Part I: What Is Orthodox Mysticism?
in general and Christian
as a sub-category are both enormous topics, and the phenomena as a whole is beyond the scope of this thread. Here, our task is to
focus more precisely on mysticism as it developed in the Orthodox Christian tradition.
To begin with, Eastern Orthodoxy
is defined adequately enough at Wikipedia as
The Orthodox Church, officially called the Orthodox Catholic Church and commonly referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest
Christian denomination in the world, with an estimated 300 million adherents, mainly in the countries of Belarus, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Georgia, Greece,
Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Ukraine, all of which are majority Eastern Orthodox. It is seen by followers to be the
One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ and his Apostles almost 2,000 years ago.
It can also be thought of as the largest manifestation of Eastern Christianity
eastern and western forms of Christianity were not generally seen to be separate until the East-West Schism of 1054, after which they formally split
from each other.
What distinguishes Orthodox mysticism from other forms of mysticism? What follows is a rough overview of some distinctive aspects of this spiritual
path, before we go on to look at specifics.
Theosis: The Mystical Transformation
The term theosis
is used by Orthodox mystics to describe the highest mystical experience of divine union. It has been translated many different
ways in English, including “ingodding” and “divinization,” but I find none of these words fully satisfactory. In the 4th century, Athanasius
of Alexandria wrote about Christ that “He became man that we might be made God.” This idea sounds uncomfortably close to pantheism for many
Christians, and arguments about what exactly this means have raged through the centuries. We will explore this further in later posts.
Stages of the Spiritual Journey
Both east and western forms of Christian mysticism often distinguish the journey to mystical union with God as unfolding in three stages. The eastern
mode tends to follow the scheme of Evagrius of Pontus (346–399) who conceived of the three as: 1) the active life (seeking freedom from passions and
purity of heart); 2) the natural contemplation, (seeing God in all things), and 3) Theoria
(encountering God through the union of love). Not
all orthodox mystics followed this scheme; for Gregory of Nyssa, who we will look at a bit later, the stages were conceived of as “light”,
“cloud,” and “darkness,” for example.
The Path of Negation
The Via Negativa
or “Negative Way” (also called apophaticism
) is the tendency to describe the Divine in terms of what it
“isn’t” rather than what it is
. Many (but not all) of the Orthodox mystics emphasize the unknowability of God and the splendor of the
divine “mystery.” The Orthodox theologians were less analytical than their medieval European counterparts, who tried to express their faith in
terms of logic and rational thought. Emptiness, darkness, silence, voidness, and similar “negative” formulations are used more heavily in the
Christian east to describe the Divine and the mystical experience. To approach God, one had to empty and still the mind through mystical prayer.
Contemplative prayer is of key importance in the Orthodox mystic’s quest for union with God. The mystic seeks a state known as hesychia
“inner stillness,” transcending discursive thinking to achieve direct union with the Divine. Many methods of prayer are used in the Orthodox
tradition. We will look at one of the most well-know a bit later, the so-called “Jesus prayer.” Constantly repeated thousands of times a day, it
starts as a “prayer of the lips,” becomes a “prayer of the mind,” and then finally a “prayer of the heart,” focusing the mystic’s
consciousness on the presence of God in a quest for spiritual illumination. It has been compared to the mantras of Hinduism and Buddhism, although
important differences exist. Orthodox mystical prayer tends to rely less on complex visualization (as with Catholic discursive prayer or Buddhist
visualization, for example), with more emphasis on stillness, silence, and the divine darkness of unknowing.
The Patristic Way
The so-called Early Church Fathers were writers in the first few centuries after Christ who hammered out the philosophical specifics of Christian
thought, mystical and otherwise. They are generally respected by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians alike, but their writings play a much
more prominent role in the Orthodox tradition. The Church Fathers and the so-called Desert Fathers wrote much on mysticism and spirituality, and their
writings provide the philosophical and theoretical backbone of Orthodox mysticism.
The Icon is a special form of religious painting that plays a complex role in Orthodox mysticism. The image is not worshiped, but rather is seen as a
kind of “portal” through which the numinous dimension of the Divine can be accessed. An Icon is both a symbolic representation of a divine truth
and a visual tool with spiritual and mystical applications.
A Kaleidoscope of Mystical Traditions
We can only scratch the surface here, but the mystical experience has been formulated in a bewildering variety of ways in the Orthodox tradtion. Many
local saints, monks, wanderers, and holy men had their own idiosyncratic mystical teachings. Some emphasized asceticism and renunciation of the world,
other preached a more active life. Some wrote of the Divine in terms of unknowable darkness, others celebrated the splendor of the light that emanated
from God. Austere paths of self-denial were central to some, while others celebrated a mystical love. others c In different times and places, Orthodox
mysticism was formulated very differently. This glittering variety makes the study of this type of spirituality all the more interesting.
(Next - Part II: The Desert Fathers and Early Orthodox Mysticism)
edit on 2/18/12 by silent thunder because: (no reason given)