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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy


Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

This is especially apparent in the writings of the 10th-century theologian and poet, St. Symeon the New Theologian. Symeon wrote extensively on the mystery of God, unreachable and unknowable, yet discovered in intimate and loving nearness. Symeon taught that it is possible for all Christians to have a direct experience of the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit leads us to a transformative encounter with Christ. Inspired by the account of the Transfiguration (Jesus' glory revealed) found in all three synoptic Gospels, Symeon writes that this encounter with Christ is experienced in a vision of a divine and uncreated light. The believer can experience the light of God's grace. In his poetry, Symeon writes movingly of many such visions of his own. Symeon's ideas were later defended by St. Gregory Palamas, a 14th-century hesychast who defended Symeon's ideas by developing a thesis that distinguished between God's essence and energies. The essence of God is transcendent, wrote Palamas, while God's energies are immanent, or everywhere and in everything. It is said that Palamas only said one prayer for thirty years, continually repeating, "Enlighten my darkness. Enlighten my darkness."

Due to Orthodox Christianity's avid embrace of Greek philosophical and speculative traditions, many works of Greek philosophy were preserved in the Byzantine Empire, even while they were lost to western Europe during the dark ages. Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians translated volumes of Greek philosophy into Arabic for Muslim scholars and collectors, helping to build a philosophical tradition in Islam. The Muslims in turn brought the classical Greek philosophies and methods to western Europe.

Study Questions:
1.     What is apostolic succession? Why is it important to the integrity of the tradition?
2.     How is tradition preserved within the Eastern Orthodox Church?
3.     Describe the relationship between language and identity formation within the Eastern Orthodox Church.
4.     In what ways is Eastern Orthodoxy a mystical tradition?


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