Trinity College

Fundamentals of Orthodox Spirituality

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Fall 2020
Next Offered: 
Fall 2023

Spirituality is above all faith lived in the search for God and the experience of God, which the Fathers called theologia, beyond “theology” as abstract or theoretical knowledge of God. This course will explore Orthodox spirituality (or ascetic theology) from both thematic and historical perspectives. From a consideration of the goal of Orthodox spirituality as union with God or deification (theosis), the course will examine the contributions of the Old and New Testament; the early Church, monasticism, ancient philosophy, liturgy, mysticism, and patristic theology, especially anthropology. Patristic ascetic theology includes such key notions as the “passions” and the stages of temptation and sin; repentance or conversion (metanoia); the concurrence of divine and the human elements in the spiritual life (synergy); the role of the mind (noûs), the heart and the guarding of the heart (nepsis); and the “stages” of the spiritual life: purification, illumination and perfection. These elements of spirituality constitute a framework for the “practice” (praxis) of the spiritual life: the acquisition of virtues, particularly the commandment of love; communal or liturgical prayer; personal and communal prayer; sacramental life; fasting; Biblical and spiritual reading; and spiritual direction.

At the completion of the course, students will understand the Biblical and historical foundations of Christian spirituality in general and Orthodox spirituality in particular; acquire a sound knowledge of the key component elements and phases of the Christian spiritual life as described by the principal Eastern Christian teachers and authors; be familiar with the main Eastern Christian pastoral and spiritual writings and authors to the 14th century; acquire a detailed knowledge, by a critical reading and review, of one of the major spiritual texts from this period; and acquire an in-depth knowledge of the principal primary and secondary sources pertinent to one of the topics covered in the course.

Course Requirements

Non-credit students are expected to attend all classes, complete the readings assigned during the course and participate in discussion.

Credit students are required to make presentations on readings during the course, to write a review of a major work of early Christian ascetic literature (from a selected list) and to complete a research essay exploring one or several writers or themes in greater depth.

Required Readings (in a course pack):

Selected texts of major Eastern Christian pastoral and spiritual authors to the 14th century: The Desert Fathers; Athanasius; Origen; Macarius; Ephrem; Evagrius; Cyril of Jerusalem; Basil; Gregory of Nyssa; John Chrysostom; John Cassian; the Pseudo-Dionysius; Barsanuphius and John; Dorotheus of Gaza; Isaac of Nineveh; Sophronius; Maximus; John Climacus; Andrew of Crete; Symeon the New Theologian; Gregory Palamas; Nicolas Cabasilas.

Recommended secondary sources:

  • Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, The Place of the Heart: An Introduction to Orthodox Spirituality (Oakwood Publications, 1992).
  • Paul Evdokimov, The Ages of the Spiritual Life (SVS Press, 1998).
  • John Meyendorff, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (SVS Press, 1974).
  • A Monk of the Eastern Church [Fr Lev Gillet], Orthodox Spirituality (SVS Press, 1996).