Mysticism in the Eastern Church

 

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I listened to a talk on Esoteric and Exoteric Christianity, and noticed that the speaker left out the theology and mystics from the Eastern Church.

Books on Christian mysticism sometimes do the same. We have to put a boundary somewhere of course, but leaving out the Eastern Church is unfortunate since they have a rich and fertile mystical tradition.

(There is a similar lack of truth in advertising in many other areas, of course, although it is also changing with a wider cross-cultural embrace and/or more accurate titles.)

Still, this has encouraged me to explore mysticism in the Eastern Church further. In the first few years of my initial awakening, I found a deep resonance with Orthodox traditions and practices, and practiced the heart prayer regularly (until it became an ongoing prayer). I also noticed how mysticism seems a far more integral part of mainstream theology in the Eastern Church compared with the Catholic (although it is there) and Protestant (less obvious).

Here is a quote from Theology and Mysticism in the Tradition of the Eastern Church by Vladimir Lossky:

Yet spirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked in the life of the Church. As regards the Eastern Church, we have already remarked that she makes no sharp distinction between theology and mysticism, between the realm of the common faith and that of personal experience. Thus, if we would speak of mystical theology in the eastern tradition we cannot do otherwise than consider it within the dogmatic setting of the Orthodox Church. [….]

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology; between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the Church. The following words spoken a century ago by a great Orthodox theologian, the Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, express this attitude perfectly: ‘none of the mysteries of the most secret wisdom of God ought to appear alien or altogether transcendent to us, but in all humility we must apply our spirit to the contemplation of divine things’. To put it in another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which can be experienced by everyone. 

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Initial outline….

  • orthodox church, theology/mysticism not separate
    • read/hear about Christian mysticism, often emphasis on mystics from western Europe (Catholic + Protestant)
      • similar to when “world” history or “art history” means only the history or art history of western europe
    • odd, since info easily available these days (There is of course a tradition to be myoptic about these things, but no need to continue with it)
    • (read “Path of the Pilgrim” a couple of years into initial awakening, and saw how matched own experience)

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From Roots of Christian Mysticism: Eastern Orthodox Tradition: [PDF file.]

In The Mystical Theology of Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky writes:

The eastern tradition has never made a sharp distinction between mysticism and theology;
between personal experience of the divine mysteries and the dogma affirmed by the
Church. The following words spoken a century ago by a great Orthodox theologian, the
Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, express this attitude perfectly: ’none of the mysteries of
the most secret wisdom of God ought to appear alien or altogether transcendent to us, but
in all humility we must apply our spirit to the contemplation of divine things’.[1] To put it
in another way, we must live the dogma expressing a revealed truth, which appears to us
as an unfathomable mystery, in such a fashion that instead of assimilating the mystery to
our mode of understanding, we should, on the contrary, look for a profound change, an
inner transformation of spirit, enabling us to experience it mystically. Far from being
mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is
impossible without the other. If the mystical experience is a personal working out of the
content of the common faith, theology is an expression, for the profit of all, of that which
can be experienced by everyone.

[S]pirituality and dogma, mysticism and theology, are inseparably linked in the life of
the Church. As regards the Eastern Church, we have already remarked that she makes no
sharp distinction between theology and mysticism, between the realm of the common
faith and that of personal experience. Thus, if we would speak of mystical theology in the
eastern tradition we cannot do otherwise than consider it within the dogmatic setting of
the Orthodox Church.

(Excerpted from The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (London: James Clarke & Co., LTD, 1957), pp.7-22;
http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/general/lossky_intro.aspx)

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Draft….

I listened to a talk Joel gave on Esoteric and Exoteric Christianity, and noticed that he only referred to Catholic and Protestant mystics, leaving out the Orthodox.

When I look at books on Christian mysticism, I often find the same. And it reminds me of older books on world history mainly or only addressing the history of Western Europe, my disappointment when my full-year art history class only included the art history of Western Europe, the philosophy podcast from NRK that only refers to the philosophy of Western Europe even when addressing topics where Buddhism and other traditions have much to offer, and reading psychology articles where practical and effective approaches from outside of western psychology is left out – even if only a possible fertile ground for future studies and research.

There is of course a tradition to be myopic about these things. After all, for the early historians and philosophers in Europe, their own history was what they had access to, and during the cold war, there was perhaps an incentive to leave out – for instance – the art of Eastern Europe.

We have no such excuses today when information is so readily available, and experts in non-European history, art, religion and psychology are easily found.

This is of course an old argument, and there is often a wider embrace these day, but it did encourage me to look more into mysticism in Orthodox Christianity. A couple of years into my initial awakening, I started exploring the writings and practices of Orthodox Christianity and found more resonance there than with any other tradition. Still do, in many ways. I remember the joy of recognition when I read The Way of a Pilgrim.

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This is of course a common pattern. Eastern Europe is sometimes left out of accounts of European art, history, philosophy and religion. And the rest of the world is often left out when Europeans and North-Americans talk about history, philosophy, religion, psychology and other topics, even when the rest of the world has important contributions and insights.

Fortunately, there is often a wider embrace these days. There is more awareness of the gold left out from a more narrow approach, information is readily available, and experts in non-European traditions are easily found.

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(There is a similar lack of truth in advertising when a class in European art history leaves out the art of eastern Europe. I wonder how much this has to do with the cold war and habits established back then? It certainly seems to play a role when current accounts of the resistance movement in Norway leaves out or de-emphasize the role of the communist resistance, or accounts of WWII de-emphasize the vital role and huge sacrifices of the Soviet Union. And when the rich traditions of the Eastern Church is left out, it is similar to when rich non-Eurpean traditions are left out of general explorations into philosophy or psychology.)

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