The Teaching of Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia

Stillness and Prayer stand at the heart of Metropolitan Kallistos’s teaching. Silence is the true knowledge. Action arises out of stillness. His teaching on prayer is prefaced by a quotation from Vasilii Rozanov, ‘Without prayer there is only madness and horror.’ And the root of prayer is silence, ‘You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak’ (quoting Tito Colliander).

Only when we silence our minds can we begin to experience God: ‘God is “the wholly Other”, invisible, inconceivable, radically transcendent, beyond all words, beyond all understanding… As the Greek Fathers insisted, “A God who is comprehensible is not God.”(The Orthodox Way, pages 11-12).

Silence is associated with the Jesus Prayer (‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’). Bishop Kallistos’s “Power of the Name” is the best introduction I know to the practice of inner silence (hesychia).

God is neither cold nor impersonal: ‘This God of mystery is at the same time uniquely close to us, filling all things, present everywhere around us and within us. And he is present, not merely as an atmosphere or nameless force, but in a personal way… Between ourselves and the transcendent God there is a relationship of love, similar in kind to that between each of us and those other human beings dearest to us.’ (The Orthodox Way, page 12)

Being silent does not mean being without words: it rather means not relying on our individual experience, but instead entering into the vast river of the Church’s experience of God. This is not blind faith in theories: ‘Orthodoxy believes most passionately that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a piece of ‘high theology’ reserved for the professional scholar, but something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian. The human person, so the Bible teaches, is made in the image of God, and to Christians God means the Trinity: thus it is only in the light of the dogma of the Trinity that we can understand who we are and what God intends us to be. Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity.’ (The Orthodox Church, page 208).

In the Orthodox Church, theology is not restricted to the intellectual presentation of Christian belief: it means first of all our actual relationship with the Trinity and with human beings. The way we relate to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit conditions our attitude to people, and vice-versa.

Early on in his priestly life Father Metropolitan Kallistos, together with Mother Mary of Bussy, published the Festal Menaion and the Lenten Triodion. It would be wrong to study the teaching of Metropolitan Kallistos as if it were an individual theologian’s personal understanding of the Orthodox Church rather than a mirror of the writings of the Church’s Fathers and the fruit of sharing her liturgical life. If our hearts do not feed on the Orthodox Church’s liturgical texts, we are in danger of misunderstanding Metropolitan Kallistos’s writings.

Our relationship with God starts with acknowledging his transcendence, but it does not end there. The world of which we are a part ever relates to God. Our life is the constant interaction of the divine, infinite reality with the visible, finite world. “As Creator, …God is always at the heart of each thing, maintaining it in being. On the level of scientific enquiry, we discern certain processes or sequences of cause and effect. On the level of spiritual vision, which does not contradict science but looks beyond it, we discern everywhere the creative energies of God, upholding all that is, forming the innermost essence of all things. But, while present everywhere in the world, God is not to be identified with the world. As Christians we affirm not pantheism but “panentheism”. God is in all things yet also beyond and above all things. He is both “greater than the great” and “smaller than the small”. In the words of St Gregory Palamas, “He is everywhere and nowhere, he is everything and nothing.” As a Cistercian monk of New Clervaux has put it, “God is at the core, God is other than the core. God is within the core, and all through the core, and beyond the core, closer to the core than the core.” (The Orthodox Way, page 46).

The worship of the Orthodox Church is a physical experience of the double mystery of God: God as Emptiness and God as Fulness. It was an attendance at a Vigil service which started Metropolitan Kallistos’s process of conversion to Orthodoxy: “As I entered St Philip’s… at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor.”

“Then I realised that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshippers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn.”

My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full – full of countless unseen worshippers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken up into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below and things above.” (The Inner Kingdom, pages 1 and 2).

A part of this sense of undivided, all-embracing celebration is our communion with twenty centuries of Christian experience, and especially with twenty centuries of Church Fathers. Living continuity with the centuries of Tradition requires the difficult ability to distinguish between Tradition and traditions. Faithfulness requires creativity and cannot be content with mechanical repetition of ancient formulas. Metropolitan Kallistos has a great respect for the work of his predecessor, Father Georges Florovsky, whom he quotes, ‘Tradition is the witness of the Spirit… it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration.’ Departing from the Orthodox Faith cannot be the way to regeneration: ‘The statements of faith put out by the seven councils possess, along with the Bible, an abiding and irrevocable authority’ (The Orthodox Church, page 202).

A major key to the understanding of the Orthodox Church is the proper understanding of the place of the Bible in the Christian community: ‘The Bible is the supreme expression of God’s revelation to the human race… But…the Church alone… can interpret Holy Scripture with authority’ (The Orthodox Church, page 199).

Orthodox Christians read the Bible in the perspective of the Church’s Tradition. This requires a minimum of familiarity with the writings of the Church Fathers. Reading the Fathers is for ordinary people, not just academics. The Orthodox Church does not read the Fathers in a simplistic way: ‘The Orthodox must not simply know and quote the Fathers; they must enter more deeply into the inner spirit of the Fathers and acquire a ‘Patristic mind’, and must treat the fathers not merely as relics from the past, but as living witnesses and contemporaries’ (The Orthodox Church, page 204).

By saying this, Metropolitan Kallistos points to a whole range of dangers: academic study of the Fathers with no commitment to their faith; using the Fathers as fuel for our pride and contempt of others; spending time with books as a way of escaping responsibilities.

Death and what lies beyond have become awkward topics in our secularised culture. Metropolitan Kallistos firmly asserts the Orthodox understanding of human death: “Physical death should be seen, not primarily as a punishment, but as a means of release provided by a loving God. In his mercy God did not wish men to go on living indefinitely in a fallen world, caught for ever in the vicious circle of their own devising; and so he provided a way of escape. For death is not the end of life but the beginning of its renewal.” (The Orthodox Way, page 60).

Metropolitan Kallistos’s Foreword to Bishop Hilarion’s excellent “The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian” completes this brief picture of our Bishop’s teaching. Here are some extracts:

“In a popular anthology… I read these words from Isaac: ‘What is a compassionate heart? It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists.’ Isaac goes on to speak of the tears shed by the person with the heart such as this, when confronted by the pain and anguish of any living thing: ‘As a result of this deep mercy his heart shrinks and cannot bear to look on any injury or the slightest suffering of any in creation.’

“According to Isaac, those who endure torment in gehenna are chastised, not by divine anger, not by any desire on God’s part to exact retribution – for there is no cruelty or vindictiveness in God – but ‘with the scourge of love’. ‘The sorrow which takes hold of the heart that has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God… But love acts in a double way, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.’ Lossky comments: ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.’

Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, Isaac maintains, is the happiest event that could possibly have occurred in the entire history of the world. Is it not absurd, then, to assign as the reason for this supremely joyful event something which might not and, indeed, ought not ever to have happened – namely, human sin? The main and only reason for the Saviour’s coming on earth is not negative but positive. The reason for his Incarnation is not human sin but divine love: ‘God did all this for no other reason, except to make known to the world the love that he has’. He became incarnate ‘not to redeem us from sins, or for any other reasons, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for the whole of his creation.’

At the end of “The Orthodox Church,” pages 329-344, Metropolitan Kallistos gives a substantial bibliography for further reading. While this is more than most people could afford or wish to buy, it is a first-rate source of information. Alongside a personal involvement in the life of an Orthodox parish, it can be the basis for acquiring a solid Orthodox Christian culture.

“Thoughts and images inevitably occur to us during prayer. We cannot simply turn off the internal television set. It is of little or no value to say to ourselves ‘Stop thinking’; we might as well say ‘Stop breathing’. ‘The rational mind cannot rest idle’, says St Mark the Monk, for thoughts keep filling it with ceaseless chatter. But while it lies beyond our power to make this chatter suddenly disappear, what we can do is to detach ourselves from it by ‘binding’ our ever-active mind ‘with one thought, or the thought of One only’ – the Name of Jesus. We cannot altogether halt the flow of thoughts, but through the Jesus Prayer we can disengage ourselves progressively from it, allowing it to recede into the background so that we become less aware of it.

According to Evagrius of Pontus (+399), ‘Prayer is a laying aside of thoughts.’ A laying aside: not a savage conflict, not a furious repression, but a gentle yet persistent act of detachment. Through the repetition of the Name, we are helped to ‘lay aside’, to ‘let go’, our trivial or pernicious imaginings, and to replace them with the thought of Jesus. But, although the imagination and the discursive reasoning are not to be violently suppressed when saying the Jesus prayer, they are certainly not to be actively encouraged. The Jesus Prayer is not a form of meditation upon specific incidents in the life of Christ, or upon some saying or parable in the Gospels; still less is it a way of reasoning and inwardly debating about some theological truth such as the meaning of the homoousios or the Chalcedonian Definition

The essential part is to dwell in God, and this walking before God means that you live with the conviction ever before your consciousness that God is in you, as he is in everything: you live in the firm assurance that he sees all that is within you, knowing you better than you know yourself. This awareness of the eye of God looking at your inner being must not be accompanied by any visual concept, but must be confined to a simple conviction or feeling. Only when we invoke the Name in this way – not forming pictures of the Saviour but simply feeling his presence – shall we experience the full power of the Jesus Prayer to integrate and unify.

The Jesus Prayer is thus a prayer in words, but because the words are so simple, so few and unvarying, the Prayer reaches out beyond words into the living silence of the Eternal. It is a way of achieving, with God’s assistance, the kind of non-discursive, non-iconic prayer in which we do not simply make statements to or about God, in which we do not just form pictures of Christ in our imagination, but are ‘oned’ with him in an all-embracing, unmediated encounter. Through the Invocation of the Name we feel the nearness with our spiritual senses, much as we feel the warmth with our bodily senses on entering a heated room.

Many, on hearing that the Invocation of the Name is to be non-discursive and non-iconic, a means of transcending images and thoughts, may be tempted to conclude that any such manner of praying lies beyond their capacities. To such it should be said: the Way of the Name is not reserved for a select few. It is within the reach of all. When you first embark on the Jesus Prayer, do not worry too much about expelling thoughts and mental pictures. As we have said already, let your strategy be positive, not negative. Call to mind, not what is to be excluded, but what is to be included. Do not think about your thoughts and how to shed them; think about Jesus. Concentrate your whole self, all your ardour and devotion, upon the person of the Saviour. Feel his presence. Speak to him with love. If your attention wanders, as undoubtedly it will, do not be discouraged; gently, without exasperation or inner anger, bring it back. If it wanders again and again, then again yet again bring it back. Return to the centre – to the living and personal centre, Jesus Christ.

Look on the Invocation, not so much as prayer emptied of thoughts, but as prayer filled with the Beloved. Let it be, in the richest sense of the word, a prayer of affection – although not of self-induced emotional excitement. For while the Jesus prayer is certainly far more than ‘affective’ prayer in the technical Western sense, it is with our loving affection that we do right to begin.

‘If prayer is to be transmuted into action, then this Trinitarian faith which informs all our praying must also be manifest in our daily life. Immediately before reciting the Creed in the Eucharistic Liturgy, we say these words: “Let us love one another, so that we may with one mind confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.” Note the words “so that”. A genuine confession of faith in the Triune God can be made only by those who, after the likeness of the Trinity, show love mutually towards each other. There is an integral connection between our love for one another and our faith in the Trinity: the first is a precondition for the second, and in its turn the second gives full strength and meaning to the first.” (The Orthodox Way, page 38).

An example of Orthodox liturgical prayer:

Prefiguring, O Christ our God, thy Resurrection, thou hast taken with thee in thy ascent upon Mount Thabor thy three disciples, Peter, James, and John. When thou was transfigured, O Saviour, Mount Thabor was covered with light. Thy disciples, O Word, cast themselves down upon the ground, unable to gaze upon the Form that none may see. The angels ministered in fear and trembling, the heavens shook and the earth quaked, as they beheld upon earth the lord of glory.

“Approached in a prayerful manner, the Bible is found to be always contemporary – not just writings composed in the distant past but a message addressed directly to me here and now. “He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work,” says St Mark the Monk, “when he reads the Holy Scriptures will apply everything to himself and not to someone else.” As a book uniquely inspired by God and addressed to each of the faithful personally, the Bible possesses sacramental power, transmitting grace to the reader, bringing him to a point of meeting and decisive encounter. Critical scholarship is by no means excluded, but the true meaning of the Bible will only be apparent to those who study it with their spiritual intellect as well as their reasoning brain.” (The Orthodox Way, page 111).

Metropolitan Kallistos’s Philokalia Starter Kit
1. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia, pages 164-270
2. Philokalia volume 1, pages 55-71 and 162-198
3. Philokalia volume 2, pages 344-357
4. Philokalia volume 4, pages 257-286