"As out of many thousands barely one can be found who has fulfilled the commandments and all that is lawful and has attained to purity of soul; so among thousands one can hardly be found who through great efforts of pure persevering prayer, has been given to achieve it, to break the bounds of this life and to gain possession of that mystery, for many have failed to achieve pure prayer, and only few have reached it. But a man who has reached the mystery which comes after it and is beyond it, through the grace of Christ, can hardly be found in many generations." (St. Isaac the Syrian)
To grasp the true meaning of Christian mysticism, one must study the earliest Eastern Church mystics carefully, for it is in the light of their experience that later deviations from the norm can be properly evaluated. There were some aberrations among them, of course, but nothing to be compared with the false and foolish mixtures found in Europe in all of the Middle Ages (700-1450 A.D.).
The mystics of the Eastern Church included the Church Fathers, for in those days the theologians were among the most spiritual of Christians, and the phenomena of mysticism was evident in all levels of clergy, monks, and laity. To have the proper perspective of the study therefore, we shall consider those closest to Christ and the apostles in space and time, and then extend consideration to those who were more remote; realizing, of course, that those closest to our own time were farthest from Christ's time.
Visions were practically non-existent in the mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church! Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were to be deplored and dismissed with whenever possible, and visions and ecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions to prayer! Those experiences which later mystics sought after and prized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians as little more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barely tolerated.
In the Eastern Church, contemplation consisted not merely in negation and renunciation (the emphasis in Western Catholicism) but in a deifying union with God's Spirit in an experience of spiritual illumination after all intellectual activity had ceased. This emphasis on deification, called "theosis," had many definite and practical activist applications to ordinary life in the world. "If it were possible for me to find a leper," said one of the Desert Fathers, "and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this is perfect love." Such was the true nature of theosis, or deification. (Apophthegmata, P.G. lxv, Agatho 26.)
Background and Nature of the Hesychast Controversy
The hesychasts (from Greek "hesychia," meaning quiet and solitude) were championed by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), Archbishop of Thessalonica. His teachings were confirmed by two councils held at Constantinople in 1341 and 1351, which, although local and not ecumenical, possess a doctrinal authority even today in the Orthodox Church scarcely inferior to the Seven General Councils themselves. Palamas's teachings must be understood before one can even begin to understand the tradition of the Eastern mystics, whose position and practice he merely articulated and defended.
Barlaam, a Calabrian monk, (i.e., from southwestern Italy opposite Sicily) who adhered to the rational methods of Western scholasticism, ridiculed the Eastern monks, calling them "omphalopsyches," meaning those whose soul is in their navels! His lack of appreciation for the "Jesus Prayer" of the Hesychasts has been responsible for a considerable lack of appreciation in the West of the significance of specific forms of Eastern monastic spirituality. Some modern writers like Graef (1965) confuse the "Jesus Prayer" with the "ZIKR" or "remembrance" of the Mohammedan faith ("There is no god but Allah...") and see no essential difference between the Sufi sect of Mohammedanism with the Christian hesychasts of the fourteenth century. This reflects not only a disregard for theological distinctions, but indicates a superficial examination of psychological differences too, probably due to a lack of familiarity with source material of the Hesychasts themselves.
Barlaam's views were influenced not only by Scholasticism but by the teaching of the Greek Father, Dionysius the Areopagite, who held that God was "totally Other." Barlaam reasoned that God could only be known indirectly and a direct experience such as the hesychasts claimed was clearly impossible. He seized upon the bodily exercises which the hesychasts used as evidence of their grossly materialistic view of prayer and to bolster his derision of their "belly-button theology." All of the Eastern mystics believed that the supreme spiritual experience would be a vision of the Divine and Uncreated Light which was identical with the Jewish Shekinah and the light witnessed by the three disciples which surrounded Jesus on Mt. Tabor at His transfiguration. This completely scandalized Barlaam, who maintained that God's essence was invisible and therefore any light the hesychasts saw was a natural, created light of their making.
Gregory Palamas proved himself to be a creative theologian of the first rank by explaining that there is a difference between God's essence and God's energies. St. Basil the Great had written (Letter 234, I), "We know our God from his energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to His essence. For His energies come down to us, but His essence remains unapproachable." Thus, Gregory explained God's transcendence in terms of His essence, and His immanence in terms of His energies. It is by means of His energies that God dwells with men; His energies are synonymous with His grace. God exists in His energies, and therefore grace is not merely a "gift' or an object God bestows, but it is Himself communicating Himself to men in His energies. Even though he believed that "God is not a nature, for He is above all nature; He is not a being, for He is above all beings... No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature, or nearness to it," (Homily 16, P.G. cli, 193), Gregory still maintained that saints were "deified' by the grace of God through direct experience. They know God, not in His essence, but in His energies.
Because God is light (1 John 1:5), the experience of His energies was said to take the form of light. The hesychast's vision is not of a mere created light, but the Light of the Godhead Itself, identical with the Uncreated Light that surrounded the transfigured Christ on Tabor. Even though this Light is not a sensible or material light, it can be seen by a man whose senses as well as his soul have been transformed.
This unique mind-body philosophy of the Eastern Christians is also important to note, for it played a large part in their practice of mysticism.
Importance of Mind-Body Views
The Platonic view of man as a soul imprisoned within a body was for a time incorporated into Christian speculative thought through the writing of Evagrius of Pontus (d. 399) and Origen of Alexandria (d. 253 or 254), but it was later ignored in favor of a more Hebrew view of man as an animated body. The difference between considering man as an animated body (like Adam, for whom God first created a body out of the dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisoned soul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) has a subtle influence on one's understanding of redemption and even of prayer. Origen had given the outline for mystical theology with some Platonic influence, but this was balanced by the teachings of the Macarian Homilies (usually attributed to St. Macarius of Egypt, 300-390 A.D., but perhaps the work of an unknown writer of the fifth century). In the Macarian writings, the more Biblical emphasis on the whole man was re-established. The pagan Greek emphasis made prayer an activity of the mind and intellect, whereas the Hebrew tradition followed by the hesychasts made prayer a function of the whole man: mind, emotions, will, and even body!
The "Prayer of the Heart" or the "Jesus Prayer"
Whereas Evagrius and Origen employed the word "mind," Macarian authors used the word "heart," which was not only more Biblical but more in keeping with an appreciation of man's total being. Mystics of the mid-fifth and sixth centuries, such as Diodochus of Photice and St. John Climacus of Mt. Sinai, wrote of the "Prayer of the Heart," using the term "heart" in the biblical and Macarian sense. This "Prayer of the Heart" is also known in Orthodox circles as the "Jesus Prayer," and consists of the sentence "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." This is progressively shortened to the phrase "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy," and ultimately to its shortest form, "Lord, have mercy."
This prayer was prayed by the hesychasts with attention to breathing and posture. The recommended posture was with the head bowed, chin on chest, and eyes fixed on the heart. The obvious parallel between this method of prayer and the technique of Hindu Yoga is interesting, but should not be equated by any means. The rationale behind the breathing and postures are different in that the hesychasts were more frankly hypnotic, i.e., they admittedly used it as an aid to concentration, whereas the yogis embellished the whole procedure with a theory of chakras to justify it.
Breathing and posture were associated with the "Jesus Prayer" by the twelfth century, but it was minimized as a technique to attain mystical experience; the yogis never modified, much less repudiated, their methods. Thus it would seem that the "mystic consciousness" of the hesychasts and the yogis must be distinct, for if the hesychasts had truly valued yogic consciousness, they would have stayed with breathing and posture as an indispensable part of their method, which they did not. This seems to be a distinction of great importance, but the author has never seen it even mentioned, much less expounded.
The "Prayer of the Heart" must be understood as a prayer of the total man. Using the term "heart" in the Hebraic sense, the earliest Christian mystics meant that prayer was not merely a mental activity, nor merely a physical activity, but rather it was both. Prayer was the total response of man to God, and one did not pray merely with the intelligence, or merely with the lips. Through discipline, prayer became a spontaneous offering of the whole being of man. Attention was given to the postures of prayer, whether standing, kneeling, or prostrations. This was not a materialistic view, but a natural and logical expression of their well-thought-out view of the nature of man.
Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, lived in the reign of Andronicus, the second Paleaologus, about 1324 A.D. he was the spiritual teacher of Gregory Palamas. One of his teachings, typical of the mind-body emphasis of the hesychasts, was: "Do not neglect kneeling. Kneeling represents falling into sin, implying also confession of sin. Rising up from the knees represents repentance, suggesting a vow of virtuous life. Each time you kneel make a mental invocation of Christ, casting yourself body and soul at the feet of the Lord, to incline the God of souls and bodies favorably towards you." His emphasis on "body and soul" was no mere figure of speech; he intended it to be applied quite literally.
The practice of the "Prayer of the Heart" or the "Jesus Prayer" dates from the start of the Christian era and has been kept unchanged through the centuries in the East. The writers who expounded its methods in the fourteenth century were only formalizing a practice and teaching that had been handed down intact by tradition through the monastics of the Church.
Source for Teachings of the Desert Fathers
These teachings were preserved for modern students through such books as the Greek PHILOKALIA, which was compiled in the eighteenth century by Macarius of Corinth (1731-1805) and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos, 1748-1809) and first published in Venice in 1882. It was translated into Slavonic, sometimes referred to as "Church Russian," a Church language understood by all Slavic peoples, by Paissy Velichkovsky (d. 1794) under the title DOBROTOLUBIYE. This publication had a great influence in the rebirth of Russian monasticism and spirituality. The Greek text of the PHILOKALIA was translated into Russian by Bishop Theophas the Recluse (d. 1894), and it is from that text of the DOBROTOLUBIYE that the English translation was made.
The following excerpts from the PHILOKALIA indicate the trend of the spiritual thought of these great mystics, ascetics, and saints of the Church in the Near East. St. Basil the Great wrote:
"Silence is the beginning of purification of the soul.... A mind undistracted by external things and not dispersed through the senses among worldly things, returns to itself.... As the Lord dwells not in temples built by human hands, neither does He dwell in any imaginings or mental structures (fantasies) which present themselves (to the attention) and surround the corrupt soul like a wall, so that it is powerless to look at the truth direct but continues to cling on to mirrors and fortune-telling....
"The prophets received images in their mind through a certain ineffable power, when they had their mind pure and undistracted; and they heard the word of God as though uttered within them.... Prophets saw visions by the actions of the Spirit, Who imprinted images in minds sovereign over themselves....
"Utterly inexpressible and indescribable is Divine beauty blazing like lightning; neither word can express nor ear receive it. If we name the brightness of dawn, or the clearness of moonlight, or the brilliance of sunshine, none of it is worthy to be compared with the glory of true light, and is farther removed therefrom than the deepest night and the most terrible darkness from the clear light of midday. When this beauty, invisible to physical eyes and accessible only to soul and thought, illumined some saint, wounding him with unbearable yearning desire, then, disgusted by earthly life, he cried: 'Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!'...'My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God'....
"Oppressed by this life, as by a prison, how irresistible was the striving towards God of those whose soul was touched by Divine yearning. Owing to their insatiable desire to contemplate Divine beauty, they prayed that the sight of God's beauty should last for all eternity....
"He who has become a lover of God and is wishing to participate, however imperfectly, in the passionlessness of God, in spiritual sanctity, serenity, quietness and meekness, and to taste the joy and gladness born of them, must strive to lead his thoughts far away from every material passion which may trouble the soul, and to contemplate Divine things with a clear and unshaded eye, insatiably enjoying the Divine light. A man who has implanted this habit and disposition in his soul becomes akin to God, in as far as it is possible for him to be like God, and is loved and welcomed by Him as one who has courageously undertaken this great and difficult work, and has become capable of conversing with God in spite of his nature being compounded with matter, by sending to Him his thought pure and stripped of any admixture of carnal passions..."
St. Basil the Great emphasized that God does not dwell in man's fantasies or imagination any more than He dwells in a building; therefore, the practice of "mental picturing" of Divine things is to be discouraged.
Gregory the Theologian said: "God demands the following three virtues from every man who is baptized: for the soul, true faith; for the body, chastity; for the tongue, truth.... It is more essential to remember God than to breathe... you must think of God more often than you breathe."
St. John Chrysostum, whose Liturgy is clebrated in all Eastern Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, and whose eloquence and pragmatism made him the most outstanding leader of the Eastern Church, wrote (Seventh Discourse on 2 Corinthians):
"Do you wish to see how their inner light penetrates even through their bodies? 'And looking steadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel' (Acts 6:15). But this is as nothing compared with the glory which shone within him. For what Moses showed in his face, they carried in their souls. And much more than that, for what Moses had was more physical, whereas this was spiritual. Just as bodies which can receive and reflect light, when illumined by self-radiant bodies, themselves pour their reflected light on other bodies close to them, so it is with believers. This is why those with this experience become detached from the earthly and think only of heavenly things --- But alas! we ought even to understand what is said about it, because we quickly lose it and incline to the sensory. This ineffable and terrible glory remains in us one or two days, after which we extinguish it, bringing in the storms of worldly affairs and their thick clouds which repulse its rays.... The bodies of men who have pleased God will be vested with such glory as our present eyes cannot even see. Certain signs and vague traces of this were graciously given by God both in the Old and the New Testaments. There the face of Moses shone with such glory as the eyes of the Israelites could not bear; while in the New Testament the face of Christ shone with a still greater light..."
Speaking of the "Jesus Prayer," St. John Chrysostom advised: "I implore you, brethren, never to break or despise the rule of this prayer... A monk when he eats, drinks, sits, officiates, travels or does any other thing must continually cry: 'Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me!' so that the name of the Lord Jesus, descending into the depths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over the inner pastures and bring life and salvation tot he soul. He should always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one...
"Do not estrange your heart from God, but abide in Him and always guard your heart by remembering our Lord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted in the heart and it ceases to think of anything else. may Christ be glorified in you... Every man when praying converses with God. Each of us understands how great a thing it is, being man, to converse with God; but I doubt if anyone can express this honor in words, for it is higher than even the station of angels... Prayer is a doing common to both angels and men; and no wall divides the two kinds of being in this doing. Prayer separates you from those who lack the Word and unites you with the angels. A man who strives all his life to practice praying and serving God, speedily becomes akin to angels in life, honor, estate, wisdom and understanding....
"Prayer is the cause of salvation, the source of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, the unassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects us in the work of righteousness... Prayer is a great weapon, a great protection. Zealous prayer is the light of mind and soul, a constant, inextinguishable light. Therefore during prayer our bitter enemy floods our mind and drenches our soul with a measureless filth of thoughts and collects together qualities of things which had never entered our heads...
"By this remembrance (the Jesus Prayer) a soul forcing itself to this practice can discover everything which is within, both good and bad. First it will see within, in the heart, what is bad --- and later --- what is good. This remembrance is for rousing the serpent, and this remembrance is for subduing it. This remembrance can reveal the sin living is us, and this remembrance can destroy it. This remembrance can arouse all the enemy hosts in the heart, and little by little this remembrance can conquer and uproot them. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ, descending into the depths of the heart, will subdue the serpent holding sway over the pastures of the heart, and will save our soul and bring it to life. Thus abide constantly with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two become one.
"But this work is not done in one or two days; it needs many years and a long time. For great and prolonged labor is needed to cast out the foe so that Christ dwells in us... It is necessary to lock oneself up within oneself, to curb and control one's mind and to chastise every thought or action of the evil one by calling on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ... Mental contemplation of God is by itself sufficient to destroy the spirits of evil..."
The writings of St. John of the Ladder (also known as St. John Climacus) inspired countless people to follow the mystic life. Insight into the man's thought and life-style can be gained by the following excerpts from his writings:
"God appears to the mind in the heart, at first as a flame purifying its lover, and then as a light which illumines the mind and renders it God-like.... Close the door of your cell to the body, the door of your lips to conversation, and the inner door of your soul to evil spirits....
"Sitting on high, observe, if only you know the art, and you will see how and when and whence, how many things and what kind of robbers are trying to enter to steal the grapes. When the sentinel gets tired, he gets up and prays, and then sits down once more and again resumes his work with new courage....
"Just as thieves, when they see the king's weapons lying ready somewhere, do not attack that place carelessly, so he who has joined prayer to the heart is not easily despoiled by mental robbers....
"Silence means setting aside thoughts about things, whether of the senses or of the mind... Let the memory of Jesus combine with your breath -- then you will know the profit of silence... For a cenobite downfall is -- to follow his self-will; but for a hesychast downfall is -- to abandon and stop prayer. For if he relinquishes remembrance of God such a man commits adultery, as if he were unfaithful to the bridegroom and lovingly seized the most unworthy objects....
"(Likening methods to a ladder with four rungs) Some tame passions and become humble; others psalmodize, that is, pray with their lips; yet others practice mental prayer; others rise to contemplation. Those who undertake to climb by these rungs do not begin with the top and then go down, but start from the bottom and go upwards -- stepping first on the first rung, then on the second, then on the third and, finally, on the fourth.
"The method by which he who wishes it may raise himself from off the earth and rise to heaven is as follows: first, he must wrestle with his mind and tame his passions; second, he must practice psalmody, that is, pray with the lips, for when passions are subdued, prayer quite naturally brings sweetness and enjoyment even to the tongue and is accepted by God as pleasing to Him; third, he must pray mentally; fourth, he must rise to contemplation.
"The first is appropriate to beginners; the second, to those who have already achieved some measure of success; the third to those drawing nigh to the last rungs of achievement, and the fourth to the perfect...
"He who entirely renounces self-will has already attained everything he deems to be good, spiritual, and pleasing to God, even before he has entered a life of spiritual struggle, for obedience means not believing that anything good comes from oneself, even to the end of life... Obedience gives birth to humility; humility to the gift of good judgment; good judgment to discernment; discernment to pre-vision, which is the work of God alone and a precious supernatural gift, which He bestows only on those whom He deifies....
"A small hair worries the eye and a small care destroys silence, for silence means the laying aside of all thoughts not bearing on the work of salvation, and renunciation of all cares, even for matters of good report. Nor will a man who has attained true silence worry about his body for He Who promised to care for it is not false....
"In quality prayer is communion and union of man with God. In action, it is what the world stands by, a reconciliation with God, the mother of tears and again their daughter, propitiation for sin, a bridge over temptations, a wall against sorrows, the cessation of warfare, the going of angels, the food of all incorporeal spirits, the future bliss, a doing without end or limit, the source of virtues, the seeker and finder of gifts, invisible achievement, food of the soul, light of the mind, the sword cutting off despair, the evidence of hope, the loosing of the bonds of sorrow, the riches of monks, the treasure of hesychasts, the gradual decrease of anger to nought, the mirror of achievement, the measure of a man's degree, the evidence of spiritual state, the foreteller of the future, the sign of glorification. For a man who truly prays, prayer is the torture chamber, the court of justice and the throne of the Lord even before the throne of the future....
"Thirst and vigil render the heart contrite, and a contrite heart produces tears... Flog the foes with the name of Jesus; for there is no stronger weapon against them either in heaven or on earth... I have not fasted, nor kept vigils, not slept on bare earth, but that I humbled myself, seeking above all to regard myself as nothing, and the Lord soon saved me... Love, passionlessness and sonship differ only in name; as light, fire and flame are combined in one single action, so it is with these three."
St. John of the Ladder does not advocate this type of life for merely experience-seekers or triflers, and warns: "Let no man addicted to irritation and conceit, hypocrisy and rancor ever dare to touch even the fringe of silence, lest he be driven out of his mind. But a man pure of these passions will finally learn himself what is useful. Yet I think that even he will not learn by himself.... If a body coming into contact with another body undergoes a change under its influence, how can a man not change if he touches the body of God with pure hands?" (This last phrase may refer to participation in the Eucharist.)
Another system of prayer was suggested by St. Nilus of Sinai: "He who wishes to see what his mind really is, must free himself of all thoughts; then he will see it like a sapphire or the hue of heaven.... Mind is a sublime height of the hue of heaven in which, during prayer, there appears the light of the Holy Trinity....
"Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb during prayer; then you will be able to pray as you should.... Blessed is the mind which during prayer keeps itself wholly without image or fantasy....
"The highest prayer of the perfect is the ravishment of the mind and its total transcendence of everything sensory, when 'the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered' (Romans 7:26), before God, Who sees our heart like an open book, intimating its desire by the soundless signs written therein. Thus St. Paul was 'caught up to the third heaven, whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell' (2 Corinthians 12:2); thus Peter 'went up upon the housetop to pray' and saw a vision (Acts 9).
"The stage of prayer which comes second to this highest prayer, is when the words are pronounced with a contrite mind following the words, conscious of Him to Whom it sends its prayer.
"But a prayer interrupted by cares of the flesh and mixed with them is far from a level becoming to one who prays... Blessed is he who has comprehended God's incomprehensibility, inseparable from prayer..."
Then St. Nilus of Sinai, like the other earliest Christian mystics, mentions the importance of the Church's sacraments: "It is impossible for a believer to be saved, or to receive remission of sins and be admitted to the kingdom of heaven, unless in fear, faith and love he receives communion of the pure Mysteries of the Body and blood of Christ."
These Desert Fathers were not anti-intellectual, but they constantly warned that the mystical experience was primarily beyond the grasp of reason. St. Macarius the Great expressed the teachings of all the early mystics on this point when he said:
"Spiritual subjects cannot be grasped by those who have not experienced them. But a saintly and faithful soul is helped in its understanding by the participation of the Holy Spirit. Then the heavenly treasures of the Spirit become clear only to a man who experiences them, but a man not initiated into them is wholly unable even to think of them. Thus hear of them with reverence until, for the sake of your faith, you are granted the same. Then you will know, from the experience of the eyes of the soul, in what blessings and mysteries the souls of Christians can participate even in this life."
In the writings of St. Mark the Wrestler, the idea of one's being a "channel of blessing" is introduced, as well as the acceptance of temptation as a natural, and therefore to be expected, experience in the life of a saint. He also recognizes that there appear to be counterfeits of the true spiritual experience:
"Christ, as perfect God, gave to those baptized the perfect grace of the Holy Spirit, which receives no increase from us, but merely reveals itself and manifests in us in accordance with our keeping the commandments, and gives us increase in faith 'till we all come to the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13)...
"When a temptation assails you, do not seek to understand why and wherefore it comes; your only care should be to bear it gratefully and without rancor.... Since there is no man who could please God without temptations, one should give thanks to God for every sorrowful occurrence.... Every affliction reveals the disposition of our will, whether it inclines to the right or to the left. An affliction is therefore called temptation, because it puts to the test the man afflicted by it, proving his inner disposition....
"There is an action of grace unknown to those who are still infants in Christ; and there is another action, that of an evil power, which bears a resemblance to truth. It is best not to dwell too much on such a phenomena, for fear of 'prelest' (i.e., beguilement); neither should one curse it, lest one offends truth. In all circumstances it is best to have recourse to God, Who alone knows what is useful in either case. However, one should ask advice of him who is endowed with grace and the power to teach and to judge according to God."
Quoting Maximus the Great, St. Maximus the Confessor declared: "There are three different purposes for which gifted men write without fault or constraint; the first, as memoranda for themselves; the second, for the benefit of others; the third, for obedience. With this last purpose many writings have been composed for those who humble seek the word of truth.
"But he who writes to please men, for fame or for display, loses his reward and will receive no profit from this either here or in the life to come; more, he will be condemned as a sycophant and a wicked poacher of the Word of God..."
True Meaning of Asceticism
He then goes on to explain what he feels is the true meaning of asceticism: "Do not give all your care to the body, but having allotted to it work commensurable with its strength, turn all your attention to what is within. 'For bodily exercise profiteth little; but godliness is profitable unto all things' (1 Timothy 4:8).... When the body outweighs the soul on the scales, it tortures and burdens the soul, driving it towards unseemly and corrupt desires and impulses, as is written: 'The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,' (Galatians 5:17). Then, having curbed it by the club of your abstinence, you should yourself mortify it until, even though unwillingly, it becomes obedient to the ruler and submits to the best, remembering the words of the great Paul: 'Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day,'" (2 Corinthians 4:16).
Psychology of the Mystic
Then St. Maximus the Confessor expounds a little on what might be called the psychology of the mystic: "The mind is the organ of wisdom; reason is the organ of knowledge; natural conviction derived from both is the organ of faith formed in accordance with both of them; natural love of men is the organ of the gift of healing. For each Divine gift of grace there is a corresponding natural organ capable of receiving it, as experience, or as power or as predisposition.
"Namely: a man who has purified his mind of all sensory fantasies receives wisdom; a man who has established his reason as master of passions inherent in us, that is, or anger and lust, receives knowledge; a man who by his mind and reason becomes firmly convinced of Divine things receives all-powerful faith; a man who has progressed in natural love of men, when completely freed from self-love, receives the gift of healing..."
Again, the early Christian mystic's repudiation of imagination stands in stark contrast to later developments in the Church: "Imagination is the fruit of passion, the imprint of an image representing something that is or seems to be sensory. Therefore no imagination can be admitted in relation to God, for he exceeds all mind."
Although often using terminology which seems strange to the modern reader, St. Maximus tried to define his terms as he went along: "On purity of mind: That mind is pure which, freed from ignorance, is illumined by Divine light.... On purity of soul; That soul is pure which, freed from passions, is ceaselessly made glad by Divine love... on purity of heart: That heart is pure which, always presenting to God a formless and imageless memory, is ready to receive nothing but impression which come from Him, and by which he is disposed to desire to become manifest to it.... Passionlessness is a peaceful disposition of the soul, through which it is not easily moved to evil."
St. Isaac of Syria placed great emphasis on the importance of silence, apparently meaning much more than just abstinence from speech, but rather of a deep tranquillity of the mind resulting in a detachment from earthly things. He also reiterates the belief that temptations are inevitable, and if met with fortitude, a stepping-stone to further spiritual progress:
"First of all let us force ourselves to abstain from speech; then from this abstinence will be born in us something which leads to silence itself. May God grant you the experience of this something, born of this abstinence. But if you embrace this life, I cannot tell you how much light it will bring you.
"When you put on one side of the scales all the works of this life (life of a monk, or a hesychast), and on the other silence, you will find that the latter outweighs the former.... He who forbids his lips to gossip (to speak much), preserves his heart from passions. He who preserves his heart from passions, sees God every hour....
"Temptation is useful for every man. For if temptation was useful to Paul, then 'every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God' (Romans 3:19). Spiritual doers are tempted, that they may add to their riches; the weak, that they may protect themselves from harm; those who are asleep, to prepare them for awakening; those far away, to bring them nearer to God; those who are of God's own household (who dwell in His house), that they may abide in Him with daring.
"A son who is not made to practice (carrying burdens) cannot profitably inherit the riches of his father's house. Therefore God first tempts and oppresses, and then reveals the gift of grace. Glory be to the Lord, leading us to the sweetness of health by bitter remedies!
"No man can pass the time of this education without affliction; and no man, while drinking the poison of temptations, can fail to find it bitter. Yet without them it is impossible to acquire a strong constitution (of the soul). but again, to withstand them is not in our power. How could perishable clay withstand the action of water unless the Divine fire makes it strong? If we submit to the yoke of God's will and prayer with constant desire in humility, then, through patience, we also shall receive everything from our Lord Jesus Christ."
St. Isaac warned that the hesychast's life was not a passive existence, but filled with spiritual "work," that is, with prayers, fastings, vigils, etc.: "Beware of idleness, well beloved, for it conceals certain death; and it is idleness alone that delivers a monk into the hands of enemies striving to capture him. On that day God will condemn us not for psalms nor for omitting prayers, but for the fact that by omitting them we opened the door to the demons. When those latter find a way in, they enter and close the doors of our eyes. Then they fill us tyrannically with all manner of filth which will bring Divine condemnation and most severe punishment.
"Thus, for a small omission in a thing which, for Christ's sake, is considered worthy of the greatest care, we become like those of whom it is written: 'Whoever does not submit his will to God will fall under the yoke of his adversary.' Therefore you would do in your cell the work wisely established by those in charge of the statutes of the Church, based on the revelation of the Spirit for the purpose of preserving our life; and you should regard this work as a wall protecting you from those who aim at capturing us, no matter how small this work may seem to you. It looks small only to the unwise who do not take into consideration the harm that comes from all this. But for such men both the beginning and the middle of the day is unrestrained freedom, which is the mother of passions. Therefore it is better to exert oneself not to omit this little, lest by this omission one makes room for sin. For the end of such disastrous freedom is cruel slavery..."
The moral honesty of the monk in facing his own sins is bluntly commanded by St. Isaac of Syria: "He who hates his sins will cease to commit sins, and he who confesses them will receive absolution. But it is impossible for a man to be freed from the habit of sin before he hates it, just as it is impossible to receive forgiveness before confessing his trespasses; the one is the cause of true humility, and the other of contrition born in the heart from shame.... There is no unforgivable sin, except the sin that is not repented...."
Ascetic abstinence as a pre-condition for the mystic experience was taught by St. Isaac the Syrian: "Every prayer which does not tire the body, and make the heart contrite is like an abortive child: for such a prayer is without soul.... A satiated body has no vision of the mysteries of God....
"As one who for long was subjected to temptations, both from the right and the left, and who has thus had many occasions to study himself by those two means, having endured innumerable blows from the foe and having received great help in secret, in the course of many years I have acquired experience and, with the help of God's grace, I have learned the following:
"The foundation of all good, escape of the soul from enemy bondage, the way leading to light and life -- all this is included in the following methods: gathering oneself to singleness and observing continuous fast; that is, subjecting oneself to a wise and sensible rule of abstinence in food, and constantly abiding in one place, continually thinking of God.
"Hence, subjection of the senses; hence, sobriety of the mind; hence, taming of the ferocity of passions aroused in the body; hence, peace of thoughts; hence, luminous movements of thoughts; hence, zeal in practicing virtues; hence, high and subtle conceptions; hence, tears without measure, flowing at any time; and memory of death; hence, pure chastity, totally removed from all dreaming which may tempt the thought; hence, perspicacity and far-sightedness; hence, deep and mysterious ideas which the mind understands with the help of Divine words, inner movements occurring in the soul, and division and discrimination between, on the one hand, spiritual things coming from holy powers and true visions, and on the other, vain fantasies....
"If a man neglects these two means, let him know not only that he will harm himself in all we have spoken of, but also that by neglecting these two virtues he will undermine the foundations of all virtues. As in a man, who keeps them in himself and abides in them, these two virtues are the head and beginning of Divine doing in the soul, the way and the door to Christ; so a man who neglects them and withdraws from them is led to the two opposite vices, namely bodily tramping (not staying in one place) and dishonorable gluttony. These are the starting point of everything opposed to what was said earlier and give rise to passions in the soul."
Two simple rules for spiritual perfection, and yet how hard to follow! St. Isaac suggests the two things so contrary to human nature: staying in one place, and abstinence from over-eating! A glimpse into the disdain of bodily comfort and the powers of mind over body is gained from the following excerpt:
"Those who are weak and lacking in zeal at the beginning of their work are thrown into panic and confusion not only by those and similar attacks, but merely by a rustle of leaves and are made to turn back abandoning their work by any small need, hunger in case of want, or a slight illness. But true and experienced doers refrain from over-satiation by cereals and vegetables, feeding even on dry herbs, refuse to eat anything before the appointed hour but lie on bare earth in bodily exhaustion. Their eyes can hardly see from inanition of the body, and if from want they come hear to parting with the body, they refuse to cede victory over themselves and to abandon their firm resolution, for they prefer and desire to bear hardships and work for virtue from love of God, rather than have temporary life with every ease.
"When temptations assail them, they rejoice greatly and become more perfect through them, they rejoice greatly and become more perfect through them. Even amidst the hardest labors they never waver in their love for Christ, but ardently wish to withstand attacks with courage so long as they live, and not to retreat, because through this they gain perfection....
"The work of fasting and vigil is the beginning of every endeavor directed against sin and lust, especially in the case of a man who fights against the sin which is within. This practice shows hatred of sin and lust in the doer of this invisible warfare. Almost all passionate impulses decrease through fasting.
"The next thing which specially helps in spiritual doing is night vigil. He who keeps these two as his companions through life is a friend of chastity. And pandering to the belly and excessive sleep, which weakens a man and incites the lust of fornication, are the beginning of all evil; so fasting, vigil and sobriety in serving God are the sacred way of God and the foundation of all virtue....
"Choose for yourself a sweet doing, continual practices of night vigil, by which all the fathers freed themselves of the old Adam and had their mind renewed. During those hours the soul feels the immortal life, its senses are freed from the darkness of passions and it receives the Holy Spirit....
"Do not think, O man, that the work of a monk has any doing greater than night vigil... Do not look upon a monk, who keeps vigil with understanding, as on a man clothed in flesh, for this doing is truly that of the angels.... A soul striving in this angelic doing of vigil will have the eyes of a cherubim and with them will continually see and contemplate heavenly visions..."
The need for balance in the devotional exercises was also stressed, lest the person become too frustrated ("frenzy" as St. Isaac says) in his pursuit of godliness. He candidly admits that there are very few true mystics to be found. He advocates introspection for humility's sake, for the self-knowledge gained will prevent one from judging others too harshly, if at all. Again he emphasizes a frank recognition and a fresh perspective on temptation and failure:
"Weakening of the members (of the body) leads to frenzy and ferment of thoughts; excessive work leads to despondency and despondency leads to frenzy. But one kind of frenzy differs from another: one leads to attacks of lusts; another to abandoning one's silent abode and tramping about from place to place.
"But moderate work, performed with patience, although with difficulty, is beyond price. A slackening of self-exertion in a monk's life multiplies sinful lust, and excess of it leads to frenzy....
"As out of many thousands barely one can be found who has fulfilled the commandments and all that is lawful and has attained to purity of soul; so among thousands one can hardly be found who through great efforts of persevering pure prayer, has been given to achieve it, to break the bounds of this life and to gain possession of that mystery, for many have failed to achieve pure prayer, and only few have reached it. But a man who has reached the mystery which comes after it and is beyond it, through the grace of Christ, can hardly be found in many generations....
"Some transgress the law time and time again, and heal their souls by repentance, and grace receives them; for every sentient being changes times without number and every man alters hourly. A man of good judgment has many occasion to understand this. But his trials, day by day, have special power to make him wise in this, if he watches over himself with sobriety; so that, among other things, he may observe himself with his mind and learn what changes his soul undergoes every day, how it departs from meekness and its peaceful disposition and is suddenly thrown into confusion, and what unspeakable danger threatens him at such times.
"The blessed Macarius, moved by his great care and concern for his brethren, has written about this for their edification and remembrance; he advised them not to fall into despair at the vicissitudes of adversity (or battles); because downfalls constantly occur even to those who have attained purity, just as air at times becomes cooler. Such downfalls, opposed to the aim of their efforts, may come without any laziness or carelessness, but, on the contrary, when they are moving in accordance with their degree of attainment."
Further definitions are given, and particular emphasis of the renunciation of the products of one's own imagination
"The perfection of our whole progress consists of the following three things: repentance, purity and perfection. What is repentance? Abandoning what has been and grieving over it. What briefly is purity? A heart filled with compassion for every creature. What is perfection? The depth of humility which means renunciation of everything visible and invisible; by visible -- meaning all sensory things, and by invisible -- all creations of the mental world....
"Repentance is a complete and voluntary dying to everything. A compassionate heart is a heart burning for every creature, for men, birds, animals, for demons and all creation....
"Silence kills the outer senses, but brings inner movements to life; external contacts produce the opposite effect, that is, they bring to life the outer senses and kill inner movements....
"Intense doing (i.e., spiritual activity, prayer, etc.) gives birth to measureless heat intensified into he heart by flaming thoughts, which arise anew in the mind. All this doing and guarding refine the mind by their heat and endow it with vision. This heat produced by the grace of contemplation gives birth to the flow of tears. Constant tears still the thoughts in the soul and purify the mind, and with a pure mind a man comes to the visions of Divine mysteries. After this the mind attains vision of revelations and symbols such as the prophet Ezekiel saw...."
It is obvious that to these early Christian saints, prayer was not always a quiet meditation, but an emotional experience in which bodily gestures and postures symbolized the soul's anguish over sin, etc.:
"Tears, striking oneself on the head during prayer, casting oneself on the ground produce the sweet warmth of tears in the heart, and with marvelous ecstasy the heart soars to God with the cry: 'My soul thirsteth for Thee, the loving God: When shall I come and appear before God?'... This is Jerusalem and the kingdom of God, concealed within us according to the word of the Lord (Luke 17:21). This region is the cloud of Divine glory which only the pure in heart enter, to contemplate the face of their Lord.
"Let us not grieve when we make a slip, but when we become hardened in it. for even the perfect often slip, but to be hardened in the same slip means utter death. The sorrow we experience at our slips is counted, through grace, as a pure deed. But he who slips a second time, relying on repentance, is being dishonest with God. Death strikes him down without warning, leaving him no time to fulfill the works of virtue as he had hoped....
"We should constantly realize that in every one of these twenty-four hours of day and night we have need of repentance. The meaning of the word repentance, as we have learned from the true quality of things, is the following: it is an unflagging petition to God, addressed to Him in prayer full of contrition, begging Him to overlook the past; it is also concern about protecting the future....
"Passionless does not mean not feeling passions, but not accepting them... For when the soul does not make friends with passions by thinking about them, then, since it is constantly occupied with another concern, the power of passions is unable to hold spiritual feelings in its grip."
Signs of Religious Ecstasy
The physical signs of religious ecstasy are described in a remarkable passage by St. Isaac: "Love for God is naturally ardent and when it fills a man to overflowing, leads the soul to ecstasy. Therefore the heart of a man who experiences it cannot contain or bear it, but undergoes an extraordinary change according to its own quality and the quality of the love which fills him. Its sensible signs are the following:
"The man's face becomes joyous and aflame and his body is warmed. Shame and fear leave him and he becomes like one in ecstasy. The force which keeps his mind collected flees from him and he is as one out of his mind. A terrible death is for him a joy, and his mental contemplation of heavenly things is never broken. Even when absent, he converses as if present though unseen. His knowledge and sight naturally cease, and he no longer feels his movements among sensory objects. Even if he does something, he is not aware of it, for his mind is on high in contemplation, and his thought always seems to be conversing with someone else.
"This spiritual intoxication was experienced of old by Apostles and martyrs. The first traveled far and wide over the whole world, working and suffering persecutions; but the latter had their limbs cut off, shed blood like water, but, suffering the most terrible tortures, never lost courage and valiantly bore everything; being wise they were considered foolish. Yet others wandered among deserts, mountains, caves and precipices of the earth, remaining well-ordered amongst all disorder. May God grant us such disorder!"
There is none of the anti-intellectualism of more modern mystics in these early Christian saints; on the contrary, they had a rather consuming interest in theology which, after all, is the "science of God." Their mystical experiences (i.e., visions, ecstasies, etc.) were of little interest to them as such, but were considered as a naturally expected concomitant of their life of devotion and service. They sought God, not as an "experience," and accepted the experiences as a result of God's grace.
Maximus the Confessor (580-662) emphasized the absolute necessity to grace for the mystical life, as did all those prior to him. He integrated mysticism into the whole of Christian theology, and most of his contemporaries also wrote of their mysticism with careful attention to its theological aspects.
Somewhat later, as in the writings of Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) the emphasis shifts slightly. Although only those with mystical experiences qualify as leaders of the Church, the Christ-centered mysticism of which he speaks was considered a natural flowering of the contemplative life in its fullness, rather than as an extraordinary gift.
Cataphatic and Apophatic Theology
In the study of mysticism in any context, there is reference to a "way of negation" and a "way of affirmation." The Eastern Orthodox Church articulated its position through Gregory Palamas, and has tried to maintain a balance between the two concepts since that time. In the Eastern Christianity, there was a synthesis of what sometimes appears to be an irreconcilable difference between East and West in their philosophies of the subjective religious life.
The early Christians safeguarded the transcendence of God at all costs against the unstructured pantheism into which mysticism so easily degenerates. Beginning with Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great, and finally expounded fully by Gregory Palamas, the two types of theology emerged in coexistence and harmony, known as "apophatic" and "cataphatic" theologies. These men maintained that it was safer to think and speak about God in negative terms rather than positive ones. Cataphatic theology, or the positive affirmations about God, such as the fact that He is just, good, wise, etc., may lead one to believe he understands God, when in fact God is unknowable in His essence.
The aforementioned men reasoned rather that the ends of truth may be better served by declaring what God is NOT, rather than vainly attempting to expound what He IS. As John of Damascus said, "That there is a God is clear; but WHAT He IS by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge." Whereas some mystics of the modern era have practically said God IS the light of which they have had a vision, this early saint was careful to point out that any thing we can experience of God or say about Him, reveals "not the nature, but the things around the nature."
The positive "way of affirmation" of cataphatic theology had to be counterbalanced by the apophatic theology of the "way of negation." The earliest Christian mystics believed that all positive statements about God were true "as far as they went," but it was impossible to adequately describe the inner nature of deity in those terms alone. Unlike the "positive thinkers" of modern times, the early theologians and mystics in the Church did not hesitate to insist on the necessity of using negative logic and negative vocabulary regarding God.
Mysticism in the Western Church
In the West, the Church had to cope with other concerns. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) was the last great writer on the contemplative life in the West before the Middle Ages. He reduced the mystic life to recollection, introversion, and contemplation.
Recollection meant withdrawing into oneself mentally and avoiding for a while the "dispersion of thoughts" all mystics complained about. Introversion meant that the soul considers the spirituality of its own nature, and divorces its attention from the materialistic side of life. Contemplation was the mental state in which one was occupied only with the Creator.
The Western Christians wrote little of mysticism until the beginning of the Middle Ages, and subtle differences with the early Eastern thought began to appear.
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