Elder Joseph the Hesychast. "Monastic wisdom". Letter 36.
May the God and Lord of all Who dwells in the heavens, Who gives us breath and life and everything, and constantly cares for our salvation, send forth into your holy souls the comforting Spirit; may He enlighten your nous as He enlightened the Disciples of our Savior; may He shine the light of His divine radiance upon your entire spiritual and noetic being; may your whole heart burn with divine eros as did Cleopas’s, and may it leap for joy learning of the conception of the new Adam, and the utter destruction of the old Adam along with all his passions. Then, in this manner, tears will continuously flow every moment like a fountain streaming forth sweetness. Amen.
Today, my little child, I received your letter and saw what you wrote, and I shall answer your questions. The method of noetic prayer is as your holy eldress tells you. Circular* prayer within the heart has no danger of delusion ever. The other method or methods are dangerous, because a fantasy can easily approach them, and then delusion enters the nous.
O how dreadful is the delusion of the nous! And how imperceptible! Let me write a little about it for your information. I was very daring with these things and examined every kind of prayer. I tried out everything, because when grace approaches a person, his nous—that “shameless bird” as Abba Isaac calls it—seeks to penetrate everywhere, to try out everything. It begins with the creation of Adam and ends up plunging into depths and soaring to such heights that if God did not set any boundaries, it would not return.
So, this method of prayer of the heart is a method belonging to “praxis” which we employ to keep the nous in the heart. And when grace overflows, it raptures the nous into theoria, and the heart burns with divine eros and is all afire with love. Then the nous is completely united with God. It is transformed and melts like wax before the fire or like iron assimilated with fire. Iron’s nature does not change, but as long as it is in the fire, it is one with it. But when the flame withdraws, it returns to its natural hardness.
This is called theoria. Then tranquility reigns in the nous and the entire body is calm At this point, a person can pray both with words and with improvised prayers and ascend to theoria, without enclosing his nous in his heart.
For we pray noetically so that grace may come. When grace is present, the nous does not wander. And when the nous stands still, it employs all the kinds of prayer; it tries out everything.
So then, the method of prayer which they are using is not delusion; however, it can easily turn into delusion because their nous is simple. It has not been purified, so it accepts fantasies instead of theorias.
Take, for example, a spring by the seashore that wells up clean water. Suddenly a storm breaks out, the sea rises, and our little spring is polluted with sea water. No matter how clever you are, you will not be able to separate the sea water from the springs’ water. The same thing happens with the nous.
Now pay attention to what I shall say: the demons are spirits. Therefore, they are akin to and can be assimilated with our spirit, the nous. The nous is the purveyor of the soul, for it brings every appearance and perception of a noetic movement to the heart, which in turn filters it and gives it to the intellect. Therefore, the nous can be deceived just as the spring was polluted in the example. That is, the unclean spirit stealthily pollutes the nous, which in turn, as usual, gives whatever it has to the heart. If the heart is not pure, it gives the murk to the mind, and then the soul is darkened and blackened, constantly accepting fantasies henceforth instead of theorias. In this manner, all the delusions arose and all the heresies occurred.
But when a man is filled with grace, is always cautious, and never becomes overconfident or trusts in himself, but rather has constant fear throughout his life, then when the evil one approaches, he notices some anomaly—a certain disparity occurs. And then his nous, heart, intellect, and all the strength of his soul, seek the One Who can save him. He seeks Him Who brought everything to existence out of nothingness and scrutinizes everything; Him Who is able to divide the waters from the waters [cf. Gen. 1:6]. And when you fervently call upon Him with copious tears, the deception is revealed, and you learn how to avoid delusion. Once you have experienced such things many times, you become a “practiced” man. Then you endlessly glorify and thank God Who opens our nous to recognize the traps and wiles of the evil one so that we may escape them.
Truly I tell you that I have entered into all the lairs of the enemy, and after a harsh combat one-on- one, I emerged victorious by the grace of the Lord. And now, if anyone is ill, I am able by the grace of God to free him from his sickness of thoughts and from his illness of delusion, as long as he obeys me. For when someone gripped by delusion obeys someone else, it is possible for him to be delivered from it, and for the evil one to lose control of him. This is why the devil advises and persuades him not to believe anyone anymore and never to obey anyone, but henceforth to accept only his own thoughts and trust only in his own discernment. Lurking within this haughty attitude is that huge ego, the Luciferian pride of the heretics and of all who are deluded and do not want to return to the truth. So may our Christ, Who is the true Light, enlighten and guide the steps of each person who wants to approach Him.
As for all of you, if you love noetic prayer, mourn and weep while seeking Jesus. He will reveal Himself as burning love which consumes all the passions. Then you will become like someone deeply in love whose heart leaps and whose eyes shed tears as soon as he thinks of the person he loves. This is the kind of divine eros and the fire of love that must burn in your heart, so that as soon as you hear or say, “My Lord Jesus Christ, sweet love! My dearly sweet Mother, All-holy Virgin!” tears should run.
All the saints wrote many praises to our Panagia. But I, the poor one, have found no words more elegant or sweet to describe her, than to cry out to her at every moment: “My dear Mother! My dear, sweet Mother! When my soul departs may it come into thy hands, and through them may it be given to its Creator, thine Only-begotten Son. We desire nothing else, our dear, sweet Mother, except to give up our soul amidst that flaming love, at a time when the divine eros is afire; when our soul is on fire and the nous stops and breathes a fragrant zephyr in a gentle breeze and is covered by the cloud[cf. Ex 20:21]; where the senses cease, and our Beloved, Eros, Love, and Life, our eternally sweet Jesus reigns.” Therefore, little children of the heavenly Father and heirs of His kingdom, run, hasten, weep, rejoice, shed tears of love. Sink your nous in Him Who sank His body into the earth to save us. Our sweet Jesus descended so that we may ascend. He died and rose in order to raise us. Rejoice and leap for joy, for we have been blessed to become His children, to enjoy His eternal blessings, and to rejoice together even here in His infinite love.
*Circular prayer (κυκλυκή προσευχή):
Quoting St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite: “St. Dionysios the Areopagite refers to three forms [of prayer]: direct, spiral, and circular—which alone is without deception. It is called circular prayer because as the perimeter of a circle returns to its starting point, so also in this circular movement, the nous returns to itself and becomes one. This is why St. Dionysios, that superb theologian, said, ‘The movement of the soul is circular because it leaves the externals, enters into itself, and unites its noetic powers in a circular movement which keeps the soul from deception.’ (Divine Names, ch. IV) St. Basil also noted, ‘A nous that is not distracted toward externals or scattered through the senses to the world, returns to itself and through itself rises to the understanding of God.’ (Epistle 1) St. Gregory Palamas also mentions in his letter to Barlaam that deception can enter into direct and spiral prayers, but not into circular prayer. According to St. Dionysios the Areopagite, direct prayer is the activity of the nous based on external perceptions that raise it to a simple intellectual activity. Spiral prayer occurs when the nous is illumined by divine knowledge, not entirely noetically and changelessly, but rather intellectually and by transitions, combining direct and some circular prayer. Therefore, whoever wishes to pray without deception must occupy himself more with the circular prayer of the nous, which is accomplished by the return of the nous to the heart and by noetic prayer in the heart.
“This prayer is very arduous and toilsome, yet correspondingly fruitful because it is free of deception. This is the most important, the most sublime activity of the nous, for it unites the nous with God Who is above all things. In short, this circular movement of the nous purifies, illumines, and perfects the nous more than all the algebra, physics, metaphysics, and other sciences of secular philosophy. This noetic prayer makes man spiritual and a seer of God, whereas those other intellectual disciplines make him only a natural (ψυχικός) man. But as St. Paul says, ‘The natural [unspiritual] man receiveth not the gifts of the Spirit, for they are folly to him’ (1 Cor. 2:14).”
—St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite,
A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, pp. 116-117 (Greek ed.)