Thoughts on the Eastern Orthodox Approach to Mysticism and Spirituality
While Christianity is seen in the eyes of most people as being a Western religious tradition, there is also an “Eastern” approach which has a different character. The Eastern Orthodox approach to theology and its various disciplines blends expressions that seem to bridge eastern and western styles, methods and disciplines. The purpose of the paper will be to introduce the Eastern Orthodox understanding of the mystical approach to God and the spiritual life that develops in a personal manner.
The terms “mysticism” and “spirituality” are rather new in the realm of theological language, although they have become rather popular and a common part of the vocabulary of those who teach and study theology. They seem to parallel a trend that demonstrates an individual’s approach to the divine, one without structure, very personal and almost detached from the traditional approach of many faiths. This trend is also visibly expressed not only in the various seminars, conferences and gatherings of religious leaders but also in the literature, books and theological courses. While the terms themselves are foreign to Scripture and to the real tradition of Eastern Christianity, Orthodox Christians have adopted the terms and now use them as a regular part of their theological language. This illustrates the desire of Eastern theologians and scholars to adopt and adapt new terms and expressions to their religious identity and expression. Certainly, one can understand that there is a similar desire in the West.
While the actual terms “mystical and spirituality” have only recently been added to the language of Eastern Orthodoxy, other words that share similar roots have been a part of the vocabulary of Eastern Christianity. The expressions “mystical experience”, “mystical traditions”, “spiritual person”, “spiritual life” and others have long been part of the language used in the Eastern tradition. The ancient Fathers of the Church freely used these phrases in their writings, as they wrote about redemption, salvation, theosis, union with God, and eternal life. While they may not have used the exact words or expressions that we use today, they pursued the same values, ideals and purpose in their struggles and the ascetic life. They saw life as a spiritual journey, which was to lead one from glory to glory through continuous transfiguration and change. The pattern of life they espoused and lived was one that would lead them to empty themselves and to overcome the desires and passions, so they might ascend a spiritual ladder and come into contact with the Divine. One had to purge himself/herself of the “idols” that he/she worshiped through the process of spiritual “katharsis”. This would allow for him/her to walk the path with no preconceptions or predetermined ideas, as we so often do in our present days and lives. In order for one to approach God, he must be cleansed and pure in mind and spirit, as reflected in the Beatitudes. The Fathers of the Church, especially St. Gregory of Nyssa, reflect these thoughts in their commentaries. He and others, although in a very discreet manner, begin to reveal to the reader the theology of spiritual progress and growth, which is later defined as theosis. Passages and expressions found in the Hebrew Scriptures are given new meaning and bring another style of revelation. One must enter a “cloud of darkness and unknowing” to approach God. If one is to see light, he/she must enter darkness and forget the past. This is the mystical approach that does not depend or develop through the mind and the intellect and may, in fact, have parallels in other religious traditions and expressions. While the intellect is a great resource, it also has limitations, its own means of expression and must use human expressions.
“The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this – in seeing that God is invisible, because what we see lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility . . . What is the significance of the fact that Moses went right into the darkness and saw God there? At first sight, the account of the vision of God seems to contradict the earlier one. For whereas on that occasion the divine was seen in light, this time the divine is seen in darkness. But we should not regard this as involving any inconsistency at the level of mystical meaning which concerns us. Through it the Word is teaching us that in the initial stages religious knowledge comes to people as illumination. So what we recognize as contrary to religion is darkness, and escape from that darkness is achieved by participation in the light. From there the mind moves forward; by its ever-increasing and more perfect attention it forms an idea of the apprehension of reality. The closer it approaches the vision of God, the more it recognizes the invisible character of the divine nature.” (The Life of Moses II)
In many religious traditions of the world God (the Divine) is referred to or spoken of with positive attributes and adjectives. This means of cataphatic theology is found in the Christian tradition, especially in the West. Perhaps, this comes as a result of the means of approaching things – through reason, logic and a more defined system. One sees this when God is spoken of as being good, love, great, merciful, and the other countless expressions. These forms limit God by human terms, intellect and thought. The words and expressions guide our mind to what it may understand within a framework. While using this style as a basis for developing a means of approaching God, the Eastern Church uses the apophatic style to correct the cataphatic means, as well as offering an approach to God through a negative means or expressions. This system and style can be found in other Christian traditions and well as other faiths, although it is not as developed as in the Eastern Orthodox approach. One might even find the style and approach comfortable in Buddhist thought. The apophatic approach teaches us that God is beyond our understanding, beyond our limitations, and that human logic and reasons cannot be used to understand that which is beyond comprehension. The apophatic approach guides to union with God and not our trying to find or gain knowledge of Him.
The apophatic attitude gave to the Fathers of the Church that freedom and liberty with which they employed philosophical terms without running the risk of being misunderstood or of falling into a ‘theology of concepts’ . . . The apophatic way does not lead us to an absence, to an utter emptiness; for the unknowable God of the Christian is not the impersonal God of the philosophers. It is to the Holy Trinity ‘super-essential, more than divine, and more than good’ … that the author of the Mystical Theology commends himself in entering upon the way, which is to bring him to a presence and a fullness, which are without measure.” (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, 42-43).
The apophatic approach allows for both a mystical approach to God, complimented by a spiritual life. The one should not be seen as if it is a prerequisite for the other. Rather, they work together, are interwoven, become one and become a lifestyle for those seeking the kingdom of God. It is easy to understand the words of Christ, Who said “the kingdom of heaven is within you”. The spiritual life is a summons to a transfiguration and the whole person must change and become a reflection of the Divine. With this in mind, it is easy to reflect upon and grasp the meaning of the Apostle Paul who writes:
“What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and my daughters, says the Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6: 16-18)
The words of the Apostle are a summons to a different lifestyle and expression than that of the world. It is an invitation to enter “the desert” and be refreshed and changed. This does not mean a physical desert. In the patristic tradition the desert is the way of life, especially in an ascetic form. In the “desert” one can struggle to correct fallen nature and return to true union with God. It is in “the desert” that one can come to a true understanding of himself, as this allows one to know his weaknesses and failings, so he can grow and mature in the spiritual life. St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Blessed are you when you know your weaknesses. For this knowledge becomes for you the foundation and source of all good things”. (St. Isaac, Mystic Treatises VIII) Without a secure base and foundation, one falls into deception and leaves the path of enlightenment and the vision of God. Just as Moses left Egypt of the passions (according to John of the Ladder), it is necessary to enter the desert and be cleansed.
“Once Moses then, and now those who follow in his footsteps, rid themselves of earthly encumbrances and see the light from the bush – that is the light that shines on us through the thorn bush of the flesh which is, as the gospel says, “the true light” and “the truth” (Jn 1:9, 14:6) – once, that is, they have arrived there, then they were in position to be of service to others. They were able to destroy the evil tyranny that controlled them and to lead out into freedom all that were under the domination of an evil slavery. . . By this it seems to me that the mystery of the appearance of the godhead of the Lord through the flesh was displayed, whereby both the destruction of the tyrant and the freedom of those under his control were indicated.” Gregory of Nyssa, the Life of Moses, II)
As Moses led the people of Israel to find the promised land, anyone seeking to find the kingdom of God is in need a of a good and proper guide, as St. John of the Ladder notes in the First Logos (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step I). One is guided on the true path by an “elder” or spiritual father, who knows the inner workings of the heart of his spiritual children. He is “the mystic” and guides one on the spiritual path, having a clear heart and mind. He teaches using such disciplines as prayer, fasting, obedience, and silence. These assist a neophyte is cultivating the seeds of truth that have been planted in his heart, so he may ascend the spiritual ladder. By means of instruction and by digesting the spiritual disciplines that have been given him, one alters the inner cosmos of his being and then begins to change the outer cosmos of the world. He is no longer self-centered and does not see truth in his own manner of interpretation. He understands that truth is beyond his human frailty and understanding and it may exist where he cannot imagine or comprehend. This reflects the theology of St. Justin the Martyr-Philosopher, who teaches that “seeds” of truth exist outside the Christian faith. The walls of ignorance are shattered and one finds resources, from within and outside his own tradition, which allow him to walk the path that brings him into union with God.
When a person is united with God, he no longer lives but God lives in him, as understood in the words of St. Paul. This experience is also a reflection of the two natures of Christ and a hypostatic union, as God and man become one. The mystical experience is when a human becomes a heavenly being and an earthly angel. He sees the world through different eyes – those of the soul and not those of the flesh. This experience, though, is a rare one and not a common thing. Few reach this state and experience the beauty of the kingdom in them while on this earth. But, one must also remember that “many are called, but few are chosen”. All are called to the spiritual life and the struggle for perfection. While the paths may not be the same, there are common threads and these need to be cultivated. They offer religious leaders and the faithful the opportunity of seeing and learning on another level, using a different vocabulary and even understanding religious practices within culture. Common threads, such as the mystical experience and a spiritual life, help overcome the walls of isolation, misunderstanding, arrogance and other negative expressions.