The Helmsman of the Spiritual Life: The Eye of the Heart
Before approaching themes of the Philokalia and the spirituality of the hesychast Fathers, it is helpful, and one might say absolutely necessary, to clarify how they use various words. Indeed, over the years I have been most grateful for the wonderful glossary that the translators provided at the end of the first volume. Without this aid, I dare say, the meaning of many of the Father’s sayings would be completely lost or at least severely truncated. The two other resources that have helped me the most are Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos’ “Orthodox Psychotherapy” (which offers the most refined distinctions regarding the terms the Fathers use of terms and to which I will return in later posts) and Anthony Coniaris’ “Confronting and Controlling Thoughts” and “The Beginner’s Introduction to the Philokalia.” As a first step in understanding the Father’s use of the term “nous” (mind, intellect), I offer his very thoughtful and succinct reflections for your consideration. One very quickly recognizes the significance of these distinctions for understanding philokalic spirituality and the ascetic tradition of the desert fathers. Coniaris writes:
“Orthodox spirituality places great emphasis on the ‘nous’, or mind, and the thoughts, ‘logismoi’, that the mind produces. It does so because everything we do begins in the nous or mind with the thoughts (logismoi). ‘As a man thinks in his heart, so is he,’ we read in Proverbs. So, let’s begin our study of confronting and controlling thoughts according to the Fathers of the Philokalia with a brief study, first of the nous (mind) . . .
In an interview, Bishop Kallistos Ware offered the following definition of nous or intellect: ‘Nous, in particular, is a very difficult word to translated. If you just say ‘mind’, that is far too vague. In our translation of the Philokalia, we, with some hesitations, opted for the word intellect, emphasizing that it does not mean primarily the rational faculties. The nous is the spiritual vision that we all possess, though many of us have not discovered it. The nous implies a direct, intuitive appreciation of truth, where we apprehend the truth not simply as the conclusion of a reasoned argument, but we simply see that something is so. The nous is cultivated certainly through study, through training our faculties, but also it is developed through prayer, through fasting, through the whole range of the Christian life. This is what we need to develop most of all . . ., something higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions.’
Nous then is spiritual vision that enables us to recognize truth as soon as we see it.
An additional definition of nous comes from the book ‘Themes of the Philokalia - The Nous’. ‘A nous that is pure and loves and does not offend God is similar to an eye that does not even accept the smallest dust particle. It is from the nous that all the powers of the soul depend. That is why the Lord tells us ‘if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. Since the nous of contemporary man has fallen into the same sin as Adam and Eve, it has turned towards creation with an unrestrainable idolatrous and evil disposition. In this way the nous of man, away from the vision of the glory of God, becomes either demonic or bestial. The nous which is overcome by the passions and egoism is unenlightened, dark, short-sighted and feeble.’
Thus, purified nous, enlightened by God’s grace, is designed to be the eye of the soul.
The nous is also designed to presided over the person as the ‘hegemonikon’, the dominant leader or ruler of the personality. Yet because of the Fall of man, the nous has been wounded and is now subject to disruption by epithymia, by the desires imposed by the powerful passions. It is only by God’s grace and askesis, discipline, resistance, that man can be healed and come to prevail over the epithymia(desire) of the passions through the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Hesychios states that the Fathers liken the intellect (nous) to the leadership of Moses: ‘The Fathers regard Moses the Lawgiver as an ikon of the intellect. He saw God in the burning bush; his face shone with glory; he was made a god to Pharoah by the God of gods; he flayed Egypt with a scourge; he led Israel our of bondage and gave laws. These happenings, when seen metaphorically and spiritually, are activities and privileges of the intellect hegemonikon.’
Like Moses, the nous (intellect) is called and empowered by God’s grace to be the dominant factor - the acropolis -ruling over the kingdom of the self. It is the hegemonikon, the rudder that steers and directs the kingdom of self. If the individual person allowed the hegemonikon to rule, spiritual harmony and progress would follow. The hegemonikon is what Jesus calls ‘the eye’, which, if it is single, will fill the whole body with light. Some consider the hegemonikon to be the ‘mind of Christ’ which we receive when we ‘put on Christ’ in holy baptism.
The translators of the Philokalia themselves offer the following definition of nous (intellect):
‘Nous is the highest faculty in man, through which - provided it is purified - he knows God . . . Unlike the dianoia or reason from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on the basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’. The intellect dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart. . . The intellect is the organ of contemplation, the ‘eye of the heart’.”
In the future, I hope, by using other resources and the Fathers themselves, to clarify this understanding of the nous and to address how the nous is purified and healed.