segunda-feira, 26 de dezembro de 2016

Byzantine Esotericism vs Western Esotericism


1. Why should a student of Western esotericism pay attention to Byzantium? 
2. What does “esoteric” mean in Byzantium? 
3. Byzantine Esotericism versus Western Esotericism
4. Hellenic Esotericism in Byzantium
5. Orthodox Christian Esotericism in Byzantium

Byzantium has been defined by Western scholars in many different ways, by many different criteria and for many specific purposes. The later Byzantines themselves, however, found their world easy to define. Its irreducible cultural center consisted of two things: the doctrines and practices of the Orthodox Church, on the one hand; and on the other, the Greek language. It was a Byzantine’s mastery of the Greek language that distinguished him from the barbarian; it was his adherence to the Orthodox Church that distinguished him from the schismatic, the heretic, the pagan, and other such kinds of people. 

But this was only the center of Byzantium, for Greek texts had also been translated into “barbarian” tongues. Thus Byzantium, more loosely defined, also encompassed other Christian peoples who were Orthodox in their doctrine and practice, but who had long celebrated the liturgy and read the Bible in languages other than Greek (notably, in Old Georgian and Old Slavonic). Moreover, in every culture there are always dissidents, and so Byzantium also contained individuals or groups of people who were not Orthodox, and others who were not even Christian.

Byzantium, so defined, first began to take shape during the fourth century CE on the territory of the Eastern Roman Empire. In the fifth century two major schisms divided the supra-national, multilingual Christian world into three disjunct communions: the non-Ephesian Church in Persia, the several non-Chalcedonian Churches in various lands of the East, and the combined Orthodox and Catholic Churches of Byzantium and Rome. In the seventh and later centuries Islam conquered large parts of the Byzantine Empire, as well as most of the lands where the non-Ephesian and non-Chalcedonian Churches were at home. In the eleventh century another schism broke the communion that had hitherto prevailed between the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, and the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade widened this breach into a nearly unbridgeable chasm. Taken together, these developments massively reduced the linguistic and cultural variety of Byzantium, cutting it off from most of the Christian peoples that had long used Old Syriac, Old Armenian, Coptic, Old Ethiopic and Latin as their languages of liturgy and culture. On the other hand, Byzantium was able to extend its boundaries northwards, with the Christianization of Bulgaria in the ninth century, of Russia toward the end of the tenth century, and of other South Slavic realms in later centuries. In 1453, however, the last fortress of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople itself, fell to an Islamic army, and the last Christian Emperor of Rome died fighting on its walls. Yet even after 1453 Byzantium continued to exist, albeit in attenuation, as a subjugated culture in Greek-speaking lands and as a transplanted culture in Orthodox Slavic lands.

1. Why should a Student of Western Esotericism Pay any Attention to Byzantium?

There are at least three answers to this question, each more compelling than the previous one. Firstly, most of the oldest foundation texts of Western esotericism – the dialogues and letters of Plato, the works of the Neoplatonic philosophers [→Neoplatonism] and theurgists (above all, Iamblichus’s treatise On the Mysteries of the Egyptians), the Chaldaean Oracles, the manuals of the Hellenic astrologers [→ Astrology] and alchemists [→ Alchemy], the Corpus Hermeticum [→ Hermetic Literature], the writings of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, various Gnostic texts, and so on – were not only composed in Greek, but also have come down to us almost entirely through Byzantine channels of transmission, whether they are still extant in the original Greek or have now survived only in the form of old translations from lost Greek originals. Secondly, Byzantium never experienced – and never needed to experience – the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter- Reformation, or the Enlightenment. It is these four successive cultural movements that gave Western esotericism all of its present defining characteristics (as specified by Faivre 1994, 10-15), but the specified characteristics cannot serve to define Byzantine Esotericism.Thirdly, over many centuries profound and subtle differences in doctrine and practice developed between Christianity in Byzantium and Christianity in Western Europe. In consequence, esoteric doctrines and practices came to occupy a different position and to play a different role in the Orthodox Churches of Byzantium than they did in the Catholic Church of Western Europe.

Because of these differences, one might legitimately ask whether Byzantine esotericism even exists. It does. Indeed, it is convenient to speak of two distinct Byzantine esotericisms. One of them may be termed Orthodox Christian esotericism. For over 1500 years this esotericism has been widely cultivated throughout the Byzantine world, especially in the great monasteries of the Orthodox Church such as those of Mt. Athos and Mt. Sinai. The other may be termed Hellenic esotericism. It has always drawn its inspiration directly from the pagan texts and traditions of Neoplatonic philosophy and theurgy. Therefore it has always been more or less problematic in Christian Byzantium. After the mandatory Christianization of all Byzantines in the sixth century, Hellenic esotericism seems to have been cultivated only sporadically, by a mere handful of highly educated Byzantines. Each of these two Byzantine esotericisms shares some important features with Western esotericism, although neither possesses all of the significant defining features of the latter (always here referring to Faivre’s definition). 

These differences between esotericism in Byzantium and esotericism in Western Europe enable a sensitive scholar to arrive at a deeper understanding of the latter by contrasting it with the former: light from the East often throws into very sharp relief, indeed, what could otherwise be only dimly seen in the West. Yet for this to occur, one must first become familiar with each kind of Byzantine esotericism on its own terms, not viewing it solely in terms of Western categories and theories. One must also be careful to distinguish genuine Byzantine esotericism from various esoteric currents that have claimed to be Byzantine, but in fact have other historical roots. The most wide-spread of all these pseudo-Byzantine esotericisms are the ones pertaining to Sophia, the Wisdom of God. Though they are usually presented as genuine old esoteric traditions of the Orthodox Church, in point of historical fact they derive directly or indirectly from the work of the eccentric Russian lay theologian, Vladimir Sergeevich Solov’ëv (1853-1900), who combined Orthodox Christian esotericism with elements of two other traditions. One of these other traditions was Western-European Sophiology (cf. → Jacob Boehme or → Gottfried Arnold), which came to Russia through Freemasonic [→ Freemasonry] and Rosicrucian [→ Rosi- crucianism] channels during the eighteenth century and had an enormous impact on Russian spirituality. The other tradition was Late Antique → Gnosticism, insofar as it had been recovered by nineteenth-century scholarship. Solov’ëv’s synthesis of these three disparate traditions was presented with such skill and power, and satisfied the needs of its era so well, that it was believed to represent an authentic Byzantine esoteric teaching by many well-educated Orthodox laymen, and even by a few influential clerical theologians of the Orthodox Church.

2. What does “Esoteric” Mean in Byzantium?

To understand Byzantine esotericism in its own terms, we must begin with the word esoteric itself. In ancient Greek, the opposed adjectives §svterikOw (esoteric) and §jvterikOw (exoteric) were relatively uncommon. The adjective §jvterikOw seems to have been the older of the two, originally meaning “exterior” or “foreign”. It was derived from the adjective §j≈terow (outer), which was opposed to §s≈terow (inner); and those words in turn were derived from the twin adverbs ¶jv (outer) and ¶sv (inner). The adjective §svterikOw seems to have been coined from §jvterikOw in order to create a pair of technical terms in philosophy. In philosophy, the use of these terms was originally limited to two contexts. They were used, first of all, to label the two orders into which the philosopher-magician Pythagoras (according to several later sources) appears to have divided his disciples: his exoteric disciples were those who might hear the master’s teaching only in silence, never actually seeing him as he spoke from behind a curtain, whereas his esoteric disciples, tested by five years of silence, were privileged to go behind the curtain, to see Pythagoras himself and to speak with him (Hippolytus of Rome, Refutatio omnium haeresium I.2; Origen, Contra Celsum I.7; Iamblichus, De vita Pythagorica 17, 31, 32). Somewhat later, the writings of the philosopher Aristotle were said to have been divided into two classes: his exoteric writings were available for all to read, whereas his esoteric writings were restricted to members of his school (Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis V.9, cf. Lucian, Vitarum auctio 26, Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae XX.5; as it happens, Aristotle’s exoteric writings survive only as fragments; it is his esoteric treatises that have come down to us). In each case, whether applied to pupils or to treatises, the two terms express an opposition between the outer, common world of the general public and the inner, restricted world of favored or accepted students. Even later, Galen termed certain Stoic teachings esoteric (De Hippocratis et Platonis placitis III.4). 

Under the influence of Christianity the opposition between §svterikOw and §jvterikOw was subtly altered. Although neither word occurs anywhere in the Greek Bible – neither in the Septuagint Old Testament nor in the Greek New Testament –, St. Paul (II Cor. 4:16) speaks of ı ¶sv enyrvpow (the inward man) and ı ¶jv enyrvpow (the outward man), opposing the spiritual to the mundane; later, some pagans came to use the same phrases with similar meanings. Henceforth esoteric people in the original sense of the term – privileged students – are implicitly also distinguished by their deeper spirituality, and esoteric writings – treatises restricted to such students – are implicitly also writings that convey deeper spiritual truths; the exoteric, in contrast, are common and mundane. The Neoplatonists, too, used the terms in this broader sense, e.g. Iamblichus in his Protrepticus (1, 4, 21), as does Origen with reference to Christian doctrines in his Contra Celsum (III.37). Moreover, in another of his works Iamblichus divides doctrines into exoteric and esoteric, that is, into =hta (effable) and erE=hta (ineffable) (De communi mathematica scientia 18). This idea that the deepest spiritual truths are not only esoteric, but also ineffable, that is, they are inherently beyond the power of any language to express, colors all subsequent use of the term esoteric in Byzantium.

3 . Byzantine Esotericism Versus Western Esotericism

In Western Europe, too, there were texts and people, doctrines and practices that a Byzantine
observer might have labeled esoteric. Even so, the borrowed words esotericus and exotericus seem to have been hardly ever used in Ancient and Medieval Latin. When they were used before and during the Renaissance, they seem to be have been used almost exactly as their Greek equivalents were in Byzantium, although perhaps sometimes without the Neoplatonic association between the esoteric and the ineffable.

Beginning with the Renaissance, however, the term esotericus came to be used more commonly in the West. Yet as its use grew, it acquired a new connotation, which the corresponding Greek word lacked: henceforth whatever was esoteric was necessarily opposed in one way or another to the prevailing judgement of the generally recognized experts. Thus in the West esotericists became proponents of rejected or forgotten knowledge (wrongly rejected or forgotten, they would claim), and Western esotericism eventually became to lapse into contemporary jargon for a moment – a radical challenge to the “dominant paradigm” of its age, a form of “counter-culture.

In the Byzantine world, by contrast, Orthodox Christian Esotericism always remained a fully integrated part of the “dominant paradigm”, and never formed the nucleus of any Byzantine “counter-culture”. This contrast arose largely because of developments in Western Europe, not in Byzantium. During the final centuries of the Middle Ages, Aristotelian modes of knowledge and investigation came to dominate all the great universities and to shape the programs of education for all the learned professions. As a consequence of this, Platonic and esoteric modes of knowledge and investigation were widely rejected by these same universities and professions, and could be cultivated only outside of these institutions. Although the Renaissance challenged the dominance of Aristotle in the schools and professions, its challenge was only partly successful (chiefly in the liberal arts). Soon the Reformation and Counter-Reformation developed their own competing Protestant and Catholic forms of Aristotelian scholasticism. Also, from the late Middle Ages onward, the recovery of Roman law encouraged the development of powerful judicial institutions designed to investigate and repress all forms of deviance and dissidence. Individual or uncommon kinds of spirituality or → mysticism that had long been unchallenged now came to be severely repressed by the newly codified Protestant and Catholic orthodoxies, and this repression continued until the Enlightenment, which had its own radical views on the separation between Church and State. Despite its strong anti-ecclesiastical tendencies, the Enlightenment continued to reject Platonic modes of knowledge – along with → magic, occult philosophy [→ occult / occultism] and esoteric studies – as inconsistent with its own Cartesian principles, severely criticizing such things as works of deceit, delusion and folly. From this time onward, Western esotericism could only be cultivated as a radical challenge to the schools and professions, as a kind of counter-epistemology.

In Byzantium, however, everything was on a much smaller scale, especially during the latter centuries of its independence. Its schools and professions were less developed as institutions, Aristotle was never strongly privileged over Plato, and the line between Church and State was never as sharply drawn as it had long been in the West. Only among the very few Byzantine intellectuals who studied Hellenic esotericism after the sixth century does there seem to have been anything remotely like the Western impulse toward a counter-culture. It is because of this likeness that we shall examine Hellenic esotericism first.

4 . Hellenic Esotericism in Byzantium

Hellenic esotericism drew its inspiration from the same Greek authors, texts and practices that originally nourished Western esoteric studies: from Plato, the pre-Byzantine Neoplatonists such as Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus, the Chaldaean Oracles, the Corpus Hermeticum and the other writings ascribed to → Hermes Trismegistus, astrologers such as Ptolemy, and alchemists such as Theosebia and →Zosimos of Panopolis. In another key, it also used manuals of divination [→ Divinatory Arts], books of omens, treatises on the construction of →amulets and talismans, the recipes of the Kyranides, and even a few texts of demonic ritual magic such as Solomon’s Magical Treatise (’ApotelesmatikO pragmate.a Salom≈ntow) a Greek work related to the Western Clavicula Salomonis), and the Testament of Solomon.

From the late fourth through the sixth century, of course, many highly educated Greeks not only remained pagan, but also studied the above-mentioned texts (and other texts of the same sort that have now been lost). Among these men and women were Maximus of Ephesus and his disciple the Emperor Julian, Plutarch the Neoplatonist and his daughter Asclepiogeneia, and finally Proclus (cf. Marinus, Vita Procli 28). During those few centuries it was still lawful to be pagan in Byzantium, and pagans still could and did cultivate Hellenic esotericism, or even practice theurgy, without having to worry overmuch about the Church’s censure.

Even after the sixth century, of course, some of these traditions survived in attenuated form, generally among less well educated Byzantines, who did not always know which notions and ideas about demons had been accepted by the Orthodox Church, and which had been rejected; or which exorcisms and small rites were permitted, which forbidden. Thus there arose what Richard Greenfield has termed ‘alternative traditions of belief and practice’ about demons, in contrast to the well-defined ‘standard tradition’ of the Orthodox Church; there are also alternative traditions for other rites and rituals. These alternative traditions, of course, were not clearly distinguished from the standard tradition by the masses, but what may surprise is the extent (as Greenfield has shown) to which even educated Byzantines combined the standard and alternative traditions during the last centuries of Byzantine independence. However, this was simply a matter of ignorance or confusion, not a deliberate foray into forbidden territory. Deliberate forays into forbidden territory remained rare, even in the late Byzantine period. 

No more than a handful of named Byzantines are known to have made a serious study of Hellenic esotericism after the final repression of paganism in the 6th century. The best known are Michael Psellus in the eleventh century and Georgios Gemistos Plethon in the 15th. However, there must have been others whose names have not come down to us, but for whom the various extant manuscripts of the relevant Greek texts were copied during the last centuries of Byzantine independence.

Michael Psellus (1018-1081) was one of the greatest polymaths in all Byzantine history, even serving for a time as a sort of philosopher-in-residence to the Imperial court. His surviving works treat history, law, rhetoric, logic, Platonic philosophy, theology – and include not quite a dozen short theoretical tracts on demonology, the Corpus Hermeticum, the Chaldaean Oracles and theurgy! His principal sources seem to have been various works (some now lost) by Porphyry, Iamblichus and Proclus on these subjects. Indeed, Iamblichus’s long work On the Mysteries of the Egyptians may owe its survival to Psellus’s efforts, for he appears to have read it, and all extant manuscripts appear to descend from a single manuscript (now lost) that had been copied during or not long after his lifetime and also contained some of his treatises on esoteric themes. Yet despite his esoteric interests, Psellus remained thoroughly Christian in his own eyes, and in some of his writings justified such studies from a Christian perspective.

Georgios Gemistos Plethon (ca. 1360-1452) had many of the same esoteric interests as Psellus, but pursued them to a much more radical conclusion, for in his old age he went so far as to argue in favor of restoring Neoplatonic paganism and theurgy in place of Christianity. The work in which he made his strongest arguments for this, On Laws, was burned shortly after his death by order of Patriarch Gennadius II Scholarius, but significant fragments of it have survived (thanks in part to extracts made during Plethon’s lifetime by several interested friends and students). Here and in other writings Plethon displays considerable interest in the Chaldaean Oracles, but the only source that he has for them is one of Psellus’s commentaries on them. By the 15th century almost every earlier source – not only the complete Chaldaean Oracles themselves, but also various Neoplatonic commentaries on them – seems to have been lost.

When Plethon was almost 80 years old, he attended the great ecclesiastical council that met at Ferrara and Florence in 1438-1439. Although his impact on the council’s proceedings was relatively slight, he was able to meet a number of Florentine scholars and statesmen, and to impress them greatly with his passion for Plato and the Neoplatonists. Cosimo de’ Medici’s Platonic Academy owes something to Plethon’s inspiration, as does the program of Latin translations from the Greek that Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned from → Marsilio Ficino. Ficino’s translations, it should be noted, included the works of Plato and Plotinus, the Corpus Hermeticum, Iamblichus’s On the Mysteries of the Egyptians (to which were appended translations of several short works by Porphyry, Proclus and Michael Psellus), and two of the works of pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite (The Divine Names and The Mystical Theology) – in short, many of the most important Greek foundation texts of Western esotericism.

5. Orthodox Christian Esotericism in Byzantium

Although Hellenic esotericism developed somewhat in opposition to the prevailing norms of Byzantine culture, Orthodox Christian esotericism developed very much in agreement with these same norms, in sharp contrast to Western esotericism since the Renaissance. As noted above, this contrast owes much to specific developments in the cultural history of Western Europe. Yet the ease with which Orthodox Christian esotericism accommodated itself to the norms of Byzantine culture has a lot to do with certain characteristic features of the Orthodox Church, in particular, with some specific patterns of Byzantine liturgy and worship, with the privileged position that apophatic theology is given over cataphatic theology, and with the doctrine of theosis, or deification. We must consider these three points as we seek to present
Orthodox Christian esotericism in its own terms.

One of the most significant characteristics of the Orthodox Church, for our purposes, is that a priest does not celebrate the eucharist by or for himself alone, apart from any congregation. This is a point of eucharistic theology and canon law. However, it is also a matter of simple necessity, for the worship of the Orthodox Church in all its complex fullness is the cooperative work of several different classes of people, lay as well as ordained – priests, deacons, rectors, singers, laity, and so forth – and the prescribed texts are scattered among a considerable number of liturgical books, several of which must be used together during any service. In the course of an entire year’s worship, most of the texts in these various books must be woven together in a very complicated pattern. This pattern, moreover, changes somewhat from year to year according to the date of Easter, which moves back and forth along a range of thirty-five consecutive days according to a complex cycle that lasts 532 years from start to finish.

Instead of liturgical work, what the Orthodox Christian – whether a priest or not – does in solitude is to pray. Even though a near-by church may happen to be unlocked and empty, the traditional place for private prayers remains one’s home, one’s room or one’s monastic cell. Even a parish priest – who is a married man – will use his home for this purpose, and a priest-monk will use his cell (in the Orthodox Churches most monks are not priests).

There is nothing, therefore, anywhere in the traditional practice of the Orthodox Church that corresponds very well to a Catholic priest as he celebrates a Low Mass by himself from a Missal, or as he reads his daily office from a Breviary in private, or as he offers up his personal prayers before a consecrated altar in solitude. This Catholic pattern has greatly influenced Western esoteric practices, which as often as not employs a consecrated altar before which initiates work their esoteric rituals in private and in a somewhat priestly manner. In Orthodox Christian esotericism, however, this priestly pattern played no role: rather, the dominant pattern was that of a solitary monk at prayer in his unadorned cell. In principle, therefore, Orthodox Christian esotericism does not need either ceremonies or ceremonial objects as foci for its practice. Additionally, it is an esotericism of solitude that one ideally practices by oneself, not in a group. It operates, therefore, without temples or lodges, and its practitioners are not quasi-priests, much less members of some esoteric priesthood or consecrated order that answers to a higher authority than any institutional church. Indeed, such a person is not part of any secret institution or organization at all, but just a simple Christian man or woman who seeks in solitude and silence to attain the most esoteric mysteries (mustAria) of all, which are also Divine.

However, these mysteries are ineffable (erE=hta), that is, they lie far beyond the power of any language to express. Indeed, they are incomprehensible, that is, they lie far beyond ‘all things that can be perceived and understood (a.syhta ka‹ nohta), that are not or that are’ (pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystica theologia I.1), and must therefore be experienced by other means than words, concepts or even ordinary percepts. To express these other means, the same author says that they are to be attained ‘in the hyper-luminous darkness of a hidden silence’ (ibidem). Indeed, he even says that they are ‘beyond all being (ous.a) and knowledge (gn≪siw)’, a matter of yeosof.a (theosophy) as well as of yeolog.a (theology) (ibidem).

This kind of theology, which leads the reader upward by means of denials rather than affirmations, is called apophatic (from Greek epOfasiw, denial), in contrast to the other kind, cataphatic theology (from Greek katafasiw, affirmation). The two kinds loosely correspond to what in the West are usually called negative and positive theology, but the correspondence is not exact. If the Catholic Church (especially since Thomas Aquinas) has favored an Aristotelian sort of positive theology, and has used negative theology mostly to supplement positive results, it it otherwise in the East. The Orthodox Church, much less wedded to Aristotelian modes of knowledge, has long delighted in apophatic theology. In this one point it favors the Neoplatonists, although it otherwise diverges enormously from them in matters of doctrine and practice.

The best way into this ‘brilliant darkness of a hidden silence’ is precisely specified in several works by Gregory of Sinai (ca. 1265-1346) and especially in an anonymous treatise of unknown age sometimes titled The Three Methods of Prayer (the latter treatise is attributed to Simeon the New Theologian, but is not by him). The tradition of practice expounded in these works is at least as old as the 4th century. In the 14th century it became, for a few decades, a subject of great controversy, which called forth the brilliant writings of Gregory Palamas (ca. 1296–1359) on the theory behind the practices. The tradition later came to be called hesychasm, derived from Greek ≤sux.a, tranquility, quietness and ≤suxazein, to practice hesychia (despite the similarity in their names, there is no close relation betwen hesychasm and Western quietism).

The first of pseudo-Simeon’s three methods of prayer demands the careful cultivation of what some esotericists now call the imaginal world. The second demands an equally careful withdrawal from this same imaginal world and from the senses and the mental processes that nourish it. These two methods are emphatically not recommended. On the one hand, the careful cultivation of the imaginal indeed results in sensible visions, but sensible visions are always delusions, simply because they are sensible (afisyhta). This method is sure to produce a visionary whose desires have been inflamed and whose heart is exalted, and very often it will derange him in the end. On the other hand, a careful withdrawal from the sensible and imaginal worlds produces false impressions of the opposite character, for which there is no good name in English: let us call them “certainties” for lack of a better term. These “certainties”, in contrast to visions, derive their form and content from understanding (nohsiw) rather than from sense-perception (e.syhsiw). Just as visions are delusions simply because they are sensible, so “certainties” are delusions simply because they are understandable (nohta). Sense-perception (e.syhsiw) and understanding (nOhsiw) are equally dangerous, are equally productive of delusions, and equally need to be transcended (cf. pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, as quoted above).

The third of these methods, and the only one which is free from the dangers of these two kinds of delusion, requires neither that one cultivate the imaginal world in one’s heart nor that one uproot it. Instead, one fills one’s heart with attentiveness and constant prayer, which soon crowd out the imaginal entirely. If at first this constant prayer may be verbal, with repetition it becomes automatic and then it soon ceases to need words or images at all. It is this absence of words and images alone that prepares the heart for the ineffable mysteries that lie ‘in the hyperluminous darkness of a hidden silence’, and that constitute the theosophy ‘beyond all being and knowledge’, to use the words of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (in this tradition of practice, as in the Old Testament, the heart is the site of human knowledge and understanding, the place where words, concepts and percepts operate).

If this sounds easy to do in principle, it is extremely hard in practice, and usually requires the assistance of an experienced guide. One should not undertake it at all until one has first learned how to be free of every anxiety and care, how to keep one’s conscience wholly pure, and how to take no thought for anything worldly, not even one’s own bodily comforts and discomforts. Having learned how to do these three things, one can begin one’s practice of attentiveness and constant prayer, aided by a simple specified stable posture and method of regulated breathing. At first one experiences delusions of sense-perception and understanding. When these delusions have all finally been dispelled, one next experiences empty, heavy darkness (which, perhaps, may be regarded as the last delusion). Persevering in one’s practice, this darkness is replaced at last by an experience beyond all understanding and sense-perception, beyond all words and images, beyond all concepts and percepts, beyond all previous experience of the body and mind. It is said to be an experience of something that may be called f≪w, light, but even that word is greatly inadequate to convey what is experienced: pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite has coined the word Ip°rfvtow, hyperluminous, to refer to it (Mysica theologia I.1).

This experience transforms one completely, in a way that is precisely specified by the Orthodox Church. One undergoes a process that is called theosis (y°vsiw) in Greek, a word which means becoming God, but may conveniently – yet somewhat misleadingly! – be rendered as deification. According to the blunt words of Athanasius the Great, the Word of God ‘became man that we might become God’ (Athanasius of Alexandria, De incarnatione Verbi 54; cf. Irenaeus of Lyon, Adversus haereses IV.38-39, V.praef.). This is the ultimate goal of human life, which every member of the Orthodox Church is allowed to pursue from birth to death: an esotericism that is wholly integrated into Byzantine culture.

It is these ineffable mysteries, this hyperluminous realm that lies ‘beyond all being and knowledge’, it is this precisely specified, difficult method of practice that opens the way into these mysteries and that realm, and finally it is this possibility of becoming God, that constitutes the open secret of Orthodox Christian esotericism – an esotericism that is freely offered to every inquirer. Despite the brevity and simplicity of the present summary, it is an extremely rich and subtle tradition of doctrine and practice, which cannot easily be rendered in any other language than its original Greek. It is also Byzantium’s single most interesting contribution to the esoteric currents and traditions of the world.

From Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism by Wouter Hanegraaff

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