Orthodox Survival Course
St. Irene Orthodox Church
Class 3 – A.D. 313 – 1054, The Church of the Romans: Topic 1, Prayer and the Spiritual Life
Adam sat before Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept: ‘Woe is me! By evil persuasion I have been deceived and led astray, and am now exiled from glory. Woe is me! lacking noetic acuity I am now naked, and in need. O Paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in thy joys; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth from whence I was taken. O merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry unto Thee: Have mercy upon me who hath fallen.’ – Lenten Triodion (Rev. S. Boulter trans.), Vespers of Cheesefare Sunday, Doxastikon of “Lord I have cried…”
So then the end indeed which we have set before us is, as the Apostle says, eternal life, as he declares, having indeed your fruit unto holiness, and the end eternal life; (Romans 6:22), but the immediate goal is purity of heart, which he not unfairly terms sanctification, without which the afore-mentioned end cannot be gained; as if he had said in other words, having your immediate goal in purity of heart, but the end life eternal. – S. John Cassian, Conferences, 1st Conference of Abba Moses, Chapter 5, from “The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,” (Schaff ed., Eerdmans) Series Two, Volume XI.
He who was born blind does not see the light of the sun; so he who does not live in sobriety will not see in its richness the brightness of grace which comes from above. Neither will he be freed from evil deeds and words and thoughts which are hateful to God; and not being freed from them, when he departs, he will not pass unhindered by the rulers of Hell (whom he must meet). – S. Hesychius of Jerusalem (+432), Fourth Text on Sobriety and Prayer, p. 280, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (Kadloubovsky and Palmer trans., Faber and Faber 1951)
These holy Fathers were of the Christian Church of the first millennium, and their teachings, instructions, and help are accessible only in the light of genuine, primordial Christianity, devoid of any human considerations, additions, and alternations, in its integrity and purity of the times of the holy Apostles. – A monk of Mt. Athos, Foreward to Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (Kadloubovsky and Palmer trans., Faber and Faber 1951)
Introduction: Our goal tonight is to summarize briefly the fundamentals of prayer and the spiritual life as taught by the Fathers of the first millennium, which, as we will see later on is exactly the same teaching as the Orthodox Fathers of the second millennium, but which were distorted by the teachers of the Western confessions after the time of the schism, when there arose countless competing “spiritualities.” This fragmentation of spiritual life led to fragmentation of every aspect of life, culminating in the spiritual, intellectual, and civilizational chaos we see today.
One question a secular student might ask is, “Why are you talking about prayer and spiritual life? That is a matter of individual choice. I thought this was a history course?” Our answer is that this question reveals a bias, that history is merely an external process unrelated to the interior life. One of the basic principles of our Orthodox philosophy of history, however, of our “meta-history,” is that the externals of life, of culture, of civilization, flow from the spiritual life. They are by-products of spiritual processes which did not have them as their primary or final aim. Even a purely materialistic civilization is realizing the outcome of its spiritual assumptions.
I. The Peace of the Church and the Rise of Monasticism
With the Triumph of Christianity, the Peace of the Church, came a great opportunity but also a great temptation. The great opportunity was to convert the masses, and the great temptation was to convert the Apostolic Faith – which, as we said in our Class 1, is fundamentally eschatological, other-worldly, martyric, and ascetic – into just another mass religion to satisfy worldly aspirations, just another cultic system to placate the gods to guarantee earthly prosperity.
The Holy Fathers of this time – as we see notably expressed in the catechetical writings of St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril of Jerusalem – expended enormous efforts in developing the catechumenate and teaching the faithful constantly about the meaning of their baptism, but inevitably fallen human considerations – economic, political, social, etc. – crept in and dulled the edge of the zeal which had so characterized the early Church. So while the Church’s outward splendor and organization grew, the spiritual zeal of the Christians was threatened. This gave rise to the great anachoresis of the ascetics during the late Antique and early Byzantine/Medieval periods, which we will date conventionally from the life of S. Antony the Great, +350.
The Life of Antony by St. Athanasius the Great was the first great vita of an ascetic saint who was not a martyr. Its publication and enormous circulation coincided with the explosion of organized monastic life in the fourth century. There had always been virgins and ascetics in the Church – because, after all, the Church is fundamentally ascetic – but the Peace of the Church gave both the impetus and the means to organize monastic life on a vast scale and to produce an enormous monastic literature.
This flowering of monastic literature coincided with the flowering of patristic theology which was the result of the confessional struggles of the period of the Ecumenical Councils. Whereas a “modern” or “Western” scholar sees these two type of literature as separate, having separate interests, the Orthodox Fathers did not separate theology from spiritual life. A true confession of faith is the necessary foundation of spiritual life, and undeceived prayer – the authentic encounter with God – is the fountainhead of undeceived theology.
The entire culture that came to be called “Byzantine” (or more accurately, simply integral Christian culture properly speaking), had its creative source in every aspect – both ecclesiastical and secular – in this specific type of spiritual life and its concomitant theology. When you read the “information,” the “data” about this period, in order to understand the people who formed this society and culture, you have to keep this in mind. They experienced it and saw it no other way.
The so-called “monastic” literature and “monastic” outlook, then, is none other than the expression of the primordial Faith of the early Church. It is agreed by most observers, including the non-Orthodox and non-Christian, that the first millennium Church was dominated by this outlook. But seen from the Orthodox point of view, this is not a “stage” in the “evolutionary development” of the Church, but simply the way the Church is.
II. Spiritual Life and the Drama of History
So this great drama of history we spoke of in our Intro Class and Class One, continues in the life of the Church. Though in a sense history “ended” with the Resurrection, which inaugurates the Kingdom of God, yet in a sense it continues in this “now but not yet,” “betwixt and between” period when we are waiting for the Lord to return. Though Satan is defeated, yet he can still capture souls until he is finally cast into hell at the end of the world. The spiritual life is the inner process by which baptized souls defeat Satan and re-attain the Paradise lost by our First Parents.
So in examining the spiritual life, we go back to the beginning of earthly history, Paradise, and the Fall of our First Parents. To understand our soul’s functioning, we re-learn the meaning of the Fall and the origin of the passions, which separate us from God and from our own spiritual health, from life itself. By Baptism, we receive the power of the Resurrection to overcome sin, death, the devil, and hell, by Chrismation we receive the power of the Spirit to overcome the consequences of our passions and sins and grow in holiness, and in the Divine Eucharist we receive the indwelling presence of the Eternal King and a foretaste of the Eternal Kingdom. Our mysteriological and spiritual journey, then, recapitulates the drama of salvation history – we advance from the Fall to the hope of eternal life, to the final triumph of Christ at the hour of our death and the hour of His Second Coming and Dread Judgement. Thus the Orthodox Christian views his spiritual life in the framework of history, and he views history through the prism of his own spiritual life. This perfectly integrated view of our outward and inner life avoids the materialist determination of evolutionism on the one hand and the morally void escapism of a falsely “spiritual” gnosticism on the other hand.
[One example of this connection between our inner and outer history is the apolytikion of the Holy Cross, which we are chanting daily now (September 2017) during the Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. The original, of course, says, “…grant victories to the kings over the barbarians…” The original in the Russian Church, before the Bolshevik Revolution, read “…grant victories to our sovereign (name) over his adversaries…” Unfortunately, this has been altered in some modern translations to the more generic “…grant victories to the Orthodox Christians (or Orthodox hierarchs)…etc.” But this practice ignores the patristic view that the “king” and the “barbarians” also have a mystical meaning: the “king” is our spiritual intellect, the nous, purified and reigning over our organism, and the “barbarians” or “adversaries” are the passions and demons. (It also eliminates the effect of the troparion as a reminder of our actual history and a prayer for the restoration of the Orthodox monarchy). ]
III. The Foundations of Authentic Spiritual Striving
This, of course, is a vast subject. Here we can only summarize:
A. Man: Man is fallen in all of his faculties, including both the dianetic and noetic intellect. Apart from the grace that comes from Faith and Baptism, he cannot overcome his fallenness and be saved and sanctified. Upon receiving grace, he must struggle by the power of grace to overcome his sins and passions, and re-attain Paradise. Before baptism, demons dwell in men and God knocks on the outside of their hearts; after baptism, God dwells within and the demons attack from the outside. Man is constituted of body and soul, and the highest faculty of the soul is the nous, or spiritual intellect, which was mortified by sin but is resurrected in baptism.
B. God: God is the Holy Trinity, Who is experienced directly in His uncreated energies through faith, the Holy Mysteries, and prayer. He “knocks on the door” of man’s heart before Baptism, and He comes to dwell in the heart after Baptism. The entire struggle of spiritual life, then, can be said to attain purity of heart, through which God continues to dwell in the soul and the baptismal grace remains energized rather than dormant, and the demons remain outside. This purity of heart is gained through the struggle for noetic attention.
C. The Life of Prayer: Spiritual life may be called also the life of prayer. As St. Theophan the Recluse famously says, “When prayer is right, everything goes right, for prayer will let nothing go wrong.” The entire struggle against sin, and therefore the main arena of the drama of history, is the struggle to destroy sinful thoughts in their first appearance (prosvoli or prilog), or, as often as necessary, to fight against sins of thought committed when this first provocation is not resisted. The inner man, then, is the chief arena of historical processes, the Orthodox Church is where victorious struggle can take place, and the monastery is the citadel of the Orthodox Church, in which the ultimate citadel of the heart is protected most strongly.
D. Delusion: Delusion occurs either through ignorance and heresy, which are forms of outward delusion, or through a person with Orthodox belief accepting false thoughts from within – inner delusion. Delusion occurs when movements of the blood – emotional excitement – accompanied by the misuse of the imagination and intellect – lead to accepting the suggestions of demons or fallen nature or the world (usually some mixture of the three). Either inner or outer delusion, if uncorrected, lead to perdition.
E. The Method of Prayer: The un-deluded method of prayer is the simple struggle for attention to the words of Scripture, the Church services, or “private” prayer. The best method to avoid delusion is to repeat a short verse or prayer constantly, with a struggle for attention. The most popular form of this prayer is the Jesus Prayer. Outside of this method, various uses of the imagination and discursive intellect almost invariably lead to delusion. Delusion leads to fragmentation of soul, then outward fragmentation of life. This leads to fragmentation of family, church, community, nation, and civilization as a whole. Thus the origin of our present civilizational crisis can be traced to spiritual delusion, both in the form of heresy and in the form of incorrect spiritual life.
You can listen to an audio recording of this class at