SPIRITUALITY: EASTERN CHRISTIAN
I. Introductory Remarks: The Need for a New Approach to Eastern Christian Spirituality
Spirituality is a recent and difficult word. Broadly speaking, it seems in a Christian context usually to denote the attitudes and practices of piety, and is often though not inevitably considered in relative isolation from theology proper. One may and does thus in a Western Christian setting speak of spiritualities in the plural, a point to which this essay will return in its conclusions. When such an approach is taken to the Christian East, however, serious problems and distortions arise. The enormously influential article written sixty-five years ago by Father Irenée Hausherr, "The Main Currents of Eastern Christian Spirituality", is a case in point. Hausherr’s taxonomy of Eastern spirituality amounted in sum to projection onto early and Byzantine-era monastic writers of the categories to which he was accustomed from the Medieval and post-Medieval, Counter-Reformation West: "intellective" versus "affective" mysticisms, versus spiritualities featuring sober obedience, or Neoplatonist ecstasies, or the peculiarly poisonous (for Hausherr) combination of the first, second, and fourth of these earlier "schools" in the 14th century Byzantine Hesychasts. The unfortunate fact that it is precisely Hausherr’s categorizations which are reflected in virtually every single major study or compendium of Eastern Christian spirituality to have been published since his article appeared has led to endless confusion and misapprehension.
The latter fact makes the assignment confronting this essay daunting: the sketch of a new approach to Eastern Christian spirituality which must try to do justice at once to recent advances in scholarship, and to the thrust and continuity of the Eastern traditon itself. The word "sketch" must stressed, for what follows can be no more than the barest outline, offered in the hope that succeeding and more extensive studies will appear in future to flesh it out. Just over two millenia cannot be treated otherwise in the space of a few thousand words. Saying over two millenia is to assert the thesis the present essay seeks to present: that Eastern Christian asceticism and monasticism — i.e., Eastern spirituality, in short — arose out of an original matrix in the pre-Christian era of Second Temple Judaism. As Ernst Käsemann remarked some decades ago, Jewish apocalyptic literature is "the mother of all Christian theology". The same holds for that theology as expressed in praxis, which is to say, in spirituality.
II. Scripture, Asceticism and Transfiguration in Second Temple Jewish Apocalyptic and Early Christianity
Asceticism does not feature prominently in the Hebrew books of the Old Testament, save in the temporary celibacy imposed by holy war (e.g., 2 Sam 11:10-11), preparation for theophany (Ex 19:15; cf. 34:28 on fasting), and, related to the latter, service in the Temple (Lev 15:2-15), or in the fasts, tears, and sackcloth which are the tangible expressions of repentance (e.g., Jonah 3:6 ff.). In the so-called "intertestamental" or Second Temple era, however, and particularly in the two centuries before and after the birth of Christ, one finds testimony to traditions that would carry on both in Rabbinic literature, and, in Christianity, through the New Testament period to the fourth century emergence and self-definition of Christian monasticism as the East has know the latter ever since. The precise lines of this continuity have yet to be charted in any single study, but virtually all the raw materials are present for the realization of such a work in the existing scholarly editions of primary texts and the accompanying secondary literature. Briefly, the apocalypses which feature an ascent or "heavenly journey", to use the phrase of John Collins and other recent scholars of the apocalyptic genre, and which appear as early as ca. 200 B.C. with 1 Enoch, display certain common features, including: 1) a preparatory ascetical praxis, involving fasting, mourning, constant prayer, often at least temporary celibacy, and prostrations; 2) the ascent to the heavenly palace or temple, and therein to the throne of God; 3) initiation into the mysteries of heaven and creation; 4) the acquisition of, or transformation into angelic status, by virtue of which 5) the visionary becomes a concelebrant of the liturgy of heaven, and 6) is accorded a vision of the divine Glory; in order 7) to return to earth bearing a unique authority and message concerning the things of God. To employ a phrase from later, Byzantine monastic literature, the apocalyptic seer becomes an "earthly angel and heavenly man", initiate and initiator, the priest of the heavenly mysteries.
This is the original model for the sainted elder, the geron or staretz, of Eastern Christian literature, from Athanasius of Alexandria’s portrait of the "father of monks" in The Life of Anthony, to Dostoyevsky’s Staretz Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov. In both the fourth century biography of Anthony and in the 19th century literary creation of Zossima, the Eastern Christian soteriological doctrine of theosis, deification, is fully present and, indeed, understood as incarnate. Here, in other words, is Eastern Christian doctrine and spirituality made visible, its paradigm and embodiment. Here is both the perennial theme of Eastern teaching and the key to its extraordinary continuity: the human being as called upon to be transfigured, to become him- or herself the revelation of the Glory of God, the presence of Immanuel, theophany.
The Gospel of the Risen Jesus compelled a certain parting of the ways with Christianity’s Jewish matrix, but it would be wrong to exaggerate the extent of that rupture. The lines of continuity and discontinuity appear perhaps most clearly in the scriptural idea of the "temple". In biblical Israel, the temple is the locus of the divine presence, the kevod YHWH or "Glory of God", whose fiery manifestation appeared to Moses atop Sinai (Ex 24 and 33-34), and which took up residence with Israel first in the tabernacle (Ex 40), and then in Solomon’s temple (I K 8). In the apocalyptic literature just mentioned, it is the heavenly or original temple and place of God which becomes the primary focus of attention, though not necessarily with prejudice to its earthly copy. When the temple is destroyed by the Roman legions in A.D. 70, Judaism carries on, looking first of all for God’s Presence (Shekinah) with Israel in the holy books of the Torah as in a sort of portable temple (cf. Sirach 24), second in the gathering of Israel for worship in the synagogue, and third in the person of the sage or rabbi himself. In the New Testament and nascent Christianity, there is an analogous and parallel development. The great difference is the person of the Lord Jesus, who replaces temple and Torah as the primary "place" of the divine presence. He is himself the Glory or Shekinah who has "tabernacled among us" (Jn 1:14). His divinity is manifested at once on the mountain tops of Tabor, the Transfiguration, and of Golgotha, the Crucifixion, which become in turn the twin poles around which Eastern spirituality will revolve: suffering and splendor, humbling unto death and transfiguration, ascetic mortification and the visio dei luminis. Second, the worship of the assembly of the Church also becomes the temple (e.g., Eph 2:20-22), the place of the Risen One’s presence and, with Him, of the heavenly Zion (Heb 12:18-24). Third, temple is also applied to the Christian him- or herself (1 Cor 6:19-20), who is called at once to share in the Cross and to be "transfigured from glory to glory" (2 Cor 3:18), to see within his or her heart the light of the Glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). To borrow from a mid-fourth century, Syrian Christian ascetic work, the Liber Graduum, already in the New Testament one finds the adumbration of "three churches": "the church on high", i.e., heaven and the heavenly liturgy around the throne of Christ God; "the church on earth", with its clergy and sacraments, and "the little church" of the heart or soul. Yet, in each "church", it is the same glorified Christ Who is made present by the action of the Spirit.
Between the New Testament era and the fourth century, pre-Nicene Christianity highlights as heroes and exemplars of the Faith both the martyr and the ascetic, for example in the second century Shepherd of Hermas, where martyrs and virgins stand, respectively, at the right and left hand of Christ enthroned. Ignatius of Antioch (+ ca. 115) and Polycaryp of Smyrna (+ ca. 165), together with Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles, are exemplary martyrdoms, where the martyr is transformed and becomes himself the locus of theophany, thus Stephen’s face "like the face of an angel" (Acts 6:15) and his vision of the heavenly throne (7:55-56), or Ignatius’ suggested and Polycarp’s explicit assimilation to the Eucharistic offering and presence. The ascetico-visionary continuum is particularly pronounced in the second century Ascension of Isaiah and Gospel of Thomas, with the latter providing the first literary attestation of the word "monk" (monachos) for the Christian ascetic, and the same basic line continues in both the second and third century Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and — albeit in strange and twisted ways — in much of the literature of Gnosticism and of early Manicheanism as well. In all of these documents, motifs from pre-Christian apocalyptic literature are to the fore, and one should also take into account the fact that the older Jewish works, too, appear to have been continuously copied, read, and interpolated by Christian readers who, after the fourth century, were doubtless primarily monks. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha featured in the contemporary collection edited recently by J. H. Charlesworth would not have been preserved without the continuous Christian interest which extended well into medieval times and even beyond.
In Alexandria of the late second and third centuries, another layer is added to the Jewish-based ascetico-mystical tradition. This is the vast literature of pagan Greek philosophy, in particular of Platonism and Stoicism, with their attention to, and elaborate vocabulary for charting the training of the soul and the latter’s struggle with the passions. In the persons of Clement (fl. 190-202) and Origen (+253) of Alexandria, this vocabulary enters permanently into the Greek Christian bloodstream. Clement’s portrait of the "Christian Gnostic", and Origen’s of the perfected teacher, are at once reponses to the heretical Gnosticism which flourished in Alexandria, and to the ancient tradtions of apocalyptic ascent and vision, which Origen in particular is anxious to internalize and frame within the vocabulary of philosophical discourse. The latter’s treatise, On Prayer, is especially important and influential in this regard, relocating as it does the ascent, transformation, and visio dei gloriae of apocalyptic to the "inner man" of the soul.
III. The Fourth Century: Emergence of the Imperial Church, the Ecumenical Councils, and Monasticism
The conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity is the first great watershed of the fourth century. The Ecumenical or, more accurately, Imperial Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) are a direct result. The Creed which emerges from the councils seals Christianity’s commitment to the philosophical lexicon of Greek antiquity with its consecration of the term, homoousios ("consubstantial"), in application to the Second Person of the Trinity, a development which, in its turn, stimulates the furthering of Clement’s and Origen’s efforts to articulate the inner life of the Christian in accordance with the same vocabulary. This project is clearly at work in the two most important episcopal spokesmen for and to the nascent monastic movement, Athanasius of Alexandria (+373) and Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (+379). The former’s Life of Anthony and the latter’s Longer and Shorter Rules, collections of his correspondence with ascetic communities in Cappadocia, exercise great influence in their overall efforts to keep the monks within the communion of the imperial church, focused on community and mutual charity, observant of the Church’s common worship, and subordinate to the bishop’s authority. Basil had in fact little use for solitaries of Anthony’s type, but in this regard his judgement would not prevail. The hermit has remained a constant presence in Eastern spirituality, rare but never absent, and often celebrated.
The efforts of these two Church Fathers also reflected Christianity’s new place in the Roman Empire. In parallel to the secular magistrates, the bishops, too, were accorded local authority and backed by imperial power. The, as it were, "ingathering" of the ascetics under the episcopal pallium is a part of this process. Likewise, the bishop’s — and, by extension, the village priest’s — altar becomes the focal point of the city or town. Here, and particularly in the capitol, is the birthplace of the imperial liturgy, embellished with the etiquette of the court and all the wealth and sophistication of the Empire’s resources, which would later achieve definitive form in the rite of "the Great Church of Christ", Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. Perhaps no polarity in Eastern Christian spirituality is more striking and more apparently contradictory than that of the hermit’s stark poverty and simplicity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the gorgeous splendor of the late Byzantine liturgy, dripping gold and conducted in the presence of mosaics and murals fabricated with all the expense and subtlety available to a millenial civilization. Yet, neither the hermit nor the episcopal celebrant would at all accept this as a paradox, let alone a contradiction. The former would — and does — understand the magnificence of the earthly church’s liturgy as a mirror, both of the angels’ worship in the heavenly temple before the throne of God, and of the divine presence within the purified heart. The bishop and, perhaps even more so, the devout laity see in their turn the Kingdom of God reflected equally in the glory of the Church’s common worship, and in the hallowed ascetic elder, the geron or staretz, bright and fragrant already with presence of the world to come.
The first conscious coördination between the liturgies of heaven, earth, and the heart can be found in the ascetic literature of, especially, fourth century Christian Syria and Mesopotamia. Three writers are of particular note here: Ephrem Syrus (+373), and the anonymous authors of the Book of Steps (Liber Graduum), in the mid-fourth century, and of the Macarian Homilies (ca. 360-390). The first two wrote exclusively in Syriac, so it is the third who was destined to have a profound influence on the Greek-speaking, Christian tradition. The hierarchies of Dionysius Areopagita, just over a century later, are based in great part on the linkage the Macarian homilist wishes to establish between the liturgies of heaven, earth, and the soul. The Church’s worship becomes for "Macarius" the model or paradigm of the inner life, its shaping icon, given us by God in Christ in order to conform the soul to the "shape" of heaven, and enable it thus to encounter within itself the light of glory and presence of the angels. The Homilies effect a remarkable and powerful synthesis between the Alexandrian spiritualism of an Origen, and the Jewish-based, ascetico-mystical traditions, rooted in apocalyptic literature, which were especially prominent in the early Syrian Church. Overall, however, "Macarius" is at one with Origen’s effort to focus on the "inner man" in order to discover the divine Presence within the soul. This is in turn linked at once with baptismal grace, planted by the Holy Spirit within the soul as a kind of seed, and with fidelity to the Trinitarian teaching of Nicea-Constantinople — a synthesis which makes the author of the Homilies one of the two most important monastic writers of the fourth century, and thereafter.
The other is Evagrius of Pontus (+399), who spent his last twelve years in the hermitages of the Cells, between Nitria and Scete in the Egyptian desert. Unlike "Macarius", who was much involved in the formation and direction of monastic communities in Roman Mesopotamia, Evagrius was a hermit, though himself continually busy with monastic correspondence. In the course of replying to questions concerning the life of solitude, and even occasionally of life in monastic community, he produced a signficant and vastly influential body of work which included scholia on several books of the scriptures, the treatise On Prayer, a trilogy of works, the Praktikos, To the Monks, and the Gnostic Chapters, together with over sixty extant letters. His favored mode of composition featured "centuries", groups of usually a hundred or more short sayings or aphorisms, a style adapted from biblical Wisdom literature and Cynic diatribe, and intended to be pondered slowly in the quiet of a hermitage. By means of these collections of sayings, he in fact elaborated a system, a precise map of spiritual progress, beginning with the struggle against the passions and cultivation of the virtues in order to arrive at dispassion, apatheia, a term of Stoic provenance which at Evagrius’ hands signifies less a negative passionlessness than it does the freedom to begin to love as God loves, selflessly and without sentimentality, and so to assist in the work of divine Providence. This is the stage covered by the Praktikos. The second level, set out in To the Monks, is the knowledge of created being, seen now truly for the first time through the liberation of apatheia and coöperation with the saving love of God. Third and last, the subject of On Prayer and the Gnostic Centuries, is what Evagrius calls "theology", the vision of God or, in his own language, the intellect’s reception as vessel and throne of the "light of the Holy Trinity". Here he employs particularly an interiorized reading of the theophany of Exodus 24. It is the sanctified intellect which is called to become the inner "mountain of the knowledge of God", the temple and altar of the Trinity, Sinai within.
Evagrius thus sounds the exact same note of the interiorization of the journey to heaven as does the Macarian homilist, especially in the first of the latter’s Fifty Spiritual Homilies, where, instead of Sinai, it is Ezekiel’s vision of the merkavah or chariot throne of God which is read as a type of the Christian soul. Both men are substantially identical in the way they understand the goal of Christian life and the role of prayer and ascesis, and often recall (Evagrius most deliberately) Origen before them. Both are faithful adherents of Nicene trinitarianism, and faithful at the same time to the ancient currents of transformation going back to apocalyptic literature. Both, thirdly, represent at once in their writings and in their own persons exemplars of the ascetic holy man, the spiritual father or illumined elder, the "man of God".
The latter is a figure perhaps best known, aside from the Life of Anthony, in the collections of sayings coming primarily from the monastic center of Scete in fourth and fifth Egypt, the Verba seniorum or Apophthegmata patrum. The earliest of these collections is the one assembled by Evagrius himself at the end of the Praktikos, while the final versions, the "alphabetical" and "systematic" or "topical" collections, were edited in their present form sometime in early sixth century Palestine, perhaps at Gaza. These sayings comprise words of advice addressed to disciples and inquirers and handed down by oral tradition, brief accounts of the practices of the elders, and occasional short narratives. All are intended to edify and instruct. The basic message, if one may so summarize collections which were never intended as continuous or systematic presentations, is a stress on sobriety, manual labor, meditation on the scriptures, obedience to one’s elder, and warnings directed especially against anger, judging others, and too ready a disposition to trust in one’s own visions. The stress on transformation is thus muted, treated cautiously, though it is never absent. The place, Scete, appears thereafter (and even within these sayings) often as a kind of ideal, and its pattern of monastic life, rather on the basis of village life with the monks living in separate cellls or huts and gathering once a week in a central church, reappears persistently in Eastern monasticism: in the sixth century lavras of Palestine, in the Transvolgan forests of Nilus of Sora in 15th century Russia, and Optina in the 19th, in the scetes of Mt. Athos from the 16th century to the present, and in the woods of Romanian Moldavia in the 17th and 18th centuries, to cite a few notable examples. Likewise, the origins of Scete in a group of ascetics choosing to live in the vicinity of the Macarius the Egyptian (Evagrius’ spiritual father), who had been the first to settle that dreadful desert in the 330’s, became itself a pattern for the origin of monastic communities. This is precisely what would occur with Sabas in Palestine, Benedict in Italy, Sergius of Radonezh in 14th century Muscovy, PaVssy Velichkovsky in late 18th century Moldavia, and indeed in the beginnings of several communities in the contemporary, 20th century revival of monasticism on Mt. Athos: a sainted ascetic lives alone; disciples come to him; the elder sees the need for a common rule of life; and, more often than not, a common-life monastery, coenobium, emerges at the end of the process.
Another example of this pattern is the founder of coenobitic monasticism himself, Pachomius of Upper Egypt, in the 320’s and 330’s. The earlier scholarly portrait of him as a kind of ascetical drill sergeant, rigidly subordinating his monks to the exigencies of his rule, has been shown by the recent work of Phillip Rousseau and others to be quite false. He was instead an elder, geron, compelled by the increase of disciples wishing to live with him and under his direction to provide for them. The solution he arrived at, which later tradition ascribed to direct heavenly inspiration, was the coenobium. Yet, and this is what deserves underlining, the latter was first of all never intended to take precedence over the inner life of the monks, but was rather designed precisely to facilitate that growth while providing a certain security for the necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing, and the monks’ regular "feeding" on scriptures and common worship. Secondly, the rule of Pachomius’ establishments was always fundamentally the example of his own life and practice. His presence as exemplar, guide, and illumined father shines through all the works of the Pachomian Koinonia. It was, thirdly, he and, after his death, his presence as continuing in his successors which drew the recruits to his monasteries. They came, to borrow a phrase from Bishop Kallistos Ware, "less for the abbey than for the abba", in whom the presence of the risen Christ and gift of the Spirit were sought and perceived.
It is this last element which is largely missing from St. Basil’s Rules, and yet which time and again is repeated in Eastern monasticism. Any account of the latter which credits Basil exclusively for the rule of later Byzantine establishments is therefore fundamentally incomplete. The great Cappadocian father did contribute essential elements to the later tradition of the common life in his stress on charity, community, and especially the latter as rooted in the picture of the earliest Church in the Acts of the Apostles, and these elements would reappear consistently in the later rules of Mar Saba in Palestine and the Studion in Constantinople, and thence of the Great Lavra on Mt. Athos, and subsequently of the first monasteries in Kievan Rus. But one thing he could not eliminate, if indeed it ever occurred to him to try, was the charismatic office of the inspired elder, with its ancestry in the transfigured seer of the ancient apocalypses. The latter has never disappeared from Eastern monastic spirituality, but instead has reappeared, time and again, with singular force in the creation of new foundations, or in the renewal of existing communities. To lose sight of this phenomenon is to overlook perhaps the single most fundamental thread tying together and in fact comprising the unity and continuity of Eastern spirituality.
IV. From the Fifth Century to the Present: Icons and the Jesus Prayer
By the end of the fourth century, the main lines of Eastern Christian spirituality and theology are set in the forms they possess to the present day. These include: 1) the trinitarian confession of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, 2) deification offered through the Word of God become man, 3) this pariticipation in divinity as embodied in every generation by the saints, "the men (and women) of God", 4) the interiorization of the heavenly journey and transformation of apocalyptic, and 5) the mutual reflection of the deified soul and the Church’s liturgy, with both of them mirroring the liturgy of heaven, and with the earthly worship understood as mediating heaven to the "inner man", and thus as forming the latter for the inhabitation of Christ in the Spirit. The whole is marked by the continual interplay and mutual affirmation of the realms of dogmatic theology, of sacraments and liturgy, and of the ascetico-mystical tradition. All three are seen as expressions of a single whole, which is again summed up in the person of the saint who reflects and is made possible by Christ.
Likewise by the end of the fourth century, the chief expression of this spirituality, monasticism, has taken on the forms — hermit, monastic village, and coenobium — that it would use to the present. Evagrius’ precisions and vocabulary, together with the rich scriptural imagery of the Macarian Homilies, enter permanently into and shape the self-expression of Eastern monasticism. In the centuries that follow up to the end of Byzantium in 1453, these lines continue unbroken. They are lent further expression and a certain sharpening in their lexicon by the Christological controversies of the fifth through seventh centuries, e.g., in a Maximus Confessor (+662), or in the more developed articulation between the liturgies of heaven, earth, and the soul in a Dionysius Areopagita (ca. 500), or in the stages of the Christian life in grace that one finds in John of Sinai’s Ladder of Divine Ascent (seventh century), or in the fiery and highly personal witness to the Gospel of personal transfiguration carried on by Symeon the New Theologian (+1022), but in each case these writers are lending their particular voices to a single common stream which, as the case of Isaac of Nineveh (+ ca. 690) indicates, was shared across the apparent divide of formal schisms over Christology.
Two later controversies are, however, of interest as they were fought chiefly by Byzantine monks. The first was the conflict over imperial iconoclasm (730-843), and the second was the Hesychast Controversy of later Byzantium (1330’s – 1340’s). The icon in design, theory, and practice is again a kind of distillate expression of the three realms — dogma, liturgy, and spirituality — noted above. As the monks John of Damascus (+749) and Theodore of the Studion (+826) pointed out in their treatises in defense of the sacred images, the icon is first of all a testimony to the truth of the Incarnation and of the change which the latter has effected in the relations between God and humanity. If in the Decalogue and especially in Dt 4:12 ("You saw no form in the fire"), God is the invisible One, then, says John, in the Incarnation He has put on "the form of a servant" (Phil 2:7) and has done so permanently. He has thus become visible and therefore can be depicted. It is, adds Theodore in an echo of the vocabulary of the Christological controversies, the very Person (hypostasis) of the Incarnate Word whom one encounters in His icon. Not to depict Him in images, both men argue, is in fact to deny the Incarnation itself, since it is the latter which has made matter, the material creation, a vehicle of the divine presence. This is, John adds, the very basis of the Church’s life in the sacraments.
The last remark highlights the second and liturgical aspect of the icon, which finds its home first and foremost in the Church’s public worship, and then, as the extension of that worship, in the home, monastic cell, workshop, or wayside shrine. It serves as a constant reminder of, and window into heaven, carrying with itself, precisely as a sacramental object, the presence of the heavenly liturgy and the intercession of the saints around the throne of Christ. With the note of the saints, the "friends of God" in John of Damascus’ phrase, one arrives at the third aspect of the icon: its distinctive artistic form as intended exactly to underline the note of transfiguration which is at the heart of Eastern spirituality. The lack of chiaroscuro, reversed perspective, elongation of the figure depicted and diminishment of its sensory organs — nose, mouth, ears — save for the eyes which are enlarged as gazing on God, together with the golden background, all come out of the spiritual tradition. The light in particular no longer falls on the figure from outside, but streams out from within it, and surrounds it. This is the light or glory of the divine presence in which the saint stands and which he or she also carries within as indwelling grace — hence the icon as depiction at once of the eschatological transformation of soul and body, and of the mystical experience available in the present life.
It was exactly over the availability of that experience, the visio dei luminis, that the last great debate of the Byzantine era was fought, the Hesychast controversy of the 1330’s and 40’s, and where monks were once again at the center of things. The claim of certain hermits on Mt. Athos that, by virtue of their constant repetition of the "Jesus prayer" ("Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner") and of the visitation of grace, they had been vouchsafed a vision of the "uncreated light" of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, led one Byzantine court theologian, Barlaam the Calabrian, to question both the monks’ sanity and their orthodoxy. The reply to Barlaam on behalf of the "holy Hesychasts" was taken up by Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), whose argument constituted a kind of extended assembly and summary of the lines of tradition sketched in this essay. Palamas insisted on the reality of deification as an immanent and not merely eschatological possibility. Likewise, the divine light he defended as rooted in the Old Testament tradition of the Glory of God and now, through the advent and gift of the Incarnate Word, as an inner presence and experience to which the entire literature of Christianity, beginning with the New Testament itself and continuing unbroken especially in the monastic tradition, bears constant witness. The Orthodox Church agreed with Gregory’s analysis, and declared his teaching that of the universal Church at councils held in Constantinople in 1341, 1347, and 1351.
The "Jesus prayer" itself constitutes an example of this continuity. It is first of all rooted in the ancient theologies of God’s "Name" and "Glory" originating in the Old Testament, and applied to Christ in the New (cf. Phil 2:6-11, and Jn 17). The repetition of the Name as means of access to the divine Glory is, second, witnessed to in early apocalyptic literature (e.g., Apocalypse of Abraham 17-18), and might conceivably lie behind St. Paul’s exhortaion "to pray without ceasing" (I Thess 5:17). Third, while the breathing exercises associated with the prayer have usually been ascribed to Sufi influence, or compared with the Hindu mantra, and while it is true that explicit directions of this sort appear for the first time only in later, 13th century texts, one can find an earlier parallel for it in the exercises of Jewish merkavah mystics in late antiquity, and point as well to Diadochus of Photiki’s fifth century recommendation to join one’s breath to the name of Jesus, and to John of Sinai’s similar advice in the seventh century. In short, the origins of the practice as well as of the theology of the Jesus prayer might well be sited in the same traditions of apocalyptic literature as underlie the rest of Eastern spirituality. It is in any case a fact that the cultivation of this prayer has remained a key to the practice and understanding of that spirituality to the present day. Like the icon, the Jesus prayer is itself a kind of distillate of the Eastern tradition. Everything about the latter is in a sense contained within it. This is evident in the understanding of the prayer’s importance which is on prominent display in subsequent Church history, from the spread of Byzantine Hesychasm throughout the Orthodox world — e.g., to Bulgaria in Euthymius of Trnovo, to Russia in perhaps the person of Sergius of Radonezh, and certainly of Nilus of Sora — and its continued reappearance in the renewals of monastic spirituality led in the 18th century by PaVssy Velichkovsky (+1794) among the Slavs and Romanians, and by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (+1809) among the Greeks, or in the renewals on Mt. Athos, as well as in Romania and Serbia, which are underway in those places today.
V. An Anecdote and Concluding Remarks
Some fifty years ago a sucessful young pharamcist in Cairo sold off his business, gave the proceeds to the poor, and retired to a cave in the desert. There, three books in particular informed his prayer and meditation: the scriptures in Arabic translation, the Kadlubovsky-Palmer translation of Early Fathers from the Philokalia, and Wensinck’s English rendering of Isaac of Nineveh’s Spiritual Discourses. Young men heard of the hermit and came to live as his disciples in the neighborhood of his cave. A few years later, the group moved to the largely abandoned monastery of St. Macarius in Scete, where they continue to be the most important moving force in the contemporary renewal of Coptic monasticism.
This story of Fr. Matthew the Poor has its precise analogues in some of the accounts of the contemporary Athonite renewal, for example about the figure of Joseph the Hesychast (+1959), or the current abbot of the monastery of Simonos Petras, Fr. Aemilianos. What is peculiarly striking and illustrative of the essential unity of Eastern Christian spirituality in the story of Fr. Matthew is the fact that he, a "Monophysite" Copt, found his primary inspiration in the writings of both ancient Chalcedonian monks (the Philokalia), and of a seventh century, "Nestorian" saint (Isaac). None of these three great divisions of Eastern Christianity have been in communion with each other for over 1500 years, yet each — as this ancedote makes clear — continues to speak the same spiritual "language". From Murmansk to Addis Ababa, and from the Ionian islands to the Aleutians, across the gap of centuries covering huge cultural and demographical changes, Eastern Christianity remains fundamentally one in spirit, if not always consciously so. This essential unity has survived the schisms of the fifth century Christological controversies, the rise of Islam, the slaughters of Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the last Ottomans, and of Bolshevik rule, as well as the overwhelming recent dominance of Western European culture and institutions. It is, in sum, the single most powerful witness to the thesis of this essay, which is that there are not different "schools" or "currents" of spirituality in Eastern Christianity, but rather a single great stream deriving from Christianity’s origins and surviving to the present among the monks to whom Eastern believers continue to look as exemplars of their faith.
When one then turns to look at Western Christianity, the difference is unmistakable. While Western Europe (and its later extensions in the Americas) offers a history which, after the conversion of the Norsemen, presents a single, relatively smooth and increasingly triumphant growth into world dominance, in contrast to the nearly uninterrupted dislocations and catastrophes of the Christian East, the inward story is very different. From particularly the High Middle Ages, through the late Medieval to the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, Victorian, and modern periods, one finds a never ending efflorescence of different spiritualities, from the growth of the Medieval orders to the ever more manifold expressions of Protestantism. One may, of course, view this difference positively, as in the dynamism of Western Christian creativity and its lively embrace of change and progress against Eastern intellectual decrepitude and stagnation, on the one hand, or negatively, as in Eastern fidelity to Christian origins in opposition to a West which has lost its way, on the other hand. Both approaches have certainly had their advocates. What one cannot overlook, and should not obscure with distorting projections of one’s own world onto the other, as in the involuntary case of Hausherr, is the fact of this difference and its importance. Whether for purposes of simple understanding, of ecumenical rapprochement, or of preparing "deep background" for the analysis of contemporary politics and culture, there can be no genuine perception without some appreciation of this contrast.