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EXPLORATIONS IN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
By: The Reverend Hieromonk Myrella (LeClair)
What is Orthodox Christian Spirituality? What are the essential foundations of Orthodox Christian Spirituality? How do I live a life attuned to God? These are just a few of the questions that will be addressed on this page as we travel the spiritual pathway toward living life in communion with God.
“How Orthodox Spirituality Developed”
Before defining the essential foundations of Orthodox Spirituality, we need to understand what factors influenced its development. In this writing, the fourth through the six major influences will be addressed and thus completes this topic.
4. Monastic Element:
This element refers to the type of monasticism practiced by the “Desert Fathers” in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine – that is, a separation from and renunciation of the world. Around 270, Anthony of Egypt, the founder of Orthodox monasticism, gave away his possessions and went to live in the desert. Anthony and the other desert fathers believed that they were “called into the wilderness” and like the prophet Anna, they “served God with fastings and prayers night and day”(Luke 2.37).
Anthony’s type of monasticism was austere. These early monks were known as “ascetics”, who considered “apatheia” a goal. “Apatheia” referred to achieving a “state of soul in which love towards God and men is so ruling and burning as to leave no room for human (self-centered) passions”.
Certain types of simple prayer (now known as “prayer of the heart”), the contemplative lifestyle, and the idea of the spiritual father (spiritual director) were the fruits of early monasticism.
5. Liturgical Element:
The Divine Liturgy is the center of Orthodox Christian life and spirituality. “The Orthodox celebrate this Mystery of the Kingdom of God, the Divine Liturgy on each Lord’s Day as well as on feasts and special occasions. It is the living experience of what all Christianity, and indeed all of life, is really about.”
The Church calendar divides the year into stages of Christ’s life on earth. Orthodox rites have a scriptural origin such as the breaking of the bread, baptism with water, and anointing with oil. Other liturgical aspects include the veneration of icons and the veneration of saints.
6. Contemplative Element:
Contemplation evolved within the Orthodox Church into a spiritual discipline known as “hesychasm” (from the Greek word for stillness or tranquility.) Hesychasm has its roots in the fourth and fifth centuries when the hermit monks (“desert fathers and mothers”) practiced “contemplation and self-discipline as they studied the New Testament and Psalter”. The purpose of this discipline was to conquer the passions and to gain inner peace and spiritual insight.
From the 10th to the 14th centuries, hesychasm evolved into the practice of seeking “divine quietness through the contemplation of God in uninterrupted prayer” (prayer of the heart – or the “Jesus Prayer”). Hesychasts synchronized their breathing with the saying of the prayer. They did this so that both the body and the soul were united in prayer. Their goal was the ‘acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (the Divine Light) or union with God.
During the 14th century, hesychasm came under attack as being heretical, and St. Gregory Palamas successfully defended hesychastic spirituality. In that defense, “Palamas distinguished between the unchanging essence of God and His uncreative energies: ‘The Taboric Light (the light that surrounded Christ in Transfiguration) . . . was a manifestation of God through His uncreated energies.'” Palamas’ theological exposition on hesychasm became the official doctrine of the Orthodox Church.