Conservative Friend

An Outreach of Stillwater Monthly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends

From Eastern Orthodoxy to Quakerism

John Michael Keba lives in Pennsylvania, USA, and is an affiliate member of Winona Monthly Meeting.  He came to Friends through a circuitous root that included atheism, Theravada, and the Ruthenian Rite of the Catholic Church.

In the Preface to his book, Orthodox Psychotherapy, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Hierotheos S. Vlachos wrote,

Certainly one should not disregard the fact that the neptic and hesychastic life is the same life which one sees in the life of the Prophets and the Apostles as is described precisely in the texts of Holy Scripture.

What is “the neptic and hesychastic life”? The book’s translator, Esther Williams, offers “sober-minded vigilance… usually translated as watchfulness,” for the noun nepsis, and “the practice of stillness in the presence of God” for hesychasm. The stillness itself is hesychia. I have to imagine that Conservative Friends will understand the Metropolitan’s statement perfectly now, and probably agree with it. For me, of course, the stream of understanding flowed in the opposite direction: I read Orthodox spirituality in the works of the Foxes, Penn, Barclay, and Penington. This identification with Orthodox thought was critical to my “convincement” by Conservative Quakerism, at least to the extent that Conservative Friends “conserve” the beliefs and practices of the ancient and Quietest Friends. Had I read, say, Thomas R. Kelley’s Reality of the Spiritual World before Fox and Barclay, I imagine that I would have passed the Friends by with a less than friendly nod.

The Metropolitan also had this to say:

Orthodox psychotherapy will therefore be more helpful to those who want to solve their existential problems; those who have realised that their nouslogismoi) in order to attain the illumination of their nous and communion with God.
has been darkened and for this reason they must be delivered from the tyranny of their passions and thoughts (

Esther Williams suggests “eye of the heart,” rather than mind or intellect, as a more connotative translation of “nous,” at least for the Metropolitan's writings: I agree, and see echoes of it in the Friends' notion of the heart as a “spiritual belly.” But what does the Metropolitan’s second statement mean?

It is important to realize that the bishop is using “psyche” to mean “soul” as well as “mind,” and that Orthodoxy views Christianity as a Hospital for wounded and ailing souls. It is not a religion; it is not a philosophy of life: It is the Way to live a healthy spiritual life, and the cure for those who are spiritually ill. He writes:

Orthodoxy is mainly a therapeutic science and treatment. It differs clearly from other psychiatric methods, because it is not anthropocentric but theanthropocentric and because it does not do its work with human methods, but with the help and energy of divine grace, essentially through the synergy of divine and human volition.

Our collective propensity for spiritual illness is a result of the Fall. It is important to realize here, too, though, that Orthodoxy generally abjures the notion of an Original Sin passed like a virus from generation to generation; rather, it speaks of the Ancestral Sin that disrupted our communion with God: First Adam preferred himself to God, and God essentially said, “Fine, have a go of it on your own.” Of course, God did not actually abandon us, and eventually restored our communion with Him at an ontological level with His Incarnation. Indeed, there is a long tradition in Orthodoxy, visited in the medieval speculation, “Cur Deus homo?” (for what purpose the God-man?), that the Incarnation is the reason--logos in the sense of “reason, cause, ground”--for Creation, and the disobedience in the Garden simply changed the specifics of its actualization; that is, Second Adam is the type of First Adam, and not the other way around. Christ is the Great Physician who has healed our relationship with the Father, but from the beginning we have been meant for the life He has given us, if only we accept it.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss the similarities between Orthodox Ancestral Sin and early Quaker thought, but I believe it would be fruitful. Similarly, I truly believe that Friends will see the close identification of “perfection” with the Orthodox goal of theosis, or divinization. Establishing a perfect communion with God in this life, that is, attaining theosis, is or should be the goal of every Orthodox Christian. I also have come to believe that the Russian Orthodox trust in sobornost ("the combination of freedom and unity of many persons on the basis of their common love for the same absolute values"--Nicolai Lossky) evinces the same trust that undergirds meetings for business, and that this parallel too warrants study.

Clearly, though, I see the Religious Society of Friends as - at least to a great extent, and in its Conservative form - “Orthodoxy as it should be.” It is, however, neither my desire nor intent to explain the long process that led me to choose Quakerism over Orthodoxy, but I will offer a hint: there is in the Russian tradition the poustinia; the word means “desert,” but in the context of hesychia actually refers to a bare-bones cabin or room for solitary contemplation and fasting. Traditionally, it has a table, a chair, a bed, a Bible, and a cross; if you imagine a copy of Fox’s Journal and Barclay’s Apology on the table with the Bible, you have a glimpse of just how my convincement came about.

I wish only to touch briefly upon one Orthodox practice critical to theosis: hesychasm - the practice of stillness in the presence of God. The following is not meant to be a primer; rather, it merely offers some quotes about the discipline, and trusts that Friends will see both the similarities and differences between Orthodox hesychia or stillness and the waiting silence of Friends.

In The Evagrian Ascetical System, the second volume of his The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr. Theophanes writes concerning prayer in the works of Evagrius Ponticus (346-399):

What is prayer to Evagrius? How does he understand the word? …in the passage that we are examining of Evagrius, the sense is that we must stand before God and beseech him, love him, ask him, be silent in his presence, weep before him for our wretched state, speak with him, love him finally in contemplation of the place which is of God, the mind (nous) being illumined by the light of the Holy Trinity. That is our goal. It is also the means of approaching the place which is of God: pray and you will receive prayer.

St Gregory the Theologian (“Nazianzus”: 325-389) regarded hesychia as essential for attaining communion with God. "It is necessary to be still in order to have clear converse with God and gradually bring the nous back from its wanderings."

St. Hesychios wrote, perhaps--his dates are uncertain--1000 years before Fox:

Attention is unceasing stillness (hesychia) of the heart from every thought (logismos), Christ Jesus, the Son of God and God, ever and everlastingly and unceasingly him alone breathing and invoking; in a manly way drawn up with him in battle order against the enemies; and to him alone confessing, who alone has the authority to forgive sins; enwrapped continually, secretly, in Christ, him who alone knows the hearts, by means of invocation; the soul attempting in every way to escape the notice of men, its sweetness and the struggle within, lest the wicked one unseen prosper vice and destroy a most beautiful labour. (Hesychios Presbyter, Treatise On Sobriety and Virtue Useful to the Soul and Which Saves, 5)

“Baptism” purifies the “image” and ascetical practice, including hesychia, leads to the attainment of “likeness,” or communion with God. Bishop Hierotheos quotes St. Basil the Great in Orthodox Psychotherapy:

When the mind is not dissipated upon extraneous things, nor diffused over the world about us through the senses, it withdraws within itself, and of its own accord ascends to the vision of God. Then when it is illuminated without and within by that glory, it becomes forgetful even of its own nature. No longer able to drag the soul down to thought of sustenance or to concern for the body's covering, but enjoying leisure from earthly cares, it transfers all its interest to the acquisition of the eternal goods...

A hesychast is one who follows the way of stillness; hesychasm is not, however, a mere technical method. It is not anthropocentric, but theanthropocentric; the hesychast, in repentance and sorrow, has faith that the Holy Spirit will inspire and guide her or him, and therefore hesychasm cannot ever prescind from Christ’s commandments. Again, Bishop Hierotheos tells us that

According to St. Gregory of Sinai, anyone who practises hesychasm must have as a foundation the virtues of "silence, self-control, vigils, humility and patience". Likewise he should have three activities pleasing to God: "psalmody, prayer and reading, and work with his hands.

The hesychast must be neptic--sober, watchful, vigilant--and take Colossians 3:5 to heart: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” This, because the “fruiting stillness” the Greek Fathers spoke of, is suppressed by sin and a lack of humility. The Holy Spirit leads us and not our own wills. The stillness that plays such a vital role in the purification process that leads to deification or perfection is itself dependent upon an active adherence to Christian mores. The fruits are those of the Holy Spirit which sustain us and renew us as we develop a selfless love of all.

Ultimately, Orthodox hesychasm is asserted to lead, in this life and with the material eyes of the body, to the vision of the Divine Light: none other than the Light that shone from our Lord--the uncreated energy of the Godhead. This theology of Hesychasm, as much as anything else, has kept Orthodoxy and Catholicism apart since the 14th century, but the Hesychast Controversy is a subject on its own. However, I think that here, too, in this theology hesychasm parts company with the silent worship of Friends; also, though the Orthodox hesychast can live and work amongst others, the essence of the discipline is solitary, unlike the silence of Friends.

I discovered something remarkable in my “desert”: a society of neptic hesychasts. I do not believe that Orthodoxy will ever be able to embrace the simplicity of Quaker hesychasm. I hope, though, that this essay will at the very least spark Friends to visit the vast world of Orthodox spirituality. It is not quite so alien as you might think.