My husband cannot understand how I can listen to Dr. Johnson’s lectures (Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam) for hours on end. He says it would drive him crazy. I guess it probably does sound completely monotonous when you don’t have an interest in the topics he covers, but I find it completely engrossing. I’m cramming in as much as I possibly can right now because the time I have to put toward lectures these days is extremely rare.
I took so many notes on Christian mysticism that I had to purchase a second spiral notebook to continue. What I find interesting is that I am far more interested right now in Jewish Mysticism and Islamic mysticism than I was in Western Christian mysticism. It’s not that Western Christian mysticism doesn’t interest me, but I am already quite very familiar with most of it. I’ve read essays or books from almost every Western Christian mystic Dr. Johnson cites. Can’t say the same thing for Eastern Christian Mysticism, however. Those lectures were extremely fascinating to me because I know so little about Eastern Orthodoxy.
I went through Dr. Dreyfus Berkeley webcast class on Existentialism and Literature a few years back. He claimed that Dostoevsky’s answer to the seemingly unsolvable predicament Ivan Karamazov presents (Grand Inquisitor, etc.) as being Russian Orthodox Christianity. I had a feeble grasp on why that might be at the time, but have a much better understanding now, after Dr. Johnson’s lectures. Please bare with me as I make my way through those notes…
I suppose I should start with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who were influential on both Western and Eastern Christian mysticism. Desert spirituality came about during the 4th century. It emphasized askesis (asceticism). This is the disciplined programming of the self on the way of moral transformation. For these people, the martyr was the highest expression of Christianity. There were two sorts of martyrdom: red martyrdom was the actual spilling of blood while white martyrdom was a life of asceticism and prayer. When Constantine made Christianity the religion of Rome, Christianity became a path to wealth. This is when the monks fled to the desert and became hermits (lived completely alone), anchorites (semi-hermitical existence – lived completely alone except to pray and worship with others) and cenobites (those who have pulled away from the world but live in communities). This is the beginnings of the monastic tradition. Purification of the passions was more important than physical asceticism. Humility and lack of judgment were extremely important. They did not exercise a “holier than thou” form of asceticism.
After the 4th Century, Christianity in the East developed very differently than Christianity in the West. This is because a lot was happening in the West in the 4th and 5th centuries that wasn’t happening in the East. Rome shifted from being the seat of imperial power to becoming the centralized power of the Pope. Latin replaced Greek so Christians in the west were increasingly forgetting their Greek and became more and more cut off from the wisdom of the East that had preceded them. Also, Barbarian invasions threatened the order of society, including ancient learning.
Meanwhile, none of this was happening in the East. A slogan that persists in Eastern Orthodoxy today is “hagia pardosis”: sacred tradition. The east maintained a continuity of its past that the west did not. Greek remained the language of scripture (it became Latin in Rome) and Greek theologians were well aware of their past. Also, unlike the west, the Patriarchy in the East was regional, not absolute.
In Eastern Christian mysticism, the role of scripture was fundamental, especially the Psalms. The spirituality of the desert had a very strong influence over Eastern Christian spirituality and there remained a Platonic world view. This didn’t impose upon the thinking in the east because it had continuously existed. (Unlike in the west where it was “rediscovered” in the middle ages.)
So, what was this thinking? Plato made a distinction between phenomenal (perceivable by the senses) and noumenal (only known by the mind). The distinction was between matter and ideas. This distinction applied ontologically (to being), espitemologically (to knowledge), and axiologically (to worth or value).
Ontologically, it was understood that the realm of spirit is more real. Things that corrupt and die are less real. Epistemologically, truth is only at the level of Spirit. In other words, it is only at the level of real being. (Things that corrupt and die are not as real as Spirit.) Another way of stating this is that there is a difference between truth and opinion. (Reality and perception.) Axiologically – spirit is better than how we find ourselves.
Humanity is a necessary part of experience, but it must be transcended. This is very similar to the Jewish thinker, Philo of Alexandria, who read the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) allegorically. For instance, Philo could read the story of Moses’ escape out of Egypt at a literal level as escaping the slavery of Egypt and entering freedom as a people of God of Israel. But he could also read it as being the slavery of the person who is locked in the passions. Embodiment itself could be viewed as slavery. (Again, this is very similar to what is presented in The Book of Hebrews.)
The idea of Apocatastasis remained fairly stable within Eastern Christianity. This is the idea that eventually there will be a restoration of all spiritual creatures, including the devil, in God. (It is this idea that is central to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.) It was originally developed by Origin of Alexander (184-254) who is considered to be one of the great geniuses of Christianity. He influenced almost all subsequent Christian thinkers. He considered himself to be Orthodox and against gnosticism, but he definitely pushed the boundaries. His thoughts were very closely related to Gnosticism. He was eventually deemed as heretical, but not until the 6th Century, which was centuries after he actually lived.
The Cappadocian Fathers (Cappadocia was an area in Turkey) were also extremely influential. These were Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nanzienzen. They helped develop the Trinity and thoughts on the Holy Spirit. Gregory of Nyssa was a mystic and provides a precursor to The Cloud of Unknowing…
What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? … Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness. Wherefore John, the sublime, who penetrated into luminous darkness, says “No one has ever seen God”, thus asserting that knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.” (Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa)
Another feature of Eastern Christian Spirituality is the Hesychastic tradition. Hesychia means “stillness” or “quiet”. Teachers in Eastern Christianity taught people to pray in silence. There was also a belief in theosis which was the process of becoming divine. For the Eastern Christian mystic, mysticism is the realization of the process of divination.
An important 5th-6th century author was Pseudo-Dionysius. (Also known as Dionysius Aeropagite.) He was extremely important for theology in both the East and the West. He wrote Mystical Theology; The Divine Names; Celestial Hierarchy; and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. We don’t actually know who he was or where he lived or what his exact dates were. All we know is that he criticized the anthropomorphism (attribution of human traits to a deity) that is present in all propositions concerning the divine. He explains that the names of God are metaphors that cannot be taken literally. If we accept “God is good” or “God is wise”, or “God is creator” literally, God becomes captive to our language. This is a form of idolatry. In order to avoid this, one must not make positive statements of God (ketaphasis – affirmation or assertion). Apophasis (denial or negation) is more important. In other words, God is X or Y AND God is not X or Y – that’s the only way to maintain the otherness of God (which was likewise important in the Merkabah mysticism).
From The Divine Names …
If God cannot be grasped by the mind or sense perception, if he is not a particular thing, how do we know him? this is something we must inquire into. It might be more accurate to say that we cannot know God in his nature, since this is unknowable and is beyond the reach of mind or reason. But we know him from the arrangement of everything because everything is, in a sense, projected out from him, and this order possesses certain images and semblances of his divine paradigms. We therefore approach that which is beyond all as far as our capacities allow us and we pass by way of the denial and the transcendence of all things and by way of the cause of all things. God is therefore known in all things and distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and through the unknowing of him. There is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name and many other things. On the other hand, he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is nothing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything.
This shows an ontological link with God but an epistemological gap. God goes beyond the human capacity of knowing. He speaks of the radiance of God as a dark cloud. This is akin to the ascent of Moses to God in Merkabah mysticism.
According to Plotinus (205-270), everything that is of God participates in God. Christ represents the full offer of the divine in creation. Christ is the divination of human nature (theosis).
In the 7th Century comes Maximus the Confessor (580-662). There was a controversy (called the Monothelite Controversy) over whether or not in Jesus there was a real human will or whether it was totally subsumed by divine will. Maximus held that there was a real human will. This is standard Eastern Christian stuff. He was arrested, tried, exiled and maimed for saying this. Maximus wrote, “In becoming incarnate, the word of God teaches us the mystical knowledge of God.” It is through the human image we reach God. Paradoxically, the closer one gets to God the more one comes in touch with one’s own humanity and humility. The process of divinization is ontological, not epistemological.
John Climacus (579-649) taught that discipleship is a process of ascent. He wrote, “Stillness of body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feeling and perceptions… The powers of heaven join in living and worship with the man who practices stillness in his soul.” In this sense, hesychia is a profound state of concentration on what is not there. It is a movement of the heart, not of the mind.
Words are not important – when man has found the Lord, he no longer has use for words when he is praying, for the Spirit Himself will intercede for him with groans that cannot be uttered.
Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.
Sounds like meditation to me!! The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”) doesn’t become popular within the Hesychastic tradition until it is more fully developed by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) in the 14th century. Then it becomes virtually synonymous with the Hesychastic tradition.