Wednesday, 25 November 2009

An introduction to Orthodoxy

An image of Christ from a monastery in Thessaloniki: the beauty and spirituality of Orthodoxy offer many rich insights for our own spirituality (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2004)

By Patrick Comerford

Opening music:
The Znamenny Choir singing the Magnificat and the Great Doxology, and the bells of the Church of the Trinity in Saint Sergius Larva

1, Introduction

Listening to the Znamenny Choir singing Magnificat and the Great Doxology, and to the bells of the Church of the Trinity in Saint Sergius Larva, it is easy to understand this story in the Orthodox Church: When Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was still a pagan at the end of the 10th century, he sent envoys out to discover what the true religion was and to advise him on which religion should become the state religion.

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy among them “but mournfulness and a great smell.” In Germany and Rome, they found the worship and liturgy was without beauty. But when the Slav envoys reached Byzantium, they were so dazzled by the splendour of the Byzantine liturgy in the great church of Aghia Sophia they instantly decided that Orthodoxy should be the faith of the Slav people. “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

As people active in ministry in the Ireland of today, we need to be aware of the Eastern Orthodox churches – not merely because of the beauty of their worship and liturgy, but for a number of practical and pastoral reasons:

1, Enhancing our cultural experiences:

We cannot understand many of the dimensions to modern movies – from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; or modern literature – from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, the poems of Yiannis Ritsos, or J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; or the music of composers such as Rachmaninov or John Taverner, without some understanding of Orthodox piety and practice.

2, The current world situation:

Four member states of the European Union have Orthodox majority populations – Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.

An understanding of Orthodoxy helps us to understand many aspects of modern Europe: why did faith survive with resilience in Soviet Russia and in Ceausescu’s Romania? What was the role of faith in the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? Who are the Christians who have got caught between the extremes of militant Zionism and militant Islam in the Middle East?

Or, on a more practical level: how should I behave when I visit a church when I’m on holidays in Greece, Cyprus or Russia?

3, The current situation in Ireland:

Today, there are five Orthodox churches or parishes in Dublin, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Georgian and Antiochene, with the Romanians and the Russians using former Church of Ireland parish churches in Leeson Park and Harold’s Cross. In addition there are Indian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox communities using Church of Ireland parish churches in Donnybrook, Tallaght, Swords and inner-city Dublin, a Coptic Orthodox Church in Bray, and various communities in other parts of Ireland.

Five distinct Orthodox Churches are now members of the Irish Council of Churches, and Orthodoxy may be the fastest growing Christian tradition in Ireland today. Orthodox spirituality offers us many rich gifts in recent decades through its insights into worship, liturgy, spirituality and prayer.

Over the past three decades – as a writer and a priest – it has been my privilege to spend much time travelling through many Orthodox countries, experiencing the worship and prayer life of a variety of Orthodox Churches – including churches and monasteries within the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Moscow, and the Churches of Greece, Romania, Cyprus, Albania and Sinai, as well as the (Coptic) Egyptian Orthodox Church – and visiting monasteries throughout Greece, Romania and Egypt, especially on Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, Samos, Corfu, Crete, Athens, Thessaloniki, the Ionian islands, and in the Western Desert in Egypt.

2, Orthodox understandings of prayer

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, it is the person who truly prays who is a theologian and a God-seer. The purpose of all life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to become one with Christ; or, as the Apostle Peter says, so that we may “become participants in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1: 4). In the Orthodox tradition, this is known as theosis or in English it might be deification. Everything an Orthodox person does should be to further that goal – the goal of living a life of active love for all people. The result of a life of prayer is to be filled with mercy and forgiveness, to bind up wounds and to love.

In Orthodox understanding, prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. “When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” For the Orthodox, prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life, prayer is being alive to God, prayer is strength, refreshment and joy. Through the grace of God and our disciplined efforts, prayer lifts us up from our isolation to a conscious, loving communion with God in which everything is experienced in a new light. Prayer becomes a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

The Orthodox teach that God does not ask that we converse with him using beautiful words, but that what we say emanates from a beautiful soul. Prayer does not need mediators, formalities, or appointments at prescribed hours. God’s door is always open and he waits for us. God is always near, and we need no particular eloquence. He hears us no matter how softly we speak, he understands us completely even if we say little. All hours are appropriate and all places good, and prolonged instruction in the art of prayer in unnecessary. It is sufficient that we want to pray; then learning becomes rapid and effortless.

However, there are six specific aspects of prayer life and spirituality within the Orthodox tradition that I want to share: the Liturgy; Daily and Personal Prayer; Icons and Prayer; the Jesus Prayer; the Hesychast tradition; and the monastic life.

3, The Liturgy:

Blue-domed, white-washed churches on Greek holiday islands may the first contact many have with the Orthodox Church

The first experience many of us have of Orthodox prayer, worship and spirituality is as visitors to Orthodox churches on holidays, or with an invitation to one of the many new Orthodox churches on this island.

The first experience of the Orthodox liturgy can be so overpowering that many people will agree with the envoys from Kiev when they said: “This we know, that God dwells there among humans.” But Orthodox liturgy has had an immense influence on the western liturgical movement in late 20th century that reformed and transformed much of our liturgical practice: our understanding of the separate Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Sacrament, the Gospel procession, the epiklesis in the Eucharist, even the fact that we stand far more often during the liturgy.

The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise. The Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a religious approach, which understands doctrine in the context and setting of divine worship. As the Russian theologian, Father Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), writes: “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.” Or as Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “Orthodoxy sees human beings as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfilment in worship.”

We use the word liturgy loosely to refer to all the public offices of the church. But for the Orthodox, the Divine Liturgy is only the celebration of the Eucharist. Although it may be celebrated on most days, there has never been a tradition of its daily celebration in parish churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays in the penitential season of Great Lent.

The beauty of the worship is obvious to the non-Orthodox through the singing and through the decoration of churches, with their frescoes and icons. Orthodox churches are often simple in shape, with a square plan and topped by a central dome. The singing is often a capella, and generally there is a noticeable lack of seating or pews (Canon 20 of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the year 325 forbids all kneeling on Sundays).

In addition, there is a mixture of formality and familiarity that is peculiar to Orthodox participation in worship, which leaves visitors assured that the worshipper knows he/she is in the house of their true Father. The Church and the Liturgy are truly meeting points between heaven and earth.

4, Daily services and daily prayer:

Apart from the Divine Liturgy, on a daily basis the Divine Offices of the Orthodox Church, the daily services, are conducted each day, in the church, by the clergy, and must have at least one other person present. Traditionally, the services follow this schedule each day:

Hesperinos (Vespers): at sundown, the traditional beginning of the day;

Apodipnon (Compline, “after supper”): after the evening meal, prior to bedtime;

Orthros (Matins): the first service of the morning, usually starts before sunrise;

The Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th), immediately following Orthros and before the Liturgy.

These services are regarded as sanctifying the times at which they are celebrated. They consist to a large degree of readings from the Psalms, with introductory prayers, troparia, and other prayers surrounding them. The Psalms are arranged so that when all the services are celebrated the entire Psalter is read through once a week, and twice a week during Great Lent.

The daily prayers that every Orthodox Christian should pray each day include Morning, Midday and Evening prayers. For those who want to expand the cycle of daily prayer, there are “the Hours,” which include the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the daily liturgical cycle, modified for personal use at home, and meal-time prayers. Alongside the public prayer of the daily offices and the liturgy, personal prayer in the home is important for every devout, practising Orthodox. These include morning and evening prayer, usually before the family icons, involving both the whole family and individuals praying on their own.

Many Orthodox in their prayers will use prayer books and manuals, but most of the material in these books is taken from the public liturgy and worship of the church – when individuals are praying on their own they are still praying with the Church.

As Georges Florovsky writes: “Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude, ‘in the chamber,’ a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.”

Orthodox prayer, both public and private, is also marked by the use of icons, and, in a very developed way, by the use of the Jesus Prayer.

5, Icons and prayer:

A modern interpretation of The Visitation of Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

Through the traditional use of icons, the Orthodox Church has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on our theological journey too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has been transformed by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights they have received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria ... patron of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge

Apart from a Romanian Orthodox cross, there are five other icons on the wall in my study: an icon of Christ from a monastery in Corfu, which is a copy of an icon written on Patmos; a copy of Rublev’s Visitation of Abraham; from Mount Athos, a copy of an icon of Christ as the Great High Priest; an icon of Peter and Paul embracing as a sign of ecumenism and the unity of the Church; and an icon of saint Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day is today and who is the patron saint of an institute I have studied with in Cambridge.

The icon of Christ Pantocrator in Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai is, perhaps, the oldest icon in Orthodoxy

The icon of Christ in the chapel in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute is an image of perhaps the earliest surviving icon of Christ’s face, now in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. There are three smaller icons in the our sacristy: Christ the Pantocrator; Saint John the Theologian in the cave on Patmos, dictating the opening verses of the Book of Revelation to Prochorus; and the Church at Pentecost, symbolically embracing the world.

For the Orthodox, the church building, the whole edifice, is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (Greek: εικονοστάσι, iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are not there to make the church look more pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding the worship and life of the Orthodox Church, its liturgy and its prayers.

The dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the church was settled finally at the seventh Ecumenical Council in the year 843. Icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054. The use of icons has increased in the Western traditions of the Church in recent decades, although for some they are often decorative religious items rather than the aids to prayer as they are understood in Orthodoxy, while for others they raise questions about idolatry or, at the least, about an emphasis on things seen rather than faith.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word εἰκών (eikon) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Jesus as the εἰκών or the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). The Ecumenical Councils of the Church declared the incarnation had made it permissible to represent God in visual form. If Jesus had himself made God visible, then visual theology was as authentic as verbal theology. This is why the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters.

Carved or graven images still remain almost totally unacceptable in the Orthodox world, but written icons used in the liturgy and prayer life of the Orthodox are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped. In prayer, the Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that should be given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.

Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the saints, not just the material human form. Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be objects of worship. Their usage is justified by the following logic: when the immaterial God was all that we had, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate; however, biblical prohibitions against material depictions have been altered by Christ (as God) taking on material form, thus allowing a material depiction. Also, it is not the wood or paint that is venerated but rather the individual shown, just as with a portrait or photograph of a loved one.

Icons are imbued with symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person depicted, and it is for this reason that Orthodox iconography has become an exacting science of copying older icons rather than an opportunity for artistic expression. The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely unknown in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious art from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period.

More recently, there has been a return to more traditional and symbolic representations; statues or three-dimensional depictions remain almost non-existent within the Orthodox Church.

Large icons can be found on the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes also have icons on the wall, usually on an east-facing wall in a place where the family can pray together. Every Orthodox believer also has an icon of the saint whose name they share, usually beside their bed or in a private place at home. Icons are often illuminated by a candle or an oil lamp. Beeswax candles and olive oil lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly. Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise that Christ is the Light of the World.

6, The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer ... at the heart of Orthodox spirituality

The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με [τὸν ἁμαρτωλό] (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [the sinner]). The Jesus Prayer, also known to some Church Fathers as the Prayer of the Heart, is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used and taught throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer vary from the most simple use of the name “Jesus” to “Lord have mercy,” to the more common form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is, for the Eastern Orthodox, one of the most profound and mystical prayers and is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. The Eastern Orthodox theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Its practice is an integral part of Hesychasm, the subject of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled in the late 18th century.

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the 5th century. It is first referred to in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), a work found in the first volume of the Philokalia. The Jesus Prayer is described in the description by Saint John Cassian (died 435) of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms. Saint Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul. He also teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace. The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended in The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John of Sinai (523-603) and in the work of Saint Hesychios (?8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of the Philokalia. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The use of the Jesus Prayer, according to the tradition of the Philokalia, is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, which became familiar to many in the west in the 1960s through J.D. Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and the answers to many of his questions in the Philokalia, a key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer. With the Scriptures and the Philokalia in his hand, he placed himself under the guidance of an experienced elder and engaged in a struggle to develop inner prayer that would occupy the whole of his life.

But what are the Scriptural and theological foundations of the Jesus Prayer?

The Apostle Paul urges the Christians of Thessaloniki to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 1), and those in Rome to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12: 12), and he practices unceasing prayer himself (e.g., I Thessalonians 2: 13, and II Timothy 1: 3). Whenever he speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words repeatedly appear: pantote, which means always; and adialeptos, meaning without interruption or unceasingly. But how can we be expected to pray all the time? How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives?

However, to pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer - prayer incarnate.”

In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with Saint Paul’s challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox tradition offers the Jesus Prayer. In its simplicity and clarity, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” is rooted in the Scriptures. Its words echo the cry of the blind man at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 38), of the ten lepers who called to him, “Jesus, Master, take pity on us” (Luke 17: 13), the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 14); and on the cry of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42).

That plaintive cry is echoed poignantly in the Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov and sung by the Russian tenor Eugnei Akimov from the Soglasie Male Voice Choir of Saint Petersburg.

Musical interlude: The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov and sung by the Russian tenor Eugnei Akimov from the Soglasie Male Voice Choir of Saint Petersburg.

The Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: the recognition of our own sinfulness, our essential estrangement from God and the people around us. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which we admit our desperate need of a Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1: 8).

Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer:

It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” Although very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and thus only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Theophan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At this stage, prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer, which is a gift of the Spirit, is to return to the Father as did the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4: 6).

This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst. The anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world.

First, it transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

Second, the Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

There is a great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, with many warnings about the disaster that will befall those who would use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. In many texts is said that those who use the Jesus Prayer must only be members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.

When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic. In the Eastern tradition the prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Russian chotki; Greek komvoschini). It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross.

7, The Hesychast tradition

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is integrated into the mental ascesis undertaken by the Orthodox monk in the practice of Hesychasm. This mental ascesis is the subject of the Philokalia. Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian Starets; Greek Gerontas), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, thereby accomplishing the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.”

And so, perhaps, I should say a little about the Hesychast tradition.

Hesychasm (Greek ἡσυχασμός hesychasmos, from ἡσυχία hesychia, “stillness, rest, quiet”) is an eremitic tradition of prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy, practised (Greek: ἡσυχάζω, hesychazo, “to keep stillness”) by the Hesychast (Greek: Ἡσυχαστής, hesychastes).

A 12th century icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

The tradition dates back to both the Cappadocian Fathers and the Egyptian anchorites in the western desert, although the tradition’s strongest roots can be traced from the 6th to 8th centuries and The Ladder of Divine Ascent written by Saint John of Sinai (523–603). The term Hesychast is particularly associated with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ascesis by hermits in Egypt. By the 14th century on Mount Athos, Hesychasm refer to the practices associated with the Jesus Prayer. The books used by the Hesychasts include the Philokalia; the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century or 8th century).

Hesychastic practice may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. However, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary both by modern Athonite practitioners on Mount Athos and by the more ancient texts in the Philokalia, the emphasis being on the primary role of Grace.

The Hesychast practices acquiring an inner stillness, ignoring the physical senses and rejecting tempting thoughts. In solitude and retirement he repeats the Jesus Prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer “with the heart” – with meaning, with intent, “for real.” He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose “surface” or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a “mystical” inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.

While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer. The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images.

The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time, but he returns “to earth” and continues to practise the guard of the mind. The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God.

But there are many warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible.

8, The monastic tradition today

The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos ... the monastic tradition is alive and vibrant today (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of Hesychasm, and the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia. The mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the best known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), and Father Joseph (died 1959).

Although some of these great writers also lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

9, Conclusions

Evgarius is quoted in the Philokalia as having written: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

The Orthodox insights into and traditions about prayer have influenced many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams. Many in the Western world have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality. The beauty of Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasurers in the writings of Orthodox monks can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

10, Readings and resources

Reading and finding the way ... a signpost on Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2004)

(Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002, ISBN: 0-232-52472-6) ... written as an introduction for English-readers to Orthodox theology.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1966-1971) … may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, School for Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1970-1972) … again, may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre, Courage to Pray (London: Darton Longman & Todd Libra, various editions 1973-1974) … once again, may be out of print now, but once again worth looking for in libraries.

The Divine Liturgy of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom (Oxford: University Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-19-110012-9) ... a simple bilingual (Greek-English) presentation of the main Orthodox liturgical texts and prayers.

E Kadloubovsky and GEH Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Fabber and Faber, 1992, ISBN: 0-571-16393-9) ... access through the English language to selections from the major Orthodox work on spirituality.

Charles Miller, The Gift of the World, an introduction to the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN: 0-567-08732-8) ... an English-language introduction to the Romanian Orthodox theologian whose stature has been compared to Barth, Rahner and Schillebeeckx.

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004, ISBN 1-85311-657-2) … lavishly illustrated, beautiful thoughts as well as images.

Deborah Sheldon, Gospel Icons (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85174-401-0) … Grove Spirituality Series S 69, addresses many evangelical questions about the “orthodoxy” of icons.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997, new ed, ISBN: 0-14-014656-3) ... the standard introduction in plain English to the Orthodox Church ... covers history, liturgy, spirituality, church calendar, theology, &c.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002, ISBN 0-913836-58-3) ... a good general introduction to Orthodox doctrine, worship and life.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director or Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on a paper delivered in an ecumenical study group in Saint Andrew’s (Church of Ireland) Church, Malahide, Co Dublin, on the evening of Saint Catherine’s Day, 25 November 2009.

Saint John’s Gospel (5): John 3: 1-21

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Patrick Comerford

1 ην δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων: 2 οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ' αὐτοῦ. 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν [ὁ] Νικόδημος, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; 5 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 6 τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν. 7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι, Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 8 τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ' οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει: οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 9 ἀπεκρίθη Νικόδημος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;

11 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν καὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε. 12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε; 13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς, ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ: 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.

3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’

Introduction:

This story contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born again) (verse 5); and For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

We have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; an the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

This is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus, although some commentators have tried to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

Verse 1:

Nicodemus, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, is a leader of the Jews, in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2:

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he didn’t want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Jesus as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but does not believe, he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3:

The reply of Jesus puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing.

The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically) or “from above,” “from heaven.”

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4:

As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was saying.

Verse 5:

Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6:

Like begets like.

Verse 7:

You: the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”

Verse 8:

The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.”

See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Verse 9:

Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Jesus is saying and its implications. His question is phrased “How can this be?” (RSV) or “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”

Verse 10:

A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11:

In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Jesus moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. How is the we here, who owns what is “our”?

Verse 12:

We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13:

Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life.

This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

Verse 14:

The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see also Numbers 21: 4-9. The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

Verse 16:

For many this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

God so loved humanity ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2005)

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

A modern monument to Pythagoras on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek word means both condemnation and judgment. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verse 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.

Conclusion:

So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, in the story of Nicodemus, and before darkness falls he really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Wednesday 25 November 2009.