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Basil Tatakis

Mystical Theology

From: "Byzantine Philosophy". Translated, with Introduction, by Nicholas J. Moutafakis - Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis/ Cambridge

Part 2

As we see, Byzantine spirituality, an offspring of popular asceticism (which itself stemmed from Cynicism), was able to rediscover within Christian thought, by means of the contemplative life, the ancient Platonic theme of Phaedo: the sanctification of the soul by the purification of the passions, a cleansing that unites with the contemplation of God. To this condition Byzantine spirituality gave a totally mystical dimension. The spirit does not reason, it sees. All that saints or Scripture say about God is not conceptualization but contemplation of real being. Conception is an unstated premise, spawned by intelligence for that which has yet to be realized; it is the beginning of a thing, which we ourselves will bring forth, whereas narration is the narration of contemplation. Consequently, whatever we are told about God has to have been seen and not simply heard. Symeon asks, How is it possible for one to know someone whom one has not seen (25)? The following passage again shows how much Symeon's inspiration is simultaneously related to, yet distant from, Platonic idealism. Here is how he describes the kingdom of heaven: "Ι saw God enthroned upon us as on a chariot, holding in His hands the aspirations of our souls as if they were the reins of horses, and, finding us docile, He brought us to where He desired, driving our aspirations as if they were obedient steeds, because we promptly obey His commandments and laws. This is the way God rules "(26).The basic autonomy of intelligence that dominates Plato's Phaedo and of which Symeon reminds us is here replaced by a total obedience to God. That God is light and fills the human soul with light explains the mysticism of Byzantine spirituality and its insistence upon complete obedience. In the end, the light is a gift that is given to man from the outside.

According to Symeon, the divine light continues its life within the Church, as in the times of the apostles. This fully optimistic faith in the actual life of the Holy Spirit within the Church itself, the light that is immediately ready to illumine whoever searches for it, the sustaining source of mystical life, which individualizes and interiorizes human perfection, distinguishes Byzantine spirituality from Catholicism. It is the point Niketas Stethatos specifically employs at the outset of his polemic against the Catholic Church. We must underscore that Symeon's disposition is profoundly Hesychastic, since he holds that man's salvation is not the fruit of his own actions but results from the contemplation of the divine light. The more the true monk progresses to this view, the poorer he believes himself to be. This is not only because the contemplative task is without end but also because if he nears what he believes to be the end, this means to him that he has hardly yet begun. "The monk," says Symeon, "is he who is not ensnared in this world and who speaks only to God. In seeing he is seen, in loving he is loved, being illuminated in an ineffable manner. When he is glorified, he is totally poor, and when he enters into intimacy with God, he becomes a stranger to himself. Oh miracle, both strange and [wondrously] ineffable! For these infinite riches Ι cause myself to be destitute, for Ι believe Ι have nothing when Ι have everything, and Ι say Ι thirst because of an abundance of water" (27).

The preceding does not allow us to see in Symeon (as has been mistakenly thought) the inventor of a marvellous method, which infallibly leads to the contemplation of the sublime. It is the Hesitates themselves who would advance the idea of this infallible approach. Symeon himself did not invent anything. From his spiritual father he received his belief in the possibility of seeing the divine light. His originality rests in the marvellous and profound manner with which he presented the fruits of his visions. Aided by his poetic ability, as well as by his rare talent for penetrating to the sublimity of the themes he was treating, he was able to express religious thought and life in a new way. He was the first to make the vision of light the foundation of the life of his soul and spirit, the first who showed the total transformation that this vision (like birth within light) brought to man, and the first who displayed a new meaning of life for the man who had had this vision. Divine illumination is not an end in itself for Symeon. It is the grace by which one achieves internal rejuvenation. "If in our life we are enabled to see Jesus, we will not die, neither will death ever triumph over us “(28): One is Christian to the extent that he has partaken of its life and light (29). The contemplative life is regarded as the most imperative calling for the soul that seeks perfection. Only the divine is desirable "by nature "(30), but this cannot be known through human science. "Spiritual knowledge," says Symeon, "resembles a house that has been built between Greek and contemporary learning; within this house there is something that resembles a tightly closed box. This box is the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and the unutterable riches of divine grace that can be found enshrined within them. It can be opened only by the commandments and virtues that emanate from them, or more precisely, it can be opened only by Jesus "(31). When Jesus appears to us clearly (γνωστώς), we then know fully the mysteries hidden in the Scriptures (32). All other means of opening the box, such as study and recitation, will only plunge us into deeper error. The contemplative life, while offering the vision of the divine light, also provides the clearest proof of God's existence. The vision, once it is seen, is an indubitable reality; it is the only reality. Whoever refuses to believe this instantly rejects all Scriptures (33), and Christianity has no meaning for him. "There is no other way to know God," Symeon formally declares, "except through the contemplation of the divine light which emanates from him (34). If Jesus is the light and the God of this world and yet we also believed that no one can see him perfectly, who would be more disbelieving than we "(35)? Faith in Jesus, Symeon adds elsewhere, is of itself insufficient to save us, for we must also consciously receive the grace of the Holy Spirit (36). If we are ignorant of the activity of the Holy Spirit in this world, it will remain unrecognized for all eternity, and all religion is in vain (37). "Whoever says that the present generation cannot partake of the Holy Spirit and proceeds to criticize the activity of the Spirit -attributing it to the Enemy- such a person introduces a new heresy into God's Church "(38). On the one hand, the above are sufficient examples of Symeon's logic and audacious temperament. On the other hand, his response to the following basic question: "Since it is absolutely necessary for one to have a spiritual father, and since only truly conscientiously spiritual persons can play this role, what criteria will be used to identify such persons "(39)? Sounds like an instance of the well-known fallacy of begging the question. Be your own spiritual fathers, he says, for then you will surely be able to recognize infallibly spiritual persons by mere encounter and sight.

Symeon established a school and had, among other students, Niketas Stethatos (known to the Latins as Pectoratos), who was born around the year 1000. He entered the monastery of Stoudios and became a writer after a mystical Summons (40). The greater part of his writings, including Concerning Intelligible Paradise, which seems to be the most spiritually interesting work, is still unpublished. Judging by the titles of some of his works, such as Concerning Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, he seems to be closer to Pseudo-Dionysios than to his spiritual father, Symeon. Moreover, he also seems to follow closely Maximos the Confessor, though without having the latter's philosophical depth. On the contrary, Niketas, believing that he was under the constant and steady guidance of the Holy Spirit, glories in his docta ignorantia [naive wisdom]. His spiritual father, and his spiritual father before him, was "unlettered" men, and in spite of this they were authentic theologians. Their understanding must have come from their spirit alone. Science [theology] is either inspired, or else it is no science at all. All understanding that is the fruit of study is pseudolearning. This clearly spiritual and mystical attitude is the most cherished idea of the school of the New Theologian, and it is sharply distinguished from the intellectual and idealistic attitude of Maximos the Confessor. "There is nothing more fervent than virtue," Niketas says, "which can ignite the coals of desire, so that the soul is nothing more than fire itself, giving wings to intelligence, lifting it high above the earth to the heavens, making the whole person God "(41). Virtue here is no more than impassivity, whose three different degrees (separate steps on the road to complete perfection) are systematically presented by Niketas in his Three Principal Capacities (42).These steps are the purgative life, the illumined life, and the mystical life. The first deals with asceticism proper, whose task is to return our faculties to their natural activity. These faculties must be reformed so that they will be receptive only to the most essential impressions of things and will recogrιize only their rationale. In summary, the first stage is man's preparation for dedication; the higher stages are contemplation and theology. Toward this end the soul prepares the following senses: spirit, mind, intellectual sensibility, understanding, and science (43). Without asceticism, the senses of the soul can not become worthy of the higher mission that the further stages have reserved for them. Impassivity, the fruit of asceticism, brings the illumined life along with it when the soul contemplates things and understands their reason. Man next finds himself at the second stage, natural contemplation or practical philosophy. The moment arrives in the soul's progress wherein she leaves behind the rationale of things and, flying upon the wings of perfect impassivity, she rises to God in a sublime rapture, plunging into the dark depths of theology by unspeakable silence. This is the third stage, the mystical theology of the Word wherein the soul contemplates the beauty of Being.

Niketas, as a zealous student, advanced much further than his teacher in prescribing the method of arriving at such perfection. According to him, one begins with asceticism and then progresses to contemplation. There is thus a separation between practice and theory. The two cannot be combined, for theory follows practice. If we suppose further that the first is an inspired science, we once again recognize the extent to which Symeon's school, unlike that of Maximos, rejects science and human reason.

Kallistos Kataphygiotis, author of the ninety-two chapters of Concerning Divine Union and the Contemplative Life (44), is much more directly related to Dionysios than is Stethatos and is therefore also closer to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus (45). He reminds us as well of Elias Ekdikos, with his refined and penetrating argumentation and dialectical vigour. Since we have no chronological data on Kallistos's life, we must confine ourselves to what can be deduced from the content of his own writings. Apart from the Church Fathers -Basil, Dionysios, and Maximos, whom Kallistos rarely mentions- he cites Peter of Damascus, an ascetic writer who is said to have lived around 1158, once (46). Further on, it appears that he refers to Symeon the New Theologian and to his theory of the amorous disposition (αγαπητική διάθεσις) [47]. He also speaks, in the manner of Symeon, of one's ability to foretell the future (48).Nevertheless, words such as θεοείκελον (godliness), δαδουχία (illumination) [49] and other expressions confer upon Kallistos's style an Attic flavour, one which is peculiar to the epoch of the Komnenoi after Peter of Damascus, that is, around the end of the 12th century.

The greatest relationship between God and the soul, says Kallistos, is loving and being loved (50).The first and only condition for the establishment of this mutual love is the conversion of man to the One. Kallistos's ninety-two chapters are so many countless proofs of the necessity of this conversion to the One, of the good, which results from it, and, of the nature of the One itself, three aspects of one basic theme. Though his attitude is mystical, his mode of operation is clearly dialectical; it is governed by the Platonic love of the intelligible, the absolute, the simple, the uncreated, the One. Once this conversion has taken place, the One, the God of gods, does not become actually visible but rather is continuously seen within intelligence, which is now elevated to sublimity (51).For man, the son of God, life is nothing more than the act of intelligence (52). Intelligence, by nature, directs itself only to him who is truly infinite and boundless (53). On the other hand, the movement of every created thing, even that of intelligence, naturally aspires to rest (54). Intelligence can only find its natural resting place in God, who is one and uncircumscribable (55);for by leaving behind its multitude of meditations, Intelligence again returns to the oneness of its nature (56). Does this mean, however, that when intelligence unites with God it loses all its activity?Not at all (57). Leaving behind the divisiveness and confusion of concepts into which its reflection upon created things has led it, intelligence comes to itself and once more discovers itself in the contemplation of the One. The rediscovery of its own nature is the singular joy of the soul and the natural resting place of intelligence. From hence forward, its rest will consist of being moved around the One, which is the Infinite and Eternal. By this activity, intelligence finds truth along with the rediscovery of its nature, which confers upon it real freedom (58) and eternity.

When intelligence unites with the One, it no longer needs speech or reason. An absolute silence falls over it, a silence of the mouth and of reason as well (59).Absolutely bound to truth, it no longer needs to reflect on anything or to pass from one concept to another (in which activity language and reason would be necessary). We revert to reasoning and language when intelligence, because of human inconsistency, descends again from the One to the things of creation. When this happens, to regain the inner silence one must elect quiet (Hesychia) and do all that is possible to avoid speaking, and even reasoning itself (60).This is clearly an allusion to the Hesychastics, toward whom we are coming ever closer. It should be noted that the silence, which is being discussed here, is a total integration of spirit and action, it is, says Κallistos, the supreme state of active intelligence"(61). Language expresses intelligence in a fractured state; it is sunk in the multitude of things. Silence expresses the unity of intelligence, which then so possesses the truth that it feels it cannot say anything further. In this way, truth is ineffable. Is this not a Christian reiteration of the language found in Plato's Seventh Epistle?

In this way the life of intelligence knows two moments. The first, which is the preparatory stage for conversion to the One and to silence, is that of reason and speech; it deals with the passage and the transition from one concept to another. Man at this stage can be an excellent philosopher and theologian, and can speak to us about the existence of both God and things (62). The second moment is the stage of conversion to the One, the stage of theosis, i.e., of silence, when man contemplates the One, the Divine. Man indeed progresses beyond contemplation itself (63); he even surpasses himself and becomes immaterial, becoming God in act but not in substance-since he does not contemplate the substance of God but only God's action. This second stage does not come suddenly or without difficulty; it requires time and prolonged philosophical practice; and it necessitates orderly and gradual mystical contemplation. This is why one must search systematically for the way that will lead from multiplicity to the One (64). The ascent is marked by four steps: intelligence begins by recognizing sensory objects; then it recognizes that these have been created; next, it moves from these to the knowledge of uncreated things; ultimately, it ascends to the One (65).

However, if one asks how the conversion comes about, one would find that Kallistos's answer does not rely very much on the activity of the intelligence.
The conversion itself is caused by the object being contemplated: "When intelligence contemplates the One," he says, "it becomes one, and conversely, when it contemplates the multitude, it becomes diversified "(66). However, since God has implanted in all things some divine rays -akin to contemplative intelligence itself(67)- and given that each thing is nothing else than an effluence and emanating fragrance of the One (68), the practical role of intelligence consists solely in knowing these rays and fragrance, which show the way to the One. Kallistos argues the passive role of intelligence thus: intelligence reaches the contemplation of God in three ways: either alone, by following its own nature -as the Greeks believed; or by the guidance of an exterior source, the divine light; or, finally, by following both of the preceding ways (69). It goes without saying that Kallistos chose the second way (70).

In closing it must be noted that Kallistos, reminiscent of the ancient Greeks, speaks to us of the soul, the image of God and not of man. Just as God is One in three hypostases, in the same way, he says, the soul is one, but tripartite: intelligence, reason, and spirit, all constituting a One in some supernatural manner (71).


25. Ibid., pp. 334-6; Codex Parisinus Coisl., f. 251 v.

26. Dionysios of Zagora, p. 273, Α.

27. Ibid.,p.52,A.

28. Ibid., p. 111, Α.

29. Ibid., p. 52, Α.

30. Ibid., p. 18, Β.

31. Ibid., pp. 249-50, Α.

32. Ibid.

33. PG vol. 120, col. 583; Codex Μonac., p.164.

34. Codex Parisinus Coisl., f. 251v.

35. Ibid., f. 295r.

36. Dionysios of Zagora, p. 2, Α.

37. Codex Reg. Suec., 25, f. 234. [Dr. Benakis proposes the correction for this note to be: Codex Sueco-Vaticanus 25 (s. ΧΙ), f. 234.-Trans.]

38. Dionysios of Zagora, discourse no. 32.

39. Leo Allatius, no. 65, CodexVaticanus Graecus 1436, f. 260-84.

40. Ι. Hausherr, op. cit., p. 198.

41. PG, p. 2, no. 1 (translation by Ι. Hausherr).

42. PG, vol. 120, cols. 851-1010.

43. Ibid., cols. 853-6, discourses VI-XIII. [See also Nicetas Pectoratus, Opuscules et lettres, Jean Α. Α. Darrouzes, ed., Paris, 1961.-Trans.]

44. PG, vοl. 147, cols. 833-841.

45. Ibid., cols. 848Α, 848C, 849Β, and 853C.

46. Ibid., col. 852C.

47. Ibid., col. 860ΑΒ.

48. Ibid., col. 840CD.

49. Ibid., cols. 845Α, 905Β, and 942.

50. Ibid., col. 860ΑΒ.

51. Ibid., col. 892D.

52. Ibid., col. 836Α.

53. Ibid., col. 836Β.

54. Ibid., col. 837C.

55. Ibid., col. 837D.

56. Ibid., col. 837Β.

57. Ibid., col. 884Β.

58. Ibid., col. 844C.

59. Ibid., col. 888C.

60. Ibid., col. 880Β.

61. Ibid., col. 888Α.

62. Ibid., col. 880CD.

63. Ibid., col. 888C.

64. Ibid., col. 869D.

65. Ibid., col. 872. [In this sentence, the French and Modern Greek texts say there are five degrees, whereas the Spanish mentions four, which seems more consistent with the content of the text.-Trans.]

66. Ibid., col. 853C.

67. Ibid., col. 852C.

68. Ibid., col. 853C.

69. Ibid., col. 840C.

70. Ibid., col. 840CD.

71. Ibid., cols. 865C - 868B.

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