By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, from “Orthodox Spirituality: A Brief Introduction.”
In the Holy tradition of the Orthodox Church at the centre of Orthodox spirituality is the heart and the nous. It is this centre which needs to be treated so that man’s complete psychosomatic constitution is cured. Moreover as the Lord said: Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (Mt 5:8) In order to see what the heart and nous are we must begin by examining the soul.
From the narration of Genesis in the Old Testament, we know that initially God created Adam’s body and then He breathed into it and created his soul. By saying “He created the soul” it is made clear that the soul is not a particle of God, the spirit of God, as some people claim. But, as St. John Chrysostom says, since the in-breathing of God is the energy of the Holy Spirit, it is this energy of the Holy Spirit which created the soul, without itself being the soul. It is of vital importance to state this, for thus we understand well that the soul cannot be examined autonomously but only in connection with God.
Every man’s soul is one and manifold, at the same time, as St. Gregory Palamas says. In another context St. Gregory Palamas teaches that as God is Trinity—Nous, Logos and Spirit—in a corresponding way man’s soul has a trinitarian nature: there is the nous—the core of man’s existence, the logos—begotten by the nous, and the spirit—"man’s noetic love."
The soul is closely linked to man’s body. It is not located in only one part of the body. According to Orthodox teaching, God governs the world through his uncreated energies. Just as God acts in nature, so the soul moves and activates each member of the body to perform its function, according to St. Gregory of Sinai. Therefore, just as God governs the world in the same way does the soul govern the body. As St. Gregory Palamas expresses it, the soul occupies the body with which it was created. It fills the entire body, giving life to the body. In other words, the soul is not enclosed by the body, but it occupies the body to which it is attached.
There is a strong bond between the soul and the body but also a clear distinction. A person is made up of body and soul, both of which coexist simultaneously without any confusion. Thus, it is not just the soul which is called man, neither is it solely the body which is called man, but both of them constitute man. The soul gives life to the whole body of man through its providential powers. However if the human body lacks one of its members, for example if a man has no eyes, this does not mean that the soul’s providential powers are of a lesser degree. Moreover the soul is not in and of itself equivalent to her providential powers but she uniquely encloses all the providential powers of the body.
St. Gregory of Nyssa states characteristically that the soul is not held by the body but it is she who contains the body. In other words, the body does not function as a vessel or a wine-skin containing the soul, but rather the body is within her. The soul acts throughout the whole of man’s body.
What has been said about the soul may seem highly theoretical, although it is a distinct teaching of the Church, and as such indispensable to the reader’s understanding of the matter of heart and nous, which is the centre of Orthodox spirituality. We are not able, otherwise, to comprehend where the Orthodox Church is headed and what she seeks to cure.
As God has essence and energy, so also does the soul -having been made in the image of God- have essence and energy. Essence and energy in God are of course uncreated, whereas the soul’s essence and energy are created. Nothing exists without an energy. The sun’s essence is beyond the atmosphere of the earth, yet its energy, which gives light, heat and causes burning etc. -reaches to earth and affords her with light, heat etc. The same happens with all objects. The soul’s essence is found in the heart not like in a vessel but as if in an organ; its energy operates through the thoughts (logismoi—λογισμοὶ).
According to St. Gregory Palamas, the soul is called the nous as well. Yet, both the essence of the soul—the heart—and its energy—consisting of the thoughts—are called nous. However, although in the Biblical-Patristic tradition the terms are interchangeable, to avoid any confusion the soul is referred to as the spiritual element of man’s existence; the heart, as the essence of the soul, and the nous as the energy of the soul. Thus, when the nous enters the heart and acts therein, there exists a unity between the nous (energy), the heart (essence) and the soul.
All asceticism in the Church aims at man’s theosis (divinization), at his communion with God the Trinity. This is accomplished when the energy of the soul (nous) returns to its essence (heart) and ascends to God. For unity with God to be attained, the unity of the soul, through the grace of God, must precede it. Sin in fact is the dispersion of these powers; it is primarily the scattering of the soul’s energy, i.e. of the nous, to things, and its separation from the heart.
Having made these clarifications it is important to examine more analytically what the heart and nous are in Orthodox tradition.
The heart is the centre of man’s psychosomatic constitution, since, as we noted previously, there is an “unconfused” union between soul and body. The centre of this union is called heart.
The heart is the place which is discovered through ascetic practice in a state of grace; it is the place wherein God is revealed and made manifest. This definition may seem abstract, yet it is a matter of spiritual experience. No one can fully show the place of the heart by rational and speculative definitions. In any case the heart is a centre and summation of the three faculties of the soul: of the intellect, the appetitive and the irascible. The fact is that when a person lives the inner life—when his nous returns within his inner world from its previous dispersion; when he experiences mourning and in the deepest sense, repentance—he is then conscious of the existence of this centre, i.e. the existence of the heart. He feels therein pain and spiritual sorrow; he experiences the grace of God; there also he even hears the voice of God.
According to patristic tradition, the essence of the soul, which is called heart, is found as if within an organ, not in a vessel where the physical organ of the heart is. This should be interpreted in reference to what it was said before, that the soul holds the body and gives life to it; it is not contained by the body but it contains the person’s body. It is within this perspective that St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite speaks of the heart as a biophysical (natural) centre, since the blood is circulated to all parts of the body from there; as an affected (contrary to nature) centre, since the passions prevail therein, and as a supernatural centre since the grace of God operates there, as many passages of the Holy Scripture state:
But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Mt 5:28)
But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgement of God. (Rom 2:5)
That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith. (Eph 3:17)
And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. (Rom 5:5)
The nous, on the other hand, is the energy of the soul. According to the Fathers, the nous is also called the eye of the soul. Its natural place is to be found within the heart; to be united with the essence of the soul and to experience the unceasing memory of God. Its movement goes contrary to nature when it is enslaved by the creatures of God and the passions. Orthodox tradition makes a distinction between nous and reason.
Reason is a function in the brain whereas the nous operates out of and is united with the heart in its natural state. In the Saintly person, who is the manifestation and bearer of Orthodox spirituality, reason works and is conscious of the surrounding world while the nous is within the heart, praying unceasingly. The separation of the nous from reason constitutes the state of a spiritually healthy person, and this is the goal of Orthodox spirituality.
Quite illustrative of the above theme are two passages from St. Basil the Great’s writings. In one text he says that in the spiritual man—who has become a temple of God and of the Most Holy Spirit—reason and the nous exist and operate simultaneously. Reason is engaged in earthly cares and the nous is engaged in the unceasing remembrance of God. Moreover, because his nous is united with the heart and has communion with God, man is not disturbed by unexpected temptations, that is to say, by temptations caused by the decay and transiency of his nature.
In the other passage St. Basil refers to the return of the nous into the heart and its ascent to God. The nous which is scattered outwards and diffused through the senses into the world is sick, fallen, prodigal. It must return from its diffused state to its union with and in the heart, its natural state, and then be united with God. Illumined by the uncreated Light (the state of theosis), the nous neglects even its nature, and the soul is not preoccupied with clothing and shelter. This does not mean that man does not care about food, etc. But, because man has attained to the state of theoria (vision of God) and theosis, his bodily forces -not those of the soul—are in a state of suspension; in other words, the soul and nous are not subjugated by the influences of the world and material things. Man is, of course, concerned about them, yet he is not enslaved by them. Additionally, St. Basil the Great clearly states that by this movement of the nous’ return within the heart, virtue as a whole is acquired: prudence, bravery, justice, wisdom along with all of the other virtues.
Fr. John Romanides says that all living creatures possess two known memory-systems. First, “there is the cell memory which determines the development and growth of the individual in relationship to itself”. This is the known D.N.A. structure which is the genetic code that literally defines everything in the human constitution. Secondly, “there is the brain cell memory which determines the functions and relations of the individual towards himself and his environment.” This is the operation of the brain which—being imprinted by all memories of the past as well as by human knowledge acquired through study and investigation—defines man’s relations with his fellow-human beings. In addition though, according to Romanides, “there exists within every person a non-functioning or sub-functioning memory within the heart; and when activated through noetic prayer, it has perpetual memory of God, which contributes to the normalization of all of a person’s other relations.
Consequently the Saint—a bearer of Orthodox spirituality—possesses all three of these memories, which act and function simultaneously without influencing one another. A Saint is the most “natural of men”. He is conscious of the world, involved in various concerns, yet -because his nous has attained to its natural function- “he lives on earth but is a citizen of heaven”.
Therefore, the centre of Orthodox spirituality is the heart, within which man’s nous must inherently operate. The energy of the soul -the nous- must return within the soul’s essence—in the heart; and thus by uniting these powers by the grace of God acquire unity and communion with God the Trinity. Spirituality outside of this perspective is not orthodox but moralistic, pietistic, abstract and rationalistic.
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Theoria: Theoria is the vision of the glory of God. Theoria is identified with the vision of the uncreated Light, the uncreated energy of God, with the union of man with God, with man’s theosis (see note below). Thus, theoria, vision and theosis are closely connected. Theoria has various degrees. There is illumination, vision of God, and constant vision (for hours, days, weeks, even months). Noetic prayer is the first stage of theoria. Theoretical man is one who is at this stage. In Patristic theology, the theoretical man is characterised as the shepherd of the sheep.Theosis-Divinization: It is the participation in the uncreated grace of God. Theosis is identified and connected with the theoria (vision) of the uncreated Light (see note above). It is called theosis in grace because it is attained through the energy, of the divine grace. It is a co-operation of God with man, since God is He Who operates and man is he who co-operates.