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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

In 787, the Second Council of Nicaea agreed with the iconodules, decreeing that it is legitimate to paint icons, bring them into the churches, and venerate them. However, the controversy persisted until 843, when the iconodules prevailed once and for all through the intervention of the Byzantine Empress, Theodora. This is called the "Triumph of Orthodoxy," and is celebrated at a special service called "Orthodoxy Sunday," which falls on the first Sunday in Lent.

Orthodox mysticism also crystallized around a belief in the experience of the Divine Light, a concept that gained influence through the writing of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022). In Eastern Orthodox tradition, following Symeon and others, the ultimate mystical experience is a vision of the "Divine and Uncreated Light." This is the same vision the Bible describes in the story of the Transfiguration, which appears in all three synoptic gospels. According to the story, while accompanied by Peter, James, and John, Jesus was transformed by a radiant light, spoke with Moses and Elijah, and was called "Son" by God. Legend holds that the Transfiguration occurred on Mt. Tabor, hence the Divine Light is also called the Light of Tabor. It is called "Uncreated Light" because it is a manifestation of God, who is uncreated.

A spiritual discipline called hesychasm formed around the pursuit of the vision of Divine Light. Hesychia means "inner stillness." The hope is that perfect stillness will open the Christian to the experience of Divine Light. The hesychasts devoted themselves to achieving a prayer of silence, meaning prayers without images, words, or thoughts. Hesychasts employed physical exercises such as sitting and breathing rhythmically in order to integrate prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer ("Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner"), into their bodies and consciousness. The goal was to integrate the prayer into the very being of the Christian, so that it would pray itself when the heart of the hesychast beat, or the lungs drew breath. This would be the Christian's response to Paul's admonition to "pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17). Hesychasm plays a significant role in modern Orthodox spirituality.

Study Questions:
1.     Why was Eastern Orthodoxy able to spread northward in the 9th century? Who were the key converts within its missionizing?
2.     How do iconoclasts differ from iconodules? Which did the Second Council of Nicea favor, and what was the end result?
3.     Where does Eastern Orthodoxy’s mysticism draw its inspiration? How is it still relevant today?


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