Ortho-dox: "right, true belief or worship"

In 987, Vladimir I, the pagan prince of Kievan Rus, sent his emissaries to neighboring countries to learn about their religions. For political and spiritual reasons, missionaries from these countries had been urging Prince Vladimir to adopt their religion. His emissaries were unimpressed with Islam, Western Christianity, and Judaism, but when they entered Hagia Sophia in Constantinople and experience the beauty of the Divine Liturgy they are reported to have declared, "We do not know if we are on heaven or earth . . . nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it." Impressed by their observations and for the political advantages conversion to Orthodox Christianity would bring, Vladimir I and his family were baptized in the River Dneiper in 988 and thus Christianizing Kievan Rus.

The story of the conversion of Vladimir illustrates the incarnational and experiential characteristics of Orthodox spirituality. The material world and our experience of it cannot be rejected because Christ is with us in the material. All of creation is good and can lead us to God. Orthodox spirituality is a sensual spirituality. The arresting vision of icons, the haunting sound of Byzantine chant, the billowing clouds of incense, and the humility of our neighbor bent in prayer shows that we are meant to live in Christ, to discover love of God in this world more than intellectual knowledge of the divine. The old ladies lighting candles and kissing icons may not be able to expound upon the doctrine of the Trinity but they know, live, and experience it in their sensual act of prayer.

Theo-sis or divinization

The Word became human so that
we might become God.
-Athanasius of Alexandria

In Genesis we read that we are made in God's image and are meant to dwell with our creator. But thrown from the Garden, we wander far forgetting our true home. It is as if we are blind stumbling in the dark. In Jesus Christ, however, God incarnate dwells with us so that we might remember who we are made to be and live again. Christ conquers death and by the power of the Holy Spirit we, with Christ, are led back home.

Whereas Western Christianity has predominately used legalistic and economic metaphors (ransom, satisfaction, debt) to describe salvation, Eastern Christianity has emphasized healing and transformation (theo-sis). Death and corruption are as much a consequence of the Fall as sin and it is from death and corruption that all of creation is rescued, healed, or redeemed. Christ spits on the earth, rubs the mud on our blind eyes, and we can see again. Out of pure love, God in Christ through the Holy Spirit makes us whole. This is theo-sis, the lifelong and dynamic pilgrimage of love towards union with God. The more we love, the more we practice humility, the more we empty ourselves, the more we are just and merciful, the more we are attentive, the more we are like God, then the more we are human.

Kataphatic and apophatic

Scholars of spirituality have used the Greek terms, kataphatic and apophatic, to generally describe different approaches to mystical experience and our pursuit of God. Kataphatic spirituality refers to a positive way of approaching God by focusing on God's actions or energies in the world and the use of analogy to describe God. It stresses God's movement in creation and the use of our senses, imagination, and intellect to experience that movement. Though often associated with Western Christianity as exemplified by the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, it is also evident in Eastern Christianity in the use of Icons for prayer and the sensual experience of the Divine Liturgy.

Apophatic spirituality emphasizes a negative way to God since our Creator is so completely other nothing we say of God can truly describe God's essence. Instead of using analogies to describe God, apophatic spiritualitywithholds description of our transcendent God and rather attempts to strip the mind of images and even words in order to draw closer to the divine. We find apophatic spirituality in the East in the spiritual writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa (Life of Moses), the Hesychasts of the fourteenth century and their practice of the Jesus Prayer but we will also find it in the West in the work of the anonymous English mystic (The Cloud of Unknowing) and the sixteenth century Spanish Carmelite, John of the Cross (Dark Night of the Soul).

Neither approach is superior to the other and both are at work in each person's journey towards God.


from the Greek word hesuchia (quiet or stillness)

Following Paul's injunction to the Thessalonians (pray without ceasingI Thess. 5:1), hesychasm seeks a life of constant prayer through a stillness of heart by which we may interiorly experience our true God. This experience of God, according to St. Gregory of Palamas (hesychasm's primary advocate), is not of God's essence which will always remain unknowable but of God's created and uncreated energies, God's divine grace and power at work in creation in which we can participate. Hesychasts strip their intellect (nous) of images lowering it into their heart (St. Gregory of Sinai) through the practice of the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.) The hope is that through constant repetition of the words of the Jesus Prayer, attentiveness to bodily posture and our breathing, we will become a wordless prayer experiencing God's divine energy and shining with light of Mt. Tabor (the Transfiguration).


An icon is not primarily a work of religious art but rather a prayer, a sacramental means of God's grace. The worshiper is surrounded by these "windows unto heaven" where she looks into the eyes of the saint or the Mother of God and they look back at her and together they sing praises to God. The person depicted is joined with our prayer. It's very function is the act of prayer and it is never thought of as mere decoration.

The making of the icon can also be considered an act of prayer for the creator of the icon is participating in the divine act of creation and gives honor to all other acts of creation: "To make an icon from plaster or cubes of stone, from wood or paint, to sanctify that icon and to incorporate it in the worship of God, is to call down his blessing also upon all other forms of human art and craftsmanship." (Kallistos Ware)

Icons do not realistically depict the world as it is but show us transfigured creation. In the distorted 385px-GregoryNazianzen features of the icon, we see possibility and hope, the eternal glory breaking into our world even now yet still to be fulfilled. The saints and Mary and the depictions of Christ show us what we can become.

Listen to an example of Byzantine chant while viewing examples of icons.

Cherubic Hymn

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