Empirical Dogmatics, Hesychasm, James L. Kelley, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Noetic Faculty, Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Protopresbyter John Romanides, St. Gregory Palamas, St. Symeon the New Theologian
Unfortunately many today see the Church from an ethical, social and religious perspective: that people should become moral, good citizens and parents, and perform their religious duties well, so that they may live well here but also propitiate God after death and win Paradise.
“The view has become prevalent that the aim of theology certainly includes therapeutic treatment, but with regard to the life to come. In other words, we practise a therapeutic method today, but the results of the treatment will be revealed after death, or at the hour of death. So we behave ourselves now, we keep the commandments and participate in purification, in the sense that we avoid sins – and usually in Greece they avoid ‘particular’ sins with a very specific meaning – and we reach the point of death. And since we are ‘good boys and girls’ and moral, we go to Paradise, as we are rewarded for our good behaviour during this life.”
However, man’s ailing personality needs to be cured. The heart must be purified and the nous illumined. The organ of the nous is a lens that has been darkened and obscured. It needs to be cleaned and illuminated now, so that it can work well in this life and will also be able to see the Light of God at the Second Coming. Then God will be Light for the human being.
“If the light were suddenly to be revealed to someone without him being prepared, and without his lens having been polished, instead of seeing God as Light, he would see Him as fire. Someone who is blind and lives all his life in darkness – actually, his eyes are normal, but they are not used to seeing light, so essentially the man is blind – if we suddenly take him outside at midday in Greece, in the summer when there are no clouds in the sky, his abrupt exposure to the sun’s rays and facing the sun in this way could ruin his eyes.
They will inevitably suffer harm and probably, instead of seeing, the man will end up being blind for the rest of his life.
For that reason he needs gradually to train and get his eyes accustomed, and once they are accustomed, he can go for walks in the sun. If anyone ever wants to go blind, let him put sellotape on his eyes to force them to stay open, and let him lie on his back looking up at the sun in the middle of the day, in an atmosphere with low barometric pressure. You will see that in a few minutes his eyes will be ruined. Seeing the sun is a good thing, but at the same time it is dangerous. The sun is good, but the sun can also be bad, depending on the use one makes of it.”
Christ became incarnate. He assumed the whole of human nature in order to cure it, because, according to St Gregory the Theologian, “What is not assumed is not cured.” Baptism, Chrismation and the Divine Eucharist contribute to purification, illumination and glorification, provided, of course, that man responds to God’s action with his own co-operation. The clergy are physicians who give therapeutic treatment using the method of hesychasm and the Mysteries of the Church. We attach great importance to this. The Church is really a spiritual hospital. In this context we can speak about therapeutic treatment.
Hesychasm is not a later development that was expounded by St Symeon the New Theologian and the Fathers of the 13th and 14th centuries. It is the authentic tradition of the saints, by means of which we participate worthily in the Mysteries of the Church.
“The essence of this tradition was the ascetic tradition of the Fathers that had been preserved down through the centuries, particularly in the monasteries, and mainly after Symeon the New Theologian, who brought about a tremendous revolution in his era. It seems to me that there is a very great need for the same revolution to be repeated today.
For that reason it is a distortion of historical reality to talk about ‘the Great Fathers of the Church’, and to separate them from the neptic Fathers, and to talk about the latter as though they were something different from the other Fathers. All the Fathers were neptic; they practised asceticism. When the Apostle Paul says, ‘Be watchful in all things…’ (2 Tim. 4:5) he is not referring only to a few monks; he means all Christians. Today when one reads the Apostle Paul and Holy Scripture, it has now been proved that this ascetic tradition is the essence of Holy Scripture.”
The Westerners study hesychasm from the viewpoint of Eastern (non-Christian) mysticism. The genuine hesychasm of the Fathers, however, aims to cure the whole human being, made up of soul and body, and leads him to communion with God, not to some sort of abstract state. It has no connection at all with Eastern mysticism, which aims at the soul’s departure from the body and its entry into the supra-personal absolute.
“Hesychast theologians like Gregory Palamas sometimes expressed these views, not analytically, but in the form of short pithy sayings. Western theologians have taken the sayings of the hesychast Fathers and have drawn the conclusion that these ‘mystics’ of the East do not respect Holy Scripture as the basis of the faith, and do not attach very much importance to the incarnation or the Mysteries of the Church. In my opinion, anyone who bears in mind these things that we have been discussing realises that the purpose of the Mysteries is illumination and glorification.”
The hesychastic tradition is closely connected with the sacramental life of the Church and the two together lead man to purification, illumination and glorification. Then empirical dogmatics is experienced in practice. Dogma becomes experience.
This hesychastic tradition, in combination with initiation into the mysteries of the Church – its sacramental life – preserved the Orthodox in the difficult days of their servitude.
“In the era of the destruction of Byzantium the Church was highly successful. The Church was flourishing when the state fell. Everywhere in those days there were bishops who had noetic prayer, because hesychasm predominated. That was why the nation was saved. If there had not been hesychast Bishops under Turkish domination, the phenomenon of the New Martyrs and the Muslims who became Orthodox and then went to their martyrdom would not have been so prevalent. We would all be Muslims now, as happened with the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East, who have been reduced to a mere handful. In the area of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which ruled the Holy Mountain, many Orthodox remained. All the Balkan states are Orthodox.”
In conclusion, the Orthodox Church is a real hospital that helps man to get rid of self-love and acquire love for God and for other people, to attain unselfish love. Someone who acquires eyes capable of seeing God will see God’s glory as Light, and for him that will be Paradise and the glory and rule (vasileia) of God. This shows that the Church is not a simple religion, nor a social, moral and philanthropic system. It is the hope of the present world and the world to come.
—Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Empirical Dogmatics