The Relevance of Hesychasm  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hesychasm, the spiritual underpinning of Eastern Orthodox spirituality,  based upon the frequent repetition of the Jesus Prayer, seeks to instill in its practitioners a strong sense of inner stillness, leading to silent, imageless contemplation.  Does this mean navel-gazing on a mountaintop?  Far from it.  Orthodox writer Philip Sherrard has some incisive observations on the relevance of hesychasm to the so-called "real world".  His essay "The Revival of Hesychast Spirituality" appears in Louis Dupre' and  Don E Saliers, eds, Christian Spirituality:  Post-Reformation and Modern, Crossroad 1996.  The excerpt below appears on p 428.


Hesychasm by no means scorns or undervalues human love and service.  It is emphatically not "otherworldly" as this term is usually understood.  On the contrary it insists, as we have seen, that the whole of creation is impregnated with God's own life and being and that consequently there can be no true love of God that does not embrace every aspect of creation, however humble and limited.  Its purpose is not to abandon the world to annihilation and self-destruction, but to redeem it.

It is to redeem it by transfiguring it.  But for the hesychast this transfiguration presupposes the transformation of human consciousness itself, so that it becomes capable of perceiving the divinity that lies at the heart of every created form, giving each such form its divine purpose and determining its intrinsic vocation and beauty.  In other words, hesychasts will consider that the way for them, as for any other person, best to serve, at least initially, fellow humans and all other created beings, will be to bring the love and knowledge of God to birth within themselves; for until that has been achieved, their outward actions, instead of being the necessary expression of this love and knowledge, will be tarnished both with self-love and with the idolatry of which we have spoken.  This will make it clear why hesychasm is and must be first of all a way of contemplation.  For it is only through the contemplative life in all its aspects--ascetic watchfulness, prayer, meditation, the whole uninterrupted practice of the presence of God to which the Philokalia is the guide--that humans can actualize in themselves the personal love and knowledge of God on which depend not only their own authentic existence as human beings but also their capacity to cooperate with God in fulfilling the innermost purposes of creation.

The Labyrinth As Spiritual Journey  

Posted by Joe Rawls

In recent years walking the labyrinth has become a significant spiritual practice for many people, both Christian and non-Christian.  In pre-Christian Europe labyrinths appear in Neolithic and, later, Celtic cultural contexts.  At some point they were "baptized" by the church and incorporated as an element of contemplative spiritual practice.  They may be found in a number of medieval cathedrals; probably the most famous, serving as the model for many modern recreations, is the one from Chartres cathedral, pictured above.

When I walk the labyrinth, I feel as if it is a recapitulation of my own journey on the contemplative path, one that is probably common to many people.  When you begin the journey, there is an initial flush of enthusiasm, so that you get close to the center--where God is present in a perceivable way--without quite reaching it.  Then you are pulled away and spend time enduring long stretches where the whole business seems an act of futility.  With patience, you eventually reach the center, however briefly.  But you are not meant to stay there for good--in this life, anyway--and so you retrace your steps to return to the "real" world, hopefully refreshed and nourished spiritually.  I usually recite the Jesus Prayer as I walk the labyrinth.

A good article on the labyrinth, albeit from a largely secular perspective, may be found on the always-interesting Aeon website.

Transfiguration As Theophany  

Posted by Joe Rawls

 Norman Russell, in his book Fellow Workers with God:  Orthodox thinking on theosis (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009) discusses how the Transfiguration of Jesus is a theophany, or manifestation of God.  The excerpt appears on pp 102-104.


"What does it mean, 'he was transfigured'?  It means he allowed a brief glimpse of the Godhead and showed them the indwelling God."  This text from St John Chrysostom..., which later Fathers, including St Gregory Palamas, liked to quote, sums up the single most important aspect of the Transfiguration.  "There is no other place in the entire Bible," as Andreopoulos observes, "where the curtain between the material and the invisible world is completely lifted visually, and there is no other place where the divinity of Christ is witnessed in such a dramatic way"...

The vision of the transfigured Christ, in St Maximus' understanding, implies an internal change in those who seek spiritual knowledge.  There is a progression, he says, from the beginners' stage, in which Christ appears in the form of a servant..., to the advanced stage of those who have climbed the high mountain of prayer, in which Christ appears in the form of God....This manifestation of Christ in his divine nature is not experienced as something external to ourselves.  It is interiorized through the life of faith...

In the Gerontikon, the sayings and stories of the desert Fathers...we find several accounts of monks transfigured with light.  Three of them stand out:  Abba Pambo, "whose face shone like lightening", Abba Sisoes, of whom it was said that "when he was about to die, with the fathers sitting near him, his face shone like the sun," and Abba Silvanus, who was seen "with his face and body shining like an angel".  These texts have been studied with deep insight by Stelios Ramfos, who sees them as presenting us with an image of what it is to be truly human.  Pambo, Sisoes and Silvanus were men whose radiance was the product of inward openness.  In Ramfos' view, Pambo's "if you have a heart, you can be saved," is one of the most important sayings in the Gerontikon.  For the heart in this sense is the spiritual expression of the embodied person.  It is the meeting-place of God within us.  It is where we find freedom of speech before God.  The pure in heart see God, and they become pure in heart through thanksgiving.  It is thanksgiving which enables us to see God, not liberation from the body or the subjugation of the will.  When the heart is filled with thanksgiving, egoism disappears.  And when we are free from egoism, we share in the self-emptying of Christ.  It is only by sharing in the naked humiliated Christ (the kenosis of his divinity) that we can come to share in the glorified Christ (the theosis of his humanity).

Augustine on Theosis  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Theosis, deification, partaking in the Divine Nature, call it what you will--is generally considered to be an Eastern Orthodox concept.  Indeed, it is arguably the distinctive underpinning of the Eastern Church's theology and ascetic practice.  But many Western theologians and spiritual writers talk about theosis as well.  One such is Augustine of Hippo.  Alvin Rapien, in a fairly comprehensive article appearing on The Patristic Project site, addresses Augustine's approach to theosis and quotes liberally from his writings.  Three such quotes are reproduced below.


We carry mortality about with us, we endure infirmity, we look forward to divinity.  For God wishes not only to vivify, but also to deify us.  When would human infirmity ever dared to hope for this, unless divine truth had promised it.
Sermo 23 B

Still, it was not enough for God to promise us divinity in himself, unless he also took on our infirmity, as though to say, "Do you want to know how much I love you, how certain you ought to be that I am going to give you my divine reality?  I took to myself your mortal reality."  We mustn't find it incredible, brothers and sisters, that human beings become gods, that is, that those who were human can become gods.
Sermo 23 B

For the Word, which became flesh, was in the beginning, and was God with God.  But at the same time his participation in our inferior condition, in order to our participation in his higher state, held a kind of medium in his birth of the flesh...So also, just as his inferior circumstances, into which he descended to us, were not in every particular exactly the same with our inferior circumstances in which he found us here.  So our superior state, into which we ascend to him, will not be quite the same as his superior state, in which we find him.  For we by his grace are to be made the sons of God, whereas he was evermore by nature the Son of God.  We, when we are converted, shall cleave to God, though not as his equals.  He never turned from God, and remains ever equal to God; we are partakers of eternal life, he is eternal life.
On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants

Ignatius IV on the Holy Spirit  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Patriarch Ignatius IV, leader of the Antiochian Orthodox Church from 1979 until his repose in 2012, was born in Syria in 1920 as Habib Hazim.  He was educated in his native country and graduated from the Institute St Serge in Paris.  Below follows a brief but profound meditation on the Holy Spirit.  Hat-tip to the always stimulating Eclectic Orthodoxy site.


Without the Holy Spirit
God is far away,
Christ stays in the past,
the Gospel is a dead letter,
the Church is simply an organization,
authority a matter of dominion,
mission a matter of propaganda,
the Liturgy no more than an evocation,
Christian living a slave morality.

But in the Holy Spirit
the cosmos is resurrected and
grows with the birth pangs of the Kingdom,
the Risen Christ is there,
the Gospel is the power of life,
the Church shows forth the life of the Trinity,
authority is a liberating service,
mission a Pentecost,
the Liturgy both memorial and anticipation,
human action is deified.

Pope Francis on the Desert Fathers  

Posted by Joe Rawls

During his recent visit to Egypt, Pope Francis addressed an assembly of Roman Catholic priests and religious stationed in that country.  His talk was focused on seven temptations facing religious and how a knowledge of the Desert Fathers is relevant to their struggles.  The complete article appears in the website Aletheia (


1.  The temptation to let ourselves be led, rather than to lead.

2.  The temptation to complain constantly.

3.  The temptation to gossip and envy.

4.  The temptation to compare ourselves to others.

5.  The temptation to become like Pharaoh.

6.  The temptation to individualism.

The temptation to keep walking without direction or destination.

Leo the Great on the Annunciation  

Posted by Joe Rawls

From a letter of Pope Leo I  Epist 28 ad Flavianum, PL 54, 763-767

Lowliness is assured by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity.  To pay the debt of our sinsul state, a nature that is incapable of suffering was joined to one that could suffer.  Thus, in keeping with the healing that we needed, one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ was able to die in one nature, and unable to die in the other.

He who is true God was therefore born in the complete and perfect nature of a true man, whole in his own nature, whole in ours.  By our nature we mean what the Creator had fashioned in us from the beginning, and took to himself in order to restore it.

He took the nature of a servant without stain of sin, enlarging our humanity without diminishing his divinity.  He emptied himself; though invisible he made himself visible, though Creator and Lord of all things he chose to be one of us mortal men.  Yet this was the condescension of compassion, not the loss of omnipotence.  So he who in the nature of God had created man, became in the nature of a servant, man himself.

He was born in a new condition, for, invisible in his own nature, he became visible in ours.  Beyond our grasp, he chose to come within our grasp.  Existing before time began, he began to exist in a moment in time.  Lord of the universe, he hid his infinite glory and took the nature of a servant.  Incapable of suffering as God, he did not refuse to be a man, capable of suffering.  Immortal, he chose to be subject to the laws of death.