My wife and I visited Amsterdam a couple of years ago. Her time was taken up with business, and my days were spent exploring. There was a Catholic church close to our hotel and I wanted to see its interior. The church was unlocked on weekdays for the celebration of Mass during the lunch hour. The Mass itself was very short—no homily, only ten attendees, done in seventeen minutes. Used to much longer Orthodox services, I put this brevity down to a combination of the Catholic tradition of low Mass and the fact that Dutch is a very concise language.
Two things impressed me. Half the people at the Mass were young. It was a small group, but it was a weekday Mass and in its minor way contradicted the idea that the church is completely moribund in Europe. The other thing that impressed me was that the small gift shop at the rear of the church was stocked with Orthodox icons. The sort of religious art that many Catholics grew up with—bad imitations of Renaissance art, sentimental holy cards—was gone, replaced with icons. In some way, I thought, Catholics now find themselves reinforced in their faith through contact with images that were once quite unfamiliar to them, with a few exceptions (the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for example). How is it that the Eastern Church has, at least at the visual level and maybe in other ways, become a place to which Western Christians look for spiritual help?
Orthodox spirituality has interested many modern Catholic writers—Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, to name a few. And while it is true that it is in many ways distinct from Catholic spirituality, too much can be made of this. I will go into some of its unique features, but it should also be noted that Western spirituality has had its own influence on Orthodoxy. One Orthodox classic, Unseen Warfare, is a reworking of Spiritual Combat, a classic of Catholic spirituality by Lorenzo Scupoli. Catholic theology had a powerful influence on Russian Orthodox catechesis from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. This was in part a response to Protestant proselytizing, and even though the influence has been regretted by some modern Orthodox writers, who believe it introduced a foreign element of scholastic legalism, it can’t be denied.
Orthodox are drawn to saints like Thérèse of Lisieux, Charles de Foucauld, Francis of Assisi, and Benedict Joseph Labre, just as Catholics have been drawn to such Orthodox saints as Seraphim of Sarov and, more recently, Mother Maria of Paris, who aided French Jews and died in a concentration camp. Her brilliant, challenging writings have recently been published by Orbis Books (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings). The fact that for half our history East and West were in communion should make it clear that much unites us.
Still, there are some differences, which often have more to do with nuance than with substance. I like the words of one French Orthodox priest, who said that we should not speak of someone converting from Lutheranism or Catholicism to Orthodoxy; it is more like adjusting a pair of binoculars. The same applies to looking at many of the differences between Orthodox and Catholic spirituality.
Orthodox Christians speak of “Holy Tradition,” and see tradition not as an accumulation of habits but as the living language of the church, the received knowledge of what it means to pray, struggle, and understand within a community. Tradition is the way in which we are in touch with all those who have tried, in every age, to live in Christ. Although this is an individual effort in one sense—each of us has to be willing to take it up—it is also unavoidably communal. Before the recitation of the Creed we Orthodox say, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in essence and undivided.” And a prayer before Communion reads, “When you desire to take the Body of the Lord, come forward in fear, lest you be burned, for it is a fire. And before you drink the Blood of God in Communion, first go, be reconciled with all who have grieved you. Then you may take courage to eat the mystical food.”
The monasticism of the desert fathers is a major influence in Orthodoxy, and the Apophthegmata Patrum—the sayings of the fathers (and mothers) of the desert—range from remarkably practical advice to a startling sense of participation in the divine. Take these two selections, from Benedicta Ward’s translation in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian Publications):
Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”
Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Note the words, “the old man.” The idea is preserved in the Greek word for “an elder”—geron—still used of wise monks and spiritual directors, the idea being that it takes time and patience to get there.
At the heart of the spiritual journey is the belief that we are all called to theosis, or deification. St. Athanasius wrote, “The Word became man so that man might become God.” The boldness of this sounds blasphemous to some, but it squares with Jesus’ words, “You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Christian mysticism is grounded in what is called apophatic theology, the belief that God’s nature is so radically unknowable that ordinary language and concepts fail utterly to get at it—so it may even be said that God does not exist, as we ordinarily use the word “exist” to describe the being of an object among other objects. But God has made himself known, and by his gift we may share his being, as he shared ours. We are capable of receiving this gift because we have seen Christ’s willingness to empty himself and assume our nature. As he became one of us, we can share the divine nature to the extent that with God’s help we can empty ourselves.
Of course, this understanding is also found in Western Christianity. Both apophatic theology and theosis are present in the writings of John of the Cross and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Theosis can be found beautifully expressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
But how do you get from here to there—from the practical advice to watch your tongue and your appetites, to becoming all fire? The discipline of Orthodoxy has to do with participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church, which includes fasting before the Eucharist and periods of seasonal fasting. More essentially, it involves private prayer, and this includes the Prayer of the Heart, or “Jesus Prayer.”
The fathers of the desert practiced brief repeated prayers, often from the psalms: “God, come to my assistance; Lord, make haste to help me.” The point was basic, to focus the mind on the presence of God. This gave way to prayers that incorporated the name of Jesus, and the most common form—“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”—is found in what has become a classic, The Way of a Pilgrim: And the Pilgrim Continues His Way (HarperOne). Written by an anonymous Russian in the nineteenth century, it has what could be dubbed a “Call me Ishmael” beginning:
By the grace of God I am a Christian man, by my actions a great sinner, and by calling a homeless wanderer of the humblest birth who roams from place to place. My worldly goods are a knapsack with some dried bread in it on my back, and in my breast-pocket a Bible. And that is all.
This prayer (which has variants—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and obviously goes back to Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison) is often accompanied by such aids as the use of a prayer rope, something like a rosary, and controlled breathing, to help with concentration; but it is important not to let the prayer degenerate into mere technique. The point is attention to prayer and the sense of God’s presence, which means trying to arrive at stillness and interior silence.
The idea that one could experience theosis in this life was at the heart of what became known as the hesychast controversy, from the Greek hesychia, or “stillness.” The anonymous author of The Way of a Pilgrim speaks of The Philokalia, a multivolume collection of writings on prayer, compiled in the eighteenth century. (The title means “love of the good.”) The many contributors include St. John Cassian (c. 346–c. 435), St. Maximos the Confessor (c. 580–662), and St. Gregory Palamas (c. 1296–1359), whose response to a challenge to hesychasm in the fourteenth century synthesized Orthodox ideas about grace and our participation in the divine life.
Gregory Palamas defended the belief that one could genuinely experience the presence of God. Grace is not a created gift but the divine energies of God. Barlaam the Calabrian (1290–1348) had taken the idea of apophaticism to an extreme, and argued against those monks who believed that it was possible to experience “the uncreated light of Tabor,” the light seen by Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration. Gregory defended the monks, arguing that although God was in his nature unknowable, his energies were divine and could be shared with those who were capable of receiving them. Although it is possible to delude oneself, it is also possible to share in divinity, even in this life, just as Jesus shared our humanity.
It has to be said, however, that the point of prayer is not any particular experience, but rather turning one’s life over into God’s hands. One exercise that can help here is detailed in The Philokalia and is often called “guarding the heart.” This is a form of mindfulness that, in effect, stands back and watches; it is an alertness, an awareness, that does not let itself be pulled around by emotions of attraction or repulsion. The first stirrings of any feeling—anger, self-righteousness (the two are obviously allied), lust, discouragement—are noticed, but the response is not a surrender to them, but a stillness. The word apatheia looks suspiciously like “apathy,” but it means not allowing the emotions to dominate our relationship to God, or to others. Diadochos of Photiki (fifth century) writes of “the fires of apatheia.” It has to do not with indifference, but with vigilance.
“The more closely attentive you are to your mind,” says St. Hesychios the Priest (fifth century),
the greater the longing with which you will pray to Jesus; and the more carelessly you examine your mind, the further you will separate yourself from him. Just as close attentiveness brilliantly illuminates the mind, so the lapse from watchfulness and from the sweet invocation of Jesus will darken it completely. All this happens naturally, not in any other way; and you will experience it if you test it out in practice. For there is no virtue—least of all this blessed light-generating activity—which cannot be learnt from experience. (See “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1.)
Hesychios says that “all this happens naturally” and can be learned from experience. The naturalness and experiential aspects of the life of prayer assume an intermingling of the divine and the human that is revealed in the Incarnation. All of us are called to realize this, and to the extent that we are made capable of doing so, it involves our cooperation with the one who emptied himself to bring us into the fullness of his own being. A prayer sung during the liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration says, “You were transformed on the Mount, O Christ God, / Revealing your glory to your disciples as far as they could bear it.”
The idea that this glory draws us toward God is part of the vision of eternity of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395): “Every desire for the Beautiful which draws us on in this ascent is intensified by the soul’s very progress toward it. And this is the real meaning of seeing God: never to have this desire satisfied.” It is echoed in Pascal’s “The Mystery of Jesus,” a part of his Pensées: there Jesus says, “If you are seeking me, you have found me.”
But all of this is encountered, as it is in Catholicism, in a complicated human context. All of us cope with institutions that have their corners of weakness and corruption, of self-satisfaction, and triumphalism. In reaction to these things, we can come close to despair. Prayer can bring us through all of this, but no account of Orthodoxy in our time would be complete without an understanding shared by all nontriumphalist Orthodox, and given its best expression in the words of Fr. Lev Gillet (1893–1980), a monk who moved from Catholicism to Orthodoxy, while insisting he had rejected nothing:
O strange Orthodox Church, so poor and so weak, at the same time so traditional and yet so free, so archaic and yet so alive, so ritualistic and yet so personally mystical, church where the pearl of great price of the gospel is preciously preserved, sometimes beneath a layer of dust—church that has so often proved incapable of action, yet which knows, as does no other, how to sing the joy of Easter.
For Further Reading
The Philokalia is available in four volumes from Faber and Faber. Before diving in, readers might be interested in the following titles. The first two excerpt The Philokalia. The rest offer helpful presentations of Orthodoxy and Orthodox spirituality.
The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton (Faber and Faber, $19).
Early Fathers from ‘The Philokalia,’ translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (Faber and Faber, $18.95).
The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware (Penguin, $17).
The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $12.95).
Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (Paulist Press, $7.95).
Living Prayer, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (Templegate, $12.95).
The Burning Bush, Lev Gillet (Templegate, $6.95).
For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $12.95).