"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Monday 12 November 2012


Nov. 12th: St Theodore the Studite.

Theodore was in the ninth century both the model and the ideologist of the rigorist monastic party which played a decisive role in the entire life of Byzantine Christendom.

In the preceding chapter, Theodore’s contribution to the theology of images as an aspect of Chalcedonian Christological orthodoxy was discussed. His impact on the history of monasticism is equally important. Severely challenged by iconoclastic persecutions, Byzantine monasticism had acquired the prestige of martyrdom, and its authority in Orthodox circles was often greater than that of the compromise-minded hierarchy. Under Theodore’s leadership it became an organized and articulate bulwark of canonical and moral rigorism.

For Theodore, monastic life was, in fact, synonymous with authentic Christianity:

Certain people ask, whence did the tradition of renouncing the world and of becoming monks arise? But their question is the same as asking, whence was the tradition of becoming Christians? For the One who first laid down the apostolic tradition, six mysteries also were ordained: first - illumination, second - the assembly or communion, third - the perfection of the chrism, fourth - the perfection of priesthood, fifth - the monastic perfection, and sixth -the service for those who fall asleep in holiness.1

This passage is important not only because monasticism is counted among the sacraments of the Church — in a list strikingly different from the post-Tridentine "seven sacraments" — but also, and chiefly, because the monastic state is considered one of the essential forms of Christian perfection and witness. Through detachment, through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and through a life projected into the already-given reality of the kingdom of God, monasticism becomes an "angelic life." The monks, according to Theodore, formed an eschatological community, which realizes more fully and more perfectly what the entire Church is supposed to be. The Studite monks brought this eschatological witness into the very midst of the imperial capital, the centre of the "world" and considered it as a normal being in almost constant conflict with the "world" and with whatever it represented. They constituted a well-organized group. Their abbot abhorred the spiritual individualism of the early Christian hermits and built Studios into a regimented, liturgical, working community in accordance with the best cenobitic traditions stemming from Basil and Pachomius.For Theodore and his disciples, "otherworldliness" never meant that Christian action was not needed in the world. Quite to the contrary. The monks practised and preached active involvement in the affairs of the city so that it might conform itself as far as possible to the rigorous criteria of the kingdom of God as they understood it. The iconoclastic emperors persecuted the monks for their defence of the icons, of course, but also for their attempts to submit the earthly Christian empire to the imperatives and requirements of a transcendent Gospel. Their Orthodox successors obliged to recognize the moral victory of the monks and to solicit their support also found it difficult to comply with all their demands. The conflict over the second marriage of Constantine VI (795), which Patriarchs Tarasius and Nicephorus tolerated but which Theodore and the Studites considered "adulterous" ("moechian schism"), provoked decades of discussion over the nature of oikonomia — i.e., the possibility of circumventing the letter of the law for the ultimate good of the Church and of the individual’s salvation. This principle invoked by the council of 809 and discussed at greater length in the next chapter was challenged by Theodore not so much in itself as in the concrete case of Constantine VI.

"Either the emperor is God, for divinity alone is not subject to the law, or there is anarchy and revolution. For how can there be peace if there is no law valid for all, if the emperor can fulfil his desires — commit adultery, or accept heresies, for example — while his subjects are forbidden to communicate with the adulterer or the heretic?"2

Theodore was certainly not an innovator in his attitude toward the state; for his was the attitude of Athanasius, of John Chrysostom, of Maximus the Confessor, and of John of Damascus, and it would be that of a large segment of Byzantine churchmen in later centuries; it merely illustrates the fact that Byzantine society was far from having found the "harmony" between the two powers about which Justinian spoke in his Novella 6. The action and witness of the monks was always present in Byzantium to demonstrate that true harmony between the kingdom of God and the "world" was possible only in the parousia.

Theodore’s ideology and commitments normally led him away from the Constantinian parallelism between the political structure of the empire and the structure of the Church, a parallelism endorsed in Nicaea and best exemplified in the gradual elevation of the bishop of Constantinople to "ecumenical patriarch." Theodore, of course, never formally denied the canonical texts, which reflected it but, in practice, often referred to the principle of apostolicity as a criterion of authority in the Church, rather than to the political pre-eminence of certain cities. The support given to the Orthodox party during the iconoclastic period by the Church of Rome, the friendly correspondence, which Theodore was able to establish with Popes Leo III (795-816) and Paschal I (817-824), contrasted with the internal conflicts that existed with his own patriarchs, both iconoclastic and Orthodox. These factors explain the very high regard he repeatedly expressed toward the “apostolic throne” of old Rome. For example, he addressed Pope Paschal as “the rock of faith upon which the Catholic Church is built.”  “You are Peter,” he writes, “adorning the throne of Peter."3 The numerous passages of this kind carefully collected by modern apologists of the papacy4 are however not entirely sufficient to prove that Theodore’s view of Rome is identical to that of Vatican I. In his letters side by side with references to Peter and to the pope as leaders of the Church, one can also find him speaking of the "five-headed body of the Church"5 with reference to the Byzantine concept of a "pentarchy" of patriarchs. Also addressing himself to the patriarch of Jerusalem, he calls him "first among the patriarchs" for the place where the Lord suffered presupposes "the dignity highest of all."6

Independence of the categories of "this world" and therefore of the state was the only real concern of the great Studite. The apostolic claim of Rome, no less real but much less effective, claims of the other Eastern patriarchs, provided him with arguments in his fight against the Byzantine state and Church hierarchies. Still, there is no reason to doubt that his view of the unity of the Church, which he never systematically developed, was not radically different from that of his contemporaries including Patriarch Photius who, as we shall see, was always ready to acknowledge the prominent position of Peter among the apostles but also considered that the authority of Peter’s Roman successors was dependent upon (not the foundation of) their orthodoxy. In Rome, Theodore the Studite saw that foremost support of the true faith and expressed his vision and his hope in the best tradition of the Byzantine superlative style.

The ancient monastic opposition to secular philosophy does not appear in Theodore’s writings. Theodore himself seemed even to have liked exercises in dialectics as his early correspondence with John the Grammarian, a humanist and later an iconoclastic patriarch, showed. But the anti-humanist tendency would clearly appear among his immediate disciples, the anti-Photians of the ninth century.


The role of the monks in the triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm illustrates their traditional involvement in theological debates in Byzantium; Byzantine monasticism thus appears not only as a school of spiritual perfection but also as a body, which feels responsibility for the content of the faith and for the fate of the Church as a whole. At the same time, the particularity of the monastic polity and ideology, its foundation upon the notion that "the Kingdom of God is not of this world," and its opposition to all compromises with "this world’s" requirements gave rise in Byzantium to a theology, which can properly be called "monastic." In contrast with the formal conservatism of official ecclesiastical circles and in opposition to the traditions of secular Hellenism, this theology happened also to be the most dynamic and creative current in Byzantine thought as a whole.

It is well known that very early in its development monasticism became a diversified movement. Between the extreme eremitism of Antony of Egypt and the absolute and organized cenobitism of Pachomius, there was a whole scale of intermediary forms of monastic life practised everywhere in Eastern Christendom and gradually spreading to the West. Between the hermits — also frequently called "hesychasts" — and the coenobites, there was often competition and at times conflict; but the entire Eastern monastic movement remained united in its basic "other-worldliness" and in the conviction that prayer, whatever its form, was the fundamental and permanent content of monastic life. Some monastic centres — such as the monastery of Studios — may have been relatively "activist," developing social work, learning, manuscript copying and other practical concerns; but even then, the liturgical cycle of the monastic office remained the absolute centre of the community’s life and generally comprised at least half of the monk’s daily schedule.

As a whole, the monastic community taught the Byzantines how to pray. The coenobites developed a liturgical system (which was gradually adopted by the whole Church until today the Eastern Church knows no ordo but the monastic one), while the hesychasts created a tradition of personal prayer and continuous contemplation. In both cases, prayer was understood as a way to reach the goal of Christian life as such: participation in God, theõsis through communion with the deified humanity of Christ in the Holy Spirit. The coenobites generally emphasized the sacramental or liturgical nature of this communion, while the hesychasts taught that experience was to be reached through personal effort. In post-iconoclastic Byzantium, the two traditions generally interpenetrated to a greater extent, and we find, for example, that the prophet of personal mysticism, Symeon the New Theologian, spent most of his life in cenobitic communities located in the city of Constantinople. Since theologically and spiritually there was no opposition between the hermits and the coenobites, it is therefore possible to speak of a single monastic theology.

The Origins of Monastic Thought: Evagrius and Macarius.

The role of Evagrius Ponticus († 399) in the shaping of early monastic spirituality was recognized by historians early in this century. The authentic text of his Gnostic Centuries with their quite heretical Christology explains his condemnation by the Council of 553. Seen as an expression of his metaphysical system — a developed Origenism, Evagrius’ spiritual doctrine itself becomes somehow suspect. But in the Byzantine tradition taken as a whole, it will be used for centuries out of its original and heretical context; and its extraordinary psychological relevance will be exploited fully. We will mention here two major aspects of Evagrian thought because of their permanence in later tradition: the doctrine of the passions and the doctrine of prayer.

According to Evagrius, the true nature of the "mind" is to be fixed in God, and anything, which detaches it from God, is evil. Thus since the Fall, the human mind is captured with self-love, which generates "thoughts;" "thoughts," a definitely pejorative term in Evagrius, imply interest in sensible things and distraction from God. Acting upon the passible part of the soul, they can lead it to passions. These passions form a very definite hierarchy beginning with the casual attachment to the most inevitable of all human sensible needs, such as food, and ending with demonic possession, with love for oneself. The eight steps, which constitute this hierarchy are: gluttony, fornication, avarice, grief, wrath, weariness, vainglory, and pride.1 With very slight variations, this classification of the passions and the psychological structure of the human mind, which it presupposes, are retained by John Cassian, John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, and almost all the Eastern ascetical writers. The first goal of monastic "practice" is to subdue the passions and reach a state of "passionlessness" — a detachment from senses and "thoughts," which makes a restoration of the true original relationship between the mind and God possible. Beginning with the elementary monastic virtues, fasting and celibacy, the life of the monk can gradually subdue the other passions and reach true detachment.

Union then becomes possible through prayer. It was Evagrius who first coined the term "prayer of the mind," which became standard in Byzantine hesychasm. Prayer is "the proper activity of the mind,"2 "an impassible state,"3 the "highest possible intellection."4 In this "state" of prayer, the mind is totally liberated from every "multiplicity;" it is "deaf and dumb" to every perception of the senses.5 According to Evagrius, as we know now, prayer also means that the mind is in an "essential union" with the deity; thus, Evagrian monks of the sixth century could boast that they were "equal to Christ." But Evagrius’ teaching on prayer will be understood in a much more orthodox way by generations of Byzantine monks, and the credit for this reinterpretation of Evagrian spirituality belongs in a large degree to the writings attributed to Macarius of Egypt.

Macarius of Egypt was a contemporary and teacher of Evagrius’ in the desert of Scete. Fifty Homilies and several other writings of an unknown author of the early-fifth century had been attributed to Macarius, who, it is now certain, was never a writer. The influence of this anonymous writer, conventionally called "Macarius," was enormous.

While Evagrius identifies man with the "intellect" and conceives Christian spirituality as a dematerialization, Macarius understands man as a psychosomatic in whole, destined to "deification." To the Origenistic and Platonic anthropology of Evagrius, he opposes a Biblical idea of man, which makes it inconceivable for the "mind" or the "soul" to have its final destiny in separation from the body. From this, anthropology follows a spirituality based upon the reality of Baptism and the Eucharist as ways of union with Christ and of "deification" of the entire human existence in all its aspects including the corporeal. "The fire, which lives inside, in the heart, appears then [on the last day] openly and realizes the resurrection of the bodies."6

In Macarius, the Evagrian "prayer of the mind" thus becomes the "prayer of the heart;" the centre of man’s psychosomatic life, the heart, is the "table where the grace of God engraves the laws of the Spirit;"7 but it also can be a "sepulchre" where "the prince of evil and his angels find refuge."8 The human heart is thus the battlefield between God and Satan, life and death. And the monk devoting his entire existence to prayer chooses, in fact, to be at the forefront of this battle in a direct and conscious way, for the presence of God is a real fact, which the "inner man" perceives "as an experience and with assurance."9 In Macarius, just as in some books of the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, the role played by the heart is undeniably connected with a physiology, which sees in this particular organ the centre of the psychosomatic life of man. This means in practice that whenever the "heart" is mentioned the author simply means man’s inner personality, the "I" at its very depth. In any case, the "heart" never designates the emotional side of man alone as it sometimes is in the West.

The notion of the coexistence of God and Satan in the heart of man and the call for a conscious experience of grace have led some modern historians to identify the Homilies of Macarius with the writings of a Messalian leader. If this accusation is true, it would involve Macarius as well as much of the later monastic spirituality of Byzantium where Macarius enjoyed unquestionable authority and where his ideas, especially the notion of the conscious experience of God, remained dominant. But the exact definition of what Messalianism really means and the absence in Macarius of some basic Messalian positions — such as anti-sacramentalism — make the hypothesis highly improbable. Even if the unknown author of the Macarian Homilies belonged to a tradition, which eventually bifurcated between sectarian and orthodox spirituality, his anthropology and his concept of human destiny were certainly closer to the New Testament than was that of the Evagrian Origenists; and his influence acting as a Biblical counterpart contributed indirectly to salvaging for posterity the tradition of pure prayer, which, in Evagrius, had a rather dubious context.

The Great Spiritual Fathers.

An Origenistic spiritualism and Messalian pseudo-prophetism — in which prayer and visions are supposed to replace the sacraments — were the two main temptations of Eastern Christian monasticism. The examples of Evagrius and Macarius showed that in the fourth and fifth centuries it may not have been easy to draw a line in the monastic milieu between the orthodox and the sectarians. After several conciliar decrees against Messalianism (at Side in 390, at Constantinople in 426, and at Ephesus in 431) and the condemnation of Evagrius in 553, confusion became impossible; but clarification had begun to emerge in the monastic milieu itself at the very time when the councils were legislating on the issue. We will mention here briefly three authors of major importance who after assimilating the major contributions of both the Evagrian and the Macarian traditions gave to Eastern Christian spirituality its classical forms.

Diadochus, a bishop of Photice in Epirus in the fifth century and a participant at the Council of Chalcedon (451), is the author of Gnostic Chapters and of a few minor spiritual works. The title of his principal work betrays his relation to Evagrius; still, the major inspiration of Diadochus’ doctrine of prayer approximates Macarius’ though at a greater distance from Messalianism than that of the author of the Spiritual Homilies.

Baptism for Diadochus is the only foundation of spiritual life: "Grace is hidden in the depth of our mind from the very moment in which we were baptized and gives purification both to the soul and to the body."10 This concern for the wholeness of man is expressed by a mysticism of the "heart" as opposed to the Evagrian insistence on the "mind." Actually, Diadochus, just like Macarius, locates the mind, or soul, "in the heart":

Grace hides its presence in the baptized, waiting for the initiative of the soul; but when the whole man turns toward the Lord, grace reveals its presence to the heart through an ineffable experience... And if man begins his progress by keeping the commandments and ceaselessly invoking the Lord Jesus, then the fire of holy grace penetrates even the external senses of the heart…11

Diadochus on several occasions in his Chapters clarifies the ambiguity of the Macarian tradition on the issue of the coexistence of God and Satan in the heart; but he is fully in agreement with Macarius in affirming that Christians must experience consciously and even "externally" (i.e., not only "intellectually" in the Evagrian sense) the presence of the Spirit in their hearts. His definition of the Christian faith as a personal experience is appropriated by Symeon the New Theologian and other Byzantine spiritual writers. In the writings of Diadochus, the teaching on incessant prayer, adopted from Evagrius and Macarius, presupposes a constant invocation of the name of Jesus;12 an essential orientation of spirituality toward the Person of the Incarnate Logos with a resurgence of the role played in Biblical theology by the concept of the "name" of God thus replaces in Diadochus the much more abstract and spiritualistic understanding of prayer in Evagrius.

Better known in the West since the Middle Ages and more exalted in the East (where a special celebration in its honour takes place on the Fifth Sunday of Lent), the personality of John Climacus, "the author of The Ladder" and an abbot of the monastery on Mount Sinai, is another great witness of monastic spirituality based upon invocation of the "name of Jesus." Very little is known of his life, and even the date of his death is not solidly established (it is generally believed to have taken place some time around 649).

His famous book, The Ladder of Paradise, has more definite leanings toward Evagrianism than the Chapters of Diadochus does as can be seen from its detailed classification of the passions and from the extreme forms of asceticism, which John required from his monks and which certainly denote Origenist spiritualism. This extremism pleased the French Jansenists of the seventeenth century who contributed to the popularity of The Ladder in the West. But John’s positive teaching about prayer like that of Macarius and Diadochus is centred on the person and the name of Jesus: it thus denotes a purely Christian incarnational foundation and involves the whole man, not just the "mind."

"Let the memory of Jesus be united to your breathing: then you will understand the usefulness of hesychia."13 In John, the terms "hesychia" ("silence," "quietude") and "hesychasts" designate quite specifically the eremitic, contemplative life of the solitary monk practicing the "Jesus prayer." "The hesychast is the one who says, ‘My heart is firm’ [Ps 57:8]; the hesychast is the one who says, ‘I sleep, but my heart is awake’ [Sg 5:2]. Hesychia is an uninterrupted worship and service to God. The hesychast is the one who aspires to circumscribe the Incorporeal in a fleshly dwelling..."14

The terminology, which John uses, will gain particular popularity among the later Byzantine hesychasts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with their practice of connecting mental prayer to breathing; it is not a priori impossible that the practice was known in Sinai in the time of John. In any case, he understands "deification" as a communion of the whole man with the transfigured Christ. The "memory of Jesus" meant precisely this, not a simple "meditation" on the historical Jesus or on any particular episode in His life. Warnings against any evoking, through imagination, of figures external to the "heart" is constant in Eastern Christian spiritual tradition. The monk is always called to realize in himself (his "heart") the objective reality of the transfigured Christ, which is neither an image nor a symbol, but the very reality of God’s presence through the sacraments, independent of any form of imagination.

At this point one should understand the necessary and unavoidable link, which exists in this tradition between spirituality and theology. If any single author succeeded in formulating this link that was Maximus the Confessor.

We have already seen the heroic and lonely role of Maximus in the Christological controversy and his ability to integrate into a consistent Christological and anthropological system the issues, which were at stake between the orthodox and the Monothelites. His ability to view the problems of the spiritual life as they arose in his time in the light of the Evagrian and Macarian heritages, on one side, and of orthodox Christology, on the other, was similarly remarkable.

Origen and Evagrius certainly occupied the first place in Maximus’ readings and intellectual formation. In his doctrine of the spiritual life, he adopts the Evagrian hierarchy of passions as well as the concept of "passionlessness," as the goal of ascetic praxis. In Evagrius, the detachment from passions" is a negative achievement through which a total emptiness from any sensation of the soul or of the body is supposed to be achieved in order for the mind to realize its divine nature and recover its essential union with God through knowledge; this concept obviously implies an Origenistic anthropology in which any connection of the "mind" with either a "soul" or a "body" is a consequence of the Fall. As a result in Evagrius, true detachment is also detachment from virtues; and active love itself is superseded by knowledge. In Maximus however love is understood not only as the highest virtue but as the only true result of detachment. Because of "passionlessness," love can be perfectly equal for all since human preferences are the result of imperfection.15 Ultimately, human love, which necessarily includes an element of desire (eros), must be transformed by a gift of God and thus become agape.16

This transformation of the Evagrian spirituality parallels in Maximus a basic modification of Origenism in the doctrine of creation and implies a positive view of man whose ultimate destiny does not consist of an absorption into God’s essence, but in a "natural activity" made possible through a God-given active love. The total transcendence and inaccessibility of the essence of God becomes, — in Maximus as in Gregory of Nyssa before him and in later Byzantine theology after him, — a matter of Christian faith fundamental for spiritual life.17 If love but not "essential gnosis" is the highest goal of spiritual life, man while united with God remains totally himself in his nature and activity; but he also enjoys communion with the activity of God, which alone can guarantee his total liberation from "passion" and transform his eras into agape. In Byzantine monastic spirituality, to "follow the commandments," i.e. active love, will therefore remain both a condition and a necessary aspect of the vision of God.

To achieve his balanced understanding of spiritual life, Maximus did not rely only on the monastic spiritual tradition. He was a consistent Chalcedonian first of all, and thus he approached the problem with a fundamental conviction that each nature of Christ keeps as nature its characteristics and activity. "Deification" does not suppress humanity but makes it more authentically human.

Opposition to Secular Philosophy.

The traditional unpopularity of Byzantium in the Western Middle Ages and in modern times has been somewhat moderated by the recent recognition that it was Byzantine scholars who preserved the treasures of Hellenic antiquity and transmitted them to the Italian Renaissance. If the transmission is, indeed, a fact (all the available manuscripts of the authors of Greek classical antiquity are Byzantine and often monastic in origin), it reminds that, throughout Byzantine intellectual history, the positive interest in pagan philosophy, which keeps reappearing in intellectual circles, is always staunchly opposed, often by the official Church and always by the monks. The official conciliar statements against the "Hellenic myths" — the term implies essentially Platonic metaphysics — appeared in 553, under Justinian, and later, at the condemnation of Italos and at the Palamite councils of the fourteenth century. More subtly but no less decisively, the gradual abandonment of Origenistic concepts was also a victory of the Bible over the Academy.

In spite of a widespread view that Eastern Christian thought is Platonic in contrast to Western Aristotelianism, an important corrective must be found in the fact that the above-mentioned condemnations of various forms of Platonism are repeated yearly as part of the Synodikon of Orthodoxy in all churches on the First Sunday of Lent. The universities taught Aristotle’s logic as a part of the "general curriculum" required from students under the age of eighteen; but the pious families prevented their children from continuing education on a higher level where students were required to read Plato. This generally explains the ever-recurring remark by hagiographers that saints, especially monks, stopped their education at eighteen to enter monasteries.

In monastic circles, denunciations of "secular philosophy" are constant; and the polarization, which occurs in the ninth century between the party of the monastic "zealots" (often followers of Theodore the Studite), on the one hand, and that of the higher secular clergy, on the other, is intellectual as well as political. The monks oppose compromises with the state, but they also reject the renaissance of secular humanism. Patriarch Ignatius, Photius’ great competitor supported by the monastic party, is known to have snubbed the promoters of secular philosophy;18 Symeon the New Theologian writes virulent verses against them;19 and Gregory Paiamas († 1359) orients his entire polemic against Barlaam the Calabrian on the issue of the "Hellenic wisdom" which he considers to be the main source of Barlaam’s errors. Perhaps, it was precisely because Byzantium was "Greek-speaking" and "Greek-thinking" that the issue of Greek philosophy in its relation to Christianity remained alive among the Byzantines. In any case, monastic thought continued to remind them of their conversion to the faith preached by a Jewish Messiah and their becoming a "new Jerusalem."

Christian Faith as Experience: Symeon the New Theologian.

In Macarius and in Diadochus, we noted the identification of the Christian faith itself with a conscious-experience of God. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) becomes a prophet of that idea in Medieval Byzantium. Disciple of a Studite monk, the "New Theologian" — a title given to him by his later admirers in order to identify him with John the Evangelist and Gregory of Nazianzus, both often called "Theologians" in Byzantine literature — started his monastic life as a novice at the Studion. But the strict regimentation of the big monastery was obviously foreign to his temperament, and he withdrew to the small community of St. Mamas, also in Constantinople, where he was soon elected abbot and ordained priest. His leadership at St. Mamas lasted more than twenty-five years but ended in a conflict when a monastic party in his commmunity complained to the ecclesiastical authorities about the demands he imposed on his monks. Exiled, then rehabilitated, Symeon spent his last years composing spiritual writings quite unique in their mystical originality, their poetic quality, and their influence on later Byzantine thought. His works include Catechetical Discourses addressed to the monks of St. Mamas, Theological and Ethical Treatises, fifty-eight hymns, and several minor writings.

Symeon has often been classified as a major representative of the hesychast tradition in Byzantium following in the line of Evagrius and Macarius and anticipating Gregory Palamas. This classification should be accepted only with reservations however since Symeon neither makes any specific mention of "prayer of the mind" nor insists on any clearly formulated theological distinction between "essence" and "energy" in God. But it is clear that Symeon stands for the basic understanding of Christianity as personal communion with and vision of God, a position, which he shares with hesychasm and with the patristic tradition as a whole. Like all prophets, he expresses the Christian experience without definite concern for precise terminology. It is therefore easy to find him at variance with any established tradition or with any theological system. In the midst of the tradition-minded Byzantine society, Symeon stands as a unique case of personal mysticism but also as an important witness of the inevitable tension in Christianity between all forms of "establishment" and the freedom of the Spirit.

Often autobiographical Symeon’s writings are centred on the reality of a conscious encounter with Christ, and here, it is obviously that he follows Macarius. "Yes, I beg you," he addresses his monks, "let us try now, in this life, to see and contemplate Him. For if we are deemed worthy to see Him sensibly, we shall not see death; death will have no dominion over us [Rm 6:9]." 20 The notion of "sensible" vision makes Symeon, as well as Macarius, a border on Messalianism; but it is generally known today21 that Symeon’s intent differs fundamentally from that of the sectarians who defined "experience" in opposition to the sacramental structure of the Church. What Symeon wants to make clear is that the Kingdom of God has indeed become an attainable reality, it does not belong only to the "future life," and it is not restricted to the "spiritual" or "intellectual" part of man alone in this life but involves his entire existence. "Through the Holy Spirit," he writes, "the resurrection of all of us occurs. And I do not speak only of the final resurrection of the body... [Christ] through His Holy Spirit grants even now the Kingdom of heaven."22 And in order to affirm that this experience of the Kingdom is not in any sense a human "merit," a simple and due reward for ascetic practice, Symeon insists on its "sudden" and unexpected character. In passages where he recalls his own conversion, he likes to emphasize that he was not aware of who was pulling him out of the "mud" of the world to show him finally the beatitude of the Kingdom.23

Symeon’s prophetic insistence that the Christian faith is an experience of the living Christ met with resistance; the legalistic and minimalistic view of Christianity, limiting the faith to the performance of "obligations," seemed much more realistic to monks and laymen alike. For Symeon, these minimalists were modern heretics:

Here are those whom I call heretics [he proclaims in a homily addressed to his community]: those who say that there is no one in our time in our midst that would observe the commandments of the Gospel and become like the holy Fathers... [and] those who pretend that this is impossible. This person has not fallen into some particular heresy but into all the heresies at once, since this one is worse than into all in its impiety... If anyone speaks in this way, he destroys all the divine scriptures. These anti-Christs affirm: "This is impossible, impossible!"24

Symeon was involved at the end of his life in violent conflict with Stephen, a former metropolitan of Nicomedia who had become a syncellus, administrative official, of the patriarchate, on the issue of the canonization of his spiritual father, Symeon the Pious, which he had performed in his community without the proper hierarchical sanction. The New Theologian was given an opportunity to raise the question of authority in the Church by opposing the charismatic personality of the saint to that of the institution. His statements on this problem can be very easily interpreted as anti-hierarchical in principle: according to Symeon, if one accepts the episcopate without having received the vision, one is nothing but an intruder.25 On this point, Symeon reflects a frame of mind, which had existed in both ancient and Byzantine Christianity, in pseudo-Dionysius, and in the Macarian tradition of monasticism; but the subjectivism, which may be involved in such an interpretation, is an ecclesiological problem in itself.

Here as always, Symeon is not directly concerned with rationalization; his purpose is to formulate the tension between the Kingdom and "this world," to affirm that the tension between the "institution" and the "event" is built into the very existence of the Church in history. The New Theologian’s realistic sacramentalism shows clearly that this tension, not the denial of the sacramental nature of the Church, is his true concern. The Byzantine Church canonized Symeon the New Theologian, and generations ?f Eastern Christians have seen him as the greatest mystic of the Middle Ages. By doing so, Byzantine Christianity has recognized that in the Church the Spirit alone is the ultimate criterion of truth and the only final authority.

Theology of Hesychasm: Gregory Palamas.

The debates, which took place in fourteenth-century Byzantium, involved a series of issues including forms of monastic spirituality. The discussion however was fundamentally a theological one: the hesychast method of prayer was debated in the light of earlier tradition concerning knowledge of God, Christology, and anthropology. The endorsement given by the Byzantine Church to the hesychast theologians implied a stand on these basic issues of the Christian faith as well. The debate originated in a confrontation between an Athonite monk, Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), and a Calabrian Italo-Greek "philosopher" Barlaam. At the beginning, the issue was the doctrine of man’s knowledge of God and the nature of theology. For Palamas, immediate knowledge of God in Christ is available to all the baptized and therefore is the real basis and criterion of true theology. Barlaam insisted however on the unknowability of God except through indirect, created, means — revealed Scripture, induction from creation, or exceptional mystical revelations. In fact, the issue was not radically different from the one which Symeon the New Theologian had debated with certain of his monks who denied the possibility of a direct vision of God. At a second stage of the debate, Barlaam also attacked as a form of Messalian materialism the psychosomatic method of prayer practiced by Byzantine hesychasts.

Although this method is held by some as a return to the origins of monasticism, it appears only in explicit, written documents, of the late-thirteenth and early-fourteenth centuries. It is described in particular by Nicephorus the Hesychast, an anonymous author, whose Method of Holy Prayer and Attention is attributed, by some manuscripts, to Symeon the New Theologian and to Gregory of Sinai (1255-1346) who became widely known in Slavic countries. Undoubtedly, the Method was widely known, for Gregory Palamas quotes among its adepts such major figures of the Church as Patriarch Athanasius I (1289-1293, 1303-1310) and Theoleptus, Metropolitan of Philadelphia (1250-1321/26).26 The method consisted in obtaining "attention" (prosoche) — the first condition of authentic prayer — by concentrating one’s mind "in the heart" retaining each breath and reciting mentally the short prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me." Parallelisms in non-Christian Eastern spiritual practices are easy to find, and "materialistic" abuses may have occurred among Byzantine monks. But the major representatives of fourteenth-century hesychasm are unanimous in saying that the psychosomatic method is not an end in itself but only a useful tool for placing a man literally "in attention" — ready to receive the grace of God provided, which, of course, he deserve by "observing the commandments." Barlaam objected to this method with a Platonic view of man: any somatic participation in prayer can only be an obstacle to a true "intellectual" encounter. The Council of 1341 condemned Barlaam for his attacks on the monks. Still, several Byzantine theologians — Gregory Akindynos, Nicephorus Gregoras, and the Thomist Prochoros Cydones later — continued to protest against the theological positions of Palamas. Palamas however received final conciliar endorsement of his theology successively in 1347, 1351, and posthumously in 1368 when he was also canonized.

The theological positions of Gregory Palamas may be summarized in the three following points:

1) Knowledge of God is an experience given to all Christians through Baptism and through their continuous participation in the life of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. It requires the involvement of the whole man in prayer and service through love for God and neighbour; and then it becomes recognizable as not only an "intellectual" experience of the mind alone but also as a "spiritual sense," which conveys a perception neither purely "intellectual" nor purely material. In Christ, God assumed the whole of man: soul and body; and man as such was deified. In prayer — for example, in the "method" — in the sacraments, in the entire life of the Church as a community, man is called to participation in divine life: this participation is also the true knowledge of God.

2) God is absolutely inaccessible in His essence, both this life and in the future; for only the three divine hypostases are "God by essence." Man, in "deification," can become God only "by grace" or "by energy." The inaccessibility of the essence of God was one of the basic affirmations of the Cappadocian Fathers against Eunomius and also, in a different context, against Origen. Affirming the absolute transcendence of God is only another way of saying that He is the Creator ex nihilo: anything, which exists outside of God, exists only through His "will" or "energy," and can participate in His life only as a result of His will or "grace."

3) The full force with which Palamas affirms God’s inaccessibility and the equally strong affirmation of deification and of participation in God’s life as the original purpose and the goal of human existence also gives full reality to the Palamite distinction between "essence" and "energy" in God. Palamas does not try to justify the distinction philosophically: his God is a living God, both transcendent and willingly immanent, who does not enter into preconceived philosophical categories. However, Palamas considers his teaching to be a development of the Sixth Council decisions that Christ has two natures ("essences") and two natural wills ("energies"). 27 For Christ’s humanity itself, en-hypostasized as it is in the Logos and thus having become truly God’s humanity, did not become "God by essence;" it was penetrated with the divine energy — through the circumin-cessio idiomatum — and, in it, our own humanity finds access to God in His energies. The energies, therefore, are never considered as divine emanations or as a diminished God. They are divine life as given by God to His creatures; and they are God; for in His Son, He truly gave Himself for our salvation.

The victory of Palamism in the fourteenth century was therefore the victory of a specifically Christian, God-centred humanism for which the Greek patristic tradition always stood in opposition to all concepts of man, which considered him as an autonomous or "secular" being. Its essential intuition that "deification" does not suppress humanity but makes man truly human and is, of course, greatly relevant for our own contemporary concerns: man can be fully "human" only if he restores his lost communion with God.


1. Evagrius Ponticus, Praktikos; PG 40:1272-1276.

2. Pseudo-Nilus (Evagrius), De Oratione, 84; PG 79:1185B.

3. Ibid., 52.

4. Ibid., 34A.

5. Ibid., 11.

6. Macarius of Egypt, Horn., 11, 1; cd. Dörries, pp. 96-97.

7. Ibid., 15, 20; p. 139.

8. Ibid., 11, 11; p. 103.

9. Ibid., 1, 12; p. 12.

10. Diadochus, Cap. 77, 78; ed. E. des Places, SC, 5 bis (Paris: Cerf, 1955), pp. 135-136.

11. Ibid., 85; pp. 144-145.

12. See ibid., 31, 32, 61, 88.

13. John Climacus, The Ladder of Paradise, Degree 28; PG 88:1112C.

14. Ibid., Degree 27; PG 88:1097AB.

15. On Evagrius and Maximus, see Lars Thunberg, Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor (Lund: Gleerup, 1965), pp. 317-325.

16. See P. Sherwood, in Maximus the Confessor, The Ascetic Life, ACW 21 (Westminster: Newman, 1955), p. 83.

17. See Lossky, Vision of God, pp. 9-10.

18. Anastasius Bibliothecarius, Preface to the Eighth Council, Mansi XVI, 6.

19. I. Hausherr, ed., in OrientChr 12 (1928), 45.

20. Symeon the New Theologian, Cat. II; ed. B. Krivocheine, Symeon le Nouveau Theohgien, Catecheses, SC 96 (Paris: Cerf, 1963), pp. 421-424.

21. See J. Darrouzes, SC 122, Introduction, p. 26.

22. Symeon the New Theologian, Cat. VI, ed. Krivocheine, pp. 358-368.

23. Symeon the New Theologian, Euch. 2; ed. Krivocheine, pp. 47-73.

24. Cat. 29; ed. Krivocheine, pp. 166-190.

25. Cap. Eth., 6; ed. J. Darrouzes, pp. 406-454.

26. Gregory Palamas, Triads, I, 2; ed. J. MeyendorfT, Defence des saints hesychastes, Specilegium Sacrum Lovaniense 30 (Louvain, 1959), p. 99.

Meditations on Monasticism from SEEfilms on Vimeo.
27. Synodal Tome of 1351; PG 151:722B.

ST. JOSAPHAT—1580-1623 A.D.

Josaphat is one of those figures in history caught in a web of controversy where even good people find it hard to keep their heads. He was caught in a battle between Catholic and Orthodox, Latin and Byzantine, and found himself criticized and opposed on every side: by the Orthodox for being Catholic and by the Latins for being Byzantine. He held firmly to Catholic unity against the Orthodox and just as firmly to Byzantine rights against the Latins. At that period of history, it was a no-win situation, and he is the great martyr to the cause of unity.

St. Josaphat was born in Lithuania about 1580 into a Catholic family and early promoted Catholic unity in a country divided between Orthodox and Catholic. He entered the Byzantine monastery of Holy Trinity in Vilna in 1604 and was elected Catholic archbishop of Polotsk in 1614. While clinging firmly to unity with Rome, he firmly opposed those Latins who saw unity only in Latin terms and would suppress Byzantine traditions in the name of Catholic unity. He firmly opposed the Latinization of his people and made enemies and severe critics among the Latin clergy of Poland.

Politically, the Catholic and Orthodox clergy were rivals in Lithuania, and the archbishopric of Polotsk was one of the contested sees. An Orthodox archbishop of Polotsk was appointed, and Josaphat was accused of taking office invalidly. Many of his Byzantine Catholics were won over to allegiance to Orthodoxy. Even the king of Poland wavered in his support of Josaphat, especially when Polish bishops accused him of betraying his faith by not Latinizing his diocese.

One of the hotbeds of trouble in Josaphat's diocese was Witebsk, and in November of 1623 he went there to bring about peace in his flock, preaching in the churches and trying to reconcile differences. On November 12, a mob broke into the house where he was staying, shouting hatred and violence. When he confronted them, he was struck in the head with a halberd and shot. His mangled body was dragged out and thrown into the river. He was canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1867.

Thought for the Day: It is important to say that there was a martyr for unity on the Orthodox side as well, and even good men were uncertain where truth and justice lay. St. Josaphat died working for reconciliation, and peacemakers often find themselves hated by both sides. It is part of the risk of being a true follower of Christ.

see San Josaphat (click)

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