Pilgrimage to the Heart
PILGRIMAGE TO THE HEART
THE CORE OF ORTHODOX SPIRITUALITY
“Prayer is standing before God
with the mind in the heart,
and then to keep on standing there, day and night.”
St Theophan the Recluse
The proposal of Orthodox spiritual life is that “God became human so that humans might become God” (theosis). The question is: how can we do this? The short answer is that we cooperate with God to come to salvation, and there is a pathway. It is also clear at the outset that we cannot participate in God’s essence, but we can become Godly or divine by participating in God’s energies (often called grace in the W). We are created in the image of God (understood in many different ways, but chiefly as the gifts of reason, freedom, and discernment), tarnished but never lost. We strive to achieve likeness to God. This striving sets in motion the dynamic of the spiritual life.
Salvation (soteria in Greek) has many meanings; it embraces good health, well-being, a sense of security and of being loved, wholeness of mind and soul and body, oneness within, union with God. Salvation takes on the meaning of liberation from corruption (aphtharsia) and death in the light of the Resurrection of Christ. Salvation is never solo; it grows in community. I cannot be complete and whole unless you are, also, which leads me into social responsibility. For Orthodox Christians, the church is primarily a therapeutic community.
There are three tools for the Orthodox spiritual path. Within the community of faith we receive two tools: we experience the sacraments and we learn discipline – mysteria and askesis. The sacraments and the disciplines (fasting, observances, charity) bring us through repentance to illumination to communion. The community of faith conveys the spirit of conciliarity, “we’re all in this together:” sobornost or koinonia.
Third, within the community and alone, we enter the life of prayer. The core of the prayerful life is the search for the uniting of the mind (nous) in the heart (kardia).
The pathway is strewn with stumbling blocks. We can be tripped up easily through deceptions (prelest in Slavonic). Among these are acedia, which is a sort of spiritual despair or depression, and vainglory, which is the total opposite of humility, an unwarranted reliance upon the self.
Corruption and death enter our lives through the passions. In order to overcome the diversion of the passions (greed, lust, envy, and so forth), we must find another passion. Our minds play tricks on us; we are drawn into the contemplation of the passions. This contemplation forms a thought (logisma) on which we dwell. These thoughts take up room in our hearts and cover them so that the Presence of God is no longer available. We are dispersed into the world of things; this is called the scattering of the nous.
But Passion also means suffering or bearing, and therefore in order to move toward our own resurrection, we must root out the logismoi so that we may suffer, or bear the weight of, God’s presence in our lives.
Part of this bearing is known as the “gift of tears” (penthos). We weep at the bitter experiences of life, especially those which befall others. We are bound up with all humanity in the sadness and despair which comes with the loss of innocent children and adults. But we are also sad at our own continual failure to become the most complete people we sense that we might become. Penthos is a “weeping in exile,” an attempt to remember the paradise from which we have been barred.
Remembering is at the heart of this movement. We remember in our bodies our own death, which becomes, in the teaching of prayer masters like St John of the Ladder, not an occasion for gloom and despair but a way to focus our energies on this life and on God’s presence at the heart of all things. We are moving toward theoria, the vision of God’s Light.
We remember through the Jesus-Prayer, which is a principal vehicle for entering deeply into the spiritual life. The prayer itself is simple but the practice is difficult. With the Jesus-Prayer we move through three stages:
- vocal prayer – we seek to remain attentive on the prayer and its simple meaning in our lives; this yields, in time, to
- noetic prayer – in which the mind and the heart are joined again, beyond the passions that divert us and the logismoi that distract us, and we realize the inner meaning of the sacraments and the ascetic disciplines that the church offers us; finally we know
- the Presence of Christ in the heart, which is firm and solid and not to be shaken by the exigencies of life.
We remember, lastly, that our union with God is a gift; it is not an achievement, but a life that is always offered to us. We strive to attain it, indeed, but the end of such striving is the recognition that it was always there, naturally, as the fullness of life that we lost, but which was restored in Christ.