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Reason, Faith, and Hesychasm as Means of Coping with Thoughts

September 9, 2012

Now that we’ve spent some time reflecting upon the role of suffering in human life and its impact on the spiritual life, it is time to take a step back and describe the proper yet distinct roles the modes of reason and faith play in our journey from this age to the age to come.

In our present epoch, reason has become like a tyrant that disdains any collaborative relationship with faith.  The ancient fathers understood that reason has its proper role but only in the hands of faith.  Further along in chapter five I turn to St. Isaac to bolster this point, “’Knowledge everywhere sings the praises of fear. . .Fear is followed by doubt; doubt is followed by investigation; investigation is followed by ways and means; ways and means are followed by knowledge.  Fear and doubt are always recognized in examination and investigation, for knowledge does not always succeed everywhere.’  In other words, human reasoning cannot escape the limitations of the human condition besieged by manifold dangers and inexorable death.  This is why the difference between reason bereft of faith and reason aligned with Christian beliefs becomes most apparent at the time of passing.  Since human reasoning alone has no authority without investigation or examination, the time of the soul’s departure for someone relying solely on the reason is a time of sorrow, anxiety, shame, and regret.  However, since faith can enable the believer to ‘walk on the sea as on dry land,’ death itself can be greeted as a doorkeeper opening the gates to eternal life.”

This is precisely why a psychological or spiritual program of dealing with the thoughts based upon reason alone doesn’t work.  Reason, unenlightened by the nous, continues to produce thoughts that are based on reason’s own self-preservation and self-glorification.  In order for thoughts to be controlled and properly ordered, the nous enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit must be re-established as king of the human heart. The traditional path in which this takes place is known as hesychasm.

 Elder Ephraim, Abbot of the monastery of Vatopaidi, speaks about this path when he writes, “The course of treatment that should be followed to ensure a restitution of our natural condition, for us to recover that “ancient and elusive beauty” is recommended in “the experience of stillness”, which Saint Gregory Palamas refers to as the “art of arts”. This manner of living stillness is also called “hesychasm” in Patristic terminology. Hesychasm is not a theological movement which appeared in the 14th century with Saint Gregory Palamas as its prime exponent, but is rather the traditional road to deification and sanctification. Hesychasm is the quintessence of Orthodox Tradition, the Tradition which preserves the experience of the Holy Spirit, the continuation of Pentecost, which expands under the supervision of Tradition, but which is stifled by formality and conservatism if there is no concomitant acquaintance with it.

“Hesychasm is not lived only by monastics and those who have foresworn the world. Hesychasm is an inner condition, it is a continuous “dwelling in God and purity of the nous. Hesychasm is the way in which the realm of the heart is revealed, the center of our existence, that which we may term our person. This is the only way in which people can be reborn spiritually and have their hypostatic (personal) state emerge. Without this ascetic training, there is no point to the sacramental life of the Church, which can act towards perdition as well as salvation.”

So if reason and scientific inquiry characterize our age and cause us suffering when we allow this way of engaging with the world infiltrate every nook and cranny of our existence, regardless of whether that approach is helpful or harmful, faith and hesychasm represent another mode of being and way of engaging with our inner world that heals our personality and enables us to do things that reason could hardly imagine.  Hesychasm is the Spirit of the Law that enlivens the Law. It is the incense of sweet spiritual fragrance that makes asceticism more than self-denial and the divine services more than rites following detailed rubrics. Through hesychasm, asceticism and the divine services take on an angelic radiance and the freshness of paradise. Above all hesychasm strengthens the mode of faith and purifies the nous, so that one looks at all the world, all one’s problems, all of creation from a new vantage point, the vantage point of the mind of Christ, which in the Greek is the nous of Christ, the highest, most noble, and most piercing vision of reality that the Saint can hope to gain. In this way, hesychasm offers the struggler a way of coping with the thoughts that transforms the suffering into union with our suffering Savior who through suffering opens unto us the gates of paradise.

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