August 13, 2016

The Experience of the Transfiguration in the Life of the Athonite Monk (4 of 5)


At sunset, after having finished his diakonia, accomplished his daily tasks, and retired to his cell, the monk does not cease to continue living the Transfiguration under the two forms that the Disciples experience in an exemplary manner on the summit of Tabor. While during the liturgical assembly he sees Christ in the light of His glory, and shares with the community and the visible world in the light of the Kingdom of Heaven, when he closes the door of his cell behind him - like the stone rolled up against the entrance of the Lord's tomb (Mk. 15:46) - then, in the depths of the night, he is covered by the cloud. At that moment, alone with God, he truly lives as a "monk," monachos [i.e., solitary]. Every vain glimmering of this world is extinguished - all sensual delights, preoccupations, ideas. The consolation of the brother's presence and the reflected glory of the New Jerusalem in the liturgy have withdrawn from him, and he must confront his own inner depths, the darkness of his passions, his unwavering, the scattering of his nous, and the hardness of his heart. He descends thus into his own inner hell in order to triumph there together with Christ, the conqueror of death.

During the daytime he has been in preparation for the battle of the night, doing the "works of light" and cleansing the senses of his soul by the light of the divine commandments. During this time he puts on, as Saint Symeon the New Theologian writes, the holy virtues in the manner of coals, or candles, which will burst into flame the moment the fire of the Holy Spirit comes near. The day is therefore the time of praxis, whose goal is impassibility (apatheia), while the night is that of contemplation (theoria), of personal communion with God through prayer. Every night, spent in darkness and in quiet (hesychia), is for the monk a daily sabbath. All ordinary work comes to a stop, and all that remains is a cry directed unceasingly to God: "Lighten my eyes!" (Ps. 13:3), or, as Saint Gregory Palamas repeated constantly, "Lighten my darkness!"28 There is nothing left now for the monk except this one thing: to wash the eyes of his heart with the tears of his face while repeating with the Psalmist: "Every night I flood my bed with my tears, I drench my couch with my weeping" (Ps. 6:6), and to touch the fringes of Jesus' cloak (cf. Matt. 14:36) while crying, like the blind man of the Gospel: "Lord, have mercy on me, that I may receive my sight!" (Lk. 18:39-41), such that the darkness may be scattered by the invocation of the Name of the Lord. The Name of Jesus, of One of the Holy Trinity, becomes thus the personal and inner echo of the divine voice that the Disciples heard on Tabor coming from the cloud in order to bear witness to the Savior's divinity. Christ makes Himself present here through the sacrament of His Name, and the dim night is transfigured into the "bright cloud," into a darkness where God dwells.

In effect, the incomprehensible God Who dwells in "inaccessible light" (1 Tim. 6:16) has a preference for obscurity, for the darkness as His dwelling-place among men and His mode of revealing Himself to them. "The Lord has said that He would dwell in thick darkness" (2 Chron. 6:1; I Kings 8:12). "He made darkness His covering around Him, His canopy thick clouds dark with water" (Ps. 18:11). Every theophany, every revelation of His glory in the history of Israel, was heralded by the cloud. He led Israel in a "pillar of cloud" (Ex. 13:21) and the cloud covered Mount Sinai for six days before God invited Moses to enter the darkness in order to see His Glory, whose aspect was that of "a devouring fire" (Ex. 21:17-18). The same pillar of cloud "abode upon the tent of meeting" (Ex. 40:35) and later, when Solomon dedicated the famous Temple of Jerusalem, "a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" (1 Kings 8:10-11). At other times, once a year, the high priest entered the Holy of Holies to make atonement for the people, and was obliged beforehand to fill the place with the smoke of the censer, "lest he die" in looking upon the glory of the Lord (Lev. 16:19).

It is the same in the New Testament. The Lord is born at night; at Tabor He is covered by a "bright cloud" so as to reveal His consubstantiality with the Father and the Holy Spirit; He ascends to heaven taken up by a cloud (Acts 1:9), and He will return again "on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30) to judge the living and the dead. And now again, obscurity is the mode of preference for meeting God, within a cloud that becomes luminous.

In the dimness of the night, struggling against the darkness of egoism and the attacks of "the world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:12), repelling every false brilliance, that is, every thought, product of the imagination, or apparition coming from the devil, who knows how to "disguise himself as an angel of light" (1 Cor. 11:14), the monk clings to nothing other than the Name of Jesus alone, not in order to analyze it, but to taste the Lord's presence. Then the lack of light within his cell is transformed into that "swift cloud" upon which the Lord of Glory sits (Is. 19:1). Just as the cloud that covered the Disciples on Mount Tabor was, according to the holy Fathers, a representation of the Holy Spirit Who testified to Jesus' divinity,29 and Who "overshadowed" the All-Holy Mother of God (Lk. 1:35) so that she could become the true "Tabernacle of the Word," so now the cloud becomes for the monk "the shadow of God which begets," which causes the birth of God within him. The cloud becomes the tabernacle and temple of God, a "bright cloud" that makes night into day and fills the day with delight:

"The night even becomes my light in my delight. 
For the darkness is not dark to you, the night is bright as day;
For darkness is as light to you." (Ps. 139:11-12)

The cell of the monk is the crucible where, during the night, the great work of his personal transfiguration is accomplished. Abba Isaac the Syrian writes: "Choose for yourself a work full of delight, continuous vigil throughout the night, for it is in that that all the Fathers were stripped of the old man and were reckoned worthy of the renewal of the nous. In those hours spent there the soul becomes aware of life everlasting, and in this spiritual sensation it strips off its old clothes of darkness in order to receive the Holy Spirit."30

During the night the soul of the monk, covered by the shadow of Christ the Bridegroom, sings a song of love: "With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste" (Song of Songs 2:3). Even if he does not yet feel clearly His presence; if he does not grasp this mystery which the services have shown symbolically in the light, and if he cries out: "Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer" (Song of Songs 3:1), still, night after night, by the extent of his patience, of his perseverance in prayer, fed by the Holy Mysteries and progressing in the virtues of the Gospel, what appears to him as God's absence is not a static condition. Like Moses on Sinai, the further he goes into the heart of the divine darkness, the more his longing reaches out, for it is the infinite and inaccessible that is the goal of his quest,31 and it is thus that, in a paradoxical way, he makes permanent the ascension of his own holy mountain. The more he descends into the depths of his heart, covered over by dim night, the more he finds access to a higher level of the knowledge of God. He does not "see" the Birdegroom, but he "feels" His divine presence. So Saint Gregory of Nyssa explains it in speaking of the Song of Songs: "And now she [the soul as bride] is enveloped by the night of God, in which the Bridegroom draws near, but does not appear. How is it then that He Whom one does not see still appears in the night? By giving the soul a certain feeling of His presence."32

Noetic prayer does not consist in a simple, mechanical repetition of the Name of Jesus, nor does it stop at a dialogue between us and God, nor does it have as its purpose a knowledge of God in the manner of an object capable of being grasped by a subject. For such a knowledge would be characteristic of the world ruled by corruption and division. It is in just this way that the heresy of Barlaam and the Byzantine "humanists," against whom Gregory Palamas struggled, falsely interpreted the teaching of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite on the divine darkness and apophatic theology.33 Barlaam and others argued that the progress of the soul in the divine darkness consists of nothing more than a series of abstractions concerning certain reasonings about God; and, as a consequence, they envisaged the goal of the spiritual life as a "negative" knowledge, as a way of speaking that does not eliminate or supersede the distinction between subject and object. Given this argument, sanctity would not differ in any essential respect from the way our minds know the world, from an intellectual knowing.

For the Hesychasts, on the contrary, for those who put into practice the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and for Saint Gregory Palamas, their great defender, the advance into divine darkness made by the one who struggles to use inner prayer is not an intellectual activity. It does not suffice to add an "a" privative in front of the names of God in order to arrive at the knowledge of Him, but rather, prayer is the way to a union beyond sensation and intellect with the unknowable God. This is why hesychastic prayer requires soberness, the careful watching of nous and heart in order that they not accept as knowledge of God any form or idea about Him, be it affirmative or negative. Commenting on Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Saint Gregory Palamas wrote on this matter as follows:

"In prayer, the nous rejects little by little its relations with created beings, first by rejecting radically everything which is shameful, evil, or vicious, then things which are indifferent, but which are inclined to evil or to good according to the attitudes of them who put them to use, and among which are to be reckoned every kind of instruction and the knowledge which results from it. Hence the advice fo the fathers not to accept, in times of prayer, any knowledge suggested by the evil one, given in order to deprive us of the better thing."34

Prayer consists in a "rejection of concepts," through which we allow God - the living God, and not the conceptual object of the philosophers - to reveal Himself as light in the midst of darkness, and with Moses on Sinai or the Apostles on Tabor.


28. Philotheos of Constantinople, Life of Saint Gregory Palamas, PG 151, 166C.

29. John of Damascus, Homily on the Transfiguration 18; PG 96, 572C.

30. Isaac the Syrian, Letter 3, ed. Spetsieris (1895), 364.

31. "For it is this that the true knowledge of Him Whom he seeks consists, and in the fact of not seeing the true vision resides, because the object of the quest surpasses all knowledge, separated from everything by His incomprehensibility as by darkness." St. Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, 153.

32. Homily IX on The Song of Songs, cf. McCambley's translation (see n. 13) 203.

33. Argument over the correct intepretation of Dionysius runs throughout St. Gregory's defense of the hesychasts. The view upheld by Barlaam has been revised in recent times by Jean Vanneste, Le Mystere de Dieu, Brussels 1959, and in English, his article, "Is the Mysticism of Pseudo-Dionysius Genuine?" Journal of Religious Studies (1963), 286-300. A modern antidote might be sought in the recent book by Andrew Louth, Denys the Areopagite, (Wilton, Conn. 1989), which sees both Dionysius and Gregory a within the same current of tradition.

34. Gregory Palamas, Defense of the Holy Hesychasts II,3,35 (Chrestou, 568-9).