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Phronema the Lifeblood of Orthodoxy

By Bishop Thomas Joseph and Peter Schweitzer

The Greek word φρόνημα, transliterated in English as phronema is difficult to capture in a single word since it is more of a way of being in the world or a way of looking at the world.  Often, it is rendered in English as mindset or ethos.  For the purposes of this paper, we will employ the understanding of phronema as ethos.

In no Western religion is the concept of phronema present.  The concept truly has meaning only for the Orthodox Christian.  Perhaps this is because most Western religions understand themselves intellectually.  They adopt a so-called theology and employ philosophical categories to make it intelligible to their adherents and the world around them.  This is not the case for Orthodoxy.  Indeed, it would be hard to experience Orthodoxy apart from this ethos.  Since Orthodoxy is not about the intellectual pursuit of knowledge, it is thoroughly consistent that phronema can’t be grasped or recognized in a purely rationalistic pursuit.  One has to live Orthodoxy, experience it deeply, to perceive its ethos.

Acquiring an Orthodox ethos does not mean collecting a head full of “patristic quotes.” Rather it refers to the transformation of the whole man, resulting in one's gradual participation in the “noetic vision.” Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos speaks of it thus in his superb book The Mind of the Orthodox Church:

[Phronema means] in the biblico-patristic Tradition the whole turn of mind which prevails in a man from the way in which he lives, and from the relationship which he has with God. And literally, if the nous [i.e., the spiritual intellect, not to be confused with “reason”] is darkened, then the whole mind is carnal. But if the nous is illuminated, which means that is has the Holy Spirit within it, then the whole mind is a mind of spirit and, of course, a mind of the Church....

When we speak of having an orthodox mind we mean chiefly that our nous is the nous of Christ, as the Apostle Paul says, or at least that we accept the experience of the saints and have communion with them. This is the way of the life of the Orthodox Tradition and the way of life of Christ's life. The orthodox mind is expressed by the dogmas of the Church, because, on the one hand, the dogmas express the life which the Church has and the revelation which the saints have received, and on the other hand, they lead the passionate people and the babes in Christ to unity and communion with God.

We must say at this point that the theology of the Church is ascetic, that is to say, it defines the methods of cure in order for man to attain deification....So the dogmas express the revelation and the life which the Church has and they also cure man and lead him towards deification. They are spiritual road signs. In this sense we can say that the dogmas save man and sanctify him. This happens because they cure him and give him the right orientation on his way towards God. (pp. 120, 122-123)

It is clear from Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos’ understanding of phronema that this is the very life blood of the Christian.  Without such a phronema, we are unable to speak of Christ, much less teach others about Him.   This is also precisely why theologians are not ivory tower academicians with advanced degrees.  Rather, they have the “nous of Christ” to employ the Metropolitan’s words. 

A contemporary example of this may be found in the life and writings of Jean Claude Larchet, a patristics scholar and a convert from Rome.  Larchet describes the importance of phronema when he describes how he came to Orthodoxy through his love of the Holy Fathers.  Importantly, Larchet credits his relationship with his spiritual father Elder Sergei of Vanves for assisting him in the acquisition of an Orthodox phronema.  Larchet notes,

I discovered Orthodoxy through the Fathers, but after, he taught me how to read the Fathers. For example, he taught me not to read the Fathers with an intellectual approach with an abstract mind, but in a spiritual way, with prayer, to read the Fathers spiritually. . . Theology is closely connected with spiritual life. . . it was to be like a sponge, to receive the teaching of the spiritual Father without wanting to think something by my own, you know, I didn't want to think something by my own, no creation, no invention, no new teaching, I didn't want to be known by other people... And that was the conception of St. Maximus, too - he says in his Letter 15: “I will not say anything about myself, but I only hear what the Fathers teach, without changing anything” - and also of St. John Damascus writing in the Preface of “Fountain of Wisdom”: “I shall add nothing of my own, but shall gather together into one those things which have been worked out by the most eminent of teachers.”

Our modern sensibilities tend to reject this notion because we desire to be known and to stand out among our peers.  We want to come up with a new way of doing things, a new way of bringing others to Christ, or reformulating teachings to make them more palatable to the modern ear.  Yet, in so doing, we risk losing this sense of phronema, an essential ingredient in our own salvation. 

The monks of the Holy Monastery of Saint Gregory (Monastery of Gregoriou), on Mount Athos published a paper related to this issue.  Here is a particularly relevant excerpt,

The Church's decisions also carry force across time; and for this reason, the decisions of the Holy Fourth Ecumenical Synod are of such binding character that the Church can make no disparate decisions without refuting Herself. In keeping with this spirit, the phrase, “We now clearly understand...,” has no place among Orthodox. The classical Patristic dictum, “Following the Holy Fathers...,” is the only one which expresses how Orthodox understand themselves.” 

They were addressing an issue related to the Fourth Ecumenical Council but their understanding applies to all the ecumenical councils and the teachings of the Holy Fathers.

On a practical and pastoral level, this means that we must reject media and methods which contradict the Orthodox method.  In other areas of life a certain medium of communication or method of transmission of information may be appropriate, but not when we are discussing issues related to the life of the Orthodox faith.  This is why we don’t adopt a different vocabulary when dialoguing with someone who is outside the Orthodox faith or try to make the Ancient Faith “relevant” or “contemporary” by changing the liturgy.  While the intention may be good, the results are disastrous, for we lose any possibility of bringing someone to Christ. 

Returning to the essential notion of the Church as a spiritual hospital, it is readily evident that the Church cannot adopt innovative practices or methods just as a surgeon will not adopt a new procedure in the middle of surgery.  Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos explains this succinctly,

The incarnation of Christ and the work of the Church aim at enabling the person to attain to the likeness of God, that is to reestablish communion with God. This passage way from a fallen state to divinization is called the healing of the person, because it is connected with his return from a state of being contrary to nature, to that of a state according to nature and above nature. By adhering to Orthodox therapeutic treatment as conceived by the Holy Fathers of the Church man can cope successfully with the thoughts (logismoi) and thus solve his problems completely and comprehensively.

Clarion calls for relevance, modernization, or adaptation to contemporary culture are red herrings that should be dismissed, for they miss the essential character and mission of holy Orthodoxy.  In this time of mass confusion that beckons even Orthodox Christians into the cesspool of modern culture, let us stand firm in the faith that has been bestowed upon us by Christ Himself.  It is in holy Orthodoxy that we will weather the storms of this dark period. 

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