Education and Illumination

Referring to St. Gregory Palamas, Metropolitan Hierotheos (in The Science of Spiritual Medicine: Orthodox Psychotherapy in Action) makes the following comment: 
Secular learning (philosophy) is not a spiritual gift, which someone can only acquire through study and reading.  “Our divine wisdom,” however, is not a natural gift, but a gift bestowed by God on those who have purified their hearts.  If this gift comes to fishermen, it makes them sons of thunder and universal preachers; if it comes to tax-collectors, “it creates merchants of souls.”
This distinction between natural leaning (secular learning or philosophy) and divine wisdom (the spiritual gift of the knowledge of God in the heart) is extremely important.  The spiritual gift of knowledge of God is bestowed by God on “purified hearts.”  By purified heart, the Church does not mean hearts that have already been completely purified or hearts that have been purified by merely human effort apart from Grace.  Rather, a purified heart is a heart that  has entered into repentance.  As repentance begins, purification begins.  Purification brings enlightenment (the knowledge of God in the heart).  Enlightenment results in deification, or “Christlikeness,” or to use the words of St. Peter, partaking of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  This is a synergistic process: the Grace of God works together with the human will.  God does not save us against our will, yet we cannot be saved by our will.  Grace and repentance work together.  You might say that salvation is a participatory activity.  We participate with, respond to, and cooperate with the Grace of God.
In this process of salvation (summarized by St. Maximos the Confessor as purification, illumination and deification), academics plays no part.  One does not need to be able to read to be illumined.  A mentally challenged person may be much more full of Grace and much more like Christ than a scholar (personal experience is talking here).  One of the greatest known saints of the 20th century, St. Siloun of Athos, had only a third or forth grade education.  Nevertheless, most of the Fathers of the Church were very well educated.  Some had formal education, such as the Capadocian Fathers. Others were educated in a monastic context by the services of the Church, the teaching of elders in their monastery and by themselves reading and copying the great Fathers of the Church.  Education is not irrelevant.
However, education cannot inform the heart.  
Then why educate at all?  If education cannot illumine the heart, then why bother learning to read at all?  The answer is that a human being is more than just a heart.  Asking why one who wants to be a saint should bother learning to read is sort of like asking why she should bother to fast or to say prayers or to make prostrations: does what we do with our bodies illumine our hearts?  No. Our hearts are illumined by Grace, and yet we are more than hearts, we are are also minds and bodies.  
Loving God is a matter of the whole person.  Salvation is a matter of the whole person, although the process is led by the repentant heart (nous) illumined by Grace.  Every human being has different gifts and abilities (both natural and spiritual).  All of these must be given to God; all of these must participate in our loving God and neighbor.  The heart that is illumined is not separate from the mind and the body: when the heart is illumined, the person is illumined, the whole person, heart, mind and body.  And although the heart leads, or should lead, the whole person participates in repentance and illumination and yes even deification–in fact, that is one of the main points St. Gregory of Palamas makes.  It is possible to be an illumined scholar.
The problem lies, however, in our western culture that has made an idol of education.  The power of this idol is so strong that even the Orthodox Churches in North America make a Master’s Degree (from a seminary at which most of the faculty have Ph.D’s) the minimum qualification for ordination to the priesthood, rather than, say, a year or two living in a monastery under the spiritual direction of an experienced elder.  I’m a big fan of education, but I think we may have the cart before the horse here.  
But not everyone is called to be a priest or a monk.  Some people are called to be saints as English professors or carpenters or school teachers or even insurance salesmen.  Everyone, in my opinion, should strive to find an elder, a spiritual father or mother who can help them with matters of the heart, but each will have his or her own journey requiring the full use of all his or her spiritual and natural gifts and graces.  No one gets to take a short cut.  Everyone must develop and use everything.  Why else would we pray several times in the Liturgy, “Let us commend…our whole lives unto Christ our God”?


  1. Dear Fr. Michael,

    I am really struggling with your insistence that education cannot inform the heart. I do understand that the heart is always informed by Grace and this is something beyond human control or measurement. I also understand that education doesn't automatically become part of drawing a heart to repentance. However, if I am taught by an illumined scholar/teacher, isn't there a possibility that I may see the grace they exude and feel my heart drawn to the beauty, goodness and truth in them? Can't synergy include the way God uses all of us and our whole lives as part of our salvation? Can't an educator who is repenting teach in a way that touches hearts or at least encourages a descent of the mind to the heart, to an awareness of the Kingdom of heaven within? Isn't knowledge of God connected to all knowledge of creation? Maybe I am missing your point, but the distinction seems to relegate education to a scientific/technical/robotic process rather than a dynamic relationship between teachers and students that will always have heart impact (for good or bad).

  2. Dear Barbara,
    A lot hangs on how one defines heart and enlightenment and education. A kindergarten teacher as much as a spiritual elder can go a long way to preparing someone to receive Grace. Formation, training, modelling, teaching can help someone know "were to look" or encourage them to accept the Grace of God. People can also be taught appropriate means of repentance, and they can certainly be taught to avoid behaviours and thinking pattens that disintegrate rather than integrate them. Certainly all of this may be considered a kind of enlightenment. But in the context of St. Gregory Palamas, Enlightenment is a rather technical term that refers to the Grace of God dawning in one's heart (nous). It is not something that can be brought about, it can only be longed for and cooperated with. It is like the sunrise, you cannot bring it about, but you can be awake when it happens. And here would be where teachers, parents and others play a significant role.

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