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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
Man’s Union with God: Guiding the Nous in Theoria
The Prayer Stops, the Bodily Members Cease to Move, and Only the Nous Is in Theoria within an Extraordinary Light…
Source: An excerpt taken from the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, from “Monastic Wisdom,” thirty-fifth letter (Florence, Arizona, St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, 1988).
My beloved little child and all the sisters in Christ according to rank, rejoice and be healthy in the Lord. I begin once more to speak into ears which desire and seek to hear. Ask, says our sweet Jesus, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you! (Mt 7:7). I honor your good intentions; I praise your zeal; I appreciate your love, and I emulate you.
So, listen to me once more.
First of all, the method of beginning your prayer that you mention, my child, is very good. With such thoughts you are able to keep your mind from wandering by thinking that the prayers of the elder and the eldress ascend like a pillar of fire and that they converse noetically with God. When the nous thinks and believes such things, it stops for a moment, the prayer is sweetened, and tears start to trickle. Then that grace which is found in beginners, which you mentioned, approaches and like a mother teaches her young how to walk. When she goes away and leaves them, they seek her. They cry, shout, and look for her. After a little while she comes back, only to withdraw once more. Again they cry and shout; again she returns. Until she rears us, there is no way for her to stay with us because our passions prevent her.
The passions are a hard material. Ural mountains! Thousands of feet high! Grace is like the sun. The sun rises, but the shadow of the mountains does not allow it to warm the entire noetic man. As soon as a beam finds him, he is immediately set on fire with joy. The rest of his soul, though, is still beneath the shadow of the passions, and the demons are able to act as soon as grace retracts. Many times they obstruct it as clouds obstruct the sun’s light, for the shadow of the passions raises steam that obscures the little beam of light just dawning. This steam is the thoughts of despair you wrote about. Cowardice, fear, impudence, profanities, and other such things wither the soul and deprive it of its boldness towards God.
Every thought that brings despair and heavy sorrow is from the devil. It is the steam of the passions, and you must expel it at once with hope in God, with confession to the eldress, and with the prayers of those older than you, by thinking that they are praying and entreating God for you.
A small sorrow mixed with joy, tears, and consolation in the soul is from the grace of God throughout our life, it guides us towards repentance whenever we err. A sin drives away boldness towards God, but repentance brings it back at once. Grace does not bring despair, but it continually brings to repentance a person who has fallen. On the other hand, the words of the demons bring despair at once; they blight him like hail falling upon delicate little leaves that have just sprouted.
Now pay attention to this little lesson of praxis: When you see grace acting and your soul rejoicing and tears falling effortlessly (because of the mercies that God has given you), if you are praying, be still. If you are standing, don’t move. If you are sitting, remain seated. If you are saying the prayer, keep saying it without any childish thoughts, and accept the rain of the Spirit for as long as it comes upon you. For even if it comes while you are working, if you get up to pray, it stops. It wants you to remain wherever it found you, so that you do not become its master. It wants to teach you never to trust in yourself, as long as you are in this life. The rainfall of grace of a single day provides enough water for the things planted in the soul for the entire period that grace leaves.
The grace of the priesthood is one thing, the grace of the great schema is another, the grace of the Mysteries is different, and the action of grace in ascesis is also different. They all spring from the same source, but each one differs from the other in eminence and glory. The grace of repentance, which acts in those who struggle, is a patristic inheritance. It is a divine transaction and exchange in which we give dust and receive heaven. We exchange matter for the Spirit. Every drop of sweat, every pain, every ascesis for God is an exchange: a loss of blood, and an influx of the Spirit. The magnitude of this grace depends on how much a person can contain, in proportion to how much his own vessel can hold. This grace of praxis is also called purifying grace.
Now then, illumination follows praxis. Illuminating grace is the second stage. That is, once a struggler has been trained well with the grace of praxis and has fallen and risen countless times, he is given the enlightenment of knowledge and clarity of the nous, which perceives the truth. He sees things as they are, without artifices and methods and human syllogisms. Everything stands naturally in its true state. However, many trials and painful changes are encountered before arriving at this point. But here he finds peace in his thoughts and rest from the temptations.
Illumination is followed by interruptions in the prayer and frequent theorias, rapture of the nous, cessation of the senses, stillness, profound silence of the bodily members, and union of God and man into one. This is the divine exchange in which, if one endures temptations and does not stop struggling along the way, one exchanges the material for the immaterial. Therefore, run behind the heavenly Bridegroom, deers of my Jesus. (cf Song of Solomon 1:4). Smell the noetic myrrh. Make your life, soul and body fragrant with chastity and virginity. I do not know of anything else that pleases our sweet Jesus and His All-pure Mother more than chastity and virginity. Whoever desires to enjoy their great love should see to it that he makes his soul and body pure and chaste. Thus will he receive every heavenly good.
Now, let me explain what the phrase interruption of the prayer means, when grace abounds in a person. The grace of praxis is likened to the radiance of the stars; whereas the grace of illumination is like the full moon; but the perfecting grace of theoria is like the midday sun traversing over the horizon; for the Fathers have divided the spiritual life into three categories.
So when grace abounds in a person and he knows all that we have written, he attains great simplicity; his nous expands and has great capacity. Just as you tasted that drop of grace when much joy and exultation came upon you, it comes again in the same manner when the nous remains in prayer. But much more comes, like a subtle breeze, like a mighty gust (Acts 2:2) of fragrant wind. It overflows throughout, the prayer, it stops; the bodily members cease to move, and only the nous is in theoria within an extraordinary light. A union of God and man occurs. Man is unable to distinguish himself. It is just like iron: before it is thrown into the fire it is called iron, but once it ignites and becomes red-hot, it is one with the fire. It is also like wax which melts when it approaches fire; it cannot remain in its natural state.
Only when the theoria has passed does he return to his former state. Whereas during theoria, he is not functioning in this world. He is totally united with God. He thinks that he has neither a body nor a hut. He is entirely rapt. Without a body he ascends to heaven! Truly great is this mystery, for one sees things that a human tongue cannot express.
When this theoria has passed, he has such a deep humility that he cries like a small child, wondering why the Lord gives him such blessings, since he himself does nothing. He then obtains so much awareness of who he is that if you were to ask him, he would say that he considers himself destitute and unworthy to exist in this life. And the more he thinks like this, the more he is given.
“It is enough!” he cries out to God, and grace abounds even more. He becomes the son of the King. And if you were to ask: “Whose are these things you like wearing?”
“My Lord’s,” he answers. “And the bread and food you eat?”
“My Lord’s,” he again answers. “The money you carry?”
“My Lord’s,” he says. “What do you have of your own?”
“Nothing. I am dirt, I am mud, I am dust. If you lift me up, I stand. If you throw me down, I fall. If you take me up, I fly. If you toss me, I hit myself on the ground. My nature is nothing.”
He never has enough of saying this. And what is this nothing? It is what existed before God created the heaven and the earth: nothing. This is the beginning of our existence. We come from clay; this is the raw material we are made of. And our power? It is the divine inbreathing, the breath of God.
So receive, o God, Lover of good desires and Creator of every good thing, receive the divine inbreathing which You breathed into our face, giving us thus a living spirit, and we shall decompose into clay once more.
Therefore, what hast you, o proud man, that you did not receive? Now if you received it, why do thou glory as if thou hadst not received it? (1Cor 4:7). Acknowledge, lowly soul, your Benefactor and be careful not to usurp things belonging to others, things of God, as your own accomplishments. Realize, wretched soul, your existence, be aware of your ancestry. Don’t forget that you are a foreigner here and that everything is foreign! Now, if God the sweet Benefactor gave you something, render it with a clear conscience, Your own from Your own.
If you have ascended to the heavens and seen the natures of the angels and heard the voices of the divine Powers, if you theologize and teach, if you have defeated the wiles of the demons, if you write and speak and do things, all are a gift of God.
So say to your Lord, “Receive, o my sweet zephyr, my Jesus, Your own from Your own!” And then oh, then, my soul! What things you will see when the treasures of God open and He says to You, Receive everything, my son, for you proved to be a faithful and good ruler! (Mt 25:21).
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Some Terms that All Orthodox Should Know
By George Karras, “Orthodox Heritage” Editor.
The terms discussed below appear often in patristic texts and present a significant challenge to the understanding of our worldly intellect. The definitions presented constitute a general and very elementary explanation. They are derived from various Orthodox books, primarily “Orthodox Psychotherapy” by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos (published by Birth of Theotokos Monastery, Greece, 2005). It is a book that is strongly recommended for all those seeking to attain a greater understanding of these key terms.
Nous is the eye of the soul, which some Fathers also call the heart; it is the center of man and is where true (spiritual) knowledge is validated. Man’s soul is intelligent and noetic. God created man with a capacity to receive the Spirit and to attain knowledge of Himself; God did this by creating mankind with intelligence and noetic facilities.
Angels have intelligence and nous, whereas men have reason, nous and sensory perception. Furthermore, the soul of a man is created in the image of God. Since God is Trinitarian, mankind is Nous, Word and Spirit. The same is held true of the soul (or heart): it has nous, word and spirit. For those seeking to better understand this, a study of St. Gregory Palamas’ teaching that man is a representation of the Trinitarian mystery should be pursued.
Theoria is the vision of God and takes on a number of meanings that pertain to union with God (theo-) and holiness, the quintessential goals of Christianity (see the Philokalia). Theoria is the experience of the highest or absolute truth when one is in complete union with God. It is the penetration of the divine darkness or cloud of unknowing, beyond rational understanding. St. Gregory the Theologian says that theoria and praxis (the practice of faith, especially worship and the deeds of a virtuous life) are beneficial because theoria guides him to the holy of holies and restores him to his original nature; whereas praxis receives and serves Christ and tests love with actions. Thus, theoria is the vision of God and praxis is whatever deeds it takes to lead to this love.
Phronema is the understanding of Christian faith that guides the follower of Christ. It is a mindset or outlook; it is the Orthodox mind. The attaining of phronema is a matter of practicing the correct faith (orthodoxia) in the correct manner (orthopraxia). Attaining phronema is regarded as the first step toward theosis which is the state of glorification.
Theosis, meaning divinization (or deification, or to make divine) is the call to man to become holy and seek union with God, beginning in this life and later consummated in the resurrection.
The Holy Orthodox Fathers teach us that theoria is the source or means of growth toward union with God, praxis is the faith practiced along the way, and theosis is the overall path or journey.