Editor’s note: This is Part Final of a two-part series. Read Part I.
So let me ask you; What is the biggest mountain in Russia? Mt. Athos, of course. Wait. That’s in Greece, right? Yep. So why would I say such a thing? Well, there’s two reasons. First of all, there are no real mountains in Russia. The Urals are simply a mineral-rich stony belt that supposedly divides Asia from Europe. Evidently, no one told the Mongols, the Huns, the Pechenegs and the Whatnots about any real mountains, as they all rode lickety-split right past them across the Steppe on their way to eastern Europe. This ‘Transmission Belt of History‘ never seemed to be troubled by this supposed Uralic colossus. At 6200 feet above sea level (at the highest point) and a whole lot less above surrounding terrain, the Urals were simply a physical milepost that said ‘Next exit, Kiev.’ You know, the birthplace of Christianity in Russia..
But that reason (their puny height) isn’t why I mentioned Mt. Athos, in comparison to the Urals. The reason I mentioned it is because Mt. Athos represents the spiritual heights of Russia. And the mountain range of this spirituality is found in the monasteries throughout Russia. And Mt. Athos is the Mt. Everest of them. And spiritually speaking, she is in Russia. Why is that? Because all the other Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates are under the thumb of Islam. From Constantinople to Antioch, from Alexandria to Jerusalem, there’s no room to breathe. Only Russia, Greece, Romania and Bulgaria remain. Guess which one is biggest, by a country mile?
And the tradition of Mt. Athos, her spirituality (and her discipline), is only valued in Russia. This is the wellspring of Orthodoxy in Russia today.
But let’s talk about the origins of ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’ first. How is there is this division of Christianity today, when there was no such divide before Constantine moved from Rome to Constantinople? What happened to cause this split? Well, what always causes a split? Sibling rivalry is the usual cause. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the Brats. Oh, and before I forget, Peter and Andrew. What?! Yes, I know, that’s bogus. But not to the Eastern Orthodox. Nor to the Anglish, who, after all, are simply the Western Orthodox. Copycats, in other words. Idiots.
But back to my point. The Orthodox (and their copycats) have always had a thing for St. Andrew. Why? Because he was St. Peter’s brother. And as they love to remind you, St. Andrew was called by Jesus before St. Peter. Just as Aaron and his sister Miriam got uppity with their brother Moses (and were stricken with leprosy as a result) (Numbers 12: 1-13), the Orthodox have tried to make something out of the relationship between Peter and Andrew. And so the ratio of churches named for St. Andrew (vs. St. Peter) is about a million to one in both of these Orthodox worlds.
So how did this supposed rivalry of Peter (Rome) and Andrew (Constantinople) start? You have to remember that Constantinople was simply another minor diocese within the undivided Church until the time of Constantine (313 AD). And it was only raised to the rank of a Patriarchate in 381, as a result of the Emperor’s new residence there. And who raised it to this rank? Holy Rome, the first Patriarchate, of course. As for the concept of ‘The Pentarchy‘ (that is, the supposed division of governance among the five Patriarchates), we have to ask ‘who then governed the Church from 33 AD until 381 AD?’ The answer is, of course, Rome. Alone. In other words, the concept of ‘The Pentarchy’ is simply an attempt to paper over the gaping fact that until Constantinople was given this honor (because of the Emperor’s presence), it was no more special than any other diocese in the Church. And if you look at the Church membership in these four puny Patriarchates outside of Rome, it’s pretty clear that there’s nothing of any sizable importance within Orthodoxy today. Until you get to Moscow, the new 5th Patriarchate. New, as in 1589 AD.
But back to St. Andrew. He was the Apostle that first evangelized Byzance (aka Byzantium, or Constantinople, as we knew it). And that was enough for the proud citizens of Constantinople. Andrew was the equal of St. Peter, in their minds. In other words, they were both Bishops. One of Rome, the other of New Rome. And since the Empire was now centered in Constantinople, shouldn’t the Church be centered there as well? Not a bad argument, from a secular perspective. And since the Patriarch of Constantinople happened to be under the immediate presence of the Emperor, it was a pretty handy way for the Emperor to influence the Church. It was a win-win for both the Emperor and the Patriarch, eh? Sure. Until the Emperor started to tell the Patriarch what to do. Which didn’t take long.
But now let’s get back to Russia. And let’s start where Christianity starts in Russia. That would be in Kiev. But that’s in Ukraine, right? Yes. ‘Little Russia’. There are three Russia, you know. Great Russia, the one we generally know and speak of, which was centered in Novgorod. Later it became centered in Moscow. Then comes White Russia, known as Byelorussia, whose capital is Minsk. And finally comes Little Russia, centered in Kiev. And actually, Kiev was the first Russia, in terms of it’s Christianity. But all of them are Russian. What makes them all Russian today? Their Slavic Orthodoxy.
So when did Christianity arrive in Kiev? According to the Primary Chronicle of Russia it occurred in the 1st century, when St. Andrew traveled on from Byzance and made his way up the Dnieper River, to the site of present day Kiev. There he prophesied that a great Christian city would arise on that site. And indeed it has come to pass.
And for the next 1300 years or so, both tongues of Christianity, Latin and Greek, flourished in Ukraine. And Kiev, its center, was home to both. True, the western half of Ukraine tended towards the Latin Rite, while the eastern portion tended towards the Greek. But both were Catholic, in the universal sense. But then there was a change. And the change occurred on Mt. Athos, the home of eastern monasticism. And the name for this change is Hesychasm. The other name for it is Palamism. And this change is what has set all the Russias apart from the rest of Christendom until today.
So what is Palamism? What is Hesychasm? They are one and the same, named for Gregory of Palamas, a declared Saint of Eastern (Greek) Orthodoxy. And his theological construct has been declared to be Orthodox doctrine since the Palamist Councils of the 1350’s. And this is where Eastern and Western monasticism have parted ways. Big time. And never the twain shall meet.
Because now, the comparison is not between the common ancient monastic traditions of sweating for your bread, both East and West. After all, up to the time of Gregory of Palamas these traditions were fairly congruent. But then came the change. And while the Western tradition of sweating out your salvation and sustenance continued unabated, the Eastern tradition morphed into the pursuit of Bliss. Unearned bliss. No sweat required. And it continues that way until this day.
So then, just what is this Palamite doctrine of Hesychasm? Well, it is the claim that you can directly experience the ‘Divine Energy’. No, not the Essence of God, but rather, the ‘uncreated energy’ (Energon) that emanates from Him. As Palamas said, just as rays of light emanate from the sun, they are not actually the sun itself. They are its energy. And he claimed that you can experience the Divine presence, or better yet, the direct enlightenment of the soul, by basking in these heavenly rays of ‘divine energies’. And Palamas claimed that the experience of this ‘energy’ of God is the highest achievement any human can achieve in this life. Sounds pretty cool, right? Sure, who wouldn’t want that? Forget that martyrdom stuff! But hey, what is the price for achieving this bliss? We’ll get to that, soon.
(Note: I say that the rays of the sun are actually part of the sun itself. In other words, the sun fills the entire space between its visible surface and that of the Earth. And therefore, there can be no artificial division between the ‘essence’ of the Divine and it’s ‘energies’. The furnace of the surface is being, the reach of the rays is action. From a Thomistic standpoint, both are absolutely essential to the definition of Divinity.).
Now just how is it that you can experience this ‘divine energy’? Well, it takes discipline. And that fits perfectly into the Russian psyche. So let’s look at how you turn on and tune in to the divine wavelength. And then, drop out of this world. First off, you gotta turn off all of your physical senses. All of them. Close your eyes, your ears, your nose, your tongue, your skin. Everything. Be perfectly still. Roll your eyes inward. And breathe deeply. Steadily. Slowly. Sink inward to the depths of your soul. And then the Light will appear. And then you will begin the timeless floatation of everlasting bliss. And when you have arrived at this state of being, ask yourself this: why would I ever want to go back to earthly sensations? Why, when I can have what seems to be heaven, right now? Forever. And if this is true, what then is death? Who cares about death if there is no sting? Tranq me up, Bro!
Yes, I know. This sounds just like the many mystical practices of the Eastern Pagan world. Sects of the Sufis, the Buddhists and Hindus and lots more of the eastern mystery religions all practice this same thing. Check out Tal Brooks’ story about this same exact thing in Avatars of Night. So how is it that these Eastern Orthodox brethren have bought into Eastern mysticism, while still claiming to be faithful sons of St. John Chrysostom? How can this be reconciled? Well, it can’t. And this is the whole problem of East vs. West in the Church today. Forget the Filioque. Forget three fingers. Forget the three amens. No, all those are camouflage in the real differentiation of the doctrines of East vs. West. The schism comes down to this; one of these traditions has to be wrong. It’s either ‘pick up your cross and follow me, unto death’ (Latin), or ‘lay down your cross and escape this worldly realm now, before death’ (the Greeks of Mt. Athos).
Well, which one is right? Let’s forget the philosophic approach, and let’s use some simple math. That’s the Barbarian way. Let’s calculate the cost of these two choices. We already know the cost of the traditional western version: a painful life that ends in death. But it looks like the eastern version can somehow escape this for the most part. Is this possible? Let’s add things up and see!
And just for fun, as we try and calculate the cost of Eastern bliss, let’s contrast this new (as of 1350) Eastern version of monasticism today with its actual modern counterpart. And what is this modern mystical tradition of the West? No, not the traditional monasticism of Benedict. That has ebbed (but not truly disappeared). The new ‘tradition’ is Modernism, and it has it’s own monastic tradition. Huh? You know, the Methadone Clinics. Remember, Mick and the Stones as they sang about them? It’s my favorite Stones ballad. You Can’t Always Get What You Want?
You do know what I’m talking about here, right? How the Secular West supplanted the Monastic West in the minds of most moderns? And how anyone in the West who hears mention of monasteries immediately thinks the conversation has gone medieval? But we’re not talking about the monastic traditions of Ora et Labora now. We’re only talking about Snora. The continual pursuit of the blissful dream-state, whether it be the modern Western or Eastern versions today. So which is more efficient, which is more potent in the pursuit of the dream-state? Is it the East and Gregory of Palamas? Or is it Mick and the Stones, singing to the stoned? Well, let’s figure this out.
Now I’ve tried both Eastern and Western flavors of Big Bliss, and frankly, Mick’s is more efficient. It takes so much more time and practice to do it the Eastern way. It’s almost like work. And the slightest disturbance awakens you from the Eastern dream-state. Which is a bummer. But not so in the West. Pop the tab and you’re zonked for a good 48 hours on my favourite flavour, Cherry Red. Nothing is going to interrupt this trip, believe me. You are totally and absolutely focused the entire time. Totally focused. Focused on nothing. And you can plan this trip with precision. So after the lost weekend, you’re ready for work come Monday morn. Being on time is important. It’s so Anglish. Idiots. So, Round one in this computation of the cost of never-ending bliss goes to the Wasted West and Big Narco. It’s quicker, and thus more efficient!
But let’s be fair. The ‘Uncreated’ Light of Mt. Athos is actually a better trip than the Methadone Monasteries of London. Even though the name of ‘The Uncreated Light’ is a lie. Why is that? Because this light is actually a Luciferian light. Totally created. And truly magnificent to behold. After all, look at what the name Lucifer means: ‘Bearer of Light’. And he is so unspeakably tranquil and captivating. And that word is so important. Totally captivating. Which is exactly what he intends to be. And it works. And therein lies the problem. Both versions, East or West, are addictive.
And both versions deliver an incomprehensible and totally enrapturing vision of what seems to be the pure light of creation. (But just how in the Hell would we know?) And both of these competing visions produces a paralysis of both mind and body. Both are absolutely irresistible once you’ve gone past the third trip. But the ‘Uncreated’ Light is so much more powerful than the Created Crank. Why? Because this Light doesn’t destroy the body like synthetic (or even better, real) Crank. And you don’t have to sell everything you own in order to finance the next fix. Which means you can spend an entire long life in thrall of The Thrill. Whereas junkies die early. So, round two in this computation of cost in the Battle of The Bliss goes to the East. It’s cheaper. And it’s organic!
So what is the tie-breaker in this contest? That’s the question. And here’s the answer. None of us who’ve tried the Western Unorthodoxy version of Nirvana-on-Demand ever really believed we were in the presence of The Big Guy. Oh sure, we thought we were in the presence of something mighty. Something that was ‘enlightened’. Well, yes, there were some idiots who thought this was The Real Deal. Actually a lot. But they’re dead. They bought the lie that said they could walk on water (they drowned). That they could walk on air (they fell to their deaths). That they were gods. And guess what? They weren’t. Which they found out the hard way. RIP.
But the acolytes of the Eastern UnOrthodoxy don’t have this problem. They have the dogmatic and holy assurance that they are in direct contact with The Big One. The Only One. And this One never told them to try these foolish deadly things that the Western Zombies heard and tried. The only words the Hesychasts ever heard was this: ‘Let It Be. Sit still. Sit in My presence. Don’t worry, be happy. Till you die’. And you know what? That’s the most powerful message of all time. Do nothing. And all will be well. You don’t even have to pray!
So what do the Palamists mean by all of this? Simply this: that only by the rigid discipline of bodily control (which by the way negates the purpose of the body, which is to sense the outward physical creation) can one experience the ‘uncreated light’ that will illuminate the ‘true believer’. And this experience of the ‘energy’ of God is the highest achievement any human can achieve in this life. That’s what Palamist doctrine actually says. And that is now the official Orthodox theology and doctrine. And since the Eastern Orthodox are the keepers of this flame, it naturally follows that only they can lead the rest of mankind unto the mountain of faith. Mt. Athos. Where the flame burns eternal. And woe unto those who disturb the ones contemplating this ‘eternal’ light. For when you bring them back unto this physical, carnal world, they can only react with disgust. And what will they do in their disgust at the decadence of the West? Well, it won’t be pretty. But it will be efficient. Thank God for that, eh?
So there you have it, the true tie-breaker in the minds of the Eastern Orthodox, who see themselves as the only ‘Truly Faithful’ ones. The only Real Christians, left behind. Round three then, in the war of Bliss, goes to the East. They win because they are sitting at the right hand of God. Right? Game over.
And so this is what the monasteries of Russia, the keepers of the flame of Russian Orthodoxy have done, for almost 700 years. Forget the Modernist Methadonians of the West and their mere seventy-year tradition of overdosing. The Palamists have sat in their monastic caves on Mt. Athos (where Hesychasm originated) and basked in the Light of the Divine Energy in the cosmic tanning salon for seven centuries. And remember that Mt. Athos is now in Moscow. And finally, remember also that the monastic Black Clergy sits on the throne of the Patriarch of Moscow. Even though their leader may wear the Novgorodian White Cowl. Are you dizzy yet? I am. Let’s have another drink, Komrade.
So what’s the point? Simply this; that even though Russian monasticism has occasionally been roused from her dream state to heroically resist the attacks of the Pagan East and the Apostate West, she always returns to the sleep of the self-sanctified. The sleep that only mesmerizes. The sleep that never works. Which is why there is no progress in Russia. There is no Ora there, there is no Labora there. In the caves of Mt. Athos, just outside of Moscow, there is only the sound of the Snora. Until she finally awakens in disgust. In self-righteous disgust at the Rot of the West. And when she does awaken who will she listen to? What has she heard as she contemplates the ‘uncreated light’? So let me ask you, brother Andrew, why listen to your older brother Peter when you can sit alone with Dad? But I have to ask you, Brother Slav, are you sure that’s really Him? Really?
This may be one of the most disgusting things I’ve read in years, and we have an election on. I am tempted to think you are deliberately trying to misconstrue Palamas. And the monastic practices of the East. They are much more in line with tradition than us. In fact, we have a very basic problem of over-dependence on Aristotle’s pseudo-science, resulting in way too much discord.
As a result we have thousands of denominations. And nearly all of them have some end times oriented people, whether T.V. evangelist, or an appearance of Mary, or yes, even monks. Which is why monastic practices where developed in the first place- to be curative.
You attribute to Russia a problem that many Christian have, and that most Westerner have- although it is provided by entertainment.
Re: August Hurtel
I’m reserving judgement on Watt’s theories on Russia and Palamas (don’t know much about either one), but two counterpoints to your comment that I think are worth mentioning.
First, whether it’s disgusting or not has nothing to do with whether it’s true or false. And in fact we should expect to find subtle but profound errors at the heart of Russian theology. That doesn’t mean Mr. Watt is correct about these errors are, but whatever they are, they would pretty much have to be disgusting when properly understood, given that they’ve kept them in schism for nigh on a thousand years.
Second, he does in fact spend a fair amount of time in this essay discussing the problems with the modern west. If you’ll read again you might notice that he claims that the East and the Modern West are wrong in superficially different but fundamentally similar ways, so your claim that the West suffers from the errors he accuses Russia of is one he pretty clearly agrees with.
Hesychasm is best practiced in an isolation tank, invented by John C Lilly, the LSD/dolphin dude.
Please contemplate the nature of disgust. It is quite peculiar survival response, meant to keep us safe from contagious things. Have you heard of the uncanny valley effect, where a human-like form creates a sense of unease?
No less bad arguments, reinforcing the vanity and arrogance of our dying West. Already you speak of ‘their’ schism. What about ours? Are we not the lords of disunity? We couldn’t keep the West together. How many denominations are there? The Eastern Orthodox held together rather well comparatively.
He has, however, given you a couple of words to search. Look them up. The Eastern Orthodox are on-line, explaining them. Even lectures on youtube.
I have personally found things disgusting which were true or good, not only propositions or facts, but even things like certain kinds of food or medicine. While disgust may in its native state be a useful indicator, it, like any other emotional response, must be trained so that we are disgusted by the things we should be disgusted by and not otherwise, and is in any case not to be relied on as sure evidence of truth or falsehood.
I didn’t call it “their” schism, but that it in fact an accurate description of the Eastern schism; it is is the schism of the East. The schism of Protestants and other heretics may very well be worse; you’ll notice the author thinks that Russia’s error is “better” than the error in the West, that it will win out eventually.
And it is a strange thing to be accused of reinforcing the vanity of the West when predicting that the West will lose.
Vladimir Solovyov makes the very same point. It occurs near the beginning of the abridgement of his great work, “Russia and the Universal Church” published under the title “The Russian Church and the Papacy.” He says that the Russian / Orthodox solution to salvation is “to pretend you are already there.” So, Watt really is making the same point (albeit in a different way) as made by one who is often called Russia’s greatest philosopher.
On this Catholic Feast of All Saints, I would have to ask, where in hesychyasm is there room left for the Theotokos, the angels, and the saints? To me it sounds atomistically individualistic.
“it is the claim that you can directly experience the ‘Divine Energy’. No, not the Essence of God, but rather, the ‘uncreated energy’ (Energon) that emanates from Him. As Palamas said, just as rays of light emanate from the sun, they are not actually the sun itself.”
A similar doctrine exists in Mormonism where this radiance is called the “light of Christ”.
“And he claimed that you can experience the Divine presence, or better yet, the direct enlightenment of the soul, by basking in these heavenly rays of ‘divine energies’.”
I concur with this assessment. It is very desireable.
“Note: I say that the rays of the sun are actually part of the sun itself.”
Well, there’s an opinion I don’t see every day; but you can define any word any way you wish.
“there can be no artificial division between the ‘essence’ of the Divine and it’s ‘energies’.”
Why not? When I got to Walmart and buy a battery, I am not buying its energy. It isn’t energy yet unless of course to you it is.
“Now just how is it that you can experience this ‘divine energy’? Well, it takes discipline.”
Or faith; which takes discipline.
“And when you have arrived at this state of being, ask yourself this: why would I ever want to go back to earthly sensations?”
You won’t and you wouldn’t until you have to pee.
“This sounds just like the many mystical practices of the Eastern Pagan world. Sects of the Sufis, the Buddhists and Hindus and lots more of the eastern mystery religions all practice this same thing.”
I may have to look a bit more closely at some of those Eastern things. Seems pretty sensible to me.
Watts’ church history is seriously in error. Suggested is Pellikan’s five volumes, “The Christian Tradition.” (University of Chicago Press)… or the recent Catholic-Orthodox document on primacy.
Watts’ understanding of Hesychasm and Gregory Palamas is also in error. Suggested is Meyendorff’s work on Gregory Palamas (published by the Paulist Press) as well as Plested on Gregory Palamas and the Hesychast controversy in his “Orthodox Readings of Aquinas” (Oxford University Press). The teaching of the Sixth Ecumenical Council on the two energies in Christ (viz. Maximus the Confessor) is the basis for the common understanding of East and West (viz. Aquinas) on deification.
The Theotokos (pre-fulfilled) and the saints express that theosis in their lives (both on earth and in heaven). The controversial Russian theologian Bulgakov has an insightful discussion on their “place” in “Bride of the Lamb.” (Erdmans).
Well, this was sad. The first part was so promising. To begin with, let me say that I am a Roman Catholic so I have no doubts that Eastern Orthodoxy somewhat deviated from the right path.
Having said that, the author tries to smear mystical experiences, defining them as Eastern ones. But mysticism does not happen only in the East. Western mysticism has a long tradition, from the Middle Ages mystics, the “Cloud of Unknowing”, Saint Therese, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, today’s Carmelite nuns and so on and so forth (it would be impossible to list every case). Even Aquinas (the founder of the Thomistic tradition that the author refers to) had several mystical experiences.
These mystical experiences have been acknowledged and approved by the Church and had never been described as any other thing as an union of the soul with God (so for me, it was a new flash to know that they come from Lucifer). In addition, contemplative prayer that may produce these mystical experiences is not so different from other kinds of prayer and you can go from one kind of prayer to another, even during the same prayer session.
About comparing mystical experiences with trips and Mick Jagger, well, this was really disgusting. The experiences are different in nature and kind. In addition, as Mario Beauregard proved scientifically in experiments described in “Brain Wars: The Scientific Battle Over the Existence of the Mind”, mystics experiences and LSD trips don’t even activate the same areas of the brain.
It could be possible that Eastern Church must have focused too much on mystical experiences. But equating mystics with junkies goes too far.
Watt groups any non-Catholics into his “idiots” bucket. In his book he expands on it, determining that for him, one proper way to decide if a religion is ‘true’ is to see if it has a long-running priesthood. His grasp of history is full of conspiracy theory on a grand scale (from what I can gather from his book, he sees “THE JOOOS” as the architects of most war and strife).
A religious expression of psychosis.
For a contrary view, read the Introduction to the Orthodox Study Bible (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2008)
There is a learning curve to this subject matter. I think, if there is actually a way to unity, it comes from Palamas. He has been declared a saint in the West as well. If we do not accept him, we face a very uphill battle because most of what we’ve ‘developed’ as doctrine since the first seven councils appears to be heretical to the Eastern Orthodox.
But we can also look at the Western doctrine as truth poorly constructed, within Aristotle’s pseudoscience. It’s the best you can do with his categorizations.
At risk of sounding like a broken record, I will bring up the umpteen denominations again. It is a bureaucrat mindset that the solution to discord is to write more. We suffer under bureaucracy today, but we used to have nobility, who were wiser. Don’t offer more words to people who didn’t understand the first ones. You just end up creating more stumbling blocks. Some of the churches that broke off even earlier have just stuck to ‘it is mystery’ for a huge chunk of theological answers. Quite likely a better way to go, IQ distribution being what it is.
And hesychasm the medicine, not the disease. It would do the entire world a great deal of good if Papa Francis would go to Mt. Athos and be silent for a very long time. We, in the West, are the ones who follow our imaginations.
Bla bla bla…
Didn’t rate this piece. And I thought the schism between east and west happened much earlier – early/mid Byzantine?
Anyway, let’s just be thankful that they are followers of Christ 🙂
God Bless !
This is a discussion for people who have the time by Prof John Lennox who has some interesting things to say about Russia from 1989 and more recently about Ukraine.
I think this man is so warm and easy to listen to. Perhaps this is for the less doctrinally dogmatic listener.
This, not too long.