Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | October 13, 2010

Norman Russell on Staniloae’s Other Way Round

I’ve been reading Norman Russell’s “Orthodox Thinking on Theosis” and find it offers a fairly cogent articulation of the various approaches to Theosis. Yes, there is more than one. Who’d have thunk it? Well… our saints and academics.

Much of this is heady stuff and for those of us reading as we do in those moment before head hits pillow (or in the midst of it!)… sometimes we find ourselves, “Oh that’s nice… turn down that page”, dropping off and the next morning wondering what it was we found on the page so remarkable. Honest… looking over some of my turned down corners this morning I have to say that what seems to fit nicely and cap a discussion in the midst of the context of a train of  fuzzy thought too often just doesn’t translate well into standing on its own in the morning. Some of this is no doubt the reality of the complexity of the subject.

The truth is that for the most part, there’s no getting around the fact that Russell does a great job, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to receive the benefit of his gloss on the wealth of material absorbed for your digestion here. I haven’t gotten to the end of the text yet, but it does seem to me that in the course of “rediscovering” Hesychasm, we have yet to ground much of our literature on it in the everyday life of the layity… though I would suggest that is what many of us ordinary slobs are looking for, and what I think many are endeavoring to do. Yet thankfully, the way is open if still shrouded in the mists of our limited vision and weak inclinations, and Russell does a reasonable job in making it more clear. But heck, the real problem is that we want, don’t we? And yet with every other breath, in truth we seem to want something else… or not yet.

As accounted, what Staniloae offers in my reading is a view on the puzzling microcosm of the whole. Russell notes the censors required him to write “spirituality” for mystery, so read the passage below with this substitution in mind:

Staniloae was imprisoned by the Communist authorities for the years from 1958 to 1964 at a time when Romanian Christians were being treated with particular harshness. Some time afterwards, on being asked what prison had taught him, he replied: “I realised that our theology had been too abstract and theoretical…” In Orthodox Spirituality he gives an experiential account of “spirituality.” Union with God is the product of an ecstasy of love, “the sentiment that forms with God a “we”. Perpetual ecstasy is possible only in the life to come. But in this life we can emancipate the self, not by loving our fellow human beings so that we can love God, but the other way round: “We have the feeling that in love of God as ecstasy, God has opened His heart to us and received us in it, just as we have opened our heart so that He can enter it.”  The mind – or rather the heart, the core of our human person – is penetrated wholly by God without being confused with Him. Always anxious not to be merely abstract and theoretical, Staniloae offers a comparison from human experience: “…when I see you in a moment of ecstasy of love, I see myself in you too.” pp. 154-155

What I liked about this was not just the neat summation that Social Justice begins with what Professor Higgins would have considered “fixing up the mess that’s inside” first, the sense that loving God enables love for our neighbor in truth rather than the other way round which so often seems motivated by self love, but more than that, it is also the acid test that in turn we ground our “contemplation” in concrete love for neighbor. And so if at first the whole seems a linear progression (love God, then neighbor), then as it becomes less of a conscious effort, so it becomes a multi-tasking / multi-dimensional process as we continue along our way.

Russell goes on to add:

“But our actual experience is rather of the fragmentation of human nature and of our distance from God. This is what the Fall represents, which we make personally our own when we refuse the divine summons to communion with God: “The free refusal of personal participation in this natural union with the Godhead perpetuates the ‘unnatural’ mode of existence of the Fall, which is humanity’s hell.” Our choice in fact is between a personal going out towards God (ec-stasy), by which we attain union with him in his divine energies, or a falling away from God (ap0-stasy) by which we become increasingly fragmented parts of a merely natural world.”

“Hell is the torment of not loving, as Dostoevsky says. It is remaining locked in our self-contained individuality, unable to go out of ourselves in ecstasy or to attain relation and communion.” p. 158

The path becomes clearer as you read through Russell’s summations, but no easier. Not light reading, but worthy… even if my account of it here – is not. There’s more to add… and I’ll try to get to it (soon?).



  1. It strikes me that all this is commentary on Eph. 5:1ff, “Forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven you…” The realization of the love of God first, neighbor follows.

  2. True. Only I think the Social Justice crowd tends to not care nearly as much about the “love of God” part as that which enables righteous action as opposed to “it’ll look good”.

    Given that this is a book on Theosis, and the Eph. passage on forgiveness, the two taken together would tend to emphasize theosis through the sacraments of confession and eucharist – life in and of the Body. This is one of the routes outlined, and the one which I think is more open to those of us living in the world for whom contemplation is more… uh… like when? All the time, yes, but when is it purely all the time, or pure?

    I’m thinking I’m one of those guys who finds the theological discussion (as opposed to pure prayer as theology) of these things less and less compelling (though I obviously still like to read them) and more and more obscure (which means I remain Thickheaded). Yes, language often fails to capture a flesh and blood incarnate sensibility. But I also think that Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex’s point that instead the whole is intended to be experimental and experiential (not necessarily existential – though some move it in that direction) is what tends to differentiate Orthodox understandings. And maybe it should be orthodox little “O” to account for encouraging us to recognize these things even in mere inklings and touches wherever we find them and howsoever God allows them – even beyond our “tribe”.

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