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The Three Stages of Spiritual Life

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  • Thomas Daniel
    The Three Stages of Spiritual Life Joseph the Visionary, An Introduction JOSEPH HAZZAYA, or the Visionary, was born into a Zoroastrian family some time around
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 15, 2001
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      The Three Stages of Spiritual Life

      Joseph the Visionary, An Introduction

      JOSEPH HAZZAYA, or the Visionary, was born into a Zoroastrian family
      some time around 710. As a child of seven he was taken captive during
      a raid, to be sold first to an Arab, and then to a Christian in the
      region of mount Qardu (north Iraq). Impressed by the example of some
      local monks, he sought baptism, and when his owner subsequently
      liberated him, Joseph became a monk himself. For two separate periods
      in his monastic life he lived as a solitary, but he also twice served
      as abbot of a community.

      Joseph has left a considerable number of writings, some of which were
      circulated under the name of his brother and fellow monk, Abdisho. A
      number of these writings were included by A. Mingana in his
      work "Early Christian Mystics." Among his Letters is an important one
      on the three stages or degrees of the spiritual life, wrongly
      attributed in the manuscript tradition to Philoxenus. Although the
      pattern is based on John of Apamea's threefold division, Joseph
      adapts it to incorporate features from other writers, including
      Evagrius; we thus have the following main correspondences:

      (1) The first stage is that of the body (pagranuta); this is
      concerned with external practices, fastings, vigils, and prayer
      centered on psalmody and readings. This corresponds to the cenobitic
      life and is symbolized by the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt
      (i.e. the world) and their passage through the wilderness; it also
      represents the state of a servant who is subject to commandments. The
      aim is purity, and the stage corresponds to the Evagrian praktike and
      the Dionysian 'purification'.

      (2) The stage of the soul (nafshanuta) belongs especially to the
      solitary life, and is concerned above all with the practice of the
      interior virtues, in particular humility. The transition from the
      stage of the body to that of the soul corresponds to the crossing by
      the Israelites of the river Jordan, and the ensuing fight with evil
      demons reflects the Israelites' fight with the inhabitants of the
      Land of Promise. This is the state of a worker who awaits his daily
      pay. The aim is 'limpidity' or 'transparency' (shafyuta), and this
      stage corresponds to the Evagrian 'natural contemplation' and the
      Dionysian 'illumination'.

      (3) The third stage, that of the spirit (ruhanuta), is concerned
      primarily with the activities of the mind; it constitutes the entry
      into 'perfection' (or 'full maturity'), and represents 'the glorious
      Zion'. This is the state of a son (and no longer that of a servant or
      worker), and the most characteristic feature of it is the vision of
      the Formless Light of the Trinity and of the Risen Christ. This stage
      corresponds to the Evagrian theologia and the
      Dionysian 'unification'.

      Two excerpts from Joseph's works are translated here. The first is a
      short unpublished text on 'spiritual prayer'. Joseph's description of
      this exalted form of prayer indicates that he has in mind something
      rather different from Isaac's 'spiritual prayer'. The second excerpt
      (transmitted under the name of Abdisho) is taken from a longer work
      of advanced teaching on prayer entitled 'On the stirrings, or
      impulses, of the mind during prayer'. Here Joseph compares the soul
      to a ship at sea with the mind as the helmsman, trying to cope with
      the various winds, which are the impulses which arise in the mind
      during prayer. A detailed analysis of the different kinds of impulses
      is given, and the extract ends with a description of the vision of
      the Light of the Holy Trinity. (to be continued)

      Sebastian Brock, "The Syriac Fathers On Prayer and the Spiritual
      Life," Cistercian Publications
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