In Greek philosophy, …the highest kind of knowledge, and therefore the highest moment of earthly life, …connected the visible with the invisible. [This] was noetic: the unencumbered exercise of that highest faculty of alertness and heedfulness and comprehension for which they reserved the name, “nous,” a noun that we can render variously as intellectual intuition, immediate apprehension, mans or mind, or in Jacob Klein’s plainer (and hence, more incisive) rendering, prepared openness, attentive consciousness. …It is a heedful awareness that is “open” to the presence of the invisible within the visible, of a kind of divinity within nature. [This] connection of nous with transcendence, spirituality, and above all mysticism is hard to miss for anyone not already dedicated to the modern project of reading the philosophers of Greek antiquity as Enlightenment phﬂosophes.The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible by Bruce Foltz.
Summary of Plato’s understanding of the stars from Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by Alan Scott (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):
Plato is less concerned with how things happen than with why they happen, and for this reason he regards astronomy as only of secondary importance. Though Plato does associate wisdom and purity with gazing upon heaven, his ideal is not the astronomer but the philosopher. Like geometry, astronomy is a discipline in which knowledge of what is eternally true can be available, but such knowledge is of no use unless it is first subordinated to philosophy. Plato has little interest in observational astronomy: true astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. Even if the Greater Hippias is not a genuine Platonic work, it is faithful to Plato in depicting the learned, pompous, and intellectually shallow Hippias as particularly expert in astronomy. The destiny of the soul is not to look upon the sensible heaven but upon the ’superheavenly place’, which is not possible for physical eyes but only for the soul. The stars, inasmuch as they are visible, do not embody exact knowledge, which can only be grasped by the mind and thought. For Plato, as also for the Pythagoreans, astronomy was useful chieﬂy as a means of understanding what was purely rational. To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. This is the understanding of sun, moon, and stars enjoyed by the inhabitants of the ‘true earth’ in the Phaedo. Thus geometry and astronomy are part of the necessary training for insight into what was immutable and eternal.
Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable. Even in his ‘middle period’ Plato shows little interest in the visible stars and planets and with observational astronomy. In this again he was similar to Socrates, who by all accounts avoided the investigation of the heavens and concerned himself mainly with ethical questions.
…The astral soul is either immanent or transcendent; if it is immanent it acts directly on the body, if transcendent, it acts either through the intermediary of a special material body which it provides itself, or through some unknown agency. Plato does not make clear at this point the number of souls in heaven: his usual assumption is that each heavenly body has its own soul and is a god, but if in heaven soul transcends its body there might be only one heavenly soul. It is also not clear in the Laws (as it was in the Timaeus) if stars are gods as well as planets: the Laws only explicitly refers to the divinity of the planets (which is the view found in the Statesman).
One thing which is clear is that the astral soul itself is invisible: we do not look upon the soul, we only calculate its movements mathematically. As Plato had said earlier in the Republic, it is not what is seen in heaven which is important, but what is intelligible. Thus, strictly speaking, one would expect Plato to assert that the heavenly bodies are not gods, but are merely controlled by gods in some way. More speciﬁcally, one might expect him to say that the visible star or planet is a body joined eternally to a soul, which is how he says he imagines the gods in the Phaedrus myth. But Plato is very elusive in matters of religion, and in the end his real opinion is never clear. What is clear is that he has no objection to calling the planets (and sometimes the stars) gods and worshipping them, just as he includes devotion to images in the religion of the state.
…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. The planets do not ‘wander’, and youths should learn enough astronomy to avoid such an error. Mathematical training is combined with astronomical theory, for number is a divine gift which has been granted to humanity to be learned through the observation of heavenly revolution, and is a prerequisite of wisdom. Their precise movement is a proof of universal divine providence and of the priority of soul to body, as it was also in the Laws. The divinity of the stars and of the seven planets is both presumed and stated throughout the dialogue, as it is in much of the Platonic corpus.
This last point that “most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence” is the same one that G.K. Chesterton makes here:
People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire. A man varies his movements because of some slight element of failure or fatigue. He gets into an omnibus because he is tired of walking; or he walks because he is tired of sitting still. But if his life and joy were so gigantic that he never tired of going to Islington, he might go to Islington as regularly as the Thames goes to Sheerness.
The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.
From J.A. Baker in The Peregrine (1967).
E. F. Schumacher in A Guide for the Perplexed:
Inner space is created by the [combined] powers of life, consciousness, and self-awareness; but we have direct and personal experience only of our own “inner space” and the freedom it affords us. The human …in his inner space …can develop a center of strength so that the power of freedom exceeds that of his necessity.
…We do not grasp that we are invisible. We do realize that we are in a world of invisible people. …We need not be surprised that most people throughout most of human history …have always claimed that we can learn to see the invisibility of the persons around us.
Wendell Berry in The Hidden Wound. First, about his childhood caretaker and companion, Nick:
Within the confines of those acknowledged facts, he was a man rich in pleasures. They were not large pleasures, they cost little or nothing, often they could not be anticipated, and yet they surrounded him; they were possible at almost any time, or at odd times, or at off times. They were pleasures to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.
…He is yet another master of the customs of necessity, the minute strategies of endurance and of joy.
Next about another such childhood caretaker, Aunt Georgie:
I wanted desperately to share the smug assumptions of my race and class and time that all questions have answers, all problems solutions, all sad stories happy endings. It was good that I should have been tried, that I should have had to contend with Aunt Georgie’s unshakable—and accurate—view that life is perilous, surrounded by mystery, acted upon by powerful forces unknown to us. Much as she troubled me and disturbed my sleep, I cannot regret that she told me, bluntly as it needs to be told, that men and events come to strange and painful ends, not foreseen. …And no doubt because of this very darkness of cosmic horror in her mind, everything in the world that she touched became luminous with its own life. She was always showing you something: a plant, a bloom, a tomato, an egg, an herb, a sprig of spring greens. Suddenly you saw it as she saw it—vivid, useful, free of all the chances against it, a blessing—and it entered shadowless into your mind. I still keep the deepest sense of delight in the memory of the world’s good things held out to me in her black crooked floriferous hands.
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
That is why we have peopled air and earth and water with gods and goddesses and nymphs and elves-that, though we cannot, yet these projections can, enjoy in themselves that beauty grace, and power of which Nature is the image. That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet.
For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy.
At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Someday, God willing, we shall get in.
C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses.
The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 190 to 194:
To stand guard over the heart, to stand with the mind in the heart, to descend from the head to the heart—all these are one and the same thing. The core of the work lies in concentrating the attention and the standing before the invisible Lord, not in the head but in the chest, close to the heart and in the heart. When the divine warmth comes, all this will be clear.
…When we read in the writings of the Fathers about the place of the heart which the mind finds by way of prayer, we must understand by this the spiritual faculty that exists in the heart. Placed by the creator in the upper part of the heart, this spiritual faculty distinguishes the human heart from the heart of animals…. The intellectual faculty in man’s soul, though spiritual, dwells in the brain, that is to say in the head: in the same way, the spiritual faculty which we term the spirit of man, though spiritual, dwells in the upper part of the heart, close to the left nipple of the chest and a little above it.
From The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault:
It is certainly true that the heart’s native language is affectivity—perception through deep feelingness. But it may come as a shock to contemporary seekers to learn that the things we nowadays identify with the feeling life—passion, drama, intensity, compelling emotion—are qualities that in the ancient anatomical treatises were associated not with the heart but with the liver! They are signs of agitation and turbidity (an excess of bile!) rather than authentic feelingness. In fact, they are traditionally seen as the roadblocks to the authentic feeling life, the saboteurs that steal its energy and distort its true nature.
And so before we can even begin to unlock the wisdom of these ancient texts, we need to gently set aside our contemporary fascination with emotivity as the royal road to spiritual authenticity and return to the classic understanding from which these teachings emerge, which features the heart in a far more spacious and luminous role.
According to the great wisdom traditions of the West (Christian, Jewish, Islamic), the heart is first and foremost an organ of spiritual perception. Its primary function is to look beyond the obvious, the boundaried surface of things, and see into a deeper reality, emerging from some unknown profundity, which plays lightly upon the surface of this life without being caught there: a world where meaning, insight, and clarity come together in a whole different way. Saint Paul talked about this other kind of perceptivity with the term “faith” (“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”), but the word “faith” is itself often misunderstood by the linear mind. What it really designates is not a leaping into the dark (as so often misconstrued) but a subtle seeing in the dark, a kind of spiritual night vision that allows one to see with inner certainty that the elusive golden thread glimpsed from within actually does lead somewhere.
…Unanimously, the Christian wisdom tradition proclaims that the source of this lower-level noise is “the passions.” As the Philokalia repeatedly emphasizes, the problem with the passions is that they divide the heart.15 A heart that is divided, pulled this way and that by competing inner agendas, is like a wind-tossed sea: unable to reflect on its surface the clear image of the moon.
Here again is a teaching that tends to set contemporary people’s teeth on edge. I know this from personal experience, because the issue comes up at nearly every workshop I give. To our modern Western way of hearing, “passion” is a good thing: something akin to élan vital, the source of our aliveness and motivation. It is to be encouraged, not discouraged. At a recent workshop I led, a bishop approached me with some concern and explained that in his diocese, following the recommendations of a church consultant, he had managed to boost morale and productivity by significant percentages simply by encouraging his clergy “to follow their passions.”
Well-nigh universally today, the notion of “passionlessness” (a quality eagerly sought after in the ancient teachings of the desert fathers and mothers) equates to “emotionally brain dead.” If you take away passion, what is left?
So once again we have to begin with some decoding.
If you consult any English dictionary, you will discover that the word “passion” comes from the Latin verb patior, which means “to suffer” (passio is the first-person singular). But this still doesn’t get us all the way, because the literal, now largely archaic, meaning of the verb “to suffer” (to “undergo or experience”) is literally to be acted upon. The chief operative here is the involuntary and mechanical aspect of the transaction. And according to the traditional wisdom teachings, it is precisely that involuntary and mechanical aspect of being “grabbed” that leads to suffering in the sense of how we use the term today. Thus, in the ancient insights on which this spiritual teaching rests, passion did not mean élan vital, energy, or aliveness. It designated being stuck, grabbed, and blindly reactive.
This original meaning is clearly uppermost in the powerful teaching of the fourth-century desert father Evagrius Ponticus. Sometimes credited with being the first spiritual psychologist in the Christian West, Evagrius developed a marvelously subtle teaching on the progressive nature of emotional entanglement, a teaching that would eventually bear fruit in the fully articulated doctrine of the seven deadly sins. His core realization was that when the first stirrings of what will eventually become full-fledged passionate outbursts appear on the screen of consciousness, they begin as “thoughts”—logismoi, in his words—streams of associative logic following well-conditioned inner tracks. At first they are merely that—“thought-loops,” mere flotsam on the endlessly moving river of the mind. But at some point a thought-loop will entrain with one’s sense of identity—an emotional value or point of view is suddenly at stake—and then one is hooked. A passion is born, and the emotions spew forth. Thomas Keating has marvelously repackaged this ancient teaching in his diagram of the life cycle of an emotion,16 a core part of his Centering Prayer teaching. This diagram makes clear that once the emotion is engaged, once that sense of “I” locks in, what follows is a full-scale emotional uproar—which then, as Father Keating points out, simply drives the syndrome deeper and deeper into the unconscious, where it becomes even more involuntary and mechanically triggered.
What breaks the syndrome? For Evagrius, liberation lies in an increasingly developed inner capacity to notice when a thought is beginning to take on emotional coloration and to nip it in the bud before it becomes a passion by dis-identifying or disengaging from it. This is the essence of the teaching that has held sway in our tradition for more than a thousand years.
Now, of course, there are various ways of going about this disengaging. Contemporary psychology has added the important qualifier that disengaging is not the same thing as repressing (which is simply sweeping the issue under the psychological rug) and has developed important methodologies for allowing people to become consciously present to and “own” the stew fermenting within them. But it must also be stated that “owning” does not automatically entail either “acting out” or verbally “expressing” that emotional uproar. Rather, the genius of the earlier tradition has been to insist that if one can merely back the identification out—that sense of “me,” stuck to a fixed frame of reference or value—then the energy being co-opted and squandered in useless emotional turmoil can be recaptured at a higher level to strengthen the intensity and clarity of heart perceptivity. Rather than fueling the “reactive ego-self,” the energy can be “rejoined to its cosmic milieu, the infinity of love.” And that, essentially, constitutes the goal of purification—at least as it has been understood in service of conscious transformation.
See also my previous post: Tips I’ve Heard About How to Pray and Worship in an Orthodox Church.
These are thoughts that I put down as I sat with my Grandma and other family members near the end of my Grandma’s life. She was in her own bedroom and surrounded by loved ones:
My body holds me closer hourly
It will have me know it fully before I’m fully known
Jacob wrestled the Lord’s angel
I have my gasped breaths and throbbing heart
This morning, my eyes bring less daylight
But this less of sight, less of hearing, heralds more
And I have let go, almost, of saying
Today’s snowfall blankets my roof and windows
Without my knowing now
Still, it joins the many here over months and years
Teaching long of rest and waiting
These small white bodies
Carry downward flames from heaven
Without heat but made of fire still
That banks and burns
My body cradles its own light as a treasure carried far,
Carried up, soon, past a snow that I’ll know newly,
A flame to lay down before my loving lord
Among her last words to me (the day before) were: “My little Jesse, you brought me tadpoles.”
And here also are the two passages that I included in my remarks at my Grandma’s funeral:
And following that train of thought led him back to Earth, back to the quiet hours in the center of the clear water ringed by a bowl of tree-covered hills. That is the Earth, he thought. Not a globe thousands of kilometers around, but a forest with a shining lake, a house hidden at the crest of the hill, high in the trees, a grassy slope leading upward from the water, fish leaping and birds strafing to take the bugs that lived at the border between water and sky. Earth was the constant noise of crickets and winds and birds. And the voice of one girl, who spoke to him out of his far-off childhood.
From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
A man may say, “I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures.” But if it comes to that why should not a man say, “I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see”? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments.
…I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
From “The Ethics of Elfland,” chapter III in Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton.
Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (ending with the significant number seven and calling for silence regarding things that can only be seen):
6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
7. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
[Note: Wittgenstein’s confidence in the abilities of language to portray reality is largely restored later in life as this passage indicates.]
He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, every one recognized Him. That might be one of the best passages in the poem. I mean, why they recognized Him. The people are irresistibly drawn to Him, they surround Him, they flock about Him, follow Him. He moves silently in their midst with a gentle smile fo infinite compassion. The sun of love burns in His heart, light and power shine from His eyes, and their radiance, shed on the people, stirs their hearts with responsive love. He holds out his hands to them, blesses them, and a healing virtue comes from contact with Him, even with His garments. An old man in the the crowd, blind from childhood, creis out, “O Lord, heal me and I shall see Thee!” and, as it were, scales fall from his eyes and the bland man sees Him.
From the opening of “The Grand Inquisitor,” a story told by Ivan to his brother Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.