Light from the Eastern Orthodox Mystics
This article will look at some of the mystical teachings that have come from the Orthodox Christian tradition. Within this tradition there has been a marked interest in the possibility of seeking within one’s own experience for a deeper knowledge of what is described in the scriptures, and practical guidance is provided on how to make this inner exploration. This is the central concern of the non-dual teachings also.
Looking into these Orthodox teachings we find that they take as their starting point the foundational ideas of the Christian faith, and that their purpose is to deepen the individual’s understanding and experience from that point of departure. A feature of this tradition is a strong sense of continuity, a feeling of being part of a church and community that is understood to have been founded by Christ and the Apostles and to have continued without intermission to fulfil the founders’ intentions. There has been no reformation in the history of the Orthodox church, no major scholastic revisions of the essential ideas. From the orthodox perspective, any divisions there may have been among Christian churches have been the departures of others from Orthodoxy, which means literally ‘right belief’. The practical, mystical aspects of Orthodox teachings draw much vitality from this sense of being securely rooted in a living source of divine revelation.
Another feature of this tradition that seems to lend itself to mystical practice is the place within it of icons. Icons have always served as texts for the illiterate, and in Orthodoxy an icon is understood to manifest its archetype. Through an icon, the worshipper contacts the divinity it represents. Because of their spiritual significance, the making of icons is guided by long-established traditions; personal innovations, even displays of artistic skill for their own sake, have no place in icon-making. So the painting and veneration of icons leads to the idea of being able to contact the transcendent, and that the way is through respect for tradition and self-effacement.
Turning to specifically mystical teachings from the Orthodox tradition, a natural place to start is the book known in English translation as The Way of a Pilgrim, written in Russian around the middle of the 19th century. This book is short, written in a simple and appealing style, and has found widespread popularity.
At the beginning of this narrative the pilgrim is urgently trying to find out how to fulfil the teaching of the Apostle that one should ‘pray without ceasing’. He is offered several answers to this question, but finds that although they describe what continuous prayer is or should be, they do not clearly say how to do it. Finally, he meets an old monk, one who is able to guide others on the basis of his own direct knowledge. Such teachers are called ‘elders’, or starets in Russian. The starets teaches the pilgrim how to say what has come to be known as ‘the Jesus Prayer’. The wording of this prayer is: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ The pilgrim is taught first how to repeat the prayer with his lips, and then gradually to pray it internally, ‘in the heart’. These teachings on the Jesus prayer are found in the Philokalia, a collection of texts on the inner life, and the starets shows the pilgrim exactly how to put them into practice. This is how it appears in The Way of a Pilgrim:
The starets opened the Philokalia, found a passage by St Simeon the New Theologian, and read: ‘Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Bring your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or say it only in your mind. Try to put all others thoughts aside. Be calm and patient, and repeat this exercise very frequently.’
To begin with, the pilgrim is directed by his starets to repeat the prayer a set number of times, which is gradually increased. The pilgrim follows the advice precisely, occasionally meeting with the starets and confiding any difficulties. Gradually he finds that the prayer becomes more and more ‘self-acting’ without the need for conscious effort on his part. Then his starets directs him to continue with the prayer at any time, whatever he is doing.
Not long after, the starets passes away and the pilgrim has to leave the place where he has been staying and resume the life of a wanderer. One of the few possessions he carries on his way is an old copy of the Philokalia. Now that his starets is no longer present, and the foundations of spiritual practice are established in him, the pilgrim finds further guidance and insight from these writings, the deeper meaning of which is revealed under the new light now dawning in his heart. The narrative recounts his experiences on his way, and something of the great peace, happiness and inner illumination he finds in the constant practice of inner prayer.
Under the apparent simplicity of this text lies much depth, and some within the Orthodox mystic tradition itself have cautioned that it could be misleading on a superficial reading. The pilgrim makes very rapid progress and speaks without complexity, precisely because the difficulties most will experience on the way have evidently already been resolved in his case. The story contains teachings in highly condensed, almost symbolic form. Let us note some of the essential points that it presents. First, when we find him at the beginning of the story, the pilgrim has reached the stage in life where he is conscious of the need for inner illumination, and this has taken first place in his priorities. In his mind the question has gained a precise and practical form: ‘How can I learn to pray without ceasing?’ We notice that the pilgrim is not looking for a way to improve his material situation through prayer. He does not want a divine power to do anything for him, he wants to know about what he himself has to do. In the Yoga tradition also, the ideal devotee asks only that his devotion should be complete. Next we notice that the pilgrim is not satisfied by vague and impractical answers, even if they are based on impressive learning. However, when he does receive an adequate response, he immediately recognises the authority on which it is given and carefully follows the instructions. Once he is established in prayer it becomes the focus of his life. Still, he shows complete balance of mind and good sense and he responds with practical kindness to those he meets on his way. At one point, his wisdom begins to attract the attention of credulous locals, and he swiftly leaves the place. However much his inner world lightens and expands, the pilgrim gives all gratitude and credit to his revered starets, himself always remaining a stranger to pride and conceit. In all these respects the pilgrim embodies an ideal, one who has overcome the difficulties on the way to that ideal that could occupy less mature souls for long ages.
In this article, we would like to look at these teachings as they are presented on their own terms, and not smother them with our own interpretations. At the same time, we do look at them from the non-dual perspective. From that perspective, we recognise Christ to be a supreme embodiment, symbol and teacher of Truth, while we recognise that such symbols, embodiments and teachers are to be found in other religious and mystical traditions also. And we understand that the ultimate human need is to be saved, not from any fundamental badness, but from not-knowing, from an incomplete and distorted vision of Truth, the supreme reality, which is the reality in all. From this perspective we too can say this prayer, and it is a loving appeal, to higher Truth, to manifest its light within us. And it is also an affirmation, expressing as it does an almost childlike confidence that this appeal shall find a response.
With that said, we too might follow the staret’s indications on how to pray, or one way to meditate. We find a quiet place, sit down, lower the head slightly, and look, as it were, into our heart. To help concentration, to begin with, we literally look in the direction of the heart. Then we recollect the mind, that is, become aware of the thoughts going through the mind, and bring the awareness, including any thoughts that it is aware of, into the heart. There are different views on how to combine the prayer with the breath, but for now we might hear the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ as we breathe in, and ‘have mercy on me’, with the out breath. Or we might prefer the wording: ‘O Light of Truth, illumine me’.
We remember that the instruction was to do this practice frequently, but initially for set periods. When one is able to do so, the period can be extended. The ideal is that the prayer should eventually continue of itself, with the spirit of this invocation informing all our actions and reactions. And in this way we learn how to ‘pray without ceasing’, that is, to make devotion to Truth the basis and focus of our whole life.
Let us now look more at the Philokalia, from which the pilgrim is taught and to which he later looks for guidance. Where The Way of a Pilgrim is short and apparently simple, the Philokalia fills five substantial volumes. It includes some dense theological argumentation, prescribes much asceticism, and it contains detailed instruction on spiritual practice, involving, in particular, carefully watching and guarding the mind, and appeals to Christ for help.
The Philokalia was first published in 1782. It was compiled by two Greek monks, one of whom spent most of his life on Mount Athos, the centre of Orthodox monasticism. It contains selections they made from earlier texts written between the 5th and 15th centuries on monastic life and inner prayer. These texts were composed in the regions which are now Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Palestine. It includes one passage attributed to St Antony the Great himself, the 3rd century ascetic of the Egyptian desert sometimes known as the father of Christian monasticism. In fact, this and some other parts of the Philokalia are now attributed by modern scholars to different writers than those identified by the original compilers. Still, the Philokalia is a representative selection of writings by church fathers, monks and ecclesiastics considered to have particular knowledge and authority on how devout Christians and in particular ascetics should live and on the life of prayer.
In most cases the writings of the Philokalia assume that the readers are monks or nuns, and certainly that religion is their main interest in life. As in other Christian mystical writings, the inner life is described as having roughly three stages, here called the purgative, illuminative and mystical. Other Christian writers have called these the stages of purification, illumination and contemplation or union. Similar stages are recognised in the Yoga classics. What is of practical importance is that each stage has its own priorities and therefore its own guiding principles. In the first stage, the main task is to bring order and stability into the mind, subduing the grosser forms of selfishness, and beginning to learn to concentrate and to manage the emotions. Here the focus is on right use of the imagination and will-power. In the second stage the emphasis is on deepening our reflections and meditations and sustaining the essential forms of self-control so far as they serve that purpose. The capacity for discernment and detached love come to the fore at this point. In the third stage, the capacities of the individual mind take a back seat and it is the presence and attractive power of Truth itself that becomes the main factor. We are told that the third stage culminates in what is not a stage at all but transcendence of mind and phenomena entirely.
It is in the earlier stages that we need most advice and guidance, and indeed where matters can be more easily put into words at all, and the greater part of the Philokalia, like similar compilations and books of guidance, is devoted to this phase.
In the yogic teachings, the source of the difficulties we encounter is located entirely in the conditions of the untrained mind and instincts. In the Philokalia, this stage is often presented in terms of spiritual combat, against opposing forces characterised as external enemies, like demons. We would be seriously mis-representing the Philokalia if we did not recognise its own characteristics, so here is a fairly representative sample, from a writer identified as Nikitas Stithatos, who is thought to have lived in the 11th century and spent most of his life in a monastery in Constantinople. He writes:
The purgative stage pertains to those newly engaged in spiritual warfare. It is characterized by the rejection of the materialistic self, liberation from material evil, and investiture with the regenerate self, renewed by the Holy Spirit. It involves hatred of materiality, the attenuation of the flesh, the avoidance of whatever incites the mind to passion, repentance for sins committed, the dissolving with tears of the bitter sediment left by sin, the regulation of our life according to the generosity of the Spirit, and the cleansing through compunction of the inside of the cup—the intellect—from every defilement of flesh and spirit, so that it can then be filled with the wine of the Logos that gladdens the heart of the purified, and can be brought to the King of the celestial powers for Him to taste.
(Quotations from the Philokalia are from the Kindle edition, translated into English by Kallistos Ware, G E H Palmer, and Philip Sherrard.)
We might note that although this sounds severe, from the start it is made clear that the aim and purpose of these practices is most positive: the wine of the Logos to be brought to the King.
Whether the source of the difficulties is seen as an external foe or the qualities of the unrefined mind, it is the promptings that arise in the mind and our reactions to them that have to be attended to and reformed. This brings us to the practical teachings given in the Philokalia. Repeatedly and emphatically is taught the need for what is called watchfulness, or attentiveness, or guarding the mind. Sometimes these are considered separately, often they are presented as essentially synonyms.
For the teachers of the Philokalia, the main task facing those dedicated to the religious life, is to be in solitude, quiet, with the mind recollected in the heart, there seeking to sustain an attentive awareness of God, ever on guard against distracting and defiling thoughts. The following passage is attributed to St Hesychios, who was probably the Abbot of a monastery in Sinai in the 8th or 9th century:
Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practised over a long period, completely frees us, with God’s help, from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when he says ‘Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God’; and one which because of its spiritual nobility and beauty—or, rather, because of our negligence—is now extremely rare among monks.
This passage contains features characteristic of the Philokalia presentation. The writer makes clear that this watchfulness is the first duty of a devoted soul, and the basis of all other virtues and spiritual progress. He also writes as if he were living at a time of degeneracy when this essential teaching had been forgotten, even by most monks. In fact, this recall to the primary task of inner watchfulness is a recurring theme of all the selections in the Philokalia, which were written over a period of about ten centuries. Further, it makes clear that the aim of these practices is knowledge, direct experience of the divine. As we shall see, for the mystics in this tradition, this knowledge could be described as a vision of divine light. And the compilers of the Philokalia evidently wanted to establish that in all this they were simply following the guidance and example of the most revered teachers, going back to the desert fathers and ultimately to Christ himself.
The counsel given in the Philokalia on watching and controlling the mind is detailed. For example, we are advised that thoughts and impulses are more easily reformed if they are noticed early before they gather momentum. And it is expected that with practice we shall make progress. St Hesychios writes:
Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted. If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare.
Through the practice of watchfulness, attentiveness, one is led to inner stillness. This inner stillness develops in two ways. Firstly, the stream of distracted thoughts that usually passes through the mind is calmed. Then there is the less obvious but perhaps most important point that in this way there comes to the fore the aspect of our being which is the watcher, the guardian of the mind, and which, being itself distinct from the mind and its movements, is by its very nature stillness.
The rise of this principle, whose nature is stillness, light and purity, is essential in both the non-dual teachings and those of the Philokalia. In fact the mystical tradition within Orthodoxy which the Philokalia encapsulates is often referred to as Hesychasm, and its practicants are called Hesychasts, from a Greek word meaning stillness, quiet. St Hesychios writes:
With all your strength pursue the virtue of attentiveness—that guard and watch of the intellect, that perfect stillness of heart and blessed state of the soul when free from images, which is all too rarely found in man.
Looking at another writer on this theme, the following passage is by one known as Abba Philimon, or Father Philimon, who was probably a priest living in Egypt in the sixth century, when Egypt was still part of the Eastern Roman empire. His writings contain what are thought to be the earliest references to the Jesus prayer in what is now its usual form.
You must purify your intellect completely through stillness and engage it ceaselessly in spiritual work. For just as the eye is attentive to sensible things and is fascinated by what it sees, so the purified intellect is attentive to intelligible realities and becomes so rapt by spiritual contemplation that it is hard to tear it away.
We note the helpful practical hint in this passage. Father Philimon says, see how the physical eye is naturally attracted and fascinated by what it sees. If we purify the mind, by occupying it with spiritual work, then the purified mind will develop eyes of its own, as it were, and then the hard work of controlling the wandering mind will be followed by a growing attraction to the intelligible realities and, ultimately, rapture. Abba Philimon goes on:
And the more the intellect is stripped of the passions and purified through stillness, the greater the spiritual knowledge it is found worthy to receive. The intellect is perfect when it transcends knowledge of created things and is united with God.
We have been looking at passages on stillness of mind, and we have already seen that for the writers of the Philokalia, stillness of mind is immediately connected with a special kind of knowledge, knowledge of God. The following passage is by Theoliptos, monk and bishop at Philadelphia in what is now Turkey, thought to have been writing around 1300:
When the intellect turns toward God and stills all representational images of created things, it perceives in an imageless way, and, through an ignorance surpassing all knowledge, its vision is illumined by God’s unapproachable glory.
The phrase ‘through an ignorance surpassing all knowledge, its vision is illumined by God’s unapproachable glory,’ might be said to capture the essence of these teachings.
This knowledge is the ultimate aim of orthodox spiritual practice, as it is of Yoga. Before we look further at this knowledge we should carefully note an important practical point concerning the means to it. The writers of the Philokalia do not advise that this stillness is achieved by thinking of nothing, but rather by thoroughly filling the mind and focusing it on an expression of divinity, that is, for them, Christ, and in particular the Jesus prayer. Similar recourse is made to expressions of truth in Yoga and other mystic traditions. St Hesychios writes:
Extreme watchfulness and the Prayer of Jesus Christ, undistracted by thoughts, are the necessary basis for inner vigilance and unfathomable stillness of soul, for the deeps of secret and singular contemplation, for the humility that knows and assesses, for rectitude and love. This watchfulness and this Prayer must be intense, concentrated and unremitting.
Some particularly detailed instruction is provided by a writer known as Nikiphoros the monk, who lived and wrote on Mount Athos during the later 13th century. Nikiphoros was one of the first to record in writing ways of focusing on the breath and parts of the body to help concentration. He writes:
Seat yourself, then, concentrate your intellect, and lead it into the respiratory passage through which your breath passes into your heart... Once it becomes accustomed to remaining there, it can no longer bear to be outside the heart. For the kingdom of heaven is within us... Continually persevere in this practice and it will teach you what you do not know. Moreover, when your intellect is firmly established in your heart, it must not remain there silent and idle; it should constantly repeat and meditate on the prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’, and should never stop doing this. For this prayer protects the intellect from distraction, renders it impregnable to diabolic attacks, and every day increases its love and desire for God...
Such detailed instruction, including breath control, used to still the mind, with the final goal of inner illumination, became known as the Hesychast method. It is widely accepted in most Christian schools that the supreme Being is beyond anything that can be grasped by the mind. From this it follows that one cannot say what God is, only what he is not. This is sometimes referred to as Apophatic Theology, or the Via Negativa, the way of negation. The Hesychasts and other mystic schools go a step beyond this by saying that through stillness one can gain knowledge of God which is not attainable through the senses and reason.
Over the centuries, some voices have expressed reservations about Hesychasm. In particular, around the middle of the 14th century, learned scholars criticised the practice of focusing attention within the body and finding divinity there, suggesting this amounted to gross materialism. The same critics challenged the aim of Hesychasm. In trying to put their understanding into words, Hesychasts said that through their practices it was possible to experience divine light, a light which is not physical, but which is, like God, uncreated. When challenged about what this light could be and whether it was divine or purely psychological, Hesychast scholars suggested it was the same divine light that appeared to the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus and that had been manifest by Christ to his disciples at the time of his transfiguration. According to the critics, this claim gravely confused the physical and the transcendental.
Such was the importance of religion and the influence of the church at the time, that this discussion developed into a public dispute, with political allegiances and implications on both sides. The episode has become known as the Hesychast Controversy. A vigorous defence was mounted and in the process a detailed theological basis for the Hesychastic view was worked out, in particular by highly educated monks from Mount Athos. The matter was considered so important that a series of Synods were held in Constantinople, presided over by the Emperors, and these assemblies eventually found in favour of Hesychasm. Thus the long term effect of the controversy was to give Hesychasm an unchallenged authority as one of foundations of Orthodox theology and practice. When the Philokalia was compiled, four centuries later, it included the defence of Hesychasm formulated during the controversy, and the writings of earlier teachers going back to the desert fathers, and, as we noted before, the compilers of the Philokalia evidently intended to show that this all formed one continuous tradition. The efforts were successful: ever since, particular respect has been afforded within Orthodoxy to those who choose to live in seclusion, practising the Hesychast method of seeking a mystic vision of the divine light.
Let us turn to the knowledge that is held to be the aim of these teachings. As we have already seen, it is made clear that this knowledge exceeds what can be attained through the senses and reason. As such it lies beyond what can be revealed to the intellect through scholarship, which can be at best a preparation for what is revealed through purifying the mind and concentrating it one-pointedly in prayer or meditation. The following passage is attributed to St Peter of Damaskos, writing probably in the 12th century:
Devote yourselves to stillness and know that ‘I am God’ (Ps. 46: 10). This is the voice of the divine Logos and is experienced as such by those who put the words into practice. Thus once you have renounced the turmoil and frightening vanity of life you should in stillness scrutinize yourself and the inner reality of things with the utmost attentiveness and should seek to know more fully the God within yourself, for His kingdom is within us.
In calm, simple language passages such as this suggest that through knowledge of our inner Self we gain knowledge of God. And St Hesychios writes:
Be watchful as you travel each day the narrow but joyous and exhilarating road of the mind, keeping your attention humbly in your heart, reproaching yourself, ready to rebut your enemies, thinking of your death and invoking Jesus Christ. You will then attain a vision of the Holy of Holies and be illumined by Christ with deep mysteries. For in Christ ‘the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ are hidden, and in Him ‘the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily’. In the presence of Christ you will feel the Holy Spirit, spring up within your soul. It is the Spirit who initiates man’s intellect, so that it can ‘see with unveiled face’.
We see how this advice begins with the simple practice of gathering one’s attention in the heart, in humility. Yet what follows from this humble beginning is to be illumined by Christ with deep mysteries, and the ability to ‘see with unveiled face’.
The teaching of non-duality is that knowledge of ultimate Truth as Self is possible and is the ultimate aim of spiritual practice, in fact, that the Supreme being is only ever veiled by ignorance, and that ignorance is ultimately an illusion, not real. The writings of the Philokalia are, in the end, ambiguous on the question of whether complete knowledge or union with the Supreme is possible in this life, or simply an extreme nearness. This might sound like a technicality, but there is significance behind it. Even very close implies the possibility of separation again, while unity implies that there never will be and never was real division. Also, our understanding of the goal informs our practice; there is an important difference between combating a real enemy and overcoming an illusion. If it is believed that the limit of spiritual practice is closeness to divinity in devotion, then this will likely be the point we reach. No doubt this was the view and experience of some devotees in the Hesychast tradition. And there are indications that some among them perceived that ultimate truth entirely exceeds the capacity of reason, and abandoned any preconceptions concerning the nature of Self and God. In the Philokalia we find highly practical methods for reforming our minds, also an intense reverence for the sacred, and a realisation that by stilling and concentrating our minds on the sacred, we may be transformed. Reading the Philokalia with an open mind we can find guidance and inspiration that points beyond all the limitations of the intellect.
Let us conclude with a passage from one of the leaders of the defence of Hesychasm, a monk named Gregory Palamas of Mount Athos, later an Archbishop and finally a saint of the Orthodox church. In one place he writes:
And when it has transcended intelligible realities and the concepts, not unmixed with images, that pertain to them, and in a godly and devout manner has rejected all things, then it will stand before God deaf and speechless. It is now that the intellect becomes simple matter in God’s hands and is unresistingly recreated in the most sublime way, for nothing alien intrudes on it: inner grace translates it to a better state and, in an altogether marvelous fashion, illumines it with ineffable light, thus perfecting our inner being. In this light it miraculously surveys supramundane things, being either still joined to the materiality to which it was originally linked, or else separated from it—this depending on the level that it has attained. For it does not ascend on the wings of the mind’s fantasy; rather it ascends in very truth, raised by the Spirit’s ineffable power, and with spiritual and ineffable apperception it hears words too sacred to utter and sees invisible things. And it becomes entirely rapt in the miracle of it, even when it is no longer there, and it rivals the tireless angelic choir, having become truly another angel of God upon earth. Through itself it brings every created thing closer to God, for it itself now participates in all things and even in Him who transcends all, inasmuch as it has faithfully conformed itself to the divine image.