The Three Stages of Spiritual Life / Joseph the Visionary

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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