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Chapter II -- 5

Let us return to the sentence we are analysing. St Macrina posits three attributes of a power of the soul through which the soul saves in itself the image of the deiform Grace: the contemplative, the contemplative of existent things and the discriminative of the good from the worse.

The words epoptikos (concerning man) and ephoran (concerning God), which are used to convey the notion of ‘oversee–ive’, both have secondary nuances of guidance, providence or governance. Now, while it may be that St Macrina wishes to hint at these things by using words that have a nuance of guidance, nowhere does she explicitly address these ideas. Hence, we will remain with the idea of seeing or watching in the case of each word. But let the reader be aware of this secondary nuance.

We now want to attack this problem: the relation between these three attributes and the Christian spiritual program, on the one hand, and modern theories of spirituality which give a central role to, or place a great weight on, consciousness as something to be manipulated for the attainment to ‘consciousness of God’, where God is taken to be an aspect of subjective experience.

Our interest in modern ideas of consciousness expansion is twofold: On the one hand, there is a tendency in the West, today more than ever, to see consciousness expansion as a central issue in theology: this is a subjective approach to religious experience.

We assign this theory to Aldous Huxley, who studied Buddhism and Hinduism and took, and promoted to a certain extent, the use of consciousness-expanding drugs. We have no idea to what extent Aldous Huxley’s understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism is correct: we are not Buddhist; we do not know Hinduism; and we would not dare to express an opinion as to what they teach. Our attempt here is to address the idea of consciousness.

Now the first point we made: Christian mysticism has a strongly moral flavour. One of the three attributes is moral judgement, and we will see that the concepts of temptation, refusal of temptation and adherence to God, taken as Other, are inherent in the Hesychast method. This should alert us that any antinomian tendency is suspect. Moreover, the very practice of the refusal of temptation is the means used in the ascetical authors to ‘turn inwards’ so as to pass from the consciousness of sense-perceptions to the consciousness of intelligible realities, the beginning of contemplation.

It would take us very far afield to develop the whole Hesychast system here; that is what this work is about and here we can only alert the reader that the moral aspect is intrinsic to Hesychast spirituality.

Moreover, we have also mentioned the second definitive aspect of Christian spirituality: God is Other. Hence, contemplation of God is not merely a state of consciousness wherein the mind (nous) is exalted above the realm of ordinary experience. It is an encounter with an Other.

Our Lord says in John’s Gospel concerning the Holy Spirit: ‘The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it will; and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes and whither it goes. So it is, everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).[1] This is not an alteration of consciousness. This is an encounter with the Third Person of the Holy Trinity. Normally, this encounter is described as an encounter with the Uncreated Light of Christ’s Transfiguration.

As St Gregory of Nyssa himself says in his commentary on the Songs of Songs: ‘The mere milk of divine grace is greater than the strongest wine of merely human contemplation.’ There is a power that can contemplate in the human soul, but the least touch of divine grace is far beyond any contemplation man is capable of by his own efforts—especially fallen man, expelled from Paradise because he did not reject temptation.

Elsewhere, Christ says: ‘This, then, is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou sent, Jesus Christ.’[2] Now sometimes this passage is interpreted in a non-dualist way as referring to a light that is immanent in the subject, the person praying, this light being attainable by manipulation of consciousness through yoga or drugs.

Whatever the merits of such an interpretation, it is not a Christian approach to Revelation.

The Christian remains in this approach: seeking after the Face of the God who appeared to Jacob in Penuel. Hence, a very basic difference in structure presents itself: the Christian prays to a God who is Other, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whereas the model of consciousness we are discussing posits that there are innate structures in the human soul, taken as a mind-body holistic phenomenon, and that the spiritual life is a matter of gaining access to a spiritual experience by gaining access to these innate structures. The innate structures are taken as automatically providing the desired experience, and the spiritual quest is viewed as the manipulation of the psyche to attain to the desired subjective experience of the always present but hidden deeper aspect of the person being manipulated.

This is usually presented as a program of yoga, but we do not wish to expatiate: we are Christian, and we do not know enough about Buddhist or Hindu yoga. Hence, while it is true that both Buddhist and Hindu yogic writings refer to the grace of the guru as a means of raising the consciousness to the desired condition in the context of innate structures, there is nothing that we are aware of that corresponds to the doctrine that the Holy Spirit blows where it will (this conveys the sovereign freedom of the Holy Spirit from the constraint of him who is praying) and to the statement that you do not know whence the Holy Spirit comes and whither it goes. Orthodox spiritual writers uniformly assert this aspect of the Uncreated Light: just as Christ came and stood in the midst of his disciples, the doors being bolted,[3] the Holy Spirit is suddenly present without your knowing; and he leaves to go where you know not. In the Songs of Songs, this is an important motif: the touches of the Holy Spirit that ravish the soul of him who prays and leave her (i.e. the soul) desolate, seeking where the Beloved might be.[4]

This is important, for we will discuss a method of prayer that resembles a mantra; and we will discuss to what extent contemplation is within the voluntary power of him who prays.

The point is this: the touch of the Bridegroom, his caress upon the soul, is completely within the sovereign power and discretion of the Bridegroom; it cannot be commanded by the one who prays; it is not the manipulation of innate structures of the human soul—taken as a holistic mind-body phenomenon—that creates or gives access to these caresses of the Bridegroom. Hence, man has an innate ability to contemplate; that is what St Macrina has just said. But his ability to contemplate is restricted by the sovereign freedom of the Other.

As we have said, the very positing of moral judgement in man—and by implication the very positing of an ability to choose in man—makes the Christian spiritual endeavour essentially moral: it is a moral activity, sometimes seen as repentance, sometimes seen as the refusal of temptation.

Let us look at a few aspects of the Genesis account of Adam’s way of life in Paradise. In doing so we are here passing from a discussion of the contemplation of God, what Evagrius will call Theology, to the contemplation of existent things, what Evagrius will call natural contemplation.

God caused the animals to pass by Adam. This is certainly a reference to Adam’s sovereignty over creation; however, what interests us is that Adam gave names to the animals. Apart from any question of the nature of language that Scripture might be addressing, we here have one aspect of Adam’s ability to contemplate existent things: he gives names to the animals: by implication the names were appropriate—proper—because Adam saw the animals as they were. The account positions Adam in Paradise, a garden, among trees with certain characteristics that made them identifiable to Adam: he saw things as they were. We shall see that one stage of the mystical ascent is natural contemplation, wherein the mystic begins to see things as they are.

There is no surrender to the ‘oceanic’ here—although Orthodox mystical writers do refer to periods, relatively brief, of rapture—no undifferentiated raw datum of the consciousness of sense-perception here. Moreover, God converses familiarly with Adam, and Adam with God: two separate beings—God and man—hold familiar converse. There is no sense here of the Tathata (Suchness) of undifferentiated sensory input such as Aldous Huxley refers to in Island—we must admit that we do not know if a Buddhist adept would recognize Tathata (Suchness) in what Huxley is describing. The Genesis account does not present contemplation as ecstasy, loss of consciousness of self. Adam was naked and unashamed, but he knew he was Adam and he knew God and conversed with him; and he knew the natures of the animals that passed before him and the nature of the trees that were in the Garden.

Moreover, Adam and Eve were also able to discriminate between the good and the worse. Here, we pass to the question of the moral struggle for virtue and against sin or vice. In Evagrius, this will be called the practical life (praktike). It is the stage preliminary to the contemplation of existent things and to the contemplation of God, and Evagrius treats it as a necessary prelude to the contemplation of existent things and to the contemplation of God.

While innate to Adam is the power an attribute of which is the ability to discriminate good and bad, the actual goodness or badness of eating the forbidden fruit does not depend on the inner essence of the fruit itself, nor does it depend on an intuitive or innate structure of Adam. The prohibition of the fruit is not a reflexive movement of one part of Adam—his superego—towards another part of the same Adam—his conscious self or even his subconscious self—: it is a command of the Beloved Other to his creature, and prior to the eating of the fruit, the discrimination of the good from the worse hinges on a discrimination that obedience to the Beloved is good and disobedience to him, bad. It is here that the reasons adduced by Eve for eating the fruit—‘And the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasing to the eyes to behold and that it was timely for understanding.’[5]—take on their significance. Because of her innate ability to discriminate the good from the worse, Eve knew that it was wrong to take the fruit and to eat it. This is her sin. Moreover, we here have a model of sobriety. The ascetic is engaged in a moral activity—otherwise how could it be called, and be, repentance? He is faced with keeping the Commandments—especially the first and great commandment of the Law, to love the Lord. He is engaged in a battle—with temptation. For ideas come to him presenting ostensibly good and logical reasons for not keeping the first and great commandment of the Law.

These are what are called thoughts (logismoi) and Evagrius and, following him, St Hesychios and the whole tradition of the Philokalia spend much time analysing minutely this battle with the thoughts. Hence, Eve’s temptation—strangely enough—is the model of the Christian contemplative life, at least at the stage of the practical life (praktike).

This again clarifies the question of the relation between Christian—Philokalic—contemplation and Eastern concepts of meditation taken as means to alter consciousness. Eve is not presented as sinning by means of a fall from a pure contemplation taken as the Tathata (Suchness) of undifferentiated conscious experience without sense of the other, or such as Evagrius will posit in his heterodox cosmology, nor is there any question here of exercises in meditation, of falling into Samsara (Illusion), the Hindu concept of the plurality and multiplicity of consciousness, or of the loss of a higher state of consciousness. There is the Other; a commandment; a listening to a thought (logismos) from without which tempts Eve to disobey the commandment; the converse with the temptation; the apparently reasonable reasons adduced by the thought and by Eve to disobey; the consent to the temptation (i.e. the decision to disobey); the act of disobedience; the consequences of the sin.[6]

While there is no question of falling from a higher state of consciousness, it should be understood that Adam and Eve held familiar converse with God, although without losing their personal identities. Hence, their exalted state of consciousness—to hold familiar converse with God implies that you are like unto God—does not destroy their identities as persons.

We will see in Chapter V that St John of Damascus does include concepts of contemplation and of a turning away from that contemplation to material things in his presentation of Adam and Eve in Paradise. However, although his description of Adam and Eve’s condition in Paradise deals with questions such as these, it must be seen within a Christian context.

We shall see as we go that the fundamental model of Christian meditation is precisely the schema that we have just given: there is the Other; a commandment—the first and great commandment of the Law, to love God with all your heart, all your might, and all your strength—; there are thoughts (logismoi) which tempt us but which, unlike Eve, we must refuse. This is all of Evagrius’ ascetical psychology, and most of the Philokalia. The Jesus Prayer is in fact somewhat secondary to this schema, and more secondary at this level of analysis than is usually recognized. In St Hesychios, the Jesus Prayer is inserted into this schema, and the Jesus Prayer is prayed in the heart as part of this schema, for it is in the heart that the battle against temptation is most effectively fought.

Moreover, when we insert the Jesus Prayer prayed in the heart into this schema of the rebuttal of temptation, it is not a matter of the manipulation of consciousness so as to attain to the Tathata (Suchness) of undifferentiated sensory input. For the goal is to ‘turn inwards’ from sense-perceptions to intelligible realities. The schema we have just outlined[7] is fundamental to the use of the Jesus Prayer; it imposes a structure on meditation or contemplation in the Christian tradition of the Philokalia. We do not know how Hindus and Buddhists use mantras, or the Sufi, zikr. What we can say with confidence is that a divergence from this schema of the rebuttal of temptation is fraught with peril for him who would presume that he is Orthodox in his method of prayer, even if he is praying the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day—or even: especially if he is praying the Jesus Prayer twenty-four hours a day. By this, we mean that this schema of the rebuttal of temptation is at the heart of the method of the Philokalia, and that it is this schema which is implicit in On the Two Methods of Prayer by St Gregory of Sinai (1255–1346): one who would diverge from this schema while thinking he were Orthodox would be on a very perilous road indeed. If he diverges as a Buddhist, as a Hindu, as a Sufi, that is his affair. We do not know anything about those ways.

Hence, we have clarified the difference between the concept of using the Jesus Prayer in an Orthodox way and the concept of the manipulation of innate structures (‘using a mantra’) to produce an experience of altered consciousness which might be considered to be the Tathata (Suchness) of undifferentiated sensory experience, such as Aldous Huxley presents to be the basis of all religions.

This is not to say that there are no innate structures. The tradition of the Philokalia after St John of Sinai (523–603) is clear on the practice of bringing the mind into the heart—even if the writers leave the actual method ambiguous. For prayer of the mind in the heart to have any sense beyond the mere subjective experience of an isolated individual without significance for another person, there must be reference to a common experience of mankind, that is, to innate structures of the human soul, taken on the one hand in its connection with God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever,[8] who has given his Holy Spirit and who has revealed himself; and taken on the other hand in its connection with the body. Hence, for us, the problem is not whether there are innate structures but the broader issue of what we do with those innate structures—after all, a man has five fingers on his right hand and five on his left; the problem is what a man is going to do with his hands, not how many fingers each nation has: there are innate structures although each nation sees them differently.

And here is the problem for Western adepts of other faiths, to see that what St Hesychios is addressing in his discussion of sobriety and mental prayer in the heart flows out of Orthodox Baptism[9] and Orthodox Faith. To continue our metaphor, yes, we too, the Orthodox, have five fingers on each of our hands. But we worship God and what we build has a distinctly Orthodox character. Here, the rebuttal is normally: ‘It’s all the same; these are cultural differences in the architectural style of the temple you build.’ We say: ‘No. We receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism; it enlivens, quickens, enlightens, cleanses our mind (nous) and heart, so that we find our mind (nous) and heart different, and when we descend with our mind (nous) into our heart, that mind (nous) has been enlivened, quickened, enlightened and cleansed by Baptism, so that we see things differently. Moreover, when we are with our mind (nous) in our heart, the problem for us Orthodox is no longer to activate an innate structure so as automatically to undergo an experience of light, but, on the one hand, to pray in a certain way, and, on the other hand, to cultivate sobriety—this is the topic of St Hesychios’ work—which sobriety is bound up with the rebuttal of temptation that we have just outlined. So we, as Orthodox, with our mind (nous) in our heart have an Orthodox activity; we build an Orthodox building with our hands of five fingers.’

Hence the importance of the materials we are here presenting: they indicate to us the Orthodox way to pray. Moreover, we will find, as we have indicated above in passing, that the three attributes that St Macrina posits that preserve the image of God in man both form the basis of the mystical ascent[10] and are attributes of the mind (nous) that in the mystical ascent are brought from their operations contrary to nature to their operations according to nature.

We have digressed somewhat from St Gregory and St Macrina since we have gone on to discuss some basic issues in Orthodox spirituality, but since St Macrina is about to discuss the creation of man and its connection to the passions, perhaps we have, in a certain fashion, set the stage for her discussion.

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[1] John 3, 8.

[2] John 17, 3.

[3] Cf. John 20, 19.

[4] Cf. S. of S. 5, 4–8.

[5] Gen. 3, 7.

[6] Readers may recognize here the models of temptation and sin of Evagrius Pontikos, of St Mark the Ascetic (2nd half of 4th C.–p.430), of St John of Sinai (523–603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, and of St Hesychios in On Sobriety. These models of sin and temptation will be discussed both in Volume II and in Volume III.

[7] We will encounter it in Volume III as the analysis of temptation of St Hesychios, but it is also present, perhaps less clearly expressed, in the writings of Evagrius that we shall analyse in Volume II.

[8] Cf. Heb. 13, 8.

[9] This is the subject of a treatise by St Mark the Ascetic.

[10] The discriminative of the good from the worse: the practical life or ‘praktike’; the contemplative of existent things: natural contemplation; the contemplative: Theology or the contemplation of God.


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