When I refer to Orthodox practice, I am not using the term in a general way to describe someone who has a very traditional view of Christian or Jewish practice. Rather I am referring primarily to the Greek Orthodox Church and monastic traditions. But this usage is also too narrow. It is also necessary to include the national churches of other Orthodox nations such as the Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Ukrainian traditions. These national Orthodox churches and monastic cultures were inspired by the Christianity of the eastern Mediterranean which became centered in Constantinople.
Most of us who were educated in an American or Eurocentric world view, when we think of Christianity we think of either the Roman Catholic or Protestant traditions. This certainly was true of me. This is largely because after the year 1054 the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox Church had a big falling out, a nasty centuries old feud with plenty of blame on both sides to be sure. When Constantinople was conquered by the Muslims in 1453, the Greek Orthodox Church receded further from the awareness of many Europeans. Moscow in particular and the Russian Orthodox tradition in general inherited, at least in the minds of many Russians, the leadership of the ancient traditions of the eastern Mediterranean. But Moscow was still a back water, at least in the minds of many Europeans, compared to the centers of western European culture.
Even today, it simply is not known by most Roman Catholics and Protestants, whether conservative or progressive, that The Greek Orthodox tradition was a major center of the Christian faith, at least as important as Rome if not more so, in the first six to seven centuries of the Christian era.
This was due to several facts. First, Jerusalem and the largest early centers of Christianity such as Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt were all in the eastern Mediterranean. Second, the New Testament was written in Greek not Latin. Third, Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in Greece in the early 4th century and so the new seat of the Empire was in Greece not Rome. Fourth, and most importantly, all eight of the ecumenical councils of the Christian church up until the year 869 were all held in Greece or Turkey in cities such as Nicea, Ephesus, Chalcedon and Constantinople. These councils are where the definitions of the Trinity and the dogmas and controversies of the human and divine nature of Jesus were hammered out. It was not until after the split with the Orthodox churches in 1064, in the year 1123, that an ecumenical council was held in Rome. Fifth, the origins of Christian monasticism were in Syria and Egypt. Christian Monasticism only spread to Italy, France, Germany, England and the rest of Western Europe later in the fifth to seventh centuries of the Common Era.
I did not know much of this until a few years ago I picked up a slender volume, “St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality.” This book, along with Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book “The Inner Kingdom”, gave me a good overview of how rich and varied the long history of the Orthodox traditions are.
In fact it is an incredible treasure trove of personalities, doctrines, and practices.
Other books such as “Russian Mystics”, “Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, and “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, and “The Cave and the Light”, opened my eyes further.
Central to the Greek and Russian monastic cultures, and that of other Orthodox churches is the tradition called Hesychastic Prayer. This is also known as “The Prayer of the Heart” or the “Prayer of Silence.” This is a very specific form of devotional prayer for those practicing in the Christian tradition. I have to check my notes for the specifics, but it emerged as a distinctive practice sometime in the 5th to 7th centuries in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Those who are not Christians, please bear with me. There is no reason the essentials of this powerful contemplative practice cannot be adapted to your cultural idioms. Indeed it is interesting how close the parallels are with many Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic and Sufi practices. Still, those not inclined to embrace Christ centered practice can adapt the core practices of Hesychastic prayer to the words, perspectives, and images of their chosen tradition.
Those who are inclined to Christian practice will find all of this a fascinating enhancement to their practice and faith.
More next week.
Are you involved with Greek or Russian Orthodox monastic culture and practice? Do you know of anyone who has an advanced practice with Hesychastic Prayer?
If so I would be delighted to hear from you. Please feel free to email or call.
Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” host of Meditationpractice.com
will at meditation practice dot com (spelled out to limit spam)