Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The historical development of Orthodox spirituality

I'm currently reading Orthodox Spirituality: An Outline of the Orthodox Ascetical and Mystical Tradition by "A Monk of the Eastern Church". I thought I would post notes on the book here, in case anyone else is interested.

Six elements in the development of Orthodox spirituality:

  1. The Scriptural element. Certain books have been particularly influential:
    • The Psalms, through their use in both public worship and monastic life.
    • The synoptic Gospels.
    • The letters of Paul, especially as interpreted by St John Chrysostom.
    • The Gospel of John is sometimes thought to have been particularly influential, but this is doubtful.
    Traditions of scriptural interpretation include both the literal and historicist school of Antioch and the allegorical and speculative school of Alexandria. In addition to this there is the tradition of an evangelical spirituality, which stresses the values of the Gospel, on following Christ, and caring for the poor. Examples include St John Chrysostom, the rules of St Basil, St Theodore the Studite, St Nicholas, St John the Almsgiver. It also has a long tradition in Russia.
  2. The "Primitive Christian" element, i.e., the first three centuries before the conciliar and dogmatic fourth century. Martyrdom is central here. Asceticism also developed in this time as a preparation, or in some cases a substitute, for martyrdom. It is also characterized by a belief in the imminent Parousia.
  3. The Intellectual element. This is the Alexandrian school of speculative spirituality. Its main features are:
    • Dualistic view of matter and spirit
    • Leaning towards dialectic
    • Scriptural allegorism
    • Apophatic theology
    The dogmatic formulations of this era were also brought to bear on the spiritual life, e.g., in Maximus the Confessor's interpretations of pseudo-Dionysius. Orthodox contemplative spirituality was indeed influenced by Platonism/neo-Platonism. On the other hand, in ethics and asceticism, Orthodoxy has also been influenced by Aristotelianism and Stoicism. There is also present a "'sophianic' attitude which might defined as an acute perception of, and communion with, the spiritual beauty of the world. ... This spiritual-aesthetic element is very strong in Orthodoxy."
  4. The Early Monastic Element, i.e., the monasticism of the desert fathers. Desert monasticism differs from Benedictine or Basilian monasticism in several ways:
    • Separation from the world is rigorous. The only "work for the world" is prayer.
    • Life is directed toward contemplation and asceticism.
    • Individual forms of monastic life prevail, though there are instances of communal life.
    • Emphasis on fighting against the powers of evil. Demonology owes a great deal to the desert fathers.
    • Prayers of a few words, e.g., the Jesus prayer, is a favored method.
    • Apatheia was the supreme ideal. It is the "state of a soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self-centred) passions." It is not apathy or Stoic impassibility.
    Desert monasticism still exercises an influence on Orthodoxy today. "An Orthodox can hardly conceive of salvation without a certain severance from the world, without a complete self-denial."
  5. The Liturgical element. General characteristics of Orthodox liturgy:
    • Dispenses both Word and sacrament
    • Elaborate, intended to convey spiritual truth and beauty
    • Public worship predominates over private devotions
    • Church calendar recollects the life of Jesus
    The liturgical practices are to some degree influenced by both the Hellenistic mystery cults and the Byzantine court, in addition to Scripture. Beyond these characteristics, the liturgy itself exercises influence over theology, most notably in the work of Nicholas Cabasilas (c 1371). The veneration of icons, relics, the saints, and the Virgin Mary are also essential aspects of Orthodox spirituality.
  6. The contemplative element, i.e., the "hesychast" tradition. Goes back to St Symeon the New Theologian and Nicetas Stethatos. Associated with Mt Athos and, later, with the theology of St Gregory Palamas, though it can be understood apart from Palamas' disputed theology. Four characteristics of the hesychast method:
    • The striving toward a state of total rest and quiet.
    • The repetition of the Jesus Prayer.
    • Practices designed to help the concentration of the mind, e.g., physical immobility, breathing exercises, fixation of the eyes on the heart or stomach
    • The feeling of an inner warmth and physical perception of a "divine light" or "light of Tabor"
    Points two and three are ways to achieve the state of total rest so that culmination of point four can occur. The hesychasts, however, are not offering an infallible technique. It is also important to place this tradition in its proper position. It "may be compared with the great Spanish school of mystics in the Latin church of the 16th century" in its attempt to make spirituality more practical and accessible. It does not surpass or supercede the spiritual traditions that preceded it.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.