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Daily Meditations

The Eastern Christian Spiritual Tradition

March 7th, 2019

The Eastern Christian spiritual tradition is not composed of “schools” as in the West, where they are typically associated with a particular religious order (for example, Benedictine, Carmelite, or Franciscan). Yet there is more than one approach in the East. The one favored on Athos is known as hesychasm, from the Greek word hesychia, translated as “stillness.” It flourished especially in the fourteenth century on Athos, at a time when a controversy arose over the experience of God. An Italian monk named Barlaam was teaching in Constantinople and in Greece and, after visiting the monks on Mount Athos, he began challenging both the legitimacy of mental prayer and the Athonite belief that the monks experienced the uncreated light of Mount Tabor, that is, the light of the Transfiguration of Christ. Barlaam argued instead that the light was material and created.

For the Athonites, this was tantamount to denying that the monks experienced God himself. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), a monk of Athos and later archbishop of Thessaloniki, became the spokesman for the Holy Mountain. In his defense of their position, he reiterated the Eastern Christian distinction between the essence and energies of God. We cannot experience the essence of God, but we can experience God’s energies, that is, God’s actions in the world. These energies—including the Taboric light—are divine and uncreated. Thus we can experience God in God’s energies, and not simply something created outside of God.

Mount Athos continues to be the home of twenty monasteries and at least a dozen sketes (smaller communities of monks). Only monks may live on Athos, and female visitors are not permitted. About two thousand monks live on Athos today. While the great number of visitors to the Holy Mountain can become a distraction for the monks, they nonetheless seek to maintain the silent character of their life. John Chryssavgis in his recent book Light through Darkness: The Orthodox Tradition describes their typical daily schedule:

A bell rings in the silence of the night at about midnight, calling monks to silent prayer and study. A wooden gong sounds at 4 a.m., inviting monks to worship (Matins and Liturgy, normally on a daily basis) in the silence of the night. The monks proceed silently to the refectory, where lunch follows in silence at 8.00 a.m. There is a brief period of rest and quiet. From 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., the monks work in silence. Vespers is at 5:00 p.m. The evening meal, again in silence, is at 6:00 p.m. There may follow a spell of relaxation from work and silence, when monks mingle with one another or with visitors on the balconies. Compline in the main church is held at 7:00 p.m. Afterwards the monks retire in complete silence to their cells.

Western Christians often compartmentalize the spiritual from the theological. In the East, however, there is a holistic view of theology. Dogmatic or systematic theology (which deals with beliefs about God), liturgical theology (worship), moral theology (ethics), and spiritual/ascetical theology are all aspects of a singular enterprise. Moreover, dogmatic theology is meant to be lived. Vladimir Lossky (1903-1958) gave classic expression to this traditional understanding.

We must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. Outside the truth kept by the whole Church personal experience would be deprived of all certainty, of all objectivity. It would be a mingling of truth and falsehood, of reality and of illusion: “mysticism” in the bad sense of the word. On the other hand, the teaching of the Church would have no hold on souls if it did not in some degree express an inner experience of truth, granted in different measure to each one of the faithful. There is, therefore, no Christian mysticism without theology; but, above all, there is no theology without mysticism.

This is simply an elaboration of the saying of Evagrios contained in the Philokalia: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

~Allyne Smith, Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Selections Annotated & Explained.  Translation by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware).