DESERT FATHERS ON MYSTICISM (2024)

"As out of many thousands barelyone can be found who has fulfilled the commandments and all thatis lawful and has attained to purity of soul; so among thousandsone can hardly be found who through great efforts of purepersevering prayer, has been given to achieve it, to break thebounds of this life and to gain possession of that mystery, formany have failed to achieve pure prayer, and only few havereached it. But a man who has reached the mystery which comesafter it and is beyond it, through the grace of Christ, canhardly be found in many generations." (St. Isaac the Syrian)

To grasp the true meaning of Christianmysticism, one must study the earliest Eastern Church mysticscarefully, for it is in the light of their experience that laterdeviations from the norm can be properly evaluated. There weresome aberrations among them, of course, but nothing to becompared with the false and foolish mixtures found in Europe inall of the Middle Ages (700-1450 A.D.).

The mystics of the Eastern Church includedthe Church Fathers, for in those days the theologians were amongthe most spiritual of Christians, and the phenomena of mysticismwas evident in all levels of clergy, monks, and laity. To havethe proper perspective of the study therefore, we shall considerthose closest to Christ and the apostles in space and time, andthen extend consideration to those who were more remote;realizing, of course, that those closest to our own time werefarthest from Christ's time.

Visions were practically non-existent inthe mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church!Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were tobe deplored and dismissed with whenever possible, and visions andecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions toprayer! Those experiences which later mystics sought after andprized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians aslittle more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barelytolerated.

In the Eastern Church, contemplationconsisted not merely in negation and renunciation (the emphasisin Western Catholicism) but in a deifying union with God's Spiritin an experience of spiritual illumination after all intellectualactivity had ceased. This emphasis on deification, called "theosis,"had many definite and practical activist applications to ordinarylife in the world. "If it were possible for me to find aleper," said one of the Desert Fathers, "and to givehim my body and to take his, I would gladly do it. For this isperfect love." Such was the true nature of theosis, ordeification. (Apophthegmata, P.G. lxv, Agatho 26.)

Background and Nature of the HesychastControversy

The hesychasts (from Greek "hesychia,"meaning quiet and solitude) were championed by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359),Archbishop of Thessalonica. His teachings were confirmed by twocouncils held at Constantinople in 1341 and 1351, which, althoughlocal and not ecumenical, possess a doctrinal authority eventoday in the Orthodox Church scarcely inferior to the SevenGeneral Councils themselves. Palamas's teachings must beunderstood before one can even begin to understand the traditionof the Eastern mystics, whose position and practice he merelyarticulated and defended.

Barlaam, a Calabrian monk, (i.e., fromsouthwestern Italy opposite Sicily) who adhered to the rationalmethods of Western scholasticism, ridiculed the Eastern monks,calling them "omphalopsyches," meaning those whose soulis in their navels! His lack of appreciation for the "JesusPrayer" of the Hesychasts has been responsible for aconsiderable lack of appreciation in the West of the significanceof specific forms of Eastern monastic spirituality. Some modernwriters like Graef (1965) confuse the "Jesus Prayer"with the "ZIKR" or "remembrance" of theMohammedan faith ("There is no god but Allah...") andsee no essential difference between the Sufi sect ofMohammedanism with the Christian hesychasts of the fourteenthcentury. This reflects not only a disregard for theologicaldistinctions, but indicates a superficial examination ofpsychological differences too, probably due to a lack offamiliarity with source material of the Hesychasts themselves.

Barlaam's views were influenced not only byScholasticism but by the teaching of the Greek Father, Dionysiusthe Areopagite, who held that God was "totally Other."Barlaam reasoned that God could only be known indirectly and adirect experience such as the hesychasts claimed was clearlyimpossible. He seized upon the bodily exercises which thehesychasts used as evidence of their grossly materialistic viewof prayer and to bolster his derision of their "belly-buttontheology." All of the Eastern mystics believed that thesupreme spiritual experience would be a vision of the Divine andUncreated Light which was identical with the Jewish Shekinah andthe light witnessed by the three disciples which surrounded Jesuson Mt. Tabor at His transfiguration. This completely scandalizedBarlaam, who maintained that God's essence was invisible andtherefore any light the hesychasts saw was a natural, createdlight of their making.

Gregory Palamas proved himself to be acreative theologian of the first rank by explaining that there isa difference between God's essence and God's energies. St. Basilthe Great had written (Letter 234, I), "We know our God fromhis energies, but we do not claim that we can draw near to Hisessence. For His energies come down to us, but His essenceremains unapproachable." Thus, Gregory explained God'stranscendence in terms of His essence, and His immanence in termsof His energies. It is by means of His energies that God dwellswith men; His energies are synonymous with His grace. God existsin His energies, and therefore grace is not merely a "gift'or an object God bestows, but it is Himself communicating Himselfto men in His energies. Even though he believed that "God isnot a nature, for He is above all nature; He is not a being, forHe is above all beings... No single thing of all that is createdhas or ever will have even the slightest communion with thesupreme nature, or nearness to it," (Homily 16, P.G. cli,193), Gregory still maintained that saints were "deified' bythe grace of God through direct experience. They know God, not inHis essence, but in His energies.

Because God is light (1 John 1:5), theexperience of His energies was said to take the form of light.The hesychast's vision is not of a mere created light, but theLight of the Godhead Itself, identical with the Uncreated Lightthat surrounded the transfigured Christ on Tabor. Even thoughthis Light is not a sensible or material light, it can be seen bya man whose senses as well as his soul have been transformed.

This unique mind-body philosophy of theEastern Christians is also important to note, for it played alarge part in their practice of mysticism.

Importance of Mind-Body Views

The Platonic view of man as a soulimprisoned within a body was for a time incorporated intoChristian speculative thought through the writing of Evagrius ofPontus (d. 399) and Origen of Alexandria (d. 253 or 254), but itwas later ignored in favor of a more Hebrew view of man as ananimated body. The difference between considering man as ananimated body (like Adam, for whom God first created a body outof the dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisonedsoul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) hasa subtle influence on one's understanding of redemption and evenof prayer. Origen had given the outline for mystical theologywith some Platonic influence, but this was balanced by theteachings of the Macarian Homilies (usually attributed to St.Macarius of Egypt, 300-390 A.D., but perhaps the work of anunknown 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 andintellect, whereas the Hebrew tradition followed by thehesychasts made prayer a function of the whole man: mind,emotions, will, and even body!

The "Prayer of the Heart" orthe "Jesus Prayer"

Whereas Evagrius and Origen employed theword "mind," Macarian authors used the word "heart,"which was not only more Biblical but more in keeping with anappreciation of man's total being. Mystics of the mid-fifth andsixth centuries, such as Diodochus of Photice and St. JohnClimacus of Mt. Sinai, wrote of the "Prayer of the Heart,"using the term "heart" in the biblical and Macariansense. This "Prayer of the Heart" is also known inOrthodox circles as the "Jesus Prayer," and consists ofthe sentence "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy onme a sinner." This is progressively shortened to the phrase"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy," and ultimately to itsshortest form, "Lord, have mercy."

This prayer was prayed by the hesychastswith attention to breathing and posture. The recommended posturewas with the head bowed, chin on chest, and eyes fixed on theheart. The obvious parallel between this method of prayer and thetechnique of Hindu Yoga is interesting, but should not be equatedby any means. The rationale behind the breathing and postures aredifferent in that the hesychasts were more frankly hypnotic, i.e.,they admittedly used it as an aid to concentration, whereas theyogis embellished the whole procedure with a theory of chakras tojustify it.

Breathing and posture were associated withthe "Jesus Prayer" by the twelfth century, but it wasminimized as a technique to attain mystical experience; the yogisnever modified, much less repudiated, their methods. Thus itwould seem that the "mystic consciousness" of thehesychasts and the yogis must be distinct, for if the hesychastshad truly valued yogic consciousness, they would have stayed withbreathing and posture as an indispensable part of their method,which they did not. This seems to be a distinction of greatimportance, but the author has never seen it even mentioned, muchless expounded.

The "Prayer of the Heart" must beunderstood as a prayer of the total man. Using the term "heart"in the Hebraic sense, the earliest Christian mystics meant thatprayer was not merely a mental activity, nor merely a physicalactivity, but rather it was both. Prayer was the total responseof man to God, and one did not pray merely with the intelligence,or merely with the lips. Through discipline, prayer became aspontaneous offering of the whole being of man. Attention wasgiven to the postures of prayer, whether standing, kneeling, orprostrations. This was not a materialistic view, but a naturaland logical expression of their well-thought-out view of thenature of man.

Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia,lived in the reign of Andronicus, the second Paleaologus, about1324 A.D. he was the spiritual teacher of Gregory Palamas. One ofhis teachings, typical of the mind-body emphasis of thehesychasts, was: "Do not neglect kneeling. Kneelingrepresents falling into sin, implying also confession of sin.Rising up from the knees represents repentance, suggesting a vowof virtuous life. Each time you kneel make a mental invocation ofChrist, 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 ofspeech; he intended it to be applied quite literally.

The practice of the "Prayer of theHeart" or the "Jesus Prayer" dates from the startof the Christian era and has been kept unchanged through thecenturies in the East. The writers who expounded its methods inthe fourteenth century were only formalizing a practice andteaching that had been handed down intact by tradition throughthe monastics of the Church.

Source for Teachings of the DesertFathers

These teachings were preserved for modernstudents through such books as the Greek PHILOKALIA, which wascompiled in the eighteenth century by Macarius of Corinth (1731-1805)and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos, 1748-1809) andfirst published in Venice in 1882. It was translated intoSlavonic, sometimes referred to as "Church Russian," aChurch language understood by all Slavic peoples, by PaissyVelichkovsky (d. 1794) under the title DOBROTOLUBIYE. Thispublication had a great influence in the rebirth of Russianmonasticism and spirituality. The Greek text of the PHILOKALIAwas translated into Russian by Bishop Theophas the Recluse (d.1894), and it is from that text of the DOBROTOLUBIYE that theEnglish translation was made.

The following excerpts from the PHILOKALIAindicate the trend of the spiritual thought of these greatmystics, ascetics, and saints of the Church in the Near East. St.Basil the Great wrote:

"Silence is the beginning ofpurification of the soul.... A mind undistracted by externalthings and not dispersed through the senses among worldly things,returns to itself.... As the Lord dwells not in temples built byhuman hands, neither does He dwell in any imaginings or mentalstructures (fantasies) which present themselves (to the attention)and surround the corrupt soul like a wall, so that it ispowerless to look at the truth direct but continues to cling onto mirrors and fortune-telling....

"The prophets received images in theirmind through a certain ineffable power, when they had their mindpure and undistracted; and they heard the word of God as thoughuttered within them.... Prophets saw visions by the actions ofthe Spirit, Who imprinted images in minds sovereign overthemselves....

"Utterly inexpressible andindescribable is Divine beauty blazing like lightning; neitherword can express nor ear receive it. If we name the brightness ofdawn, or the clearness of moonlight, or the brilliance ofsunshine, none of it is worthy to be compared with the glory oftrue light, and is farther removed therefrom than the deepestnight and the most terrible darkness from the clear light ofmidday. When this beauty, invisible to physical eyes andaccessible only to soul and thought, illumined some saint,wounding him with unbearable yearning desire, then, disgusted byearthly life, he cried: 'Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech,that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!'...'My soul thirsteth forGod, for the living God'....

"Oppressed by this life, as by aprison, how irresistible was the striving towards God of thosewhose soul was touched by Divine yearning. Owing to theirinsatiable desire to contemplate Divine beauty, they prayed thatthe sight of God's beauty should last for all eternity....

"He who has become a lover of God andis wishing to participate, however imperfectly, in thepassionlessness of God, in spiritual sanctity, serenity,quietness and meekness, and to taste the joy and gladness born ofthem, must strive to lead his thoughts far away from everymaterial passion which may trouble the soul, and to contemplateDivine things with a clear and unshaded eye, insatiably enjoyingthe Divine light. A man who has implanted this habit anddisposition in his soul becomes akin to God, in as far as it ispossible for him to be like God, and is loved and welcomed by Himas one who has courageously undertaken this great and difficultwork, and has become capable of conversing with God in spite ofhis nature being compounded with matter, by sending to Him histhought pure and stripped of any admixture of carnal passions..."

St. Basil the Great emphasized that Goddoes not dwell in man's fantasies or imagination any more than Hedwells in a building; therefore, the practice of "mentalpicturing" of Divine things is to be discouraged.

Gregory the Theologian said: "Goddemands the following three virtues from every man who isbaptized: for the soul, true faith; for the body, chastity; forthe tongue, truth.... It is more essential to remember God thanto breathe... you must think of God more often than you breathe."

St. John Chrysostum, whose Liturgy isclebrated in all Eastern Orthodox Churches and Roman CatholicChurches of the Byzantine Rite, and whose eloquence andpragmatism made him the most outstanding leader of the EasternChurch, wrote (Seventh Discourse on 2 Corinthians):

"Do you wish to see how their innerlight penetrates even through their bodies? 'And lookingsteadfastly on Stephen, they saw his face as it had been the faceof an angel' (Acts 6:15). But this is as nothing compared withthe glory which shone within him. For what Moses showed in hisface, they carried in their souls. And much more than that, forwhat Moses had was more physical, whereas this was spiritual.Just as bodies which can receive and reflect light, whenillumined by self-radiant bodies, themselves pour their reflectedlight on other bodies close to them, so it is with believers.This is why those with this experience become detached from theearthly and think only of heavenly things --- But alas! we oughteven to understand what is said about it, because we quickly loseit and incline to the sensory. This ineffable and terrible gloryremains in us one or two days, after which we extinguish it,bringing in the storms of worldly affairs and their thick cloudswhich repulse its rays.... The bodies of men who have pleased Godwill be vested with such glory as our present eyes cannot evensee. Certain signs and vague traces of this were graciously givenby God both in the Old and the New Testaments. There the face ofMoses shone with such glory as the eyes of the Israelites couldnot bear; while in the New Testament the face of Christ shonewith a still greater light..."

Speaking of the "Jesus Prayer,"St. John Chrysostom advised: "I implore you, brethren, neverto break or despise the rule of this prayer... A monk when heeats, drinks, sits, officiates, travels or does any other thingmust continually cry: 'Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercyupon me!' so that the name of the Lord Jesus, descending into thedepths of the heart, should subdue the serpent ruling over theinner pastures and bring life and salvation tot he soul. Heshould always live with the name of the Lord Jesus, so that theheart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the two becomeone...

"Do not estrange your heart from God,but abide in Him and always guard your heart by remembering ourLord Jesus Christ, until the name of the Lord becomes rooted inthe heart and it ceases to think of anything else. may Christ beglorified in you... Every man when praying converses with God.Each of us understands how great a thing it is, being man, toconverse with God; but I doubt if anyone can express this honorin words, for it is higher than even the station of angels...Prayer is a doing common to both angels and men; and no walldivides the two kinds of being in this doing. Prayer separatesyou from those who lack the Word and unites you with the angels.A man who strives all his life to practice praying and servingGod, speedily becomes akin to angels in life, honor, estate,wisdom and understanding....

"Prayer is the cause of salvation, thesource of immortality, the indestructible wall of the Church, theunassailable fortress, which terrifies the demons and protects usin the work of righteousness... Prayer is a great weapon, a greatprotection. Zealous prayer is the light of mind and soul, aconstant, inextinguishable light. Therefore during prayer ourbitter enemy floods our mind and drenches our soul with ameasureless filth of thoughts and collects together qualities ofthings which had never entered our heads...

"By this remembrance (the Jesus Prayer)a soul forcing itself to this practice can discover everythingwhich is within, both good and bad. First it will see within, inthe heart, what is bad --- and later --- what is good. Thisremembrance is for rousing the serpent, and this remembrance isfor subduing it. This remembrance can reveal the sin living isus, and this remembrance can destroy it. This remembrance canarouse all the enemy hosts in the heart, and little by littlethis remembrance can conquer and uproot them. The name of theLord Jesus Christ, descending into the depths of the heart, willsubdue the serpent holding sway over the pastures of the heart,and will save our soul and bring it to life. Thus abideconstantly with the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that theheart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart, and the twobecome one.

"But this work is not done in one ortwo days; it needs many years and a long time. For great andprolonged labor is needed to cast out the foe so that Christdwells in us... It is necessary to lock oneself up withinoneself, to curb and control one's mind and to chastise everythought or action of the evil one by calling on the name of ourLord Jesus Christ... Mental contemplation of God is by itselfsufficient to destroy the spirits of evil..."

The writings of St. John of the Ladder (alsoknown as St. John Climacus) inspired countless people to followthe mystic life. Insight into the man's thought and life-stylecan 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 lightwhich illumines the mind and renders it God-like.... Close thedoor of your cell to the body, the door of your lips toconversation, and the inner door of your soul to evil spirits....

"Sitting on high, observe, if only youknow the art, and you will see how and when and whence, how manythings and what kind of robbers are trying to enter to steal thegrapes. When the sentinel gets tired, he gets up and prays, andthen sits down once more and again resumes his work with newcourage....

"Just as thieves, when they see theking's weapons lying ready somewhere, do not attack that placecarelessly, so he who has joined prayer to the heart is noteasily despoiled by mental robbers....

"Silence means setting aside thoughtsabout things, whether of the senses or of the mind... Let thememory of Jesus combine with your breath -- then you will knowthe profit of silence... For a cenobite downfall is -- to followhis self-will; but for a hesychast downfall is -- to abandon andstop prayer. For if he relinquishes remembrance of God such a mancommits adultery, as if he were unfaithful to the bridegroom andlovingly seized the most unworthy objects....

"(Likening methods to a ladder withfour rungs) Some tame passions and become humble; otherspsalmodize, that is, pray with their lips; yet others practicemental prayer; others rise to contemplation. Those who undertaketo climb by these rungs do not begin with the top and then godown, but start from the bottom and go upwards -- stepping firston the first rung, then on the second, then on the third and,finally, on the fourth.

"The method by which he who wishes itmay raise himself from off the earth and rise to heaven is asfollows: first, he must wrestle with his mind and tame hispassions; second, he must practice psalmody, that is, pray withthe lips, for when passions are subdued, prayer quite naturallybrings sweetness and enjoyment even to the tongue and is acceptedby God as pleasing to Him; third, he must pray mentally; fourth,he must rise to contemplation.

"The first is appropriate tobeginners; the second, to those who have already achieved somemeasure of success; the third to those drawing nigh to the lastrungs of achievement, and the fourth to the perfect...

"He who entirely renounces self-willhas already attained everything he deems to be good, spiritual,and pleasing to God, even before he has entered a life ofspiritual struggle, for obedience means not believing thatanything good comes from oneself, even to the end of life...Obedience gives birth to humility; humility to the gift of goodjudgment; 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 asmall care destroys silence, for silence means the laying asideof all thoughts not bearing on the work of salvation, andrenunciation of all cares, even for matters of good report. Norwill a man who has attained true silence worry about his body forHe Who promised to care for it is not false....

"In quality prayer is communion andunion of man with God. In action, it is what the world stands by,a reconciliation with God, the mother of tears and again theirdaughter, propitiation for sin, a bridge over temptations, a wallagainst sorrows, the cessation of warfare, the going of angels,the food of all incorporeal spirits, the future bliss, a doingwithout end or limit, the source of virtues, the seeker andfinder of gifts, invisible achievement, food of the soul, lightof the mind, the sword cutting off despair, the evidence of hope,the loosing of the bonds of sorrow, the riches of monks, thetreasure of hesychasts, the gradual decrease of anger to nought,the mirror of achievement, the measure of a man's degree, theevidence of spiritual state, the foreteller of the future, thesign of glorification. For a man who truly prays, prayer is thetorture chamber, the court of justice and the throne of the Lordeven before the throne of the future....

"Thirst and vigil render the heartcontrite, and a contrite heart produces tears... Flog the foeswith the name of Jesus; for there is no stronger weapon againstthem either in heaven or on earth... I have not fasted, nor keptvigils, not slept on bare earth, but that I humbled myself,seeking above all to regard myself as nothing, and the Lord soonsaved me... Love, passionlessness and sonship differ only inname; as light, fire and flame are combined in one single action,so it is with these three."

St. John of the Ladder does not advocatethis type of life for merely experience-seekers or triflers, andwarns: "Let no man addicted to irritation and conceit,hypocrisy and rancor ever dare to touch even the fringe ofsilence, lest he be driven out of his mind. But a man pure ofthese passions will finally learn himself what is useful. Yet Ithink that even he will not learn by himself.... If a body cominginto contact with another body undergoes a change under itsinfluence, how can a man not change if he touches the body of Godwith pure hands?" (This last phrase may refer toparticipation in the Eucharist.)

Another system of prayer was suggested bySt. Nilus of Sinai: "He who wishes to see what his mindreally is, must free himself of all thoughts; then he will see itlike a sapphire or the hue of heaven.... Mind is a sublime heightof the hue of heaven in which, during prayer, there appears thelight of the Holy Trinity....

"Strive to render your mind deaf anddumb during prayer; then you will be able to pray as you should....Blessed is the mind which during prayer keeps itself whollywithout image or fantasy....

"The highest prayer of the perfect isthe ravishment of the mind and its total transcendence ofeverything sensory, when 'the Spirit itself maketh intercessionfor us with groanings which cannot be uttered' (Romans 7:26),before God, Who sees our heart like an open book, intimating itsdesire by the soundless signs written therein. Thus St. Paul was'caught up to the third heaven, whether in the body, I cannottell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell' (2 Corinthians12:2); thus Peter 'went up upon the housetop to pray' and saw avision (Acts 9).

"The stage of prayer which comessecond to this highest prayer, is when the words are pronouncedwith a contrite mind following the words, conscious of Him toWhom it sends its prayer.

"But a prayer interrupted by cares ofthe flesh and mixed with them is far from a level becoming to onewho prays... Blessed is he who has comprehended God'sincomprehensibility, inseparable from prayer..."

Then St. Nilus of Sinai, like the otherearliest Christian mystics, mentions the importance of theChurch's sacraments: "It is impossible for a believer to besaved, or to receive remission of sins and be admitted to thekingdom of heaven, unless in fear, faith and love he receivescommunion 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 wasprimarily beyond the grasp of reason. St. Macarius the Greatexpressed the teachings of all the early mystics on this pointwhen he said:

"Spiritual subjects cannot be graspedby those who have not experienced them. But a saintly andfaithful soul is helped in its understanding by the participationof the Holy Spirit. Then the heavenly treasures of the Spiritbecome clear only to a man who experiences them, but a man notinitiated into them is wholly unable even to think of them. Thushear of them with reverence until, for the sake of your faith,you are granted the same. Then you will know, from the experienceof the eyes of the soul, in what blessings and mysteries thesouls 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" isintroduced, 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 thetrue spiritual experience:

"Christ, as perfect God, gave to thosebaptized the perfect grace of the Holy Spirit, which receives noincrease from us, but merely reveals itself and manifests in usin accordance with our keeping the commandments, and gives usincrease in faith 'till we all come to the knowledge of the Sonof God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature ofthe fullness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13)...

"When a temptation assails you, do notseek to understand why and wherefore it comes; your only careshould be to bear it gratefully and without rancor.... Sincethere is no man who could please God without temptations, oneshould give thanks to God for every sorrowful occurrence....Every affliction reveals the disposition of our will, whether itinclines to the right or to the left. An affliction is thereforecalled temptation, because it puts to the test the man afflictedby it, proving his inner disposition....

"There is an action of grace unknownto those who are still infants in Christ; and there is anotheraction, 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, lestone offends truth. In all circ*mstances it is best to haverecourse to God, Who alone knows what is useful in either case.However, one should ask advice of him who is endowed with graceand the power to teach and to judge according to God."

Quoting Maximus the Great, St. Maximus theConfessor declared: "There are three different purposes forwhich gifted men write without fault or constraint; the first, asmemoranda for themselves; the second, for the benefit of others;the third, for obedience. With this last purpose many writingshave been composed for those who humble seek the word of truth.

"But he who writes to please men, forfame or for display, loses his reward and will receive no profitfrom this either here or in the life to come; more, he will becondemned 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 isthe true meaning of asceticism: "Do not give all your careto the body, but having allotted to it work commensurable withits strength, turn all your attention to what is within. 'Forbodily exercise profiteth little; but godliness is profitableunto all things' (1 Timothy 4:8).... When the body outweighs thesoul on the scales, it tortures and burdens the soul, driving ittowards unseemly and corrupt desires and impulses, as is written:'The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against theflesh,' (Galatians 5:17). Then, having curbed it by the club ofyour abstinence, you should yourself mortify it until, eventhough unwillingly, it becomes obedient to the ruler and submitsto the best, remembering the words of the great Paul: 'Though ouroutward 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 alittle on what might be called the psychology of the mystic:"The mind is the organ of wisdom; reason is the organ ofknowledge; natural conviction derived from both is the organ offaith formed in accordance with both of them; natural love of menis the organ of the gift of healing. For each Divine gift ofgrace there is a corresponding natural organ capable of receivingit, as experience, or as power or as predisposition.

"Namely: a man who has purified hismind of all sensory fantasies receives wisdom; a man who hasestablished his reason as master of passions inherent in us, thatis, or anger and lust, receives knowledge; a man who by his mindand reason becomes firmly convinced of Divine things receives all-powerfulfaith; a man who has progressed in natural love of men, whencompletely freed from self-love, receives the gift of healing..."

Again, the early Christian mystic'srepudiation of imagination stands in stark contrast to laterdevelopments in the Church: "Imagination is the fruit ofpassion, the imprint of an image representing something that isor seems to be sensory. Therefore no imagination can be admittedin relation to God, for he exceeds all mind."

Although often using terminology whichseems strange to the modern reader, St. Maximus tried to definehis terms as he went along: "On purity of mind: That mind ispure 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 andimageless memory, is ready to receive nothing but impressionwhich come from Him, and by which he is disposed to desire tobecome manifest to it.... Passionlessness is a peacefuldisposition of the soul, through which it is not easily moved toevil."

St. Isaac of Syria placed great emphasis onthe importance of silence, apparently meaning much more than justabstinence from speech, but rather of a deep tranquillity of themind resulting in a detachment from earthly things. He alsoreiterates the belief that temptations are inevitable, and if metwith fortitude, a stepping-stone to further spiritual progress:

"First of all let us force ourselvesto abstain from speech; then from this abstinence will be born inus something which leads to silence itself. May God grant you theexperience of this something, born of this abstinence. But if youembrace this life, I cannot tell you how much light it will bringyou.

"When you put on one side of thescales all the works of this life (life of a monk, or a hesychast),and on the other silence, you will find that the latter outweighsthe former.... He who forbids his lips to gossip (to speak much),preserves his heart from passions. He who preserves his heartfrom passions, sees God every hour....

"Temptation is useful for every man.For if temptation was useful to Paul, then 'every mouth may bestopped, and all the world may become guilty before God' (Romans3:19). Spiritual doers are tempted, that they may add to theirriches; the weak, that they may protect themselves from harm;those who are asleep, to prepare them for awakening; those faraway, to bring them nearer to God; those who are of God's ownhousehold (who dwell in His house), that they may abide in Himwith daring.

"A son who is not made to practice (carryingburdens) cannot profitably inherit the riches of his father'shouse. Therefore God first tempts and oppresses, and then revealsthe gift of grace. Glory be to the Lord, leading us to thesweetness of health by bitter remedies!

"No man can pass the time of thiseducation without affliction; and no man, while drinking thepoison of temptations, can fail to find it bitter. Yet withoutthem it is impossible to acquire a strong constitution (of thesoul). but again, to withstand them is not in our power. Howcould perishable clay withstand the action of water unless theDivine fire makes it strong? If we submit to the yoke of God'swill and prayer with constant desire in humility, then, throughpatience, we also shall receive everything from our Lord JesusChrist."

St. Isaac warned that the hesychast's lifewas not a passive existence, but filled with spiritual "work,"that is, with prayers, fastings, vigils, etc.: "Beware ofidleness, well beloved, for it conceals certain death; and it isidleness alone that delivers a monk into the hands of enemiesstriving to capture him. On that day God will condemn us not forpsalms nor for omitting prayers, but for the fact that byomitting them we opened the door to the demons. When those latterfind a way in, they enter and close the doors of our eyes. Thenthey fill us tyrannically with all manner of filth which willbring Divine condemnation and most severe punishment.

"Thus, for a small omission in a thingwhich, for Christ's sake, is considered worthy of the greatestcare, we become like those of whom it is written: 'Whoever doesnot submit his will to God will fall under the yoke of hisadversary.' Therefore you would do in your cell the work wiselyestablished by those in charge of the statutes of the Church,based on the revelation of the Spirit for the purpose ofpreserving our life; and you should regard this work as a wallprotecting you from those who aim at capturing us, no matter howsmall this work may seem to you. It looks small only to theunwise who do not take into consideration the harm that comesfrom all this. But for such men both the beginning and the middleof the day is unrestrained freedom, which is the mother ofpassions. Therefore it is better to exert oneself not to omitthis little, lest by this omission one makes room for sin. Forthe end of such disastrous freedom is cruel slavery..."

The moral honesty of the monk in facing hisown sins is bluntly commanded by St. Isaac of Syria: "He whohates his sins will cease to commit sins, and he who confessesthem will receive absolution. But it is impossible for a man tobe freed from the habit of sin before he hates it, just as it isimpossible to receive forgiveness before confessing histrespasses; the one is the cause of true humility, and the otherof contrition born in the heart from shame.... There is nounforgivable sin, except the sin that is not repented...."

Ascetic abstinence as a pre-condition forthe mystic experience was taught by St. Isaac the Syrian: "Everyprayer which does not tire the body, and make the heart contriteis 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 totemptations, both from the right and the left, and who has thushad many occasions to study himself by those two means, havingendured innumerable blows from the foe and having received greathelp in secret, in the course of many years I have acquiredexperience and, with the help of God's grace, I have learned thefollowing:

"The foundation of all good, escape ofthe soul from enemy bondage, the way leading to light and life --all this is included in the following methods: gathering oneselfto singleness and observing continuous fast; that is, subjectingoneself to a wise and sensible rule of abstinence in food, andconstantly abiding in one place, continually thinking of God.

"Hence, subjection of the senses;hence, sobriety of the mind; hence, taming of the ferocity ofpassions aroused in the body; hence, peace of thoughts; hence,luminous movements of thoughts; hence, zeal in practicingvirtues; hence, high and subtle conceptions; hence, tears withoutmeasure, flowing at any time; and memory of death; hence, purechastity, totally removed from all dreaming which may tempt thethought; hence, perspicacity and far-sightedness; hence, deep andmysterious ideas which the mind understands with the help ofDivine words, inner movements occurring in the soul, and divisionand discrimination between, on the one hand, spiritual thingscoming from holy powers and true visions, and on the other, vainfantasies....

"If a man neglects these two means,let him know not only that he will harm himself in all we havespoken of, but also that by neglecting these two virtues he willundermine the foundations of all virtues. As in a man, who keepsthem in himself and abides in them, these two virtues are thehead and beginning of Divine doing in the soul, the way and thedoor to Christ; so a man who neglects them and withdraws fromthem is led to the two opposite vices, namely bodily tramping (notstaying in one place) and dishonorable gluttony. These are thestarting point of everything opposed to what was said earlier andgive rise to passions in the soul."

Two simple rules for spiritual perfection,and yet how hard to follow! St. Isaac suggests the two things socontrary to human nature: staying in one place, and abstinencefrom over-eating! A glimpse into the disdain of bodily comfortand the powers of mind over body is gained from the followingexcerpt:

"Those who are weak and lacking inzeal at the beginning of their work are thrown into panic andconfusion not only by those and similar attacks, but merely by arustle of leaves and are made to turn back abandoning their workby any small need, hunger in case of want, or a slight illness.But true and experienced doers refrain from over-satiation bycereals and vegetables, feeding even on dry herbs, refuse to eatanything before the appointed hour but lie on bare earth inbodily exhaustion. Their eyes can hardly see from inanition ofthe body, and if from want they come hear to parting with thebody, they refuse to cede victory over themselves and to abandontheir firm resolution, for they prefer and desire to bearhardships and work for virtue from love of God, rather than havetemporary life with every ease.

"When temptations assail them, theyrejoice greatly and become more perfect through them, theyrejoice greatly and become more perfect through them. Even amidstthe hardest labors they never waver in their love for Christ, butardently wish to withstand attacks with courage so long as theylive, and not to retreat, because through this they gainperfection....

"The work of fasting and vigil is thebeginning of every endeavor directed against sin and lust,especially in the case of a man who fights against the sin whichis within. This practice shows hatred of sin and lust in the doerof this invisible warfare. Almost all passionate impulsesdecrease through fasting.

"The next thing which specially helpsin spiritual doing is night vigil. He who keeps these two as hiscompanions through life is a friend of chastity. And pandering tothe belly and excessive sleep, which weakens a man and incitesthe lust of fornication, are the beginning of all evil; sofasting, vigil and sobriety in serving God are the sacred way ofGod and the foundation of all virtue....

"Choose for yourself a sweet doing,continual practices of night vigil, by which all the fathersfreed themselves of the old Adam and had their mind renewed.During those hours the soul feels the immortal life, its sensesare freed from the darkness of passions and it receives the HolySpirit....

"Do not think, O man, that the work ofa monk has any doing greater than night vigil... Do not look upona monk, who keeps vigil with understanding, as on a man clothedin flesh, for this doing is truly that of the angels.... A soulstriving in this angelic doing of vigil will have the eyes of acherubim and with them will continually see and contemplateheavenly visions..."

The need for balance in the devotionalexercises was also stressed, lest the person become toofrustrated ("frenzy" as St. Isaac says) in his pursuitof godliness. He candidly admits that there are very few truemystics to be found. He advocates introspection for humility'ssake, for the self-knowledge gained will prevent one from judgingothers too harshly, if at all. Again he emphasizes a frankrecognition 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 todespondency and despondency leads to frenzy. But one kind offrenzy differs from another: one leads to attacks of lusts;another to abandoning one's silent abode and tramping about fromplace to place.

"But moderate work, performed withpatience, although with difficulty, is beyond price. A slackeningof self-exertion in a monk's life multiplies sinful lust, andexcess of it leads to frenzy....

"As out of many thousands barely onecan be found who has fulfilled the commandments and all that islawful and has attained to purity of soul; so among thousands onecan hardly be found who through great efforts of persevering pureprayer, has been given to achieve it, to break the bounds of thislife and to gain possession of that mystery, for many have failedto achieve pure prayer, and only few have reached it. But a manwho has reached the mystery which comes after it and is beyondit, through the grace of Christ, can hardly be found in manygenerations....

"Some transgress the law time and timeagain, and heal their souls by repentance, and grace receivesthem; for every sentient being changes times without number andevery man alters hourly. A man of good judgment has many occasionto understand this. But his trials, day by day, have specialpower to make him wise in this, if he watches over himself withsobriety; so that, among other things, he may observe himselfwith his mind and learn what changes his soul undergoes everyday, how it departs from meekness and its peaceful dispositionand is suddenly thrown into confusion, and what unspeakabledanger threatens him at such times.

"The blessed Macarius, moved by hisgreat care and concern for his brethren, has written about thisfor their edification and remembrance; he advised them not tofall into despair at the vicissitudes of adversity (or battles);because downfalls constantly occur even to those who haveattained purity, just as air at times becomes cooler. Suchdownfalls, opposed to the aim of their efforts, may come withoutany laziness or carelessness, but, on the contrary, when they aremoving in accordance with their degree of attainment."

Further definitions are given, andparticular emphasis of the renunciation of the products of one'sown imagination

"The perfection of our whole progressconsists of the following three things: repentance, purity andperfection. What is repentance? Abandoning what has been andgrieving over it. What briefly is purity? A heart filled withcompassion for every creature. What is perfection? The depth ofhumility which means renunciation of everything visible andinvisible; by visible -- meaning all sensory things, and byinvisible -- all creations of the mental world....

"Repentance is a complete andvoluntary dying to everything. A compassionate heart is a heartburning for every creature, for men, birds, animals, for demonsand all creation....

"Silence kills the outer senses, butbrings inner movements to life; external contacts produce theopposite effect, that is, they bring to life the outer senses andkill inner movements....

"Intense doing (i.e., spiritualactivity, prayer, etc.) gives birth to measureless heatintensified into he heart by flaming thoughts, which arise anewin the mind. All this doing and guarding refine the mind by theirheat and endow it with vision. This heat produced by the grace ofcontemplation gives birth to the flow of tears. Constant tearsstill the thoughts in the soul and purify the mind, and with apure mind a man comes to the visions of Divine mysteries. Afterthis the mind attains vision of revelations and symbols such asthe prophet Ezekiel saw...."

It is obvious that to these early Christiansaints, prayer was not always a quiet meditation, but anemotional experience in which bodily gestures and posturessymbolized the soul's anguish over sin, etc.:

"Tears, striking oneself on the headduring prayer, casting oneself on the ground produce the sweetwarmth of tears in the heart, and with marvelous ecstasy theheart soars to God with the cry: 'My soul thirsteth for Thee, theloving God: When shall I come and appear before God?'... This isJerusalem and the kingdom of God, concealed within us accordingto the word of the Lord (Luke 17:21). This region is the cloud ofDivine glory which only the pure in heart enter, to contemplatethe face of their Lord.

"Let us not grieve when we make aslip, but when we become hardened in it. for even the perfectoften 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 onrepentance, is being dishonest with God. Death strikes him downwithout warning, leaving him no time to fulfill the works ofvirtue as he had hoped....

"We should constantly realize that inevery one of these twenty-four hours of day and night we haveneed of repentance. The meaning of the word repentance, as wehave learned from the true quality of things, is the following:it is an unflagging petition to God, addressed to Him in prayerfull of contrition, begging Him to overlook the past; it is alsoconcern about protecting the future....

"Passionless does not mean not feelingpassions, but not accepting them... For when the soul does notmake friends with passions by thinking about them, then, since itis constantly occupied with another concern, the power ofpassions is unable to hold spiritual feelings in its grip."

Signs of Religious Ecstasy

The physical signs of religious ecstasy aredescribed in a remarkable passage by St. Isaac: "Love forGod is naturally ardent and when it fills a man to overflowing,leads the soul to ecstasy. Therefore the heart of a man whoexperiences it cannot contain or bear it, but undergoes anextraordinary change according to its own quality and the qualityof the love which fills him. Its sensible signs are the following:

"The man's face becomes joyous andaflame and his body is warmed. Shame and fear leave him and hebecomes like one in ecstasy. The force which keeps his mindcollected flees from him and he is as one out of his mind. Aterrible death is for him a joy, and his mental contemplation ofheavenly things is never broken. Even when absent, he conversesas if present though unseen. His knowledge and sight naturallycease, and he no longer feels his movements among sensory objects.Even if he does something, he is not aware of it, for his mind ison high in contemplation, and his thought always seems to beconversing with someone else.

"This spiritual intoxication wasexperienced of old by Apostles and martyrs. The first traveledfar and wide over the whole world, working and sufferingpersecutions; but the latter had their limbs cut off, shed bloodlike water, but, suffering the most terrible tortures, never lostcourage and valiantly bore everything; being wise they wereconsidered foolish. Yet others wandered among deserts, mountains,caves and precipices of the earth, remaining well-ordered amongstall disorder. May God grant us such disorder!"

There is none of the anti-intellectualismof more modern mystics in these early Christian saints; on thecontrary, they had a rather consuming interest in theology which,after all, is the "science of God." Their mysticalexperiences (i.e., visions, ecstasies, etc.) were of littleinterest to them as such, but were considered as a naturallyexpected concomitant of their life of devotion and service. Theysought God, not as an "experience," and accepted theexperiences as a result of God's grace.

Maximus the Confessor (580-662) emphasizedthe absolute necessity to grace for the mystical life, as did allthose prior to him. He integrated mysticism into the whole ofChristian theology, and most of his contemporaries also wrote oftheir mysticism with careful attention to its theological aspects.

Somewhat later, as in the writings ofSymeon the New Theologian (949-1022) the emphasis shifts slightly.Although only those with mystical experiences qualify as leadersof the Church, the Christ-centered mysticism of which he speakswas considered a natural flowering of the contemplative life inits 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 "wayof affirmation." The Eastern Orthodox Church articulated itsposition through Gregory Palamas, and has tried to maintain abalance between the two concepts since that time. In the EasternChristianity, there was a synthesis of what sometimes appears tobe an irreconcilable difference between East and West in theirphilosophies of the subjective religious life.

The early Christians safeguarded thetranscendence of God at all costs against the unstructuredpantheism into which mysticism so easily degenerates. Beginningwith Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), the younger brother of St. Basilthe Great, and finally expounded fully by Gregory Palamas, thetwo types of theology emerged in coexistence and harmony, knownas "apophatic" and "cataphatic" theologies.These men maintained that it was safer to think and speak aboutGod in negative terms rather than positive ones. Cataphatictheology, or the positive affirmations about God, such as thefact that He is just, good, wise, etc., may lead one to believehe understands God, when in fact God is unknowable in His essence.

The aforementioned men reasoned rather thatthe ends of truth may be better served by declaring what God isNOT, rather than vainly attempting to expound what He IS. As Johnof Damascus said, "That there is a God is clear; but WHAT HeIS by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond ourcomprehension and knowledge." Whereas some mystics of themodern era have practically said God IS the light of which theyhave had a vision, this early saint was careful to point out thatany 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 apophatictheology of the "way of negation." The earliestChristian mystics believed that all positive statements about Godwere true "as far as they went," but it was impossibleto adequately describe the inner nature of deity in those termsalone. Unlike the "positive thinkers" of modern times,the early theologians and mystics in the Church did not hesitateto insist on the necessity of using negative logic and negativevocabulary regarding God.

Mysticism in the Western Church

In the West, the Church had to cope withother concerns. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) was the lastgreat writer on the contemplative life in the West before theMiddle Ages. He reduced the mystic life to recollection,introversion, and contemplation.

Recollection meant withdrawing into oneselfmentally and avoiding for a while the "dispersion ofthoughts" all mystics complained about. Introversion meantthat the soul considers the spirituality of its own nature, anddivorces its attention from the materialistic side of life.Contemplation was the mental state in which one was occupied onlywith the Creator.

The Western Christians wrote little ofmysticism until the beginning of the Middle Ages, and subtledifferences with the early Eastern thought began to appear.

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