Archive for January, 2011

A Renewal of “Mysteries”

Friday, January 28th, 2011

I am planning once again to offer a short course during USC’s upcoming “Maymester” (9-27 May 2011) on the contemplative spirituality of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As was the case last year “Mysteries of the Christian East” will focus on the mystical theory and practices of the Hesychast tradition, but the class will also include an overview of Eastern Christian theology, iconography, music, and liturgy.

The course features an off-campus trip during the second week (16-21 May) to St Anthony’s Monastery in the Sonora desert of southern Arizona, one of several monastic communities established by the Athonite elder Ephraim, a former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on the Holy Mountain. My own pilgrimage to Athos in 2007 continues to serve as the inspiration for this academic offering.

Readings include The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky, long regarded as the classic work on the subject, and The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides, an engaging meditation on the contemporary importance of this ancient tradition. Last year’s student comments included:

“Learning about the Eastern Christian tradition and then experiencing it firsthand in the desert gave me a perspective I would never have had and will never forget”; “the trip was incredibly beautiful and beneficial”; “before this class I had only abstract ideas about spiritual practice, but I left with a sense of peace testifying to the power of contemplative prayer”.

Further information concerning the course, including a tentative syllabus, can be found here. Space is limited, so if you’re interested and would like to join us, please get in touch with me soon (

Here are a few photographs of St Anthony’s, taken by some of my students last year.

The Essentials of Hesychasm

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

You ask whether I would have become Orthodox even if I’d lived in the tenth century “when there were no fully developed forms of mystical practice”. I’m afraid you picked the wrong century if your aim was to show the absence of Hesychasm at earlier periods, for St Symeon the New Theologian, who lived from 949 to 1022, is one of the most important and most often referenced authorities in the entire tradition.

Your write that “many of [this tradition’s] specific practices are not attested in earlier centuries”. The operative word is “attested”. If by this mean you to say that explicit written descriptions of Hesychastic technique are harder to come by in the extant texts of earlier periods, then of course you’re right. But this proves very little. Like all forms of genuine esoterism, Hesychasm has always figured largely as an oral transmission, with only the briefest of hints being put into writing. This was true even in the fourteenth century, when there was a certain flowering of Hesychast spirituality in connection with the two saintly Gregories (Gregory Palamas and Gregory of Sinai), and it remains true to this day on the Holy Mountain.

Admittedly, as one moves forward in history an increasing degree of specificity can be found in the surviving written records, but the essentials of Hesychasm—the superintendence, direction, and extension of attentional energy by means of the sacred power of the Name—are nonetheless clearly present, if one knows what to look for, in the teachings of several of the very earliest of Christian masters.


Saturday, January 1st, 2011

Which comes first: liberation from the world or liberation from ourselves? I can see why you ask this, though it seems to me a mistake to suppose that the transformations in question are part of a strictly linear process or that the two freedoms are merely sequential.

Using the language of the Christian East, we could say that liberation begins with the overcoming of our fallen slavery to the passions; this is the aim, as you know, of purificatio or catharsis. But the passions are precisely those inward points at which we’re enslaved to the outward world.

Then comes illuminatio or photisis, the second stage of the Way, in which we’re liberated from our nescience, inadvertence, and forgetfulness. You may say that this is a liberation from something inside us, and it certainly is, but it has manifestly outward repercussions. For the cognitive objects of our “common sense” are merely so many seemings and thus little more than a measure of our blindness.

Finally, liberation is completed when we’re set free from all created or natural energies; this is the ultimate goal of unio or theosis. But such energies are at once within and without us: neither the associative thinking of a sinful psychology nor the cardiovascular processes of a fallen physiology would be what they are were it not for the gravity and other “fundamental forces” of a tamasic astrophysics.

To ask which takes priority—inward liberation from oneself or outward liberation from the world—is to forget that we shall be truly free only when we escape the prison walls of this very disjunction.