From the Post-Modern Persona to the Person
The theology of the person, as this is revealed in the hesychast ascetic tradition, is the most significant counter-argument to post-modern individualism and relativism. The ascetics of introversion and of conscious tranquillity (hesychia) is not a psychological proposition but the authentic and only way of transforming the “repulsive mask” into a person.
It has been aptly remarked that what will best characterize the theology of the 21st century is its concern with anthropological questions. If we have not sufficiently investigated anthropological truths in the sphere of theology today, imagine what must be the case in the realms of philosophy, the intellect and the social and human sciences.
Today’s post-modern people do not know what a person is. They live, and project, the mask of a persona. What is a mask? It’s a guise which was used in Ancient Greece by actors to take on a variety of roles- personae- on stage in the theatre. So this mask is not something real, it’s artificial, it’s a virtual reality, to use modern IT terminology. We need to remove this false object and replace it with the real one, which, in this case is the person.
The Fathers of the Church did not define what a person is. But in order to refer to the magnificence, the enormous worth of the human being, they used the term “person”. Basil the Great writes that persons are the only animals who are God-made. Saint Gregory the Theologian says God made a creature- the person- who was a mixture of visible and invisible nature, who is a second cosmos, “great in miniature”. Saint John Chrysostom stresses that “the person is the most carefully made of God’s living things”.
Human beings are the crown of creation. The longing for perfection is innate. This can be seen in the execution of any academic activity, art or even profession. People try, to the best of their abilities, to achieve perfection, even in their everyday activities. And this is evidence of the potential God has given us for our personal perfection and completion as a psychosomatic entity and being.
In the created universe, there is nothing superior to us humans. “The lowest orders of beings, even though they have a kind of rationality, still do not have an independent aim, but rather their purpose is to be the material precondition of the existence of humankind. People yearn for a boundless, personal reality (God) Who is superior to them and can nourish them infinitely. They cannot possess this reality, because their potential is limited, but nor will they disappear into it”. It is this personal God Who gives meaning and purpose to our existence. Our human nature, with its countless hypostases, is able to communicate, by energy, with the distinct and mutually-penetrative persons of the Holy Trinity.
The late Elder Sophrony, in accord with the holy Fathers, offers no definition of the person. More important for his ascetic theology is his assertion that the person exists, which leads him on to a description of its capacities. The person cannot be defined, but it can be characterized, dynamically and existentially, by the manifestation of its energies”. The person lying in the “hidden being of the heart”, emerges when that being, through the Grace of God, discovers the sphere of the heart, the core of our being.
Saint Gregory Palamas says something very important and which is the central point of this article: When the nous, our highest faculty, distances itself, through Orthodox ascetic practice, from every perceptible thing, rises above the turmoil of concern for material matters and instead supervises the inner being, it will see the “repulsive mask”, that is the ugly, the hideous mask, which has been put together by passionate attachment to earthly affairs, which is nourished and inflated by sin. So the nous hastens to cleanse this mask with grief and repentance, to remove the unsightly cover through asceticism and observance of God’s commandments. Saint Gregory goes on to say that since the soul is not diverted by the diversity of sin, it discovers the peace of its psychosomatic powers, harmony of the mind, and genuine inner tranquility, so that it comes to real knowledge of God and of itself. Then the “repulsive mask” is transformed into a face, the persona into person, in the image of the true and eternal face and person of Christ the God/Man.
Post-Modern People and their Persona
However much times change politically, culturally and socially, people remain essentially the same, the image of God indelible and tarnished within them. After the fall of Adam and Eve, sin and the passions of evil, whatever they may be- sensuality, lasciviousness, vanity, pride, hatred, malice, anger, temper, condemnation, avarice, greed, hypocrisy- are either fought against or allowed to dominate, depending on whether people are aware of the struggle and resist or are seduced by them, pander to them and foster them. Never at any time, however, has there been such social acceptance and legitimization of sin as in our own day.
Perhaps the most important reversal of past conditions is the emergence of the individual. For perhaps the first time in history, individuals have acquired their own value, their own right to existence and their own autonomy. For the first time, they have achieved such a measure of significance and importance that they are held to be superior to the community, the totality, collective cultural and inherited institutions and values and, of course, to the Church. There are many who claim we are living in a post-modern era, which, apart from the autonomy of the individual inherited from modernism, is characterized by fragmentation, saturation, relativism, irrationality, anti-sociability, and the pessimistic desire for the end of history and of the world. The fundamental slogan of modernism was Nietzsche’s classic “God is dead”. Even though we may observe a “return to God” in this post-modern era, a reappearance and resuscitation of religious sentiment, the slogans “you’ve got to enjoy” and “everything’s permissible” are the ones which predominate and hold sway. As presented today, through philosophically, politically, socially and religiously syncretist systems, people are no more than biological units. The model in the post-modern day and age is the star, the actor, whereas in the modern era it was the scientist, and in traditional times, the saint. The centre of subjective gravity in traditional times was the soul, in the modern era reason, and today the body. Today, the post-modern person wants to acquire information, the modernist wanted knowledge and the traditionalist wisdom.
People today, self-validating, vain, hermetically sealed within their egos, hedonists and pessimists, are the ones shaping our globalized bioethics, which express the unethical moral diversity of the times. Despite their sharpness of mind, they do not know what a person is, they haven’t exploited their real potential which far exceeds the bounds of life on earth, and have not discovered the eternal dimensions which ontologically belong to us humans. So from these brief comparisons, we can see that people today have regressed, they underestimate the quality and meaning of their lives. In other words, people today have acquired a deeply hostile mask and persona. A mighty struggle is required to rid ourselves of this mask, to transform it into a human face.
Even though Orthodox Christians are “strangers and pilgrims” in this world, even though their “commonwealth is in heaven”, they still love in the world, within history. They cannot deride what is happening in the political, social, cultural spheres, on the world stage, because all this affects their lives. In our view, people today, who are enslaved to the passions and disorientated as regards the meaning of life, have a greater need than ever before of liberation from this unnatural, aberrant, impassioned state.
The accentuation of the person in the hesychastic ascetic tradition
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 tranquillity”, which Saint Gregory Palamas refers to as the “art of arts”. This manner of living tranquillity 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 centre 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.
People need to get rid of the persona with the mask of the passions and become persons with a human face. Purifying the heart of the passions needs to become their number one priority in life. In this struggle, they should not attempt to conform to an externally moral life but should carry out the fight in a Christ-centred manner, with their thoughts fixed on Him. Grafted on to the Body of Christ, which is the Church, particularly through the sacraments of Baptism, Confession and the Divine Liturgy, people become an ecclesiological hypostasis – though not yet a person actively- and with all their volition begin the task of repentance. Saint Gregory Palamas makes the point that the preparation and beginning of repentance is self-reproach, confession and avoidance of evil. For repentance to be complete, all three have to be observed together. If people pray with contrition and self-reproach before God and promise to refrain from sin, but do not go to the sacrament of confession, their repentance, their struggle is not valid. Saint Gregory points out that: “Those who sin before God, even if thereafter they refrain from sin, even if they equal it with works of repentance, cannot feel forgiveness for themselves unless they go to a person who has from God the authority to loose transgressions, and receive from him the assurance of pardon”. In this way, they conduct the “legitimate struggle” and take care not to foster the passions by active sin or by giving in to wicked thoughts, because the passions are an unnatural movement of the soul. When the powers of the soul, i.e. desire, emotion and reason, do not function normally, but work unnaturally, then the corresponding passions flourish. Purification from the passions is achieved by the corresponding exercise of the virtues and, according to Palamas, the cure begins with desire. So we place restraint on desire rather than give in to self-indulgence and greed, we apply love to emotion instead of malice and irascibility, and vigilance and prayer to reason in the place of heedlessness and ignorance.
Purification of the passions through prayer of the heart
The faithful nourish their faculty of reason with the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”. When the name of Christ revolves in the nous of the faithful, it provides divine enlightenment, so that they can discern the thoughts that instigate active sin and then they are able to slay them at birth, i.e. before they assume a provocative image. And when the passions are not activated, they gradually die off, with the assistance of divine Grace, or rather are transformed as Palamas explains. When this necrosis/metamorphosis of the passions begins, they enter into contemplation and there, at “the throne of Grace, the heart” they discover another energy within it, that of direct cognition.Then there occurs the union of the nous and the heart. Our nous is perhaps the most fundamental theme of ascetic anthropology and the one most difficult to discern for those who are not spiritual, those who are earthly. Many of the Fathers have given descriptions of the nous. By and large they regard it as a power or eye of the soul. Palamas, however, defines the nous and its functions in a unique, revelatory and precise manner. He considers the nous a self-sustaining and supremely active substance. It falls short of its proper function and loses its value when it is restricted to the intellect, which is activated in an earthly spirit which has its seat in the brain. Our nous has substance and energy. The energy of direct cognition which is dissipated outwards through the feelings and mixed up on the inside with reason must return to the substance of the nous, which has its seat in the heart, to the first, bodily, calculating organ. And this return is effected through prayer.
If Christians persevere, through repentance, in this state of prayer, God sends them the gift of prayer of the heart. When the nous finds the heart and dwells there as in a comfortable locus of prayer, then we can say that the person is praying directly, from the heart, purely- the terms are identical. When prayer in the heart is activated by the energy of direct cognition, then we can talk of unceasing prayer, then we can apply the command of Paul to “pray unceasingly”. People who have the gift of unceasing prayer are able to say the prayer of the heart, the recollection of Jesus within the heart, while at the same time going about their business with others, working, studying and, in general, pursuing an externally ordinary, natural life. And this can also be achieved in “the world”. The discovery of this energy of direct cognition indicates empirical communication with God. This energy is the umbilical cord by which the faithful are attached to Grace and are nourished spiritually.
With the perceptible energy of the prayer of the heart, tranquillity is experienced with clarity, and people begin to live their liberation from the passions of evil; and this is real freedom. Recollection of God fosters and increases divine longing and love for one’s neighbour, because, as Palamas stresses in his homilies, love of others is the result of love of God. Real introspection leads to and cultivates humble and loving social relations. In the state of permanent and perfect enlightenment- i.e. the greatest possible absorption of the gift of Grace, which comes after an extensive period of withdrawal or removal, in accordance with God’s providence in schooling us – all our spiritual and bodily powers acquire their natural function, as in God’s scheme of things.
Such people experience Grace as light, as a gentle flame within their hearts. Wonderful peace and sweetness reign in their souls and bodies. The fact that “the body somehow takes on the Grace active in the nous” and that the energies of soul and body are common are central positions in the teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas, who rejected Neo-Platonizing anthropology and epistemology, as expressed by Barlaam. The uncreated light, which they still do not see, gives them amazing knowledge, irrefutable and certain, and their intellect is often held hostage to wonderful “visions”, i.e. revelations of God’s supernatural mysteries. The enlightenment of the nous is not the result of study or instruction, but of personal participation in the uncreated knowledge of God.
Those engaged in the struggle, continuing in repentance and dependent on the pure Jesus prayer, fashion their hearts so that they become receptors of the vision of the uncreated Light, “the power of the divine Spirit… to the cessation of all intellectual activity”, where “they contemplate the glory of [their] holy nature, at a time when God deems them worthy of admittance into spiritual mysteries”, as Palamas puts it, rather than when they themselves want. With the vision of the uncreated light, Christians actually experience deification, the direct vision of God. There is no end to this vision, however, but rather continuous progress. This is why “a coruscation is one thing, but the abiding vision of light is another”. Deification, or glorification, is beyond the conception of the human intellect, according to Saint Gregory Palamas. It cannot be explained logically and is ineffable even for those who experience it. It is not merely the unmingled essence of God which remains beyond conception, but also the uncreated energies, even if people have in some sense participated in them.
The necessity of the ascetic struggle for those who live in the world
It is worth mentioning here some of the exhortations of this great beacon of Orthodoxy, taken from two homilies on the feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. “We must believe, as we have been taught by those who have been enlightened by God and who have experience of these matters …Believing their teaching, therefore, let us go forward toward the brilliance of that light”. Here, it is obvious that he is telling us to progress towards that Light, that is the vision of the uncreated Light, which is “the effulgence, in which God communes with those who are worthy”. This vision, which consists of the experience of Divine Grace, is not a luxury in our lives, it is the purpose of our existence. If we exhaust our powers on the lower levels of the spiritual life, where we achieve a relationship with God that it is no more than intellectual, then this is no more than moralism and intellectualism. And Palamas continues: “When we love the beauty of unblemished glory, then we will cleanse the eyes of our souls of earthly thoughts, spurning everything pleasant and beautiful that is not permanent”. “We will cast off our garments of skin, that is our earthly and carnal way of thinking, and we will stand on holy ground, which is the struggle for virtue and directing our gaze towards God. When we have such assurance, the Light of God migrates towards us and we are illumined and become immortal in the glory and lambency of the triple sun of the Divinity”. On the other hand, if we continue down the wide road, however, sweet and attractive it seems at first, it brings eternal pain, because it clothes the soul with the ugly garment of sin”. And unless we have the garment of divine glory, we shall not be able to enter the “heavenly wedding”, but will, instead, be led to “that fire and outer darkness”.
It is important and worth noting that these exhortations to cast off earthly thoughts, to cleanse the heart and to make our way towards God were not expressed by Saint Gregory to a gathering of monastics, but to his flock in Thessaloniki, to married and single people, and are an indication that this is the road we must all follow in order to arrive “by feeling and beyond feeling (at that divine Light which is) ineffable, unapproachable, immaterial, uncreated, deifying, eternal, the brilliance of the divine nature, the glory of the Divinity, the exquisiteness of the heavenly kingdom”.
Also related to what we have already mentioned is an incident from the life of Saint Gregory Palamas. When he was a the Skete of Verria, the saint had a very interesting conversation with a virtuous ascetic, Job, concerning the practice of the prayer of the heart by those who were living in the world. The saint urged all Christians to say the prayer while Job was of a different mind, until an angel of the Lord appeared to him and confirmed Gregory’s teaching as being inspired by God and indispensable for the Pastoral theology of the Church.
Deification, the aim of human existence
According to the Fathers, deification, or glorification, is not a moral event, but an ontological state. The created human nature is united, “kneaded”, with the Triune God, through the created energies, but not in essence. “Deification was, from the start, the innermost desire of human existence. When Adam tried to embezzle it by breaking God’s commandment, he failed and, instead of his aspiration found decay and death. But God’s love, though the incarnation of His Son, gave us the potential for deification again”.
People who do not conform to the hesychastic teaching of Saint Gregory Palamas, which expresses the genuine spiritual experience within Orthodoxy, the way to find the person, demonstrate that they do not have an Orthodox ecclesiastical outlook. Hesychasm is action, not inertia. It is an internal spiritual state. At the beginning, it requires a fierce struggle against the passions, but then a proper spiritual structure and unity in Christ are achieved in the realm of the heart, whence emerges the person, the hypostasis. People then acquire hypostatic prayer, prayer for the salvation of the whole world, they live in unity and love towards all others and towards God, within a “real tranquillity”, which, for Palamas, is “perfection beyond perfection”. In the final stage of deification, which is “beyond understanding and beyond words”, they enjoy, they participate in divine beatitude, in rest and respite.
People today have made their lives such that there’s no time for prayer “to be still and know God”. With modern means of communication and transport, we can be in direct contact with lots of people, and in a shorter time than ever before. We know and are in touch with so many people, but, in the end, we do not know ourselves. This disappointment, this existential void, this loneliness that people of our time feel is due, for the most part, to the fact that we don’t know how to pray, we don’t devote time to prayer during the day or night. Our being is expanded through prayer and we embrace the whole world. Prayer is missing from the world, which is why it is in such a sorry state.
The value of the human person
Although people are created and finite, they can communicate with the uncreated and infinite God through prayer. Created people, through the uncreated energies of God, are able to acquire the uncreated, divine life, to become what God is, by Grace, though not identical in essence. This unity, this personal relationship with God can be achieved by every human person, because, hypostatically, in the person of Christ, perfect divine nature has been united with perfect human nature, indivisible and unconfused. So we see, as the blessed Elder Sophrony said, that God treats people not as objects or subjects but as a fact, as a person, because between God and us there is an existential symmetricity. We can become persons, because we have been created in the image of the Divine Word, Christ, who is a Person. Only when we know and are united with the Triune God empirically can we become persons and cast off our “ugly masks”. The Church, as a charismatic state, is a communion of real and eternal persons.
Empirical theology points out and preserves the way to find the real person, which is something that academic theology cannot do. Lots of people talk today about the person, but in an intellectualized, philosophical/religious and academic manner which at best results in an alteration of the “repulsive mask” into an “intellectual one” or a “personalization” of the modern individual into one with an Orthodox theological outer garment, but certainly not into a person. Without an ascetic struggle, with theoretical training alone, the Orthodox spiritual life cannot be achieved, the person cannot emerge. As Saint Paul says: “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who observe the law who will be justified”. The Fathers emphasize the fact that real contemplation comes as a reward of real practice, “the practice of contemplation is an entrance”, not the other way round. This is what the blessed Elder Efraim from Katounakia used to say: prayer comes from obedience, and theology comes from prayer. Contemporary blessed charismatic Elders, such as Elder Sophrony, Elder Païsios, Elder Porfyrios, Elder Efraim from Katounakia, Elder Iakovos Tsalikis, Elder Simon Arvanitis and Elder Amvrosios are the most tangible examples of real, eternal persons.
The secularization which threatens the Church, the religification of Orthodoxy through external, moralistic, Puritanical forms on the one side, and intellectualized models and unsound cerebral structures on the other are phenomena of our post-modern age- post-Christian according to many. They can be combated only with empirical theology, real communion with the Uncreated, and the discovery of the true person. Theology, the teaching on the person, is a unique and exclusive phenomenon which can be experienced only within the Orthodox Tradition, not in philosophy, psychology nor even in the other Christian confessions.