Eastern Orthodox Mysticism

Icon of the Mother of God of Pimen

Icon of the Mother of God of Pimen

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,


Two great artesian wells of mystical experience, upon which Orthodox Byzantine mysticism drew in its first phase, were Saint Gregory of Nyssa and the monk Evagrios Pontikos (345-399 AD). The former stressed that the soul can reach Him, who is beyond any intellectual concept whatsoever, in the "bright darkness" and also defined the mystical experience as union with God in love. Evagrios placed the nous the organ of direct understanding, at the very center of mysticism.

In the 5th century, works attributed to St. Makarius formed a new source of inspiration for Orthodox Christian mysticism, underlining the concept that the center of the human person lies in the heart. Under the influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy, Evagrios saw the person as a nous imprisoned in matter and therefore held that the body played no part in the spiritual life. The "Makarian" texts, imbued with Biblical thought, view the person as a single whole. The basis of the mysticism which they represent is the Incarnation of the Logos/Word. So unceasing prayer does not lead to the liberation of the spirit from the bonds of the flesh, but brings people into the eschatological reality of the Kingdom of God with the whole of their existence-spirit and body.

The texts that bear the name of Dionysios the Areopagite, with their heavy emphasis on the apophatic in theology, develop the theory of the "vision of God", of union with God, and urge people to free themselves from emotions and intellectual functions in order to encounter God within the divine darkness and know the joy of seeing Him, even though this will still be vague. The "Areopagite" texts make mention of a ladder of ascent, of a system of "progress" to which various degrees of illumination correspond. The aim is that a person (a believer) should be raised up and reach the Unique. In the end, this ascent is a gift from God.

In the mysticism which evolved with the Monastery of Sinai as its center, the "Jesus Prayer" already had a central role by the 7th century, as a prayer of mind and heart. In the final place of the first period of Byzantine mysticism, the dominant personalities were Saint John the Sinaite (580-670 AD or more probably 525-600 AD), and Saint Maximos the Confessor (580-662 AD). The work of former is directed towards a mysticism which develops according to the will of God. At the peak are placed the three virtues--faith, hope and love--and emphasis to the "Jesus Prayer", which is set at the heart of hesychast spirituality in a coordination of the name of the Incarnate Logos/Word and breathing.

Saint Maximos, who represents an important milestone in Byzantine mysticism, developed the subject of deification (theosis), applying Christological dogma to the course of the inner life. He noted the relationship of the individual stages of the mystical experience between themselves and make it clear that until its completion, the "vision" (theoria), must be accompanied by morality as a whole, with love as the guide. Saint Maximos' mysticism extends to and embraces the whole, organically. Persons who have been made in Christ ascend to God with their body, in combination with the visible world, and even elevate with them the whole of creation, because they are the central link uniting the differentiated part of the cosmos.

Over the next centuries, the achievements of the mystical tradition of the East were reinforced. At the turn of the millennium, there arose one of the giants of Byzantine Mysticism, Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022 AD) or, according to others (975-1035 AD), among whose disciples Niketas Stiathatos stands out. Saint Symeon's mystical experience is marked by intensity, warmth, and an entirely personal tone. He is original, particularly in his teaching On Light, describing profound and continual personal experience. On almost every page of his works, there is a reference to "light", to "illumination" and other similar words. His mysticism, however, radiates intensely an atmosphere of Christology, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit and Eschatology (last things).

The contribution of Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359 AD) was decisive to the theological grounding of hesychasm. He began as a monk on the Holy Mountain and went on to become Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Greece. Saint Gregory Palamas placed Christian mysticism within a more general divine plan of salvation. The basic distinction is between created and uncreated,: the created universe and the uncreated energies of God. "Supra-essential" God cannot be identified with any created concept or idea whatsoever, much less with the philosophical notion of essence. During illumination people take part in the uncreated energies of God. "Divine and deifying illumination and grace are not the essence but the energies of God". Palamite thought, elevating the authenticity of the Scripture, restores the value of material, which Greek idealism had tended to deny. The human spirit is really radically different from God, as is the body. And God, by granting His grace, save the whole person, body and spirit.

Basic Themes of Byzantine Mysticism

The key terms around which Byzantine mystical texts revolve are: "knowledge", "quietude", "vigilance", "prayer", "freedom from passions", "purification of the nous", "asceticism", "practice", "contemplation", "ecstasy", "illumination", "remembrance of God", "seeing God", "divine Light", "intermingling", "divine eros", and "deification (theosis)". The uniqueness of the mystical experience is also expressed by the oxymora which embrace the Christian experience dialectically: "bright darkness", "joyful mourning", "sober inebriation"" and so on. Although the attention of many scholars is attracted by the uniqueness of some of the above terms of Orthodox Mystical Theology, it should not be overlooked that the concepts most often repeated in the Orthodox Mystics are the terms: "God", "Jesus", "Christ", "Holy Trinity", "grace", "commandments", "Cross", "Resurrection", and "love".

(To be continued)




With sincere agape in His Holy Resurrection,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George