The Modes of Faith, Reason and the Role of the Nous in Coping with Thoughts
In our last blog post, we spoke about faith and hesychasm as means of coping with the thoughts. In the West, the mode of reason has been championed as the sine qua non concerning all knowledge claims about the human person and the world in which we live. This is a radical departure from the ancient Christian world view where, as I note in chapter five of my book, “In addition to a primitive mode of passion and a metacognitive mode of reason, the man of faith knows a third state in which he experiences diving grace through the spiritual heart that is also called the nous. Saint Mark the Ascetic observes, ‘The nous changes from one to another of three different noetic states: that according to nature, above nature, and contrary to nature. He then notes both the behavioral and cognitive components of each condition. In the natural state, people can confess their sins and understand the cause of bad thoughts and passions. In a state contrary to nature, they fight with others and feel as though they have been mistreated. In the state above nature, they experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit such as love, peace, joy, warmth, compunction, and tears that bring divine illumination as well as noetic radiance revealing the will of God.’”
Saint Mark’s comments about the three modes can only be understood within the context of the art of hesychasm and the practice of stillness. Hesychasm requires watchfulness over thoughts and actions. Elder Ephraim of the Monastery of Vatopaidi comments on the process of becoming a practitioner of stillness or a hesychast as follows: “People need to get rid of the persona with the mask of the passions and become persons with a human face. Purifying the heart of the passions needs to become their number one priority in life. In this struggle, they should not attempt to conform to an externally moral life but should carry out the fight in a Christ-centered manner, with their thoughts fixed on Him. Grafted on to the Body of Christ, which is the Church, particularly through the sacraments of Baptism, Confession and the Divine Liturgy, people become an ecclesiological hypostasis — though not yet a person actively — and with all their volition begin the task of repentance. Saint Gregory Palamas makes the point that the preparation and beginning of repentance is self-reproach, confession and avoidance of evil. For repentance to be complete, all three have to be observed together. If people pray with contrition and self-reproach before God and promise to refrain from sin, but do not go to the sacrament of confession, their repentance, their struggle is not valid. Saint Gregory points out that: “Those who sin before God, even if thereafter they refrain from sin, even if they equal it with works of repentance, cannot feel forgiveness for themselves unless they go to a person who has from God the authority to loose transgressions, and receive from him the assurance of pardon”. In this way, they conduct the “legitimate struggle” and take care not to foster the passions by active sin or by giving in to wicked thoughts, because the passions are an unnatural movement of the soul. When the powers of the soul, i.e. desire, emotion and reason, do not function normally, but work unnaturally, then the corresponding passions flourish. Purification from the passions is achieved by the corresponding exercise of the virtues and, according to Palamas, the cure begins with desire. So we place restraint on desire rather than give in to self-indulgence and greed, we apply love to emotion instead of malice and irascibility, and vigilance and prayer to reason in the place of heedlessness and ignorance.
The faithful nourish their faculty of reason with the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. When the name of Christ revolves in the nous of the faithful, it provides divine enlightenment, so that they can discern the thoughts that instigate active sin and then they are able to slay them at birth, i.e. before they assume a provocative image. And when the passions are not activated, they gradually die off, with the assistance of divine Grace, or rather are transformed as Palamas explains. When this necrosis/metamorphosis of the passions begins, they enter into theoria and there, at “the throne of Grace, the heart” they discover another energy within it, that of direct cognition. Then there occurs the union of the nous and the heart. Our nous is perhaps the most fundamental theme of ascetic anthropology and the one most difficult to discern for those who are not spiritual, those who are earthly. Many of the Fathers have given descriptions of the nous. By and large they regard it as a power or eye of the soul. Palamas, however, defines the nous and its functions in a unique, revelatory and precise manner. He considers the nous a self-sustaining and supremely active substance. It falls short of its proper function and loses its value when it is restricted to the intellect, which is activated in an earthly spirit which has its seat in the brain. Our nous has substance and energy. The energy of direct cognition which is dissipated outwards through the feelings and mixed up on the inside with reason must return to the substance of the nous, which has its seat in the heart, to the first, bodily, calculating organ. And this return is effected through prayer.”
In this wonderful passage, the Athonite abbot shows how hesychasm, asceticism, and the sacramental life constitute a unified treatment for the human condition, for the human personality, and for the human soul that has great transfigurational power when all three elements work in unison. Hesychasm, asceticism, and the sacramental life all begin with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ turned into concrete action in how the thoughts are monitored, in how we behave, and in what we value. In a spirit of humility and obedience, we watch our thoughts, we fast, and with great piety and the fear of God, we enter into the paradise of the Church into the company of Saints and Angels. For the sincere of heart, for the humble, and for the repentant, the horizon that this new way of being open are endless.
For those at the threshold of this lifelong process of approaching the throne of glory, bad thoughts are a reminder to all of us of our human condition as well as the work we must undertake to restore the nous to its rightful role in our lives. This is essentially a spiritual undertaking and its success relies upon the level at which we are willing to cooperate with God’s Love and grace working in an through the Jesus Prayer. This prayer is somewhat like a surgical instrument that cuts and binds, conceals and reveals, and ultimately, leads us to repentance and for the truly humble to deification in Christ at which stage, the problem of the thoughts has been thoroughly and eternally solved.