When our lives are jolted by suffering, a setback, or any bad news, very often our first reaction is “I’ve got to do something about this.” Our initial response is we have to react or do something to change suffering into joy, a setback into victory, or bad news into good. It’s almost as if we believe we have the power to change water into wine. Part of this reaction is natural given our fallen state and part of it is cultural. We are programmed to believe that we have a God-given right to be happy and anything or anyone that encroaches on that happiness has to be dealt with by any means necessary. While this is perhaps the reality of our state according to nature and culture, it isn’t the Gospel. It’s not where God resides.
When we respond according to the ways described above, our head (intellect) is in control which leaves little room for the nous (heart, as understood by the Fathers). In Orthodox theology, the nous is the highest faculty or power of the human soul. It is the faculty that knows God directly; it is the seat of our personhood, which experiences the Person of God in a communion of love. St. Gregory Palamas and other Holy Fathers say that it most precisely defines what is the “image of God” in us. Yet, in our fallen state, we live our lives completely controlled by the other faculty, the intellect. We see this most clearly when we engage in theological disputes with those who don’t hold our viewpoints or when we gossip about the lives of others or what’s going on in the church. In allowing our intellect to rule our lives, we shut out and bury the nous, where God resides. As a result, we have to win every argument or debate, we have to stay current on the latest gossip, and we have to constantly demonstrate to others our own abilities and superiority.
Yet in all this activity, God is not to be found because the nous is subjected to the intellect. It’s analogous to the person whose garage becomes so cluttered that one can’t find anything in it any longer. There’s no room for anything else. Unfortunately, this is often how we live our lives. Fr. Damascene puts it this way, “The sickness of the nous leads to spiritual death. The darkness of the nous leads to spiritual darkness, in which we cannot see things clearly and soberly. We cannot see things as God sees them; instead, we see them through the filter of our passions. Thus we grope about blindly in life, hurting ourselves and hurting others, either wittingly or unwittingly. We stray far from our purpose in life, which is union with God. Although we might think we have lots of important things to do, we wander aimlessly through life; and all our busyness only serves to distract us from our diseased spiritual state, from the fact that we are not fulfilling our life’s true purpose. Our nous is sick because we have separated ourselves from God, because we have sought after our passions rather than Him.” When someone injures us, we seek to strike back and avenge our honor. In reality, such thinking is not about honor or justice. It’s really about allowing our passions to have free rein in our lives. Inevitably, this leads to more sin, further alienation from God and from our brothers and sisters. In the end, it never leads to true happiness or lasting peace.
The Gospel calls us to a different hierarchy of values and a different order between the intellect and the nous. St. Theophan the Recluse describes it in these terms,
You’ve got to get out of your head and into your heart. Right now your thoughts are in your head, and God seems to be outside you. Your prayer and all your spiritual exercises also remain exterior. As long as you are in your head, you will never master your thoughts, which continue to whirl around your head like snow in a winter’s storm or like mosquitoes in the summer’s heat. If you descend into your heart, you will have no more difficulty. Your mind will empty out and your thoughts will dissipate. Thoughts are always in your mind chasing one another about, and you will never manage to get them under control. But if you enter into your heart and can remain there, then every time your thoughts invade, you will only have to descend into your heart and your thoughts will vanish into thin air. This will be your safe haven. Don’t be lazy. Descend. You will find life in your heart. There you must live.
Prayer is solely operative in the nous. It’s not an intellectual formulation or an abstract concept. It’s where we meet and are transformed through repentance by God. Once the head is subjected to the heart and enters therein, real change becomes possible. As prayer matures and begins to bear fruit in our lives, we begin to see as God wants us to see. We begin to see noetically. We begin to understand humility is preferable to arrogance. We begin to prefer silence over gossip and idle talk. We begin to prefer prayer to action. Noetically, we understand prayer is the only currency of change. That’s when the words of Elder Paisios begin to take root in our heart and spur us to inner transformation,
If you wish to be calm do not read rebellious books or pamphlets that mention Church matters, since you are not responsible for such serious affairs. You have need of books that will assist you in YOUR repentance. If you want to help the Church, correct YOURSELF and immediately amendment is made to a small part of the Church. Naturally, if everyone did this, then the Church would be put in order.
Prayer as the only real currency of change isn’t recognized because it the the “pearl of great price” that lays hidden in the nous of every individual. One who lives life noetically recognizes that prayer is the only currency of change because it has the power to raise those who are dead back to life, life in Christ.