Thursday, July 1, 2010

Illumination: Mind Beyond Reason

The notion that prayer of the heart takes us beyond all concepts and is essential to approach God raises some important questions. This is often described as an emptying of the  mind or a stillness of the mind. But doesn't our mind always need to have something to do?  Our Church Fathers affirm that it is truly possible to totally empty the mind of all its thoughts and concepts.  Then, how is it that we can have our mind  not involved with thoughts and concepts but still occupied?  Even when we are engage in negative theology we are still filling our mind with concepts, albeit they be negative ones about attributes of God.  We are still activating reason based on known concepts. The answer is prayer. Prayer fills the mind with God.

Fr. Dimitru Staniloae says,
Prayer alone succeeds in making this work complete by removing from the mind all definite content whatsoever.  It occupies the mind with the infinite, with God; in other words, it fills it in a positive and experiential way with the apophatic.
To further understand this we need to distinguish between mind (nous) and reason (logos) in the  writings of our Fathers.

Reason is the faculty that conceives things by assigning them to concepts or what are also called logoi.  It is these concepts that are the objects of our reason.

The mind is more than reason.  It is the faculty that thinks contents without restraining them to concepts. Reason is used by the mind which is a much higher a power.

So, to go beyond reason is to appeal to the highest part of our mind which operates without concepts.

Fr Dimitru compares this to the Divine mind.  He writes,
Reason comes from the mind just as the divine Logos is continually born from the Father, who is the first Mind (nous).  Therefore in the divine mind is the principle of all things, so too the mind in man is the principle of all things, so of reason too.  It is therefore the basis of the human subject, which is beyond delimited contents.
So as we go within to the place of the inner self, we go beyond what is possible to grasp with reason.  Our "self" is beyond reason and all concepts.  It is not limited by the images and conditions that make up our ego-self. What ever concepts we use to describe our "self" there is always more. To know our true being we must go beyond all concepts using the higher powers of our mind.

Fr. Dimitru says,
Things and concepts are a curtain which shut off our view, not only of God, but also of the basis of our subject.... The mind should be able to see its own self as in a mirror... Yet images and concepts cover the mirror with a wall which must be pierced...
The main point is that to know our true self and to join in union with God we need to go beyond our reason, beyond all concepts, to the highest part of our mind which does not rely on concepts; that part which controls even reason. Reason and concepts are limiting, incapable of grasping the infinite.  Knowing this truth about our own being leads to knowledge about God that is beyond reason.  This is the aim of all our ascetic preparation, to get beyond all that keeps us focused on the things of this world  which we understand through reason and concepts about them. This starts by controlling our passions, and then engaging in pure prayer where we come to recognize our true being which is beyond all reason.  Then we can grasp the truth about God.

Reference: Orthodox Spirituality, pp 284 -286

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