Asceticism, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Empirical Dogmatics, Glossary, Hesychasm, James L. Kelley, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Nepsis, passions, Patristic Theology, Romanides, St. Seraphim of Sarov, Theoria, Theosis
In the whole biblico-patristic tradition it is evident that God is not an object of conjecture and logical understanding, but a matter of participation, of revelation, that is to say, of experience. Of course when we speak of experience we do not mean individual experience such as we find in Eastern religions, but the experience of the Church, as the Prophets, Apostles and those glorified (attained theosis) of all times lived (live) it. The philosophers usually make conjectures with their minds, while the Fathers formulate what they have seen and heard as far as it can be formulated. In hesychastic theology, as St. Gregory Palamas expresses it and develops it more extensively, one can see the method which the saints employ in order to participate in the glory of God. They renounce association with the world and creation, they live the apophatic experience, that is to say, the nous returns to the heart from its diffusion in the surroundings and created things, and from there it ascends to God. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his work “The life of Moses” presents this journey analytically.
The fourth century Fathers, in parallel with the dogmatic discussion about the Persons of the Holy Trinity, spoke of the way of experiencing and of participating in the Trinitarian God. And this way is purification of the heart. But they did not do this under the influence of neo-platonism, as some people wish to maintain. The whole of Holy Scripture speaks of man’s purification and his participation in the glory of God. It is true that theosis is not spoken of in Holy Scripture, but other terms are found there, such as glorification, likeness, etc.
Furthermore, there is a great difference between the teaching of the Holy Fathers and neo-platonism on the subject of purification and illumination. For the neo-Platonists, purification is the discarding of what pertains to desire and anger, and illumination is knowledge of the archetypes of beings. In general, salvation is the soul’s return to the world of ideas. These views have nothing to do with the holy Fathers’ teaching about purification and illumination. For the holy Fathers purification is the dismissal of all evil thoughts from the heart and their sojourn in the rational, and illumination is enlightenment of the nous by the grace of God. The method of purification and illumination of the heart and nous is called hesychasm.
It is said from this point of view that the holy Fathers were not philosophers, but theologians and men who saw God. They did not make conjectures or imagine God, but they saw Him, because they had purified themselves from passions and had discarded fantasy. It is not possible to attain the vision of God without experiencing that God is uncreated, that is to say, that He is not to be confused with creatures. Only one who thinks with logic can come to the conclusion that Christ is a creature.
I consider important and orthodox the view of Father John Romanides as he formulated it in a spoken sermon. When he makes the distinction between dogma and experience and analyses how dogma and experience are two different things, he says:
“He who reaches theosis knows experientially that the Word is uncreated, that glory is uncreated, that the Father is uncreated, the Spirit is uncreated, the Spirit is a hypostasis, etc. These things belong to experiential theology.
“In which case another thing is the experience of theosis which man has before him, living it within the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and he knows that the glory is uncreated, the energies are uncreated, that he does not see essence, in the glory he distinguishes the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“It is true that the names themselves are not God. One sees light, light, light. Light of light, light incarnate. And another light not incarnate, which is light from the first light. So the two lights are from the first light, the one has become incarnate, the other is not incarnate. And this is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“And the fact that the one light became incarnate and the other two lights are not incarnate, means that the three lights differ from one another in this way. This requires some formulation, expression, so that the catechumen, who has no experience of theosis, may know about this matter”.
This teaching of Father John Romanides, which I consider very important and orthodox, is quite interesting. He shows that experience and its formulation in words, for anti-heretical but also catechetical reasons, are two different things. Sometimes the experience is formulated in order to combat the heresies and sometimes to catechise the catechumens, to give them the right orientation so that they may some time arrive at their own experience. For if one does not take the appropriate medicines, one can never be cured. And if one does not walk the true path, one will never end at the place where one wants to go.
Thus in the vision of God the saints see three lights. At the same time they also see the difference between them, because one is the source of the other two, the second comes from the first, but has a human nature, so that the body too is a source of the uncreated Light, and the third comes from the first, but has no human nature. They have formulated this experience in the terms unbegotten, begotten and proceeding, which are the modes of being of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Therefore the phrase “mode of being”, which the Fathers use, has no relationship with the Sabellian views. They formulated this experience in the terms person-hypostasis, mode of being, etc. We shall look at this further on.
We can look at some examples of this kind in Holy Scripture.
First we should remind ourselves of the great event of Christ’s Transfiguration. The three disciples on Mount Tabor saw the Threefold God as light. The Godman Christ “was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17,2). Here we observe that the second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who assumed human nature, showed His divinity, that is to say, that He is light, like the Father, as well as the fact that His human body is also a source of uncreated grace. At the same time the disciples also saw a “bright cloud” which “overshadowed them” (Matt. 17,5), and this cloud, according to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Thus also the Holy Spirit is light, but has no body, not being incarnate. Moreover in the cloud the voice of the Father was heard saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him” (Matt. 17,5). This is the greatest moment of the vision of God. The Father is hidden in the bright cloud and proclaims that Christ is His Son, that is to say, was begotten of Him.
In the event of the Transfiguration of Christ we meet with the truth that God is a matter of experience, an experience of the threefoldness of God as three lights, that although they have the same energy, which shows the same uncreated nature, at the same time there is also a difference. Christ has human nature, the Father is the source of the two others, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father but has no human nature.
We find the same experience also in the Protomartyr Stephen, during his defence before the Sanhedrin of the Jews. It is written in the Acts of the Apostles: “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7, 55-56).
The Protomartyr Stephen saw the glory of God. This glory is the light. At the same time he saw Jesus, the Son of man, that is, the Godman Christ “at the right hand of God”, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who was made man. The source of the Second Person is the first glory, the Father. It is in this sense that we should interpret “on the right hand of the Father”. It shows that the Father is the source of the birth of the Son. And of course the Protomartyr Stephen saw the glory of God, Jesus Christ in glory, that is to say he saw this great vision of God “being full of the Holy Spirit”. Through communion with the Holy Spirit, through the light of the Holy Spirit he saw the glory of God. The words of the Psalm apply here: “In Thy light shall we see light” (Psalm 35, 10 LXX).
It is within this perspective that we should look at many passages of Holy Scripture which speak of the fact that God is light. I would like just to cite the passage in James the brother of God, in which he says: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren: every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1,17).
The holy Fathers had the same experience as the Holy Apostles. Moreover, St. Gregory Palamas’ words are well known: “Is it not this, that saving perfection, in the realm of knowledge and doctrine, consists in having the same mind as the Prophets, Apostles and all the Fathers, through whom the Holy Spirit bears witness that they spoke about God and His creatures”.
St. Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great, who contributed to the final use of the terms person and hypostasis, had great experiences, as is seen clearly in their works.
What should be emphasised is that Basil the Great, using the terms of the philosophers and philosophisers and charging them with another meaning and sense, had personal experience. He did not proceed by conjecture, but was guided by the revelation which he had received from God. This is why these terms with their special characteristic no longer change significantly.
But I would like in what follows to go in greater detail into the teaching of St. Symeon the New Theologian, which shows that the saints theologise not in a philosophical way, but through experience. They speak within the Revelation. The things to which we shall refer are characteristic, because they establish just what is orthodox theology, that it differs from philosophy, and moreover they show how to theologise in an orthodox way.
(Source — The Person in the Orthodox Tradition)