Two or three years ago a reader of Eclectic Orthodoxy, knowing how important the Jesus Prayer had become in my own spiritual life, sent me a copy of A Night in the Desert of the Holy Mountain by Met Hierotheos of Nafpaktos. (I have forgotten who sent it to me. I wish once again to express my gratitude.) After finishing The Cloud of Unknowing last week, I finally started to read Night in the Desert. I am particularly keen to understand both the commonalities and differences between the apophatic contemplative tradition commended by the anonymous author of the Cloud and the hesychastic tradition practiced on Mt Athos. A Night in the Desert records Hierotheos’s conversations with an unnamed holy elder, or gerondas.
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H: Which are the mystical steps which brings us to perfect union with Christ and to the enjoyment of deifying grace?
The basic purpose of the Jesus prayer is to unify the whole of man “who has become fragmented”.
H: Please, forgive me the interruption. What does unification of the whole of man mean?
Man, according to Scripture, has been created “after the image of God” (Col. 3.10). God is Trinity, that is, one essence in three hypostases (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Thus the soul, being created in the image of God, is single as well as manifold. She has three powers: the appetitive power, the intelligent power and the irascible power. All three must be united and be directed to God. According to St. Maximos their development according to nature is for the intelligent power to have the knowledge of God, for the appetitive power to desire and love only God and for the irascible power to carry ou tthe will of the Lord. In this way the commandment is fulfilled: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk. 12.30). When the nous remains in God, it raises the appetitive power to love Him and the irascible power to fight against the evil spirit and seek for purification. So, union exists because an impetus towards God exists. So then! Sin tears up the union of the three powers of the soul. The nous comes to ignore God, the appetitive power loves the creatures and not the Creator and the irascible power is submitted to the tyranny of the passions. Thus, we have the complete enslavement of the soul.
St Gregory of Palamas describes this state very well.
Firstly, the nous moves away from God and turns to other creations: “whenever we open a door to the passions, the nous is immediately scattered, wandering all the time over carnal and worldly things, over the manifold pleasures and the impassioned thoughts which go with them”.
Secondly, the nous, fallen away from God, leads desire astray from God and His commandments: “when the nous rebels, desire is also scattered in fornication and foolishness.
Thirdly, the will is submitted to the passions and is tormented and becomes enraged: “man, who has been destined to be a child of God, becomes a murderer, becoming comparable not only to the wild beasts, but also to the reptiles and venomous animals, he becomes a scorpion, a snake, an offspring of vipers”.
Therefore, the three powers of the soul depart from God but at the same time, they lose their unity with each other. The appetitive power wants to return to God but the irascible power does not allow it; desire wants the return but the nous does not allow it; desire wants the return but the nous, not believing in God, does not want to love God. We strive for this unity and attain it finally through the Jesus prayer. The return to God starts with the concentration of the nous. Our aim is to detach the nous from its attraction to surrounding objects and bring it back to itself so that the desire is brought back.