Letter 50: Origen and the Stages of the Journey (Part 3)

Now we come to Origen’s final stage of the journey, the contemplation of God. This longing for the vision of God was the reason so many early Christians went into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine and Syria. They wanted to dedicate their life to living according to Jesus’ teaching and following his guidance for totally transforming their way of being from one based on multiplicity to one of total unity.

Moses, one of the most revered Desert Fathers in the desert of Scete in Egypt in the 4thcentury CE, told John Cassian and his friend Germanus - as described by John Cassian in his first Conference- that the goal of the monk was the vision of the ‘Kingdom of God’, a vision of pure unity. But before they could reach this he advised them that they would have to reach ‘purity of heart’, which entailed a cleansing and healing of the ego-driven desires. Evagrius, Cassian’s main teacher, had called these desires‘evil thoughts’.According to him to reach this state of ‘purity of heart’required two disciplines: firstly, the practice of leaving thoughts and images behind, moving from discursive thinking to pure awareness in prayer and secondly‘watching the thoughts’. This entails being aware of our sensations, feelings and thoughts at other times, when not actually engaged in prayer. This is a practice that in our time is called ‘mindfulness’. The practice of paying one-pointed attention to our prayer word leads to the ability to focus the attention solely on whatever or whoever is there before us in ordinary life, be that other people or creation. The early Christians stressed that:“As you pray, so you shall live.” Life and prayer were both enriched by this purity of attention.

Bishop Kallistos describes this final stage in this way: “We are to attain a unified awareness in which we are conscious of the divine presence, but without any particular picture or shape or verbal phrases in our mind: a touching and a one-ing in love that is apophatic, non-iconic…… There is, however, a clear distinction between the contemplation of God in nature and the contemplation of God in unmediated union. Many of us when we read in the works of the mystics about the unmediated vision of God on a level beyond all thoughts, we feel that this lies far beyond our present capacities. But the contemplation of God in nature, to affirm the divine presence in all created things round us, is within the scope of all of us. If this distinction is made, contemplation becomes far more accessible. We are all of us contemplatives, and contemplation is possible whatever our way of life. No-one is excluded. We can all affirm the world in God and God in the world.”

From this exposition of Origen’s thought we see clearly how John Main’s teaching is completely in line with the teaching of Origen, as refined by Evagrius and then explained and elaborated by Cassian.

It is interesting that in reaching the end of this cycle of ‘Weekly Teaching’we have arrived where we started from: the importance of the simplicity of the practice of paying attention to our word.

(Extract from Journey to the Heart - Christian Contemplation through the centuries – an Illustrated GuideEdited by Kim Nataraja)