By Protopresbyter Fr. John Romanides
The basis of Orthodoxy is the same as the methodology used in the positive sciences, and this fact needs to be properly evaluated and accurately identified. It should become a focus of interest for Orthodox Christians, as it deserves to be.
Why do we have our liturgical tradition? The liturgical tradition is an expression of none other than the tradition of purification, illumination and glorification. Take all the services: Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgy, the services of Baptism and Chrismation, the service for blessing of the Chrism performed by the bishops on Holy Thursday, monastic profession, marriage - all are about purification, illumination and glorification.
There is an instrument that is used in Orthodox theology and constitutes an indispensable element of it. Without it Orthodox theology cannot exist. It is an instrument called the noetic faculty. Although it is an instrument, it is not part of science. This is the only instrument needed for divine vision.
We construct telescopes, microscopes, balances and all the instruments used in other sciences, but in Orthodox theology we do not construct any instruments. We have the instrument ready-made. It is part of the human personality. We do not make it; all we do is put it to work. We undertake purification; we provoke illumination and glorification. God brings about illumination and glorification. Illumination and glorification are gifts of God. Purification, however, is the work of man with God's help.
When all is said and done, for the nous to be purified (by expelling all thoughts) it is not even necessary to be a Christian. The Hindu monk does the same. It is an exercise that he does. One does not need to be a Christian to perform this exercise. However, the purification of the nous (by driving away thoughts) is one thing and purification of the passions is something else. It is purification not only of the nous but of the passions that brings about divine grace.
When the patristic understanding of purification, illumination and glorification disappeared - although our liturgical services are full of purification and illumination - look at any service - we pray continuously for purification, illumination and glorification. It is in all the hymns. The services of Baptism, Chrismation, the Paraklesis, Compline, the troparia and the Psalms are full of this teaching. But when the patristic interpretation of these things was dismissed, purification was reduced to abstention from sins, usually either sexual sins or moralistic ones, such as lies, stealing and so on. It ended up being merely ethical teaching that did not cure man's personality.
So instead of being concerned with treating the core of his personality, as a psychiatrist would be, man was concerned about external acts and had a very hypocritical disposition. He pretended that he had no temptations, whereas in fact he did. And he thought he could surmount them, but afterwards he saw that he couldn't. He therefore thought that no one else had temptations, and felt guilty. Young people are shocked at the temptations they have.
In the patristic tradition, by contrast, these problems are solved by noetic prayer. Teaching someone how he should behave is not the same as teaching him how to find strength to behave in this way. As he cannot manage to do it, he pretends that he has managed. These are very funny things. There is a lot of hypocrisy, particularly among Christians, and the more pious they are, the more hypocritical they are these days. That's how things stand. There's nothing we can do about it.
Theology has only one aim: purification, illumination and glorification. Theology has no other purpose. Do you understand? Theology has no other aim other than purification, illumination and glorification.
What is Orthodoxy without purification, illumination and glorification? I don't know if you can draw this conclusion, because the Church did not reach this conclusion. Why not? Because there were monasteries. Purification, illumination and glorification, as they used to take place in the traditional way, gradually became the task of monasticism. The bishop, so to speak, would sit and act as an administrator and would say: "I have five monasteries. If you want to lead that sort of life, go to a monastery. We are engaged in administration."
Purification for the pious became a release from moral failings, from an ethical standpoint. It seems that the Greek mentality had a greater problem with sex than with anything else. The problem of sex became an obsession for the modern Greeks. So purification for the pious means not having sexual temptations.
Illumination became Sunday School: learning Holy Scripture, Church history, the lives of a few saints; in other words, filling the rational faculty. Although purification is the illumination of a person's nous, they tried to illuminate his reason. Instead of the nous being illuminated, nowadays the rational faculty is illuminated.
Without purification, illumination and glorification there is no salvation. This is salvation: purification and illumination.
Definition of Purification
Purification is essentially the asceticism that one practices by avoiding doing bad things and doing good things. It begins with ethics; there is a moral orientation in the beginning. We learn to fast, to do everything necessary to make progress in the initial stages.
Of course, the Fathers of the Church specifically define purification as the release of the heart and the nous from the domination of thoughts (logismoi) and passions. The human soul has two faculties: the noetic faculty and the rational faculty. Through the noetic faculty (the nous) man comes into contact with God, and through the rational faculty he knows the world around him. In their natural state, the noetic faculty is located in the heart and has remembrance of God, and the rational faculty is in the brain and forms thoughts. When these faculties are confused and the thoughts of the mind take possession of the nous and go down into the heart - into the passible part of the soul, where anger and desire are - it creates impurity of the nous and heart. Thus purification in the Orthodox tradition is understood as the liberation of the noetic faculty (the nous) from thoughts, good ones as well as bad.
So what is purification? Purification means that all thoughts leave the nous and only one remains. This thought is the remembrance of God, the impression on man's heart of the remembrance of God, which now works twenty-four hours a day. We clean the nous thoroughly. We throw out of the nous all concepts and thoughts. We make it a nous with a single thought. It has one thought instead of many: single-thought prayer begins. This is the cure of the nous and the return of the memory - the constant remembrance of God. The nous recovers the memory it had lost. Thus purification for the Fathers is an ascetic state which man reaches after a struggle, not simply to avoid sin - because avoiding sin is an integral part of asceticism - but to purify the heart.
Purification of the heart does not only mean avoiding sin. Purification of the heart means that thoughts leave the heart and go to the rational faculty, leaving the heart free of thoughts. It is left with one thought alone - prayer. This is extremely important. Once it is acquired, this is called prayer of the heart or single-thought prayer. This one thought, the prayer itself, constitutes the constant remembrance of God. This is purification of the heart according to the Fathers. It is not simply avoidance of sin.
When the Fathers of the Church speak about purification of the nous, they mean that the nous should be emptied of good thoughts as well as bad ones. When the nous is empty and the passions have been defeated, the Holy Spirit comes and visits. Then the Spirit takes it upon Himself to pray in man's heart.
The Holy Spirit's prayer cannot come to someone unless his nous has previously been emptied. This is the start of man's therapeutic treatment. The single-thought prayer means the existence of only one thought, which is the remembrance of God: "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner."
The nous itself is the center of all the five senses. When the nous is purified, the five senses are purified. Then the five senses become one sense, one single sense. The five senses are united and become one. Thus when someone has concentrated his nous in his heart, he can guard his senses because he guards his nous. And provided his nous is only engaged in prayer, as he has reached this single energy of the nous in the heart, the problems of the five senses are also solved. All concepts depart from the heart and nous, everything that originates from the senses and the rational faculty, and this emptying of the nous is also its purification. When the nous has been cleansed by constant remembrance of God and noetic prayer, the only thing that occupies the nous from then on is remembrance of God or unceasing prayer. Nothing else.
When someone arrives at this state he successfully resists temptations. Thus we see the phenomenon that ascetic fathers who had attained noetic prayer used to go into brothels in order to save prostitutes, many of whom were held prisoner in the brothels. How? Because they were in this state and were no longer affected by their surroundings; they were no longer susceptible to the influence of their environment. Instead of being influenced by their surroundings they themselves had an effect on their surroundings. Instead of being darkened by the environment they illuminated it. That is why the Fathers call them "shining lights".
In the patristic tradition, which is the tradition of Holy Scripture, when purification takes place, then one is baptized in water, one's sins are remitted, and afterwards there is Chrismation. In Orthodoxy, the very worst human being can be purified and reach illumination. Dogmas are a guide for those going through purification, and it continues to be a guide for those who go on to be illuminated.
Purification has been reduced nowadays to morality. Due to the pietism that has come into Greece, purification has been changed from ascetic purification into moral purification. Also, some people said that the Canons say that we should take Holy Communion every Sunday. In other words, provided we have been instructed in the faith and are moral, we ought to take Holy Communion every Sunday.