselves should be seen as just that. The true problem may not even be in their expression but in our interpretation; fragmented, locked into a rational modern worldview, and lacking in spiritual understanding as we are in comparison with them.
In closing this discussion of the “nous”, I return us to the point I made at the beginning of this series. Modern Western culture has virtually deified the rational, reasoning mind and intellect over the past 500 years. So thorough is our fixation and obsession with the rational mind, that any other conception of mind or intellect, such as “nous”, is virtually unknown, even within the church.
It is no wonder that we operate at such a low level of spiritual consciousness. But, now you know about your “nous”, the ‘eye of your soul’. You also now know about the 2,000 year Christian tradition of the healing of the “nous” and “attaining to the likeness of God”. So, what will you do now that you’ve discovered your “nous”?