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Hesychasm: Orthodox Spirituality
Posted: 01/13/2008 01:41 AM
Hesychasm: Orthodox Spirituality Compared and Constrasted with Other Religious Traditions
Dr. Thomas Mether
The following collection of articles was posted to the Orthodox List in February, 1998.
Since my professional training is in Philosophy and History of Religion, I have a fairly detailed knowledge of other religious traditions and how they compare with Orthodox Christianity. As a result, my Orthodox students have many questions for me that I guess they feel their priest, usually trained exclusively in Orthodox Christianity, is not equipped to answer. So, I am sometimes placed in the uncomfortable position of answering questions about Orthodox spirituality. The question that has been raised many times is about the similarities and differences between the Hesychast tradition and other contemplative traditions, such as Theravada Buddhism and Hindu Yoga. While there have been some things written on this issue, I believe the key points have not been made at the right level of analysis or detail. Thus, discussion of these traditions’ similarities and differences thereby remains at a rudimentary and overly abstract level. I hope to cast some more light on this question.
First, since we are dealing with universal human nature, it should come as no surprise that there are important similarities between different religious traditions in terms of their ethics, their contemplative traditions, and even some of the individual techniques of their spiritual practices. But, as I hope to clarify, there are even more important differences, fundamentally rooted in theological or philosophical differences, especially when we are comparing the Hesychast tradition of Orthodox Christianity with either Theravada Buddhism or Hindu Yoga. Moreover, if some believe that theological doctrines or philosophical views are mere abstractions without much practical bearing upon the practical life in its ethical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions, I hope this talk convinces them otherwise.
I will begin by pointing out some of the similarities between these three traditions’ views on the soul (or mind) and its faculties. Despite some minor conceptual variations, in essence, there is broad and overlapping agreement about the nature of the faculties of the soul and about their operational possibilities within various phases of their development in the spiritual life.
For our purposes here, we need only to discuss the cognitive powers of the soul. According to all the traditions under consideration, behind the five senses there is one common inner sense. This common inner sense is the phantasia (this is not to be confused, as it is in modem times inexperienced with the interior life, with imagination or eikasia, phantasia is the noetic power to make present through one’s own power to be present while eikasia is the dianoetic power to imagine in terms of concrete images as opposed to abstract concepts) in the Hesychast tradition (the Latin west calls it the “sensus interior”), the pratyaksa in the Yoga tradition, and the mano-vijnana in the Buddhist tradition.
This common inner sense is the lowest form of the mind’s highest faculty of intuition, of direct and immediate consciousness, or what is the nous in Hesychasm (intellectus in the Latin west), buddhi-caitanya in Yoga, and manas or vijnana in Buddhism.
Nous: The Faculty of Intellection
In all these traditions, nous is the faculty of immediate experience that allows us to live and participate in our lives. It is the faculty that makes the difference between living through something or actually experiencing it rather than merely thinking about it. It is the mind’s power of non-conceptual awareness, of being there, of living through some event in an immediate sort of way. Nous is conscious experience. In fallen humanity, it is also experienced as the occasional flash of insight when we say “Eureka!” In awakened humanity, our on-going conscious experience will be an on-going process of deepening insight or a constant and continuous “eureka.” I quote the glossary of the Philokalia, from which we learn that nous is:
“the highest faculty in man, through which - provided it is purified - he knows God or the inner essences or principl es o created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia or reason, from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect does not function by formulating abstract concepts ... but understands ... by means of direct experience, intuition, or ‘simple cognition’ (the term used by St. Isaac the Syrian). The intellect dwells in the “depths of the soul”; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart ... The intellect is the organ of contemplation, the ‘eye of the heart’” (Makarian Homilies).
It is the nous that is clarified, made wakeful, made self-luminously lucent, self-concentrated, and made into a habit of non-distracted awareness or alertness in these spiritual traditions. Nous is in the heart while the dianoia (the ratio in the Latin west) is in the head. As the heart of the soul, the nous is also the eso anthropos or inner man in Hesychasm or the purusa or person in both Yoga and Buddhism. As such, it is the eso ego or inner I in Hesychasm, the asmita or I-principle in Yoga, and the aham in Buddhism (Buddhism’s notoriously famous doctrine of anatman does not deny the I, rather, it denies the Vedantic concept of atman, namely, that our self is identical with eternally unchanging Brahman or divine Spirit).
In Hesychasm, in contrast to the other two traditions being discussed, there is the distinctive and highly significant teaching that this very sense of I, the very experience of being an I, the very feeling of I am is the reflex of the divine call into a communion of relationships ordinarily known in its faded and fallen state as syneidesis or conscience. We will return to this later when we examine the ultimate status and significance of ethics in these traditions.
In all three traditions, the nous is the self-perceiving power or power of self-perception or self-sensing (synaithesis in Hesychasm, svaprakasatva in the eastern traditions) that accompanies any perception or feeling or thought or experience in a way that makes the self (its various inner states and its actions) have the inner unified sense of belonging to itself (oikeiosis) in an accountable and responsible way. And, in all three traditions, nous is the ruling power (egemonikon) of self-determination or auto-execution (autoexousion) of the soul which in its outwardly directed manifestation as a power is the thelein or will.
We just examined the nous briefly. It is now time to turn to the dianoia.
Dianoia: The Faculty of Reasoning
The dianoia is the inner discursive power of reasoning by means of concepts. As the conceptualizing power of thinking by abstract concepts the dianoia is referred to as the logistikon (ratio in Latin west) or logical intelligence. As the conceptualizing power of envisioning or imagining by concrete concepts or inner images the dianoia is referred to as the eikasia (imaginatio in the Latin west) or imagination. It is not immediate experience but the second-hand reflection upon and thinking about experience or anything. Thus, because dianoia is second-hand it is called the reflective power. Nous is the light of the mind itself like the sun. Dianoia is the thinking, conceptualizing, inner talking, reflection of nous and what nous reveals, and thus, dianoia is like the moon or mirror reflecting the light that comes from another source. An increase in the revealing power of the light of nous clarifies for dianoia the subject-matter or “data” it inquires into and thinks about in order to consolidate its comprehension.
Development of the Soul
Although to describe in more detail how would take us too far afield, all three traditions are pretty much in agreement about the nature of the passions of the soul in its fallen, contra-natural, or samsaric (Yoga and Buddhist term roughly equivalent to both “external man” and “world” in St. John the Apostle’s sense) state. All three would agree there are two kinds of virtue: practical or ethical and intellectual or contemplative. There is also some agreement about the nature of the ethical and intellectual virtues of the soul (mind). Each tradition would recognize as a form of ethical virtue what the others would regard as a form of virtue.
As indicated, there is agreement about the nature of the intellectual faculties of the soul (mind) and about the nature of the intellectual virtues of these two faculties in their higher forms of development, which we will not get into detail now.
Corresponding to the consensus about the various powers of the soul and their developmental possibilities, it is no surprise that there is a superficial agreement about the nature of their training within a spiritual practice. According to both the Buddhist and Hindu tradition, the Eightfold Path and the Eightfold Yoga of Patanjali are also described as the threefold spiritual practice. In both these traditions, this threefold spiritual practice is also seen as a twofold training mainly of the will (and its affections) and of the mind, or, a training in the ethical virtues and in the intellectual virtues.
In Buddhism and Yoga, the threefold practice is sila, prajna, and samadhi. Sila is the training of the will and affections of the soul by the practice and cultivation of the moral virtues. Prajna is the dianoetic training of the reasoning, conceptualizing, logical part of the mind into its peak virtue. As indicated, samadhi is the noetic training of the power of consciousness or pure awareness to be increasingly intense degrees of self-concentrated states of non-distraction and self-awareness.
The Hesychast tradition can be schematized along very similar lines. There is a twofold training of the soul’s capacities for ethical virtues or praxis, and of the soul’s powers for intellectual virtues or theoria. But praxis and theoria can also be schematized as a threefold spiritual practice. The threefold schematization of the Hesychast way is comprised of praxis, diakrisis/sophia, and enstasis/hesychia. Again, praxis is the training of the will, affections of the soul, and their cultivation into the ethical virtues. Diakrisis/sophia is the training of the dianoia into virtuous form. Enstasis/hesychia is the training of the nous into a self-lucent and self-concentrated state of wakeful non-distraction.
There is also agreement between all three traditions about how these three intially separate lines of training mutually interact with each other and reinforce each other’s development. So, while beginning as apparently three separate lines of effortful developmental training, in more advanced phases their mutual augmentation becomes increasingly effortless and spontaneous unified way of being. But it is at this point that the really crucial differences are made clear, and thereby, reveal the fundamental differences that were there, under the surface, all along.
It is to these differences between Hesychasm, Buddhism, and Hindu Yoga that I now turn.
To best understand why there are these vitally important differences and what they mean, let us follow the Fathers of the Church, according to whom, there are the following possible three states of human existence, of the soul, and all its faculties. These three states are:
1. the sub-natural or contra-natural state, also known as the “contrary to nature” state, and fallen subsistence,
2. the natural state, also known as the “according to nature” state, and life as created in the Image, and
3. the supra-natural state, also known as the “beyond nature” or “according to grace” state of ascending participation in the Uncreated Energies, and deified eternal life after the Likeness.
There are two things to point out about these states. First, originally, we were created in the natural state in the divine Image but were meant to grow in synergy with the Uncreated Energies into the deified Likeness of God.
Second, we are in the contra-natural state. So, of course, it is the better known state. The natural and supra-natural states are less well known, even to the Fathers of the Church. Accordingly, there is more agreement between all three traditions, not surprisingly, about the nature and problems of the contra-natural state than there is about the natural state or about our ultimate supra-natural destiny. As a result, while there is much agreement about the nature and problems of the beginning stages of the spiritual life from the contra-natural state to the natural state, this consensus rapidly disappears. Despite the alleged superficial and deceptive similarities of the peak of the spiritual life that has been created by those who engage in highly selective quoting and juxtapositioning of bits and pieces of texts from various mystical traditions in an effort to support the view that all religions are one at the top, what we actually find is that both the nature and purpose of the more advanced phases of the spiritual life are topics where there is an increasing divergence of opinion. But as we can see with the Fathers, particularly in how the Cappadocians treat and weigh what is true and of value in Greek philosophy, and following their lead, especially with the Syrian Fathers dealing with what was true and what was error in Buddhist practice (as represented in Bactria), even the agreement about the nature of the contra-natural state is more limited than is apparent at first sight. This is because you can only fully agree about exactly how the contra-natural state is contra-natural only if there is shared knowledge of what the original design plan of purpose of human life intended us to be.
Differing conceptions of the ultimate nature and purpose of human life provide differing cures for the contra-natural disease we all suffer from. But as the meaning of the Greek word “phármakon” reveals in ancient Greek medicine, depending on the exact nature of the disease as diagnosed in terms of some exact conception of health, the very same substance or treatment can either serve as a medicine (phármakon) or poison (pharmákion). To be a medicine, a substance or treatment has to be given in the right amount, at the right time, and under the right conditions for a correctly diagnosed disease in order to have the right effect. The same holds true for spiritual treatments, techniques, and cures. We need to understand the vastly different purposes, serving different diagnoses of what is wrong, based upon different views of what human life is supposed to be, that similar, or even, exactly the same spiritual techniques are made to serve. It is not similar techniques that we need to look at but their purpose, their actual function within a larger operational context, and thus, their intended effect.
Distinctive Characteristics of Orthodox Christianity
It is to these purposes we will turn to examine in order to reveal the very real differences in function and outcome behind the apparent similarities of even the same spiritual techniques. But in order to do that, we first need to note two very distinctive characteristics about Orthodox Christianity that determine the fundamental purposes, functions, and outcomes of any spiritual techniques that may make the Hesychast tradition superficially appear similar to Buddhism or Yoga.
The first characteristic of Orthodoxy is the emphatically important truth for spirituality that God is Trinity. The spiritually relevant meaning and implication of this fact, for our purposes, is that reality is ultimately and inescapably interpersonal communion.
Intimately stemming from the fact that God is Trinity is the second distinctive characteristic of Orthodox Christianity. Christianity is not a religion; it is a Church - the Church, the Kingdom come, God’s people called out of the world unto Him, and the Communion of Saints. That is, Christianity is not my personal and private salvation through Jesus. As the Body of Christ, it is a deifying process of becoming a communion of persons mutually participating in the Uncreated Energies of the Life of the Trinity and increasingly after its Likeness.
Plato sought the ideal polis. Aristotle defined the human creature as intrinsically the social and political animal. In Judaism, a relationship to God is to be called and chosen, ex nihilo fashion, out of nothing, out of Ur of the Chaldeans, out of Egypt, out of the world, as a people covenanted to God. The people, the Church, the Body of Christ (through whom all things were made, in whom all things have their being, and will find their fulfillment) - that is, the covenant - is the inner purpose of creation. Creation is the outer staging. The Church is the fruit from which the tree that bore it was born first, as the Syrian Church is fond of reciting, for what shall be last is the very realization of what was first ordained. This is simultaneously a cosmological and inward truth. Those who inwardly shall be last spiritually participate in that fruit from which the tree that bore it was itself born.
Contrary to the (schismatic, Roman Catholic derived) Protestant sensibilities that are dominant in our culture and affect too many Orthodox, the spiritual life and our salvation have everything to do with Church membership. The Church is God’s ideal polis. To say, in contrast to the nature deities of paganism, that our God is the God of history who intervenes in human affairs is also to say he is the supreme politician. God’s economia of salvation is God’s career in politics in history. God’s politics is the outward missionary expansion of his Church and the inner building-up of his Church into a perfected Communion of Saints after the Likeness of the trinitarian communion of divine persons. Syneidesis or conscience is naturally the innate prefiguration of the Church as that which ought to be, but which is faded in our contra-natural condition. For Orthodox Christianity, conscience is our innate inward call to become part of the Body of Christ.
While these two distinctive characteristics of Orthodox Christianity may appear to be abstractions that are apparently remote from our daily lives or the life of the spirit, they immediately determine the differences in purpose, function, and outcome of similar or or even the same spiritual techniques that may be found in the Hesychast tradition, in Buddhism, and Hindu Yoga. The main difference between Hesychasm and the other two traditions is now before us waiting to be spelled out. We turn now to examine the status of ethics in these traditions.
In Buddhism and Hindu Yoga, as we have noted, there is an ethical practice of the virtues. And both the practice and the virtues cultivated are roughly the same as those found in Orthodox Christianity. But the purpose and ultimate status of ethics in Buddhism and Hindu Yoga is different in two important ways in contrast to the purpose and status of ethics in Hesychasm.
So, while all three traditions agree that the practice of the virtues is the preliminary practice that purifies the character and lays down the psychological foundation for the cultivation of the two intellectual virtues in the contemplative component of the spiritual life, the first difference is that in Buddhism and Hindu Yoga ethical praxis is merely a preliminary practice, and drops off, so to speak, like a discarded rocket booster as the contemplative capsule really begins its journey. Thus, the essence of ethics is ahimsa or non-harm because the intention or purpose is to get free of any entanglements.
And this is because, while all three traditions agree that the contemplative stage is a higher and more advanced stage, Buddhism and Hindu Yoga view it as a phase that transcends and leaves behind the ethical sphere of interpersonal relationships because one is to transcend even one’s own finite personal identity and merge into the impersonal void, or Buddha-nature, or nirguna Brahman.
Ethical Praxis in Hesychasm
By sharp contrast, for the Hesychast tradition, ethical praxis is the whole point of the spiritual life. The other two aspects of it, namely dianoetic and noetic training, are totally geared to serve the ethical component, not leave it behind! While Buddhism and Yoga admit that a disturbed conscience and bad habits perturb the dianoia so that its power to be fully rational is inhibited and that they contra-naturally obscure the natural clarity and self-lucidity of the nous, they don’t see why this is the case from an Orthodox point of view. In Hesychasm, the dianoetic training of the reasoning and deliberative dianoia (also augmented by the ethical and noetic training that frees it from interference from the passions) is to make it fit to serve conscience (syneidesis) in a discriminating and deliberative manner by which we rationally match appropriate means to appropriate ends that are themselves appropriately prioritized for the service of God and neighbor. With a purified nous, the virtue of the reasoning part of mind to match appropriate means to appropriate ends that are properly prioritized is phronesis (that is, prudence, which in its nothing to do with prudery or rather cowardly calculative self-concern that the world seeks to make us believe prudence is) when related to our lives and our neighbors. The noetic training in stilling the dispersed, obscured, and distracted nous into a limpid state of wakeful presence and transparent sincerity with oneself is to make it fit to be the fully awake, non-evasive, and vigilant presence of insightful self-responsibility through the call through conscience (syneidesis).
Theoria: The Vision of God
Combined, the virtue of both the dianoia and nous is called “theoria,” that is, contemplation. But a better description is the vision of God. In another respect, the combined dianoetic and noetic perfection of phronesis in the service of conscience is sophia. Sophia or wisdom is the perfection of know-how in being a member of the Church or it is the intrapersonal perfection of our synergistically skilled participation in interpersonal communion. Thus, sophia is the graced skill of communing in a way that conscience is perfectly actualized and fulfilled as skilled agape. But perhaps the most descriptive term for the nature of specifically Christian contemplation is gnosis. The term gnosis emphasizes the intimate personal familiarity (including direct self-knowledge in the form of immediate and inwardly honest clear self-experiencing) we have of persons in their singular uniqueness (their haecceitas, according to Duns Scotus, who, after the 1277 Condemnations against trends that went too far towards re-paganizing Christian theology which the Roman Catholic Religious Organization [RCRO] did not reverse, such as found in Aquinas, sought to restore the earlier western view shared with the east that beyond and higher than the cognitio abstractiva in the service of scientia (the Greek episteme) was an intimate cognitio singularis or simplex intuitiva (the Greek gnosis) of persons in their singular uniqueness). In the LXX, it is the term used for sexual intercourse as when Adam “knew” Eve in Genesis. Through phronesis and sophia, but also most importantly, through agape or love, which is the perfection of conscience (syneidesis), gnosis is born. Because God is Trinity and reality is ultimately and inescapably interpersonal relationships, gnosis is thereby higher than episteme or science which deals with natural types and kinds. Episteme used to be the high contemplative ideal in ancient Greek philosophy which did not recognize persons in their individual singularity as an ultimate or hypostasic reality over impersonal nature (physis) even if this impersonal nature was the unknown God or Unmoved Mover.
In contrast to not only Buddhism and Yoga but also to all forms of western Christianity, Orthodoxy teaches that the hypostasis of the Father, a person, is the personal source of the Son and Spirit, and thus, is the source of the divine nature (physis) and essence (ousia). Personhood trumps nature even if it is divine nature. By contrast, except for Bonaventure who insisted on the monarchia of the person of the Father as the source of the divine being, the west never understood the importance of this point, as Augustine admits, and thus, western trinitarian theology typically begins, paganistically and mistakenly, with the divine ousia.
Because our destiny is to partake, as the Church, in the divine trinitarian life after its Likeness, the entire substance of the spiritual life of the Christian is relationships. It is all about improving the quality of how well you relate to others: God or neighbor. There is no quality of relationship to God that is not intrinsically tied to the quality of how well one relates to the least of these your neighbors. Prayer is relationship. In sharp contrast to Buddhist, Yogic, or pagan Greek forms of contemplation (theoria), Orthodox contemplation is gnosis because it is personal relationship. There is no advance in prayer that is not an advance in how one is in relationships. If there is a block in the prayer life, the same block is there in your relationships.
One might almost want to say the self-emptying quality of the Incarnation or its kenosis applies to the mystical life. While for us God should be our highest priority, perhaps we are safe to say that in the prayer life God isn’t his first or highest priority in his relation to us. Rather, “being in the form of God, [he] did not consider it something to be held onto, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men" (Philippians 2: 6-7) so that he places Himself on an equal level with our neighbors. That is, He doesn’t, so to speak, push His way through the crowd we neglect and ignore in order to insist that He be known to us before others. Rather, we have no relation to Him that is not made contingent by Him upon our relation to others. Or, think of the some of the sentences of the Lord’s Prayer as formulas within which other variables can be plugged in, so instead of “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” we might substitute “relate to us as we relate to others.” Again, a block in the quality of the prayer life is a block in how we relate to others.
So, instead of merging “alone into the supreme Alone” after having transcended the allegedly merely personal and merely ethical sphere, as the famous pagan RCRO pseudo-Meister Eckhart (student of Aquinas) put it, Hesychast spirituality is the transfiguration and deification of our society and fellowship with persons - whether divine or fellow creature. In Hesychasm, there is no transcendence of or leaving behind or leave-taking of the ethical, interpersonal, or personal sphere for some state allegedly “beyond good and evil.” Since reality is inescapably interpersonal, ethical virtue is the very point and goal of the spiritual life of the Christian. There is a Jewish saying, “if you want to end with God, you have to begin with God. And inconveniently, God gives you people.” The same principle applies to why ethics is a preliminary practice in Christian spirituality. Given a trinitarian God, ethics is the beginning of the spiritual life because it is the very substance and goal of the spiritual life.
This is what makes the Jesus Prayer different from a mantra (contrary to a whole list of Jesuit publications). Like a mantra, it does indeed still, calm, and focus the mind’s noetic power of wakeful attentiveness. But, according to the nyptic Fathers in the Philokalia, the Jesus Prayer only works correctly and serves the intended purpose if and only if conducted within the context of an ethical askesis and participation in the life of the Church. Its whole point is to awaken our deeper ethical and interpersonal responsiveness to others within the Communion of Saints. The essence of the various forms of dianoetic and noetic training found in the Hesychast tradition, the whole Hesychast pharmacopeia, so to speak, is encapsulated within the Jesus Prayer as one pill that does not require the careful and expert supervision of a great staretz that the other forms do.
Unlike a mantra, the Jesus Prayer expresses a personal plea. Not only that, it is a personal plea for mercy. Mercy for what? Mercy because like the servant who owed and was forgiven the great debt of 10,000 Talents, we fail to forgive as we have been forgiven, to love as we have been loved, and because we otherwise fail in our relationships. The Jesus Prayer captures all the poignancy of our situation. Sin is missing the point. The awakening and focussing point of the Jesus Prayer is our relationships to each other, whether God or neighbor. Whether you are curious about, or have encountered, or have to study in college the various mystical, meditative, yoga, or contemplative traditions, or whether you are preparing for missions in places where these traditions thrive in their authentic form and not in some watered-down American New Age form, don’t let their apparent similarities fool you into missing the point of Hesychast spirituality.
Patristic Spirituality vs. Modern Emotionalism
Tracking the history of the decline of authentic spirituality in the Roman Catholic Religious Organization [RCRO] has many key events or points that cannot be all listed here in a single post. The best thing is to enter this topic gradually. There is method behind how topics are introduced.
Even the RCRO was at first highly critical of what was called “devotio moderna” during the late medieval and early modern period. But since its own authentically spiritual tradition was effectively dying (murdered by the RCRO itself), there was a void that could not withstand the flood of modern devotionalism. Modern devotionalism is the kind of emotionalism that the older Spiritual Directors warned against. It was called enthusiasmos,mania, and hysteria. It is a selfish, self-preoccupied, and auto-erotic narcissistic concern for being right and correct, often in the eyes of others and oneself.
The very basic difference between spirituality and the pseudo-spirituality of this emotionalism (that has deep ramifications to brought out later when we discuss the differences between nous, dianoia, ethical and intellectual virtues, and so on) is to be find in some of the older catechism “talks” some exceptional Fathers had with adult converts who were recently Baptized/Chrismated (originally, the instruction was the night after chrismation when the newly chrismated stayed in the church with the Bishop or Father). In the talks that have been recorded, there is a consistency from the 5th century to the 19th century that reveals the catholicity of these instructions. So, I summarize them.
The nyptic Fathers teach that the type of emotionalism that characterizes the western forms of modern devotion are to be avoided. It is true, for example, that one is to try to pray with all one’s thought, feeling, and attention focussed on the prayer evenat the stage of verbal prayer. But such as we contra-naturally are, we do not have the power to attend fully and faithfully (its a lost natural capacity that needs to be regained as a skilled habit), nor the right attitude or feeling and any attempt on our part to emotionally try to feel the right feeling is imagination. We must work solely with focussing our thought (by stilling) and attention, and then, the prayer will teach us what to feel, how to worship, and elicit the appropriate response from us if and only if we are participating seriously in the ethical askesis and liturgical life of the Church as prior and contextual conditioning, so to speak. Without these other two, our soul’s are not the previously furrowed or prepared “raw material” that can be appropriately worked on towards transformation.
This is why the Church gives us formal prayers to “recite” and the Psalms. We do not know what to feel or how to pray and need to be taught. In modern times, even the praiseworthy attempt to be deeply attentive is misguided. The attempt to attend takes the form as a concern with what to think, what to feel, and what to imagine during prayers and Divine Services. This is precisely to be as consumed, as distracted, and as dissipated in one’s own self-preoccupied fantasies of being a good worshipper as the fellow thinking about his meal, and perhaps, football game and nap after the Liturgy.
Such a state of mind and its concerns is the exact opposite of the sober wakefulness needed. Lets call it “self-meddling preoccupation with one’s attitude.” One is just to attend to the prayers and Divine Services with a certain fullness of presence. In the beginning, onemay feel cold. One has no feeling for these things. One is impatient. One’s feet or back hurts. One’s kids are an irritating embarrassment and you hope others didn’t notice. That puts you in a bad mood of which you feel ashamed, and so, you do not try to make the effort attend because you feel unworthy, and thus, don’t FEEL like it. Again, one falss into making it an issue of emotion. One is always catching oneself distracted, irritated, and inattentive. One notices how this insight may also lead one to forget again to try to just attend. To notice this is a first moment of discrimination (diakrisis).
Fantasy begins when I try to search for a way to give myself or make myself have the appropriate attitudes and feelings. Make no attempt to feel what one thinks one should feel. That is the role of the Holy Spirit through the Services, Psalms, Prayers, and Hymnography of the Church. Instead, noting one’s distraction, irritability, pain, (pseudo-spiritual) passional concern over what to feel, and inattention, try again to just attend. Listen. This is the first baby step in dispassion (apatheia).
By contrast, the emotionalism of modern devotionalism is passional quicksand. Intensified, it can become refined into many fine shades of erotomania (eroticism and mania-manic).
Eventually, with effort to ethically overcome one’s vices during the day and between confessions and to be attentive, just attentive, at Divine Services, one will find that the Spirit of the prayers and Divine Services of the Church themselves will evoke and draw out the attitude of worship that should be called forth from your heart. The Spirit will brood over your inner abyss and draw forth into being the new forms your attitude should take. These feelings and their attitude, at first, will suddenly appear, and then, be gone. You will instantly be tempted to recapture or mimick them. Stop! Attend! Later, you will find they come and go but stay longer. As they do, you will find they will positively strengthen your power to attend, reinforcing and augmenting it. This will correlate with some beginning in true (private) prayer.
But again, for this to happen, we must be only receptive and attentive. I emphasize the word only. This being only attentive and alertly receptive is the first baby step in stillness (hesychia). Even in the beginning, some measure of hesychia is obligatory.
Much, much later, if diligently working out one’s salvation, these basic skills of diakrisis, apatheia, and hesychia begun in these baby steps will begin to mutually interact on each other, augmenting each other, and eventually begin to fuse into a single state of wakeful, receptive, obedience. But this takes us far into deep waters on the three states of human existence contrary to nature, according to nature in the divine Image, and beyond nature increasingly after the divine Likeness in deifying synergy with the Uncreated Energies through the Church’s participation in the trinitarian life, as the Body of Christ hypostatically deified by His divinity. They take us into what is the nous, what is sarx, what is eso anthropos, and why Orthodox spirituality is more about Church membership than a lone soul’s “union” with the divine (you’d be surprise how infrequently “union” in the western sense of “mystical union” is used in the east.). While there is a tendency in western “mysticism” of the individual to “transcend” the ethical and ecclesial sphere of interpersonal relationships and community as People of God, in which the “alone meets the Lone” (Eckhart), Orthodox spirituality is always communal, ecclesial, and there is always the ever-present relationship to another person: God or neighbor. Orthodox “mysticism” is the perfection of ethics and community, not the transcendence of it. The old pagan Greek ideal of contemplation (theoria) was impersonal episteme. By contrast, higher than episteme is gnosis. Gnosis is personal familiarity with a person. So, even contemplative prayer in Orthodoxy is personal relationship. Thus, there is no advance in the prayer life that is not intrinsically tied to relation to one’s neighbor. A block in prayer is due to a block in how you relate to others. Well that is a highly synoptic overview and digression.
Again, contrary to modem devotionalism, the attentive and receptive state of undistractedness and stillness is far from and unknown to many living in the present age. Think, because orthodoxy is relationships, one can’t unilaterally make up one’s mind what quality of feeling the relationship to another is to take. Even normal friendships do not arise by busily psyching ourselves up into unilaterally defining (thereby shutting the other party out) the ideal attitude and feeling to have in it. Hesychasm is advanced ethics. Ethics involves reciprocity with another. Reciprocity involves being patiently awake to the other, being attentive to the other, being sensitive and receptive to the other; it is not about you, in some self-preoccupied concern to have the right attitude and feeling, shutting the other out. So, no sick emotionalism. Attend, be receptive, watch for the Bridegroom.
This is a collated synopsis of many of the talks to beginners or newly adult chrismated.
Roman Catholic Phantasia
I cannot fully address this issue here but will offer some comments in support of my contention. Tracing this history has two components. First, there is the earlier disappearance of the culture of inner presence or awakening of the inner sense asa lower power of nous corresponding to the transition from the contra-natural state to the recovered natural state in some lineages of the western mystical tradition. While there remains in the west a rough but ill-understood consensus with the east about the nature of the supra-natural states with their infused impressed species.
Due to the influence of heterodox Byzantine humanists with heterodox views of Hesychasm, there develops a misguided and increasingly wrongly motivated Renaissance quest to re-discover the missing phase leads to the distortion of phantasia into fantasy. The demise of the concept of impressed species in the period of transition from the late middle ages and Renaissance to the modem era reflects a decline in the practical and theoretical knowledge of both intellection and contemplation in the errant and schismatic Roman Catholic Religious Organization [RCRO].
During the Renaissance, a very complicated and confusing picture emerges with respect to the nous, phantasia, and the spiritual life. First, there is the re-discovery and translation of Hermetic and Platonic texts brought to western Europe with an influx of Byzantine Humanists with a heterodox view of Hesychasm. Thus, starts the period of Renaissance Platonism. Yet, Renaissance Platonism combines medieval Aristotelian views when it comes to intellection and the intellectual soul. As A. B. Collins brings out, we find a surprising combination of Thomistic, Hermetic, and Platonic themes even in Ficino himself (A.B. Collins. The Secular is Sacred: Platonism and Thomism in Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology. The Hague 1974: Frances Yates. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: Univ. Chic. Press 1964). Second, within the Aristotelian tradition, there is a broad spectrum of views and a renewed Averroism amongst the Arts Faculty of various universities (eventually influencing Spinoza) that is combined, in some cases, with Neo-Platonic mono-psychism. At Padua in particular, the picture is both complicated and obscured by the fact that in the renewed controversy over the immortality of the individual soul, the condemnations of 1489 and 1513 creates a situation in which no one is representing their real views in public or in print. Meanwhile, while the Hermetic and Platonic texts (including Plotinus) were not part of university curricula, they are frequently cited in the discussions and works by both Arts and Theological faculties and in the notes by their students (Ch.B. Schmidt. “Philosophy and science in sixteenth-century universities,” The Cultural Context of Medieval Learning. eds. J.E. Murdoch and E.D. Sylla, Dordrecht-Boston 1975, 485-530). Third, we find that there is an increasingly abstract and rationalistic study and discussion of contemplative practice with no practical expertise (the fever of concepts inflates, as Lossky would put it) combined with an interest in Platonic doctrines in the RCRO Theological faculties. But one constant does stand out, everyone is interested in finding possible lost components of noetic culture and in rediscovering the lost science of “Sapienza.”
As researched by Couliano, the lost element being sought in this Renaissance quest for lost wisdom was the gnostic science of awakening phantasia (sensus interior) to ever greater degrees within the power of nous in a way it was restored from its current contra-natural state and manner of functioning. But the unfortunate and increasingly dominant aspect of the western quest was a growing fascination with and study of the nature of suggestibility and hypnosis found even in contemplative states due to the absence of a perfected phantasia (interior sensus) into a state of presence (I.P. Couliano. Eros and Magic in the Renaissance. Chicago: Univ. of Chic. Press 1984). This quest becomes distorted and deviates from its original aim.
As indicated, a science awakening of inner presence that is the phase of moving from the contra-natural to natural state in Hesychasm increasingly disappears in the west after Aquinas and largely due to his rationalistic influence that the Franciscans tried to stop. Read the Franciscan Correctionium fratris Thomae that came out of the 1277 Condemnations.
Anyway, by the time of the Renaissance, due to the political situation of the time and the patronage system for philosophers who were not part of a university, this quest for the lost science of phantasia becomes increasingly and exclusively an investigation of the magical and political potential of the suggestibility of a sleeping phantasia in its contra-natural state. As Couliano argues:
"Insofar as ... the manipulation of phantasms are concerned, magic ... primarily ... attempts to create lasting impressions. The magician of the Renaissance is both psychoanalyst and prophet as well as the precursor of modern professions such as director of public relations, propagandist, spy, politician, censor, director of mass communication media, and publicity agent." (Couliano, ibid. xviii)
As Couliano brings out in the course of his study, the original “mystical” quest for the lost element of the spiritual life that the Hesychasts preserved but the RCRO of the west had lost becomes one in which magic becomes the science, with Giordano Bruno, of binding (vincire) the attention suggestively of masses or a single individual. As Couliano describes it, as a magician, as “the great manipulator” creating “lasting impressions,”
Bruno is the first to exploit the concept of magic to its ultimate conclusions, envisaging this science as a psychological instrument for manipulating the masses ... De vinculis in genere (Of bonds in general) by Bruno is one of those little-known works whose importance in the history of ideas far outstrips that of more famous ones. In its frankness, indeed the cynicism of. ... its contents, it might be compared to Machiavelli’s The Prince, especially as the subject matter of the two works is connected: Bruno deals with psychological manipulation, Machiavelli with political manipulation. But how colorless and ridiculous the Machiavellian prince ... compared to Bruno’s magician.(ibid. 88-89)
To cut a long story short, phantasia becomes fantasy. Fantasy comes to be seen as a dangerous power of delusion and unreality. Meanwhile, the work of Bruno on how to manipulate the masses through erotically manipulating their sleeping phantasia becomes “transformed” and adopted by a spiritually blind RCRO into the devotio moderna, such as the sick erotomania of Terese of Liseux.
The influence of pre-modem and early modern views made rapid in-roads into Catholic ascetic and mystical theology. Under the pathological influence of the emotionalistic devotionalism and without any authoritative persons to diagnose the fact that it was a sickness, many mystical theologians during the seventeenth century were already thinking of mystical union as a state of affection rather than as a state of intellection. The distinction between phantasia and imaginatio was increasingly lost to the spiritually blind and incompetent RCRO directors.
In both the apparent consensus that mystical union was a state of affection and in the debate over whether the impressed species was really in the manner of id quo (as older theologians had taught) or whether it wasn’t really id in quo, there is symptomatically revealed (in addition to replacing intellection with affection) a lack of significant experiential, or even, rational understanding of intellection. It also reveals just how far the inroads of the Cartesian (Bruno through Telesio) interpretation of Suarezian rational psychology (already a distortion) had already extended into Catholic ascetic and mystical theology by this time.
By the eighteenth century, the general trend of Catholic ascetic and mystical theology seems to have not even a second-hand rational (bookish) grasp of the nature of intellection. By this time, Catholic mystical theology seems to have difficulty explaining the so-called difference it had attributed to affection in just the previous century between an infused impressed species and what was simply an inspiring expressed species of modern devotionalism. All past discussions of id quod or id in quo versus id quo make no sense and drop out of the picture. Species impressa, instead of being the formal or eminent specification of the kind of act a particular act of intellection is in the order of immaterial existence, is assimilated to eighteenth-century causal views of sensation as a process of receiving ideas/impressions efficiently.
By the time of the Carmelite Congress of Madrid for the third centenary of the canonization of Teresa of Avila in March 1, 1923, in opposition to their Dominican opponents, represented by Father Arintero, the Discalced Carmelites stated that intellection was a theoretical piece of scholastic nonsense contrary to the actual, practical, and “quasi-experiential” nature of “Teresian” spirituality (Theme vii, 3) and that the unitive state is an “inner sensation” of the “emotional effects of the Divine presence” on affection (“Repy of the Carmelite Congress of Madrid,” Mensajero de Santa Teresa, Madrid: March 15, 1923) In these RCRO writers there seems to be no “inner” experiential sense of intellection, of formal cause in cognition, nor of any type of efficiency, even at the level of intentional or immaterial existence, other than mechanical, even in their discussions of so-called “mystical contemplation!” Instead, the erotomania playing upon the phantasia in its contra-natural state, which the earlier Christian tradition (east and west) diagnosed as sick pathology, became in several forms the recommended path of the deluded RCRO. Even the Ignatian Exercises are a variety of this disease and counterfeit spirituality. Thus, we can document the progressive degenerative spread of this illness within the RCRO by examining St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), Treatise on the Love of God, Mackey, 1884; Fr. Louis Lallemant (1578-1635), Spiritual Doctrine, Eng. trans. Faber, 1855; Fr. Philip of the Trinity (1603-1671) Summa theologiae mysticae; Bossuet (1627-1704), Instruction sur les etats d’ oraison; Mystici in tuto, (private German translation, 1934); Ven. Mere Agnes de Langeac (1602-1634), Cursus theologiae mystico-scholasticae; Fr. Scaramelli (1687-1752), Directoire mystique, Eng. trans. Faber in 1890 (never published, galleys); Lejeune, Introduction to the Mystical Life, Eng. trans. of Roman Catholic Manual for Directors, Manuel de theologie mystique, Levett, 1850.
So, again, phantasia becomes mere fantasy. Fantasy comes to be seen as a dangerous power of delusion and unreality. But that is just its contra-natural manner of functioning, according the the Hesychasts.