August 17, 2016

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


The whole ascetic life of the monk has as its goal soberness, that is, the simplification of the nous and its liberation from thoughts, concepts, or imagination, in such a way as to enable it to focus on itself, taking away from it all the world's distractions, and returning it to its natural place, the heart. When, by God's grace, this unitary state of the human person created in the image of God is restored, then the nous can progress without obstacle toward pure prayer. But, the latter is not the end of the spiritual life. The end of prayer, according to the Holy Fathers, is the ravishing of the nous in the Lord,35 and the illumination of grace through which man becomes himself light and, by adoption, god. Within the abyss of the heart, during the night, the nous of the monk is progressively purified and made transparent, in order that it be enabled to receive the light, like a crystal. It is then that the monk may await the visitation of grace. In the same text, Saint Gregory pursues this theme:

"Thus in leaving things behind, even little by little its ties with the best of them, the nous leaves all existent things completely behind. This ecstasy is distinguished as far superior to the theology that operates through negative reductions. It is the privilege of those who have been clothed with impassibility. But, this is still not union, in that the Paraclete has not yet come from on high to illumine the man of prayer who stands at the very limit of his natural capacities, as in an upper room, awaiting the promise of the Father, that through that revelation He might bear him away in order to bring him to the contemplation of light."36

In this manner, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the mind is lifted above its own limits and crosses over the boundaries of prayer. Thus Saint Isaac the Syrian says: "The nous is lifted above prayer, and it is not fitting that this state be called prayer; rather, it is the engendering of pure prayer which is conveyed by the Holy Spirit. The nous then no longer prays by way of offering prayer, but is transported in ecstasy to the heart of inaccessible reality. Here, indeed, is the ignorance that surpasses knowledge."37

In times of prayer the nous becomes like saphire, or the color of the sky, as the same Saint writes, but when the Holy Spirit is poured out from above, it becomes more resplendent than the sun, such as was the face of Christ on Tabor. Then the mystery of the monk's personal transfiguration is accomplished, his nous has been changed by this "beautiful transformation," and he is made a participant in the divine nature, he has acquired "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16), become the "place of God," and "through God, he looks on God."38

At the beginning of the feast of the Transfiguration, the Church exhorts all the faithful to allow themselves to be thus mystically transformed, so as to live in a spiritual manner the mystery of the feast. "Come, let us rejoice, mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues: let us be transformed this day into a better state and direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety according to the form of Christ. For in His mercy the Savior of our souls has transfigured disfigured man and made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor."39

The inaccessible light of the countenance of the God-man which threw the Disciples to the ground, the splendor even of the Kingdom of Heaven which I admire in the liturgical assembly, now becomes my own light, shining from my heart another sun: "For it is God who said, 'Let light shine out of the darkness,' Who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6).

The Fathers call this deifying energy of grace "enhypostatized illumination,"40 in order to emphasize that it is the uncreated and substantial energy of God, the common life and glory of the Holy Trinity that is yet communicated in a personal manner from the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit to a free and concrete human person. It does not force me. It does not constrain me. Rather, it transfigures me in the light, such that Christ is enabled to live in me in power, and such that I, in this communion, acquire the attributes of God Himself. In contrast, however, to the splendor of Tabor, the grace of deification is an habitual condition, a permanent and dynamic process which, in Christ, never ceases to transfigure me. The Apostle writes: "And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord Who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18).

This radiance is not the object of either a vision or an intellection, but it proceeds from within us, from the depths of the heart, a light in the midst of the night such as was attested to be Saint Symeon the New Theologian, he who, after several "outward" appearances of light by grace of his spiritual father and of Christ, at last saw the Lord in the light of the Holy Spirit - inwardly - during the night, while sitting alone in the dimness of his cell:

"I thank You that You, even when I was sitting in darkness, revealed Yourself to me, You enlightened me, You granted me to see the light of Your countenance that is unbearable to all.

I remained seated in the middle of darkness, I know, but while I was there surrounded by darkness You appeared as light, illuminating me completely from Your total light.

And I became light in the night, I who was found in the midst of darkness....

Likewise I am in the light, yet I am found in the middle of the darkness.

So I am in the darkness, yet still I am in the middle of the light....

O awesome wonder which I see doubly, with my two sets of eyes, of the body and of the soul!"

The light of Tabor, the Transfiguration of Christ, was therefore the image of my own deification. While, before the Cross, the Apostles saw it for only an instant and were then covered by the cloud, in order later to be initiated into the mystery of God, now, after the Cross - or, better, while living the Cross in the night's obscurity and the struggle of prayer - man can become all light, all eye, all glory, all a face in the Holy Spirit.42 "Now [at Tabor] this body which had not yet assumed all our bodies and which possessed in itself the source of the light of grace shone from outside on those who were worthy of approaching it, and communicated the illumination to them through their physical eyes to the inner parts of their soul. But now, since He has mingled Himself with us and abides within us, it is right that He should illumine our souls from within."43

This is the reason for which several saints were reckoned worthy of appearing to their disciples with the splendor of the sun, such as Abba Sisoes before his falling-asleep,44 or Saint Seraphim of Sarov in the course of his famous conversation with Motovilov,45 in order to show them a foretaste of the glory of the saints in the Kingdom that is to come.

This genuine transfiguration of the saints, whose witness is the tradition of the Church, comprises the consolation, the help, and the support of the monk in his struggles. And even if he remains for years in the darkness, even if the high peak of Athos does not send for him a ray of Christ's transfigured presence, he can nonetheless persevere, extending his struggle and crying with a still louder voice, because he has the assurance of a testimony of experience from so many Athonite saints who, on this mountain, have seen the light and have become themselves lamps of the Holy Spirit. He recalls Saint Athanasios, patriarch of the Athonites, who at Melana endured a year of terrible struggle with accidie (spiritual aridity), and had come near despair when, suddenly, "a heavenly light shone around him and enveloped him with light, and made himself light, and the dark cloud of his struggle was lifted from him." From the moment he received the permanent charism of compunction, "and whenever he wished, he streamed with effortless tears." He recalls as well Saint Euthymius the Georgian (+ 980), to whom we alluded in the beginning, who contemplated the light of the Transfiguration at the summit of Athos. He knows well of Saint Simon the Myrrhgusher (+ ca. 1255), who, on several occasions saw the uncreated light shine within his cave and, finally, the star of Bethlehem standing above the crag where God wished him to build his monastery.47 In the wonderful Life of Saint Gregory the Sinaite (+ 1330) the monk can read that not only the soul and body of the Saint, but his cell and the world around it shared in his own transfiguration: "His soul and heart were aflame with the energy of the All-Holy and perfect Spirit, and - changed as he was by a strange and wonderful transformation - all his dwelling was also filled with light by the radiance of grace, and he saw as in a mirror the whole creation bright with light."48 How can he not recall as well Saint Gregory Palamas, whose face was all light when he would come from the Divine Liturgy, or from his cell?49 Or how can he not think of Saint Savvas of Vatopaidi (+ ca. 1330) who saw the uncreated light so often in his ecstasies, and who, on the day of the Transfiguration, appeared all radiant with light to his disciple and biographer, Saint Philotheos, who writes: "I saw him with a glorified countenance and filled with an extraordinary joy and brightness, as if he were already enjoying the Transfiguration of the Lord and the vision of God?"50 How can he not admire, too, Saint Akakios the Kavsokalyvitis (+ ca. 1799) from whose mouth fire came forth and whose face became brilliant as the sun when he prayed: he who saw Christ many times through the transfigured perception that the Holy Spirit had accorded him?"51

To these lamps of times past one may add the stars of our days: Saint Silouan the Athonite (+ 1938) whose teachings illumine so many souls immersed in the darkness of the world,52 Kallinikos of Katounakia (+ 1930) whose face shone like that of Moses following three days of transport in the divine light,53 the Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+ 1959) who was a great athlete of prayer of the heart, whom the Lord comforted in his afflictions with astounding visions,54 of Father Augustine the Russian (+ 1965) who had no need of a lamp to see at night and who was so simple and humble that he believed everyone looked on the world as he did, in the light of God, and how many other men, bearers of the light, live today on the Holy Mountain in self-effacement, but whose prayer unseen illumines the world like a column of fire!

Thus, even if the Athonite monk lives in the darkness, he has no reason to feel afflicted, because this light that transfigures and deifies the soul and body of the saints, this energy of the Holy Spirit, is even the bond and life of the Church. The shining forth of the saints is our common inheritance, their glory the essence of our joy. It is thus in this joy, and with the hope of having "more clearly" a part in the light of the Savior's face then, when all mirrors shall pass away (1 Cor. 13:10-12), that the monk pursues his journey toward the heavenly Jerusalem, living out day by day in the common life with his brothers the prefiguration of glory, and celebrating without pause the feast of his own transfiguration within the bright cloud of his heart.


35. John of Sinai, The Ladder 27:19.

36. Gregory Palamas, Defense of the Holy Hesychasts II, 3, 35.

37. Isaac the Syrian, Discourse 32; also Gregory Palamas Defense of the Holy Hesychasts I, 3, 21.

38. Gregory Palamas, Defense of the Holy Hesychasts II, 3, 52. On the reciprocal ecstasy of God, cf. 1, 3, 47.

39. First Stichera of Small vespers, August 8, The Festal Menaion, 468.

40. "En-hypostatized," i.e., "en-personed" light. The light of God is never an impersonal "stuff," and its communication to us is always a communication of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The light is the presence of the Spirit in Whom we meet the Son through Whom we have access to the Father. For the personal quality of the light, and the use of the term "en-hypostatized," cf. Gregory Palamas, Defense, III, 1, 9; Maximus the Confessor, To Thalassios 61 (PG 90, 644D), and Makarios, who speaks of the "sure and permanent illumination of the hypostatic light within the soul," On the Liberty of the Spirit 22 (PG 34, 956D-7A).

41. Symeon the New Theologian, Hymns 25, 11.42-8 and 54-61.

42. Makarios of Egypt, Spiritual Homilies I, 2.

43. Gregory Palamas Defense of the Holy Hesychasts I, 9, 38.

44. Sayings of the Fathers, Sisoes 14 (PG 65, 396).

45. Fedotov, Treasury of Russian Spirituality, 274ff.

46. Life of Saint Athanasios the Athonite, 21C.

47. Life of Saint Symeon the Myrrhgusher, Great Synaxarion, Dec. 28.

48. Kallistos Xanthopoulos, Life of Saint Gregory of Sinai.

49. Philotheos, In Praise of Saint Gregory Palamas, PG 151, 575.

50. Philotheos, Life of Saint Savvas 34; cf. 24, 35, 36, 4 and 58.

51. Life of Saint Akakios the New, Great Synaxarion, Apr. 12.

52. Cf. Archimandrite Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos.

53. Archimandrite Cherubim, Life of Kallinikos the Hesychast, Athens 1969 52-3.

54. Monk Joseph of Vatopaidi, The Elder Joseph, 68, 70, 72-3 and 96-7.

From The Living Witness of the Holy Mountain: Contemporary Voices from Mount Athos, pp. 194-218.