(*) What is the Human Nous?
The human nous in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the "eye of the heart or soul" or the "mind of the heart". The soul of man is created by God in His image; man's soul is intelligent and noetic. St Thalassios wrote that God created beings "with a capacity to receive the Spirit and to attain knowledge of Himself; He has brought into existence the senses and sensory perception to serve such beings". Eastern Orthodox Christians hold that God did this by creating mankind with intelligence and noetic faculties. Angels have intelligence and nous, whereas men have reason - both logos and dianoia - nous and sensory perception. This follows the idea that man is a microcosm and an expression of the whole creation or macrocosmos. The human nous was darkened after the Fall of Man (which was the result of the rebellion of reason against the nous), but after the purification (healing or correction) of the nous (achieved through ascetic practices like hesychasm), the human nous (the "eye of the heart") will see God's uncreated Light (and feel God's uncreated love and beauty, at which point the nous will start the unceasing prayer of the heart) and become illuminated, allowing the person to become an orthodox theologian.~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I believe you have seen the title of today's speech, which refers to the therapeutic treatment of the human nous. Let me begin by making a few observations. As the title suggests, our first step is to observe the anatomy of the human nous; the next is to specify the malady and suggest the therapeutic process for healing the human nous. É will analyze these issues by walking on the steps of the Church Fathers and drawing from their theology, and I dare say that this gathering presents an ideal opportunity, because everything I am going to say today, based on Patristic theology, is approached through the interpretation given by the Fathers themselves to the Gospel passage we have just heard – the narrative about the possessed youth. In the works of the Fathers we find a meticulous analysis and interpretation not only of the text itself, but of what constitutes “possession", besides being under the control of an evil spirit. This will become clearer as we move ahead. Of course, nothing is a mere coincidence; God has allowed us to have this speech today, along with the reading of the Gospel passage that so befits it. We will see how this unravels. Now, then, let us make a medical observation, let us perform an “anatomy of the human nous”, as the Fathers of the Church call it. And then, having performed the anatomy, the dissection, if there is an affliction in a dissected organ, we will proceed to define it and then specify and prescribe the therapy to be followed.
Let me say a few things about something that is extremely substantial and that we should be aware of; it is a general but essential type of knowledge that I believe Christians ought to be familiar with, since it is Patristic theology. There is nothing out of reach or hard to comprehend and we, as Christians, ought to understand the basics about the human soul. Each of us knows a few things about the heart, very few facts, but still, we understand how the blood circulates, we know about the atriums. Similarly, we know a few things about the stomach. Nothing complicated. Without adopting a cognitivistic approach, still it is truly essential, since it is a matter that concerns us, to know about the basic organs of our soul, having as our guide the theology of St Gregory Palamas, who elaborates on very deep concepts when he says: “Keep in mind that these teachings are not meant for some experts or for monks only; I am talking for all Christians”. Likewise, I will also attempt to take you on a stroll and, in a nutshell, specify what it is that we call “the human nous”, in spiritual terms. I will keep my words as simple and as precise as possible, so as to give proper definitions and then you can ask me any questions you may have.
Let us observe the human soul: man is comprised of soul and body, both of which are created by God. When we observe the body, we perceive that it has certain functions, such as digestion, respiration, blood circulation ' common bodily functions. So far, so good. In the same sense, since body and soul have the same Creator Who has endowed them with similar structures, the soul has its “organs” as well. Quite simple, isn't it? What are the organs of the soul? We generally identify two basic organs, which are diversified in themselves, but overall we need to remember those two organs: one is the nous, the other is the heart. Now pay attention: I am referring to the “nous” and the “heart”, terms that have a spiritual meaning and signify more than the brain and the biological heart. These are the two organs of the soul, then. (I am being as plain as possible, so that there is no misunderstanding). As organs of the human soul, the nous and the heart are interrelated. Let us examine the nous, first. This is our primary object of interest; this is what we seek to define; however, in order to place it in the proper framework, I will have to illustrate its connection with the heart. What we need to see in particular, is how the nous can fall ill. Let us examine our primary definitions and, in order to become more easily understood, allow me to use the Patristic methodology, which consists in giving examples, by necessity, when approaching such topics. Christ Himself also used numerous examples and parables to help us comprehend many of His teachings. Thus, in order to illustrate the sowing of God's seed in our hearts, He told the Parable of the Sower. Similarly, we are also using examples in our effort to grasp very deep concepts.
So, please pay attention: We have two organs – the nous and the heart. Who has created them? God. He is the Creator, then. We have the nous, the heart and the Creator. At this point, I will give you an example that is not very accurate. Examples always fall short and, in fact, St John of Damascus has said: “Beware; we use examples for subjects such as these out of necessity, but an example is never completely accurate”. Indeed! Still, I will give you an example to demonstrate my point and I will use one that is easy to follow, drawn from our everyday experience regarding worldly matters. Let us take a house, or an apartment building, that needs to be heated. What do we normally do? We install a boiler. The boiler will be filled with oil that will subsequently provide heating to every room in every apartment as it burns. In the context of this example, what is the first step to take? Get the heating oil for the boiler. Someone has to go to a residential oil company, or a similar supplier and say: “I need oil”. A person turns somewhere and asks for something. And, like every company that operates in this world and needs to sell its product, the supplier won't turn him down. That is its line of business, after all, so it will provide the oil, which will end up in the boiler. What next? The boiler will be heated. And thus, the entire building will be heated and the warmth will spread in all the apartments, as well.
Listen now. First comes the realization that we need oil. It takes a nous to make the thought. A nous! So, someone thinks about the oil and seeks it from somewhere. Who is he going to ask it from? Who can nourish the human soul? Only God! Therefore, man will turn to God, who will provide this fuel – God's fiery Love has always nourished man. Where does the fuel go? Into the boiler, which is the heart. The fuel-seeking nous appeals to God, turns towards God and nowhere else; if you are looking for an oil vendor you don't go to a street kiosk that only sells items like chocolates and newspapers… You seek a solution and in God you will find the solution. So, keep this in mind: Having a steady orientation towards God is a teaching we draw from the theology of the Church Fathers who draw upon and expound the texts of the Holy Scripture. Remember Christ's saying: “What is the principal virtue?”; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…” (Mark 12:30). This orientation towards God is a principal issue. Where will you turn to “recharge” yourself? To God, who is your only recourse.
In the Gospel passage we read today, the possessed boy's father asks Jesus: “Can you do something?”, to which He replies: “The issue is not whether I can do something; it is whether you can believe”. Mark the word “believe”, because it signifies the actual turn towards God, not some sort of theoretical, abstract faith. Here is one important facet of today's Gospel reading. Can you believe? Can you ask God [to give you] as you would ask the oil company? So shall you receive… God is our provider, because He is the bestower of gifts. And where does He deliver His gifts? In the repository of our hearts, so as to keep us warm. Thus we feel content and experience the meaning of the words: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Psalm 50:12). The “heart” according to the Fathers is the repository where the fuel is placed – I know the words only give you a rough picture – but this is, nevertheless, where the “fuel” is stored to warm our entire being.
I only gave you a simple schematic representation, so as to clarify what is meant by the heart and by the nous. At present, we are mainly interested in the human nous, which is a focal point. To go back to our example, should my nous ask for oil? It would be absurd not to. But, what if I am looking for oil in the wrong place? What if I am getting oil that has the wrong composition and doesn't perform as it should? The text says: “Love [God] - this is the primary commandment - with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”. This is made absolutely clear. You should ask of nobody but God. This is fundamental. Do you have faith?... Incidentally, in today's passage, the boy was possessed, yet Jesus tells the father “it is you who needs to believe”. One might say: “But he wasn't the one possessed by the evil spirit”. Again, let us heed to the words of the Fathers, who use such beautiful imagery. They say, if your child is very young and doesn't know that he/she has to use a blanket when he/she gets cold, it is your responsibility to look after the child and cover him/her with a blanket. If you don't, it is the child who will get sick, not you. In short, you didn't cover your child properly. Some people ask: “Why should the boy be possessed, since it is through no fault of his?” The text, after all, makes it clear that his condition dated “from childhood”. (Mark 9:21). Therefore one may wonder: how can a child be held responsible or how is it possible for a child to be in demonic possession? The answer lies in maintaining a liturgical approach to things. This is not between me and God, alone. The liturgical approach involves the entire community, as a unified whole. Did you attend to your child, making sure that he/she is properly covered? You see that the boy, in his ignorance, was not shielded spiritually. He is now possessed by a demon, while the father is moaning. And Christ asks the father to have faith. “Do you believe?” He asks. That is the big issue.
We have established, up to a point, the role of the nous and the heart. Now, what about the operation of the nous, which is a pivotal element, and why exactly is it a pivotal element? All the Fathers of our Church mention the “nous” when they refer to the fall of man. What is the fall? Man's decision to walk away from God. “Away” signifies a state of being where man is no longer God-oriented. God, however, is omnipresent. Just like the oil company that is right before your eyes and yet you ignore it and go to the street kiosk instead. God is everywhere; the problem is that we do not turn to Him. So, the Fathers say, “What happened to Adam and Eve?” They were afflicted by what is called (please pay attention, because this is a term commonly used by all the Fathers) the “darkening of the nous”. Their nous was darkened and instead of asking for “oil” from the supplier, they turned elsewhere. The fall of man is the darkening of the nous. So, for anyone who asks how sin entered the world – man's darkened nous is the answer. Think of a drunken person who loses control of his car and drives it over the cliff. The nous is the root cause, then. And what got into the nous? Temptation. Temptation itself has no power. No power at all. God is Power. But, when we sin towards God, we become susceptible to temptation. Temptation is always making suggestions. It even dared put Christ to the test. Hence the nous, which is an organ of the human soul, is assaulted by temptation. This is fundamental consideration. As a result, the nous is darkened, obscured. Why is it darkened? Because it has drifted away from God. Let me proceed by reading some of the Patristic texts; they are too important to overlook and indeed, you should not only be deeply versed in them, but also revel at their diversity, richness and profound content. I can't help thinking, sometimes, how much we miss by not being better acquainted with the works of the Fathers.
Let me start reading. St Athanasius says: “when man lost the knowledge of God, he turned back to non-existence again”. When the nous of man was no longer filled by the concept of God, where did it go? To the “non-existent”. He went to get oil where there was none. This is such a striking statement! Or, take St John of Damascus, who says: “from Him”, from God, “every good thing derives its goodness”, everything that is good comes from God, “and so far as it is separated from Him” – as the nous distances itself from Him – what happens? “It falls into evil”. Man leaves God and his nous becomes distorted.
St Irenaeus says the same thing in other words : “If the Spirit be wanting to the soul (i.e. if the soul is deprived of the Spirit), man remains a natural (non-spiritual) and carnal being”.  The terms “natural” (non-spiritual) and “carnal” were first used by the Apostle Paul. St Irenaeus, interpreting Paul's words, says: “It is the spirit of God that bestows this power upon human nature". What is it that God bestows on our nous and heart? It is the Grace of the Holy Spirit, which is what we experience inside the Church. If the soul is deprived of the Holy Spirit, man is nothing but a natural being. He has a soul, but it is a soul that does not partake of the Spirit of God. A natural man, a man with a soul, a psyche – but not a spiritual man. You see, very often we hear this term used on TV or in the radio: “Today our program will feature spiritual people”. A spiritual person is someone who lives within the Church and partakes of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. He or she might be an artist as well, but the term “spiritual people” is not limited to artists and actors. A cart driver or a street sweeper can be a spiritual person as well, if he is part of the Church. You see, the term “spiritual person” has been distorted, because man has moved away from God and his nous is no longer directed towards Him. The Apostle Paul says it very eloquently in his Epistle to Romans: “they became vain in their reasonings and their senseless nous and hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21). “They became vain in their reasonings, speculations”. Please pay attention to the choice of words. Almost always, especially in the New Testament, the term (“dialogismos” in the original Greek) is used in a negative sense. When He is about to heal the paralytic, Christ is aware that people “are reasoning within themselves” (Mark 2:6). So Christ says: “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts?” You see, the word in the Greek text is not “logismos” (thought, contemplation), it is “dia-logismos”, i.e. fragmented, scattered thinking: The fragmentation of the nous. You might as well apply this knowledge when you are confronted with cults, heresies and similar issues, [considering that the same word is used today for “meditation”]. There is a direct link. Reasoning, speculation [of a fragmented nous]: terms which are always used in a negative sense in the Holy Scripture. Thus, man ends up in a state of ignorance, although he is created with a predisposition towards God, with a nous that is meant to turn to God for help: “Love the Lord your God”. This is faith, the movement towards God, and it is something that we have overlooked.
...Which brings us to the matter of our ignorance of God. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor: “man has been afflicted with ignorance of the very cause of his existence”. What is the illness that has befallen mankind? Their unawareness of the fact that God is with them. What is the name of the disease? Ignorance. What is it that they lack? The knowledge of God, regardless of any worldly knowledge they may possess. Ignorance of God is the disease that causes their illness. As the Fathers so eloquently remind us – in the words of St Athanasius of Alexandria, to be specific – man's fist knowledge was the knowledge of God. What was the first thing man came to know after the fall? The fact that he was naked. This was the first thing Adam and Eve realized. Naked in what sense? In the sense that they had divested themselves of God's Grace. That was when “the eyes of both were opened” (Genesis 3:7). They thought they knew then, but in fact they had no knowledge anymore, despite the fact that God was there, before their very eyes. Prior to the fall, man's nous was clear, not defiled, not darkened. They knew, they saw, they recognized God. After the fall, the first thing they knew was their nakedness. What is nakedness? Being divested of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. In fact, as St Mark the Hermit gives a very vivid description in one of his magnificent ascetic texts: The devil, he says, seeing that we are moving away from God, sets three “giants” on us, on our nous and intellect. The three giants St Mark speaks of, which wage war against mankind and are bent on destroying us, are: Ignorance of God, Forgetfulness of God and Laziness. First of all: ignorance of God; secondly: forgetfulness – as when you don't know where the oil vendor is or you no longer remember – and, finally, laziness (“why bother at all…”). Keep in mind those three giants as a constant reminder in your spiritual struggle: Forgetfulness, Ignorance, Laziness. And remember that [in order to defeat them] our inclination towards God has to be continuous and persistent, as manifested in the unceasing prayer. This is not a mighty feat. Unceasing prayer is the mind's continuous turn and steady orientation towards God.
This is not unlike the operation of basic organs of the human body, which also function unceasingly. Have you ever stopped breathing? Has your heart ever stopped beating? Has any of your basic body functions shut down? God has created man in such a way, that the basic organic functions of our corporeal existence are based on a principle of unceasing, continuous operation. Wouldn't He do the same for our spiritual well-being? The notion of praying unceasingly, which might seem incomprehensible to us, is the most powerful and natural urge, something that would be unthinkable not to engage in and as natural as eating, sleeping, playing or having a conversation. Does the heart ever take a break? Likewise, we take up this practice not as an exertion, but as something that would be inconceivable not to pursue. It signifies the orientation of our entire existence towards God. If this is forgotten, if we do not get the “fuel” from where we are supposed to, how can we maintain heat in the organism? Now, let me go back to the text of the Gospel that we read this morning, because there are very subtle and analytic references to be found there. The passage describes how the possessed boy was acting. Notice the terrible symptoms of his condition. First, the Gospel mentions a “mute spirit”, a spirit that deprived the boy of speech. Jesus calls it a deaf and mute spirit. Mute, unable to talk, and deaf, unable to hear. What does that mean? A lack of communication. Non-communication. There is nothing physically wrong with the child. Had there been an organic defect in the speech centre, it would have been a different story. One may be speechless, but can still become a saint. Here, however, there is a lack of hearing, a lack of communication and another thing, which is very, very substantial at this critical moment: The possessed boy falls on the ground and is thrown into convulsions when he sees Christ. In other words, he cannot stand God. At the same time, there are three further external manifestations. The text reads that the boy foamed at the mouth, gnashed his teeth and became rigid. Notice how they all happen simultaneously! Any specialist in the field, judging from the symptoms and according to the extent of his worldly knowledge, would probably say that the diagnosis is “manic depression”. Not that this would be far off the mark, to be honest. There is both mania (raging, convulsions, foaming) and depression, withdrawal into oneself. So an expert would define the condition as manic depression, but wouldn't be able to tell how it originated. The origins of the disease lie in the fact that the afflicted person as a whole (both body and soul) walked away from God and is no longer with Him. If he was suffering from an organic problem, there would have been a manifestation of one of these symptoms, but here they are all combined and the most telling fact is that when he sees Christ he falls on the ground, he cannot stand His presence. These are key elements to consider. I would therefore agree that, on the surface, this is a manifestation of manic depression. The question is: where did it come from? How can this disease of the nous be cured? The root of the disease is in the fact that man distanced himself from God.
Now let us focus again on the nous. The more our nous distances itself from God, the more twisted it becomes. You should be aware that the human nous is naturally inclined towards pleasure. God has made it this way. What we call paradise, the future benedictions, everything we experience near God as members of the Church, is a pleasure. God has given us pleasures. It was His intention that food has taste so that we can enjoy eating it; otherwise we might not even consider it. It is this quality that induces us to eat. A similar principle is at work in the spiritual realm as in the physical, so that we may experience joy on that level, too. St Maximus says that there is only one pleasure, that of the soul. It is the soul's inclination towards Jesus Christ and as such, it is unique. Therefore, in any human relationship where pleasure is involved, the nature of this pleasure should be what we experience when we turn to God. The Fathers –whose words I am rephrasing here – have said it so eloquently: love without Christ is a sensual pleasure without any substance. That is why the Church directly links this inclination towards Christ with any love event in our lives. Everything else the world says, is superfluous talk and, if you pardon my expression, a bit of nonsense. People talk about romantic love, but what does that mean? Without this inclination towards God, if we discard this element, all that remains are transient pleasures. St Maximus has a name for this amorous pleasure without Christ; he calls it “self-love”. These definitions have a very deep significance and anyone who is involved in the education of people on these matters ought to be familiar with them, so that, instead of cultivating false sensual pleasures, they can lay the foundations for this turn towards God and help other people, our children, find God and even promote understanding among people. We do not reject romantic love but we reject the ignorance of God, the persistent alienation from God. Ultimately, this is nothing but self-love.
Unless the nous is inclined towards God, the pleasure of carnal love is a perversion and an unnatural act. That is why - if you are familiar with the Old Testament - the prophet Daniel is called “a man of desires” (Daniel 9:23). What kind of desires? Those linked to the fundamental pleasure derived from the orientation towards God that is so prevalent. “A man of desires”, but what is the nature of this desire? The Greek word for “desire”, (“epi-thymia”) refers to the thymic part of the soul and its function and it suggests something superimposed on it. With reference to desires, St Basil the Great says “concupiscence is a disease of the soul”. Without Christ, without God, without the mind's orientation towards God and the therapeutic effect that the latter has on the nous, desire is indeed a disease. Note what St Maximus the Confessor says: Man, in his original state, prior to the fall, had no experience of pain. Does that mean that if he were pierced by a thorn he wouldn't feel anything?... Listen to Maximus' explanation: Man was insensitive to pain due to the delight he was deriving from being united with God. There is such delight in man's union with God that the notion of suffering doesn't even exist. A thorn can still pierce you, but there is no pain involved. All suffering then, even the most severe – despair – is the result of our dissociation and alienation from God.
These are extremely unconventional notions that – Orthodox teachings aside – shouldn't be ignored by anyone who is, at least professionally and even from a secular standpoint, involved with issues pertaining to the human psyche. At least, if these professionals are so well-learned and experienced in this field, they should dig a little deeper and draw from earlier sources. Instead of starting with the “brilliant” insights of psychotherapy, Freud's theory and the rest, they could be going further back, to St Maximus the Confessor, to St Mark the Hermit. They should study these texts, and if modern expertise has something significant to say, then it should be taken into account, as well. But how can they ignore the patristic texts? If what they practice is “science”, a term that denotes thorough knowledge of the object under study, these key texts cannot be overlooked, otherwise essential knowledge on man will be lost on modern scientists. Why does the Church treat them as key documents? Because their application yields certain results. This is what science is supposed to be: practicing something in a sustained manner over long stretches of time (say, for 2,000 years), in every part of the world and arriving at the same, unequivocal end result. So, if I apply a certain medication everywhere in the world for 2,000 years and it has a universally therapeutic effect, then you can safely say that this is science. The terminology used in the Orthodox Church with reference to the therapeutic treatment of the soul is part of a science. A true science, because it is practiced across time and space and the effect is always therapeutic. It even specifies the organs involved. If this is not science, I do not know what is. I am not distorting the facts, I am stating them as they are and this is truly how science is applied.
Thus, as the nous turns towards God, in the scheme we have described, you can see how the “fuel” we obtain from Him warms up the heart and along with it the nous and soul of man, his entire being. The “heater” – the heart – provides warmth to the nous, creating what the Fathers call a “cyclic (or “circular”) movement”. St Gregory Palamas was the first to use this terminology, which is very accurate. In fact, St Gregory used to enact this cyclic movement through his posture during prayer – he would sit on a low stool, forming a circle with his body, thus prompting his detractors to make silly remarks, calling him a “psychic navel-gazer”... Well, then, man as a whole engages in this motion, which has been described by the Fathers: I go to God, who supplies me with heat; the heat from the heart moves to the nous, which is then turned to God and the cyclic movement starts all over again. Heaven forbid that the nous diverts from this cycle and wanders away from God. If not directed to Him, then it will fly to other things, like a ray of light that is lost in space. There has to be a cyclic movement, a return to the starting point. Keep praying, then, and always trust in God, for He is the bestower of gifts and one of His most prominent gifts is keeping our hearts warm. The “heating up” of the human heart is God's work and once the heart is heated, so is the nous, whereby our prayers are further enhanced and intensified. Eventually, this process becomes a systematic – though not automatic – practice and it functions in a unique way. So, please keep in mind the cyclic movement.
The thymic part of the soul is another area that requires our attention. This is ancient Greek terminology that has been elevated to a fundamental concept in patristic texts. The etymology of the word in Greek links it to “thymesis” – i.e. memory. To illustrate its importance, let us think of computers. What is the essential component of every computer? A memory, which is embedded in it. If the memory is destroyed, the computer no longer functions. Similarly, man has a permanent memory of God engrafted in his cells - the thymic part of the soul that always remembers God. We carry within us this memory of God that He has implanted and the question is how to activate what is already inside. The activation is like the heating process that involves the nous and the heart, as I have already described.
Take note of the words of St Evagrius, who reminds us that while praying we need to be totally drawn to God and avoid being distracted by anything else. As Abbas Isaiah the Solitary also says, at that time there should be an aversion for all other things. If the nous is fixed elsewhere and turns to that direction, if the thymic does not function as an instrument of memory, then we undermine ourselves. Now, the word “memory” signifies something extremely important and linking it with computers provides a good example - only, in our case, we are actually speaking about the remembrance of God. It is due to that remembrance that we are able to think forward. Animals, by contrast, have no concern about tomorrow or the day after; they only have instincts. Why do humans think about tomorrow? How did we come to contemplate about the future and even abuse this ability to the point of turning it into a fantasy, an affliction of the nous? It is so common to imagine a certain future for our children and, acting like bad tutors, make statements like “one day you'll be a prime minister” or “you, my girl, are going to marry a prince”. These are false prospects that we lay before them.
The Fathers say that humans, the only logical beings among earth's creatures – just as Angels and other powers are the logical beings in Heaven – have been endowed by God with memory and forethought, for one reason: so that they can contemplate Paradise. We have memory so that we can move ahead. What does the future hold for us? Shall we be kings, prime ministers? What will become of us? That is something we don't know. There is one certainty, though, concerning the future: That God is eternal. There is one memory we can depend on: the fact that we are imperishable and will live eternally. Therefore, our current course of action is a perversion of our memory and a deeply flawed educational practice. I will go so far as to say that the whole structure of our educational system cultivates wrong memories in our children's minds. What is the goal of their studies? What is their perspective? What are their thoughts concerning the future? Are they preoccupied with the acquisition of prestige and the accumulation of money? With the attainment of success and recognition? If any of these are to come along the way, so be it. But if they comprise our entire memory and perspective, then our education as a whole is wrong. That is why our educational system is in such turmoil and why this turmoil will never subside completely. It is because man's natural reaction is to resent and oppose the improper function of memory. Hence our children get so tired and feel exhausted and disappointed by school. They do not understand why, but they realize that something in there leaves them unsatisfied and spiritually malnourished.
These analyses offered by the Fathers are of great significance, since we are led by them to confront surprising realities. With reference to the pathology I just described, St Gregory of Nyssa says something very beautiful: God loves us deeply. And because of His love for us He has created us in His image, so that we may be like Him – by divine Grace, of course. This is our potential: to become gods, by means of His Grace. Out of his abundant love, God has shared with us what He possesses. Can there be a greater gift than the capacity to become gods? And how can we define God? St Gregory, in his profound texts says that there is one thing we know for certain: that God is free and independent, totally unaffected and unrestricted. Listen to this, now: “Since God is free and shares everything with us, He has made us equally free and independent. Such is our freedom, that we can even say to Him “I do not want You”. Freedom is a gift from God, says St Gregory. It flourishes by cultivating the thymic aspect of the soul and the inclination towards God. We still remain free, however! Do you realize how important the issue of freedom is? Take for example a person who engages in antisocial behaviour: How do you stop him? By what means can you stop a child who will soon be a grown-up, unless you suppress his freedom? Such measures only aggravate this type of behaviour, as we see it manifested by rioters: the more they are confronted by the special police forces, the more they keep throwing gas cartridges. They react because they realize that something restricts their freedom. This is a huge issue for our education. At the same time, an educational system that endorses the idea that anything goes and fails to nurture the memory of God and the mind's natural inclination towards Him, will breed destructive rebels. Man is equal to God, say the Fathers, with regard to his free will – take note: equal to God solely on account of his free will. This freedom that appears to be potentially destructive is very often the solution to the problem, as it acknowledges that “God is the source of every virtue”. Unless we turn towards Him, we achieve nothing. This is called “the pathology of freedom” and, again, it is an issue closely related to memory.
St Nikolaos Kavasilas has written what I mentioned a little earlier: “We have memory in order that we may carry Him [Christ] in us”. That is the purpose our memory serves. Without Christ, what use is this faculty to me? To remind me to go to work tomorrow or to help me recall economic facts, historical events, old happenings? Allow me another question, with reference to education: What is the effect of the educational process on our children? It teaches them a variety of things. In fact, it instructs them to learn this stuff by heart. The result is an overcharged memory that weighs heavily on them. Why? Because since “we have memory in order that we may carry Christ in us”, a memory without Christ, without the core of our existence, serves only as a means of overloading students with knowledge. These are extremely challenging questions and I regret the fact they are not put up for an open and thorough debate on the pedagogical treatment of our current predicament. The element that defines man is the memory of God. Memory does not exist so that we can keep our passions in mind... Which brings us to the well-known passage: “We ought to think of God even more often than we draw our breath”. Remembering God, thinking of God is a natural function, as natural as breathing.
In the words of St Basil the Great: “having God established in self by means of memory is God's indwelling”. What does it mean to have God dwell inside us? We often use the phrase “God be with us”. What does this mean in practical terms and as a definitive reality in our lives? It is “having God established in self”, it is what Christ says about becoming temples of the living God. That is the concept described here. This memory is what prompts us to have God established in ourselves. “Remembrance of God, oblivion of the world” says St Diadochos of Photiki. What world? The world of sin. Consider what Christ said to His disciples: “I have chosen you out of this world” (John 15:19). He placed them in a situation where they had to forget this world of sin. “I have chosen you” and now that you have been chosen, “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves” (Matt. 10:16). But you need to forget one thing – sin. In this case oblivion is necessary, because as long as there is a memory of activated sin, it is impossible to purge and clarify the nous; it remains in the darkness. This is a very compelling memory.
Again, in St Maximus' words: “God is shapeless and formless” – He has no shape and no form, as we know. Temptation, on the other hand, does the exact opposite: it uses various forms and shapes in order to invade us. That is why the Fathers advise us against creating mental images and fantasies while praying. God cannot be confined in shapes and patterns. It is the devil that assumes various shapes and initiates remembrance, forgetfulness, oblivion, dreams, a variety of experiences and mental states. With the memory of God we restore our nous to a state that is free from evil thoughts. The nosology of the nous is defined by the Church Fathers. St Gregory of Sinai clearly states that forgetfulness of God is a disease of the soul and of the faculty of reason. It has a direct impact on human memory, which ends up divided, diffused and fragmented, a prey to tempting thoughts. If I forget God, my memory will crumble into pieces, resulting in scattered, wayward thinking: “Dia-logismos”. That explains our deep anguish: What shall we do here? What shall we do there? What is to be done?
At this point, the Fathers have more to say about the pathology of the imagination, the creation of fantasies, to which we referred earlier when talking about the unwavering nous. Do not engage in superfluous fantasies. The only things worth envisioning are Heaven, Jesus Christ, Love, Salvation, everything that is truly beautiful. This is what the Church Fathers call “wholesome imagination”. Only through this wholesome imagination, which is God-oriented and focused on God's benedictions, it is possible to have good dreams. You see, the Fathers do not deny dreams, provided that the imagination has been healed in advance. If the imagination is sick, the devil, being aware of it, enters the nous even during sleep and interrupts your communion with God. The unwholesome nature of your fantasies allows this to happen and the truth is that today imagination constantly disrupts our communion with God.
St Athanasius the Great says that “men, in default of the vision of good, began to devise and imagine for themselves what was not”. Having forgotten the vision of God, the certainty of His existence, man resorted to imagining “what was not” – things of no substance, mere assumptions. Further on, as part of their discourse on the therapeutic treatment of the nous and on the mind's turn towards God, the Fathers discuss the pathology of the senses. All the senses, says St John Chrysostom, were given to us for the purpose of understanding God. Note how, in every mystery of the Church, there is a tangible event taking place: Christening is performed with baptism in water; bread and wine are part of the Holy Communion and olive oil is used in the Holy Unction; even in Confession, the priest places his hand and the stole upon the repentant's head. Each of them is an act with real import for our life. We are endowed with sensory perception as a means to comprehend God. And St Chrysostom stresses again that: “I was given eyes so as to behold the Creation glorify the Lord”: To see the Creation, the bird that is singing, unaware that its song is a hymn to God; to watch the first leaves and the blooming of the trees in springtime and perceive the glory of God in everything.
Not surprisingly, the text of Paul's 2nd Epistle to Corinthians speaks about the “fragrance of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15). The fragrance of Christ's presence permeates all things. Every sense is involved, even the taste: “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 33:9). Our turn towards God involves all the senses and this is how the body becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit. Whereas now [in our fallen state], instead of serving God, our senses are in the service of our personal pleasure. This is a perversion of the human nous, which is no longer God-oriented. Deprived of God's heat, man still needs to survive as an organic entity, but where will he turn? He has nothing, no “heating oil” to burn. He turns cold and so the passions, which are diseases of the soul, settle in.
Within this pattern that comprises the Nous, God and the Heart, the Fathers describe a process of internal reversal consisting in two movements. They refer to it as the double movement of internal reversal and define it as distancing oneself from evil and coming closer to God. All it takes is this double action: Moving away from evil and moving towards God. Again, remember the dialogue we read today in the Gospel: “– Can you heal my child? – My friend, you shouldn't be asking me. The issue here is not whether I can, it is whether you believe”. “If you can believe”, says the Gospel (Mark 9:23) – in other words, if you can perform this therapeutic double movement: abandon the evil that you had been cultivating for so long, apparently, while your child was being kept away from God, and turn towards Me. Do you believe? “Yes”. Without maintaining this balance, we expose ourselves to all kinds of passions.
The Fathers have actually made a systematic analysis of the passions, which I do not have sufficient time to expound here. They rate the passions, starting with the external ones and moving to those that are more deep-seated. I will merely recount them here, because they are all among the causes of our alienation from God. The Fathers begin by citing the carnal passions, namely: gluttony, fornication, love of money (avarice), greed and anger, which are followed by vainglory and pride. You see, first come gluttony, fornication, avarice, greed and then we move to more severe and deeper passions: vainglory and pride. The initial passions (gluttony, fornication, avarice, greed) are more superficial in their nature. The attack starts from the surface and then the disease slowly creeps inside us. To give you an example, if there is dust in this room, unless I use a protective screen or spectacles I will have dust in my eyes or in my mouth. Similarly, we ought to put safeguards in our senses, as well. If anything passes through unchecked, it will go straight to the nous, in order to be processed there. But if the nous is not inclined towards God, the invader will proceed deeper, as far as the heart, where it will stay. If I leave the basement door open with no one to guard it, rats will enter and since the place is unattended they will hide in the basement and I will have a really hard time driving them out. What could the nous do in this case? It was left unattended, and so were the senses. There was no guard, in either of them. Such metaphors are frequently used in Patristic texts. The terminology also comes from the Fathers and is best illustrated by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in his work, “On Guarding the Senses”. Again, the central issue is the nous and its guard. Inside the nous there are thoughts, naturally, and these thoughts indicate either a disposition towards God or a proclivity for demonic energies. It is not our intention to dismiss the nous, however. We do not pursue nirvana, in Buddhist terms, seeking total oblivion. That is definitely not an option! We keep ourselves directed to God and we either move towards Him or we operate in a demonic way. Allow me to cite another beautiful passage from the Holy Scriptures: “Blessed is the man who endures temptation” (James 1:12). There will always be temptations. The question is: what filters do you use to boost your resistance? What filters have you placed in your nous?
Let us see again what the Fathers have to say on this topic. What is the first stage of sin? Temptation. Where does temptation go? Here [in the nous], just as it did with Adam and Eve. This is not a sin in itself; it is an attack by temptation. Now, say the Fathers, if you engage in an inner discourse and open yourself to contemplation, you pave the way for the first sin, which is called “interaction”. So, if you start thinking “what a nice thing to consider”, you have already begun your discourse with the devil. To be under assault is not a sin; conversing with the devil, however, is the first stage of sinning. The third step is the commitment of sin. The fourth is the repetition of sin over and over, until it becomes an obsession. And then, the reverse course begins. Now that the rat has sneaked into the warehouse, into the heart, you will repent, you will drive it out, you will clean the nous – that's the nous therapy – by turning to God and then you will place filters on your senses. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation”. According to St Ammonas, the power of the Holy Spirit endows people with tremendous strength and fortitude in the face of temptation. This power belongs to the Holy Spirit and we partake in it as long as we stay within the Church. It is not possible to access it in any other context. Temptations cannot be defeated in any other way. People may tell you otherwise and claim that this or that person's corrupt thinking is due to a mental disease, etc. Have they ever considered another option?
“Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven”, says St Anthony the Great. That doesn't mean that we are looking forward to temptations; but, whether we want it or not, this is a war we cannot avoid. How shall we prevail in the war? Again, through the same course of action: by turning our nous to God and asking for His Divine Grace. That is when we embark on ascetic practices: watchfulness, vigilance, praying and inner attentiveness, at all times. Thus, we come to possess the quality mentioned by St Hesychius of Jerusalem [: discretion]. St Hesychius used to ask a question whenever he was visited by temptations: “Are you on our side or on the side of the enemy?” That is because temptations sometimes put on a charming and appealing facade when they approach us. The sweet temptation will whisper “it's OK to love this person”. What does this “love” imply? Seizing the opportunity for self-gratification? Using or taking advantage of the other person? St Hesychius, one of the great hermits whose writings we should be more familiar with, puts great emphasis on that point. He advises that we inquire “are you on our side or one of those working against us”? Even if it is a supposedly good thought that has entered your nous, why are you entertaining it? Take the case of a positive speculation about a job, or about your studies. What is the purpose of this speculation? Is it benign or malevolent? This is the dangerous spot. Why do I want this to this happen? What is going to be the outcome? Will it serve as a further step towards God, is it going to have a therapeutic effect on the society or is it meant for egotistical advancement? Again, St Isaac the Syrian steps in to remind us: “When the passions are destroyed, then the nous of man is restored to its natural health”. What further power can the passions have? The nous is created with a predisposition towards God, it leans only towards Him and anything man does, he does it for the glory of God.
Remember what Christ did in the Gospel passage that we read today. The text – an amazing text, if we read it closely – says that Jesus saw a large crowd running up to him. As you know, whenever there is an event, people rush to see what's happening. As soon as He realized that they were gathering around Him, Jesus was, so to speak, in a hurry to finish his work there. He resented the uproar the crowd, publicity of such occasions. There is no promotional exhibition here, no advertising. Such practices are a sure way to spoil your nous. Not only that, but afterwards, when Jesus leaves for Galilee, the text says: “They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he would not have anyone know it” (Mark 9:30). Instead of using the main public road, Jesus takes a byway. He didn't want to impress the masses with the events. We, on the other hand, have accustomed our children to applause and social recognition, without realizing the tragic consequences. It grieves me that every time there is a school parade, we appoint our top students to become flag-bearers. It is a downright destructive practice to publicize how good they are. There is a certain Psalm that illustrates this “schizophrenia”, i.e. the detachment of the nous from the heart, a predicament where the nous seeks God, but the heart is not inclined towards Him and therefore gets no fuel, no bolstering. This is “schizophrenia” [in the original sense of “split nous”]: instead of turning to God, man looks for fuel elsewhere. The problem is, you won't find heating oil in a street kiosk – only stuff like chewing gums. So your heart will have no fuel. If you are acquainted with the Holy Scripture you realize that this is madness. “He has travailed with unrighteousness, he has conceived trouble, and brought forth iniquity” (Psalm 7:14). All this frantic activity (the urge to fortify ourselves, etc) has travailed with unrighteousness (meaning that the outcome is injustice), has conceived trouble, and brought forth iniquity. Iniquity is the end result here, but beyond and above all these there is God's love and the healing of the human nous.
I haven't said anything unusual here today. To the best of my ability and as plainly as I could, I elaborated on the Patristic theology of the nous and its practical effect on our lives. This is the therapeutic treatment that our Church proposes for the nous, the disintegrated nous of every man. Inside the Church we want for nothing; we have experienced this therapeutic treatment. Every time, during the Divine Liturgy, this is what we re-live. “Let us stand well, let us stand in awe”: the words of the Archangels while Satan was falling. “Let us stand well, let us stand in awe”, that is all we need. To turn nous to God and keep a steady orientation towards Him.
. “…as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it.” (“On the Incarnation of the Word of God” – Transl. by Sister Penelope Lawson, C.S.M.V.).
. We ought to remember God, the original Greek text: «ìíçìïíåõôÝïí Èåïῦ »