It’s August first, 14 degrees (57f) and raining: Welcome to my world.
Actually it is a beautiful day, if you wear a little more than a tee shirt and if you’re somewhat at peace with yourself. A lot of our life is like this. On days that we expect sun and good times, it rains–sometimes it rains for days on end and it seems as if we will never see the sun again. Life is a lot like that.
Today I want to talk a little bit about how we read the Church fathers and don’t understand them. So often we don’t understand the Church fathers–or worse yet, think we understand them–because we bring a well-trained modern, rational mind to the task of understanding. Just a few days ago, I was speaking with someone in my parish who was struggling with some of the teaching of St. Maximus the Confessor on the healing of the soul. In the context of the conversation, a metaphor occurred to me that she found helpful, so I want to share it with you today. I hope it’s helpful. If it’s not, that’s OK, just forget it.
The thing my parishioner was mulling over was St. Maximus the Confessor’s three stages or phases of the healing of the soul: Purification, illumination and deification. St. Maximus is saying that one first purifies one’s senses: the passions and the reasoning aspect of the mind. This is accomplished by the Grace of God–in terms of our salvation and our transfiguration into Sons of God by Grace, it’s all a gift. However, the gift of Grace must be cooperated with, and the way we cooperate with Grace in cleansing the senses is through acquiring virtue in ascetic practice and thus transforming blameworthy passions into blameless ones. For example, anger can be transformed by love, and lust can be transformed by self control.
The rational part of our mind, the part of our mind that is almost always swarming with thoughts, is purified through attention and prayer. That is, as we pay attention to what we are thinking (not letting random or unwanted or sinful thoughts remain consciously in our mind) and as we pray, using our attention to attend to the words of the prayer, our mind is quieted. Now, before I move on, I do want to emphasize, again, that this is a work that God does in us and we cooperate with. On our own, attending to and controlling our thoughts is either and exercise frustration (like trying to herd a swarm of bees with a fly swatter), or it is an exercise in arrogance leading to delusion. God has to save us; but we have to cooperate.
As our passions are brought somewhat under control and our mind somewhat quieted (at least sometimes) by the Grace of God and our effort, then we are able to direct our attention to our nous, our noetic faculty. The word nous is a Greek word that is often translated ‘mind’ or ‘intellect’ into English; but in the technical vocabulary of Orthodox spiritual writers, nous refers specifically to that part of our mind or inner world that is able to perceive divine things, spiritual truth or reality. Sometimes the fathers call the nous the ‘eye of the heart.’ As our senses are purified through asceticism and prayer (acquiring virtue, controlling our thoughts and attention in prayer), we become able to perceive or be illumined by Grace. The fathers of the Church call this theoria. Theoria is often translated ‘contemplation,’ but I think that is a misleading translation because theoria is not merely ‘thinking about something’; rather, theoria involves seeing, it is a kind of vision. (And that’s probably the reason why this stage is called ‘illumination.’)
Now while St. Maximus the Confessor seems to focus on divine theoria, St. Isaac the Syrian talks about both the theoria of created things and divine theoria. That is, St. Isaac talks about a noetic seeing, a seeing of the heart, as it applies to created things and a noetic seeing of divine things. It seems to me that St. Isaac’s theoria of created things may be referring to what St. Maximus and others in the philokalic tradition refer to as the perceiving the logoi (‘words’) of created things. Thus, illumination involves not only seeing (with the heart, with the nous) uncreated realities, but also seeing the divine words in created things. I think this is sort of what it means to see the whole created world, everything in creation, as an icon.
WARNING: I want to state clearly at this point that I am not an expert on either St. Maximus the Confessor nor St. Isaac the Syrian and that I have not read all–perhaps not even most–of what St. Maximus the Confessor has written; and that of what I have read of both Sts. Maximus and St. Isaac, I remember very little. So I encourage correction in the comment section from those of you who understand these things better than I do.
Nonetheless, fool that I am, I will continue talking about what I know so little about. The next stage of healing is called by St. Maximus theosis, or deification. This is actual participation in the divine life, beyond merely seeing or perceiving it. I really can’t say much about this stage for two reasons: first, and most importantly, I don’t think I have ever experienced it, and if I have, I have only experienced it in the briefest, faintest possible way. And secondly, divine things, although they may be seen by the nous, are unspeakable. The five-dollar word for that is ‘ineffable.’ That’s what St. Paul said about his vision/experience of the third heaven: I saw things that cannot be uttered.
Now this is all pretty heady stuff and really everything I have said so far is just the setup. My real point in this blog post is to talk about how our modern, rational minds understand, or rather don’t understand, such a schema. When our modern, rational minds hear of three steps or stages or levels or phases, we almost always understand this categorically. Our modern, rational minds are trained through years of schooling (in all of its formal in informal forms) to understand a category as a delimited thing. For example, when we think of the categories ‘dog’ and ‘cat,’ we think that everything in the dog category is only dog: no bird or bug or–God forbid–cattish bits in the dog category. Everything doggish is in the dog category and nothing else. And while dog and cat categories may share certain elements, it’s only because both are in a larger category called ‘mammal.’ Our modern, rational minds are trained to see all of reality this way.
And it’s not that this way of thinking is bad. This way of thinking works quite well in understanding some physical aspects of created things (for example, it’s wonderfully useful if you want to build a bridge or a tower or a ship), but it does not at all serve us well when it comes to understanding the human soul. Specifically, when it comes to understanding what St. Maximus the Confessor may be referring to when he speaks of healing the soul through purification, illumination and deification, such modern, rational thinking only puts us in a quandary: If purification is only one thing, not including any bits of illumination and deification, how can one ever progress in the spiritual life so long as he or she is in a body subject to sin? This is exactly the question that my parishioner asked me. What follows is the metaphor that came to my mind at that moment and that she found helpful. I hope you find it helpful too.
Instead of thinking of purification, illumination and deification as discrete categories, think of them rather as descriptions of aspects of an organic process: like the restoration of a conifer forest after a clearcut or devastating fire.
Sin has so ravaged our souls that our souls can be likened to a forest that has been burned to the ground. However, with the wind and the rains and the sun (that is, with all that God’s Grace provides) the forest can return. But the forest returns by stages; and the stages, while they happen relatively sequentially, to not occur absolutely sequentially.
The first stage of natural reforestation are the grasses and various grass-like and shrub-like plants that come up almost right away. These I liken to the first stage of the healing of the soul: purification. The second stage is the growth of certain fast-growing deciduous trees, poplar, alder and aspen (at least where I live). These trees do not begin to grow uniformly. Rather they begin in clumps here and there, depending on the condition of the soil, and the amount of water, and the amount of sunshine. This I liken to the second stage of the healing of the soul: illumination. What is important to note is that the experience of the second stage begins even while most of the field is still covered in grasses of various kinds. Illumination begins, here and there and in spots, as the Grace of God grants, even while we are still mostly struggling to purify our senses.
And wonder of wonders, as I walk through the little clumps of deciduous trees scattered here and there throughout the field of my soul (mostly still covered with natural grasses), what do I behold in a dark, well-shaded part of that small grove? Pushing its way up through the last few years of leaf cover, I am surprise to find a small conifer, a spruce or fir or maybe even a cedar. It will be years, centuries really, before this field will again be a great conifer forest, but the process is underway and all three stages are present, or at least potentially present.
So also in our spiritual life, most of us most of the time will be attending to the first stage of the spiritual struggle: the purification of our senses through ascetic discipline, the control of the passions and developing the habit of attention. But even as we are focused mostly on this first stage, it does not mean that, by God’s Grace, we might not also have small clumps, small glimpses of illumination here and there growing in the field of our soul also. And who knows, maybe with time and continued struggle, deep in the heart of one of those little groves, in the darkest, most undisturbed part, who knows maybe the seedling of a great cedar is taking root. Maybe even now, even as we focus mostly on the first stage, God has already granted us deep in our heart at least the beginnings of the third stage: a little bit of, the faintest breath of, deification.