These “N” words were unfamiliar to me before I became Orthodox. But they have much to do with our Lenten journey, which is really just an intensified version of the rest of our spiritual life. Even when it’s not the Lenten season, Christians try to pray and draw near to God. And for these actions to have value to our souls, we need to engage our nous.
Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos writes this about the nous:
“The word has various uses in Patristic teaching. It indicates either the soul or the heart or even an energy of the soul. Yet, the nous is mainly the eye of the soul; the purest part of the soul; the highest attention. It is also called noetic energy and it is not identified with reason.”
I remember once when I was visiting with a Greek friend and he was explaining the nous this way:
“It’s like when I was a little boy and I would misbehave and my Yia Yia would say, ‘Paul! Where is your nous?’ Which was her way of saying, ‘What were you thinking?’ She would say this when I was acting in a way that contradicted the core of my person, of who I am.”
The fathers say we should pray “with our mind in our heart” and “with our nous.” How do we do that?
Metropolitan Vlachos says that “Noetic prayer is the prayer which is done with the nous. When the nous is liberated from its enslavement to reason, to the passions and the surrounding world and returns from its distraction within the heart, then noetic prayer starts. Thus noetic prayer is done with the nous within the heart, whereas the prayer of the intellect is done within the reason [which is] the power of the soul through which we perceive the surrounding world and we develop our relation with it. We acquire experience of God by means of the nous and we formulate this experience, when required, by means of reason, in so far as it is attainable.”
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware says: “The Nous is not primarily the rational faculties but a spiritual vision that we all possess though many of us have not discovered it. It must be cultivated through study and training and developed through prayer and fasting. It can be something higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions.”
Higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions. I love that he doesn’t reject either the brain or the emotions, but rather encourages us to go further up and further in.
There are many more patristic writings about the nous and noetic prayer that I could quote from and link to, but you can Google the terms and find lots of theological writings to read if you’re interested. Instead I’ll close with another poem—this one is not mine, but is the work of an Orthodox poet, Scott Cairns. (I met Scott at a spiritual writing workshop in Oxford this past November.) This poem is from his book, Philokalia: New and Selected Poems.
“Adventures in New Testament Greek: Nous”
You could almost think the word synonymous
with mind, given our so far narrow
history, and the excessive esteem
in which we have been led to hold what is,
in this case, our rightly designated
nervous systems. Little wonder then
that some presume the mind itself both part
and parcel of the person, the very seat
of soul and, lately, crucible for a host
of chemical incentives—combinations
of which can pretty much answer for most
of our habits and for our affections.
When even the handy lexicon cannot
quite place the nous as anything beyond
one rustic ancestor of reason, you might
be satisfied to trouble the odd term
no further—and so would fail to find
your way to it, most fruitful faculty
untried. Dormant in its roaring cave,
the heart’s intellective aptitude grows dim,
unless you find a way to wake it. So,
let’s try something, even now. Even as
you tend these lines, attend for a moment
to your breath as you draw it in: regard
the breath’s cool descent, a stream from mouth
to throat to the furnace of the heart.
Observe that queer, cool confluence of breath
and blood, and do your thinking there.