I read an article recently by Scott Cairns, a professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri, who has a new book coming out entitled, “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”, an ancient prayer used in an equally ancient practice of Christian contemplation, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox churches (though it has long since moved out into other Christian communities). In the article, Cairns talks about the way in which today’s Christian world has largely forgotten the vocabulary of spirituality that was readily understood by Christians of the ancient world. This, he suggests, is largely due to problems of translation. The ancient Greek of the New Testament and the early Christian centuries often loses its more subtle meaning when translated into the languages of the cultures into which Christianity moved.
One example he cites is the Greek word nous, which is almost always translated as “mind” in English. While the Greek nous is a complex termed, being defined somewhat differently in different systems of thought, the ancient Christian understanding of this term was that it referred to the faculty within humanity that was capable of perceiving God and entering into communion with God. It might be thought of as the “eye of the heart”, an eye which is capable of beholding the light and presence of God. We might also think of it as a kind of spiritual sense that makes a conscious connection with God possible.
Within the theological tradition of the early Christian centuries, it was understood that this nous had become damaged or gotten dirty, and thus was not functioning properly. This was the result of that classic Christian idea of “the Fall”, and the biblical story of Adam and Eve was understood to refer, in a metaphoric way, to refer to this corruption of the nous. If you think about that story from Genesis, it is perhaps not a story so much about how humanity was created (which tends to be the way it is focused upon in our time) but it is much more a story about human alienation from our true nature and, therefore, from God. In a more ancient way of thinking, the Garden of Eden, or Paradise, represented the condition in which human beings related to God in a natural way, which led to growth and maturity. The exile from that state was occasioned by a decision to exalt human reason above divine wisdom, thereby veering off the path of communion with God as human beings get caught up in ourselves, in ego, in self-centeredness. In ancient Greek, we abandon nous in favor of logos.
This being the ancient Christian understanding of the essential human problem, the solution to that problem was a life of prayer (especially contemplative prayer) and participation in the sacramental life of the church. These were seen as therapeutic — therapy for the soul — because they were ways of overcoming our own self-preoccupation, our ego and narrowness. They were ways of cleansing or repairing the nous so that it functioned properly, leading to a deepening perception of and communion with God, which in turn led to greater wholeness. Thus, when St. Paul speaks in his Letter to the Romans about being transformed by the renewing of our minds, in Greek he is using the word nous. Scott Cairns suggests that to the modern, Western, English-speaking mind, this phrase of Paul’s can easily lead us to conclude that Paul is talking about the need for us to somehow change our thinking or reform our beliefs. But the older Christian tradition reads this quite differently: they read it as expressing what I have just described, as a need to have our nous renewed, our faculty for active connection with God cleansed and repaired. And while they believed this was ultimately facilitated by God’s love and grace, it did require us to open ourselves to that grace through prayer and sacrament.
All of this highlights for me the way in which our understanding of things has shifted over the centuries. So much of the time, it seems, Christianity is made into a matter of the head, in terms of thinking or believing the right things, and a matter of the will, in terms of willing ourselves to live a life that has a particular moral shape. While thinking, believing and doing good are all important, the Christian tradition is rather clear, for most of its history, that we cannot do these things on our own. Nor do they really get to the heart of the matter. Rather, that tradition is insistent that we are spiritually ill, that we need to be healed, and that this is what the Christian life is primarily about. Through this lens, sin is not seen so much as failure or wrong-doing as a symptom of being ill. And healing comes about only when we open ourselves to God in Christ, who is the physician of our souls.
I find this way of looking at things extremely attractive. It helps, I think, to move us beyond some of the things that we followers of Jesus get bogged down in arguing about, and it moves spiritual practice to the center of our concern and our awareness. And I think this has traction in our culture. Dr. Diana Butler Bass, in her reading and researching about religion and spirituality in America, points out that those mainline congregations that are most successful are congregations that have moved from an emphasis on belief or thinking to an emphasis on practice. One cannot really have one without the other, but by focusing on spiritual practice, we find a way forward with people who are not so much interested in our churchly arguments, but in finding a deep healing of the soul.