The Eastern part of the Roman Empire known as Byzantium mostly prospered, while the Western part of the empire eventually collapsed under the weight of the Germanic invasions. While this led to a Dark Age upon Europe, this was not the case with Byzantium. Unlike the Western Church, which struggled, but eventually thrived by engaging in worldly affairs, the Byzantine Church withdrew to more monastic and mystical affairs. This would eventually take root as the Orthodox tradition of the Christian faith.
As part of lent season, I am reading several Orthodox contemplative texts by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Kyriacos Markides, and Martin Laird. The appreciation you find with the Eastern Church is the deep and rich mystical tradition that allows for the experiential connection to God. Yet, we come to see God is beyond experience. I suppose if more westerners were aware of this historic thread, they would not necessarily seek out those other Eastern religious traditions. As Markides points out, “Christianity, a Catholic bishop in Maine once told me, has two lungs. One is Western, meaning rational and philosophical, and the other Eastern, meaning mystical and otherworldly.”
While the Church of Rome's focus on the rational and philosophical had its place, it was the Byzantium tradition that gave the Church its center. This lineage began with the Desert Fathers and Mothers who sought out loving communion with the silent depths of God. It was by centering in these depths, that a soul strength in the early Christians began to endure. Mathewes-Green notes, “How come Christians who lived in times of bloody persecution were so heroic, while we who live in safety are fretful and pudgy? How could the earlier saints “pray constantly,” while our minds dawdle over trivialities? How could they fast so valiantly, and we feel deprived if there's no cookie at the end of the in-flight meal? How could the martyrs forgive their torturers, but my friend's success makes me pouty? What did previous generations of Christians know that we don't?”
One such early practice from the Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus instructs the following: “Let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall.” As we go deeper into the cave of the heart, we can inquire: Are we these thoughts? Where do thoughts appear from? What is the nature of these thoughts, and who is aware of them?
“Precisely because our deepest identity grounding the personality is hidden with Christ in God and beyond the grasp of comprehension, the experience of this ground-identity that is one with God will register in our perception, if indeed it does register, as an experience of no particular thing, a great, flowing abyss, a depthless depth. To those who know only the discursive mind, this may seem a death-dealing terror or spinning vertigo. But for those whose thinking mind has expanded into heart-mind, it is an encounter brimming over with the flow of vast, open emptiness that is the ground of all. This "no thing," this "emptiness" is not an absence but a superabundance.”While we can't escape metaphysics and discursive thinking, such reasoning can be in service of the whole. As Theophan noted in regards to thoughts about God only make God appear outside you, it is the Byzantium practices of the Eastern Church that allowed for the Kingdom of God to be within you.
“In an age when people claim to be "spiritual, not religious"—not really knowing what they mean by either—lack of proper motivation is common. We must long for truth, freedom, loving communion with the silent depths of God. (Laird)”