Five men who shaped Orthodox spirituality

In getting ready for moving to Romania, I’ve been making lots of preparations. I’ve been sorting through all my possessions, packing what I’ll take with me (into one large suitcase and a carry-on), selling other things on eBay and Craigslist, getting other stuff ready for storage, and organizing the rest for a massive rummage sale in May.  I’ve been visiting area churches to spread the news and raise support.  I’ve been attempting to learn Romanian, with Pimsleur mp3s, the Complete Romanian text book, and Byki.  I’ve been learning a ton about the history and culture of Romania.  And I’ve been studying up on what Eastern Orthodoxy teaches.

Here are five men from Christian history who continue to define Orthodox spirituality and whom I hope to learn some more about in the coming months.  (Note:  I owe much to Christian History Issue 54 for this list.)

1.  Dionysius the Areopagite (400s?)
Nobody really knows for sure who Dionysius was, but he left behind quite a number of influential writings.  His “theology of negation” defines Eastern Orthodox thinking today.  Rather than teaching who God is, this method of theology shows who he is not by revealing how wrong are our human conceptions of him.  Central to Dionysius’ understanding of God is his insistence that God is far too great for human beings to comprehend.

2.  Maximus the Confessor (580-662)
Early in his life, Maximus served in the courts of Emperor Heraclius, but his conviction to biblical truth led to his resignation.  At age 82, he was tried in Constantinople, where his right hand and tongue were cut off in punishment.  But what Maximus is most remembered for is his teachings concerning theosis, the understanding that men are meant to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  This belief that Jesus died so that the image of God could be fully restored to human beings is central to Maximus’ teaching and to Eastern Orthodoxy.

3.  John of Damascus (655-749)
Probably the most unfamiliar aspect of Eastern Orthodox worship is the use of icons.  As Byzantine Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of all religious likenesses, John was caught right in the middle of the debate.  He argued that since God the Father took on flesh, the use of art in Christian worship was not idolatry but instead a profession of faith in the incarnation.  John set forth the important distinction still emphasized today that icons could be venerated (i.e. honored) but not worshiped.  Towards the end of his life, he devoted his time to writing some of Orthodoxy’s most beautiful hymns.

4.  Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022)
When Simeon was younger, he threw himself into worldly living.  And when he found God, he threw himself into the spiritual life with abandon.  During one of his all-night prayer vigils, he experienced a powerful vision of “Divine Light” that “suffused him, filled him with joy and made him lose all awareness of his surroundings.”  Although Simeon continued to fight against the pull of the world on his heart, his initial encounter with God played a lasting role in his spiritual life.  In fact, he taught that the Christian life was not composed of ritual but rather personal encounter with God.

5.  Gregory of Palams (1296-1359)
Although he was offered a place in the imperial court, Gregory turned down the emperor’s offer in favor of pursuing the monastic life.  As a monk, he began to teach that, while God’s essence is totally transcendent and unknowable, he interacts with humankind through his energies.  While he protected the holiness of God, he also made possible direct contact between God and mankind, two things very important to Eastern spiritual thought and practice.


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