The Three Turns

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Holy Orthodoxy bears witness to three great turns, which Saint Denis calls purification, illumination and deification, but which other elders describe in many different ways.  The first turn is sometimes referred to as purifying recollection, the second as enlightened recognition and the third as deifying remembrance, pointing to the nature of the action of grace characteristic of each great turn.  Saints who awaken to deification do not necessarily impart the spiritual culture and active cultivation of deification, for many continue to impart the culture of purification because that is where the majority of their disciples are centred.  Some elders concentrate on the culture of illumination and a few, like Saint Simeon the New Theologian, on the culture of illumination leading into deification.  The spiritual state of mature saints may be that of deification but given their calling is to address the questions of their disciples, it is more often purification that they teach.  The reason few directly address the issues of deification is that few disciples are asking them about glorification.  The three turns are in principle open to all mature saints, but as elders, they teach what their disciples are able to assimilate.  So the centre of gravity inspiring most ascetical teachings, addressed to the majority, is the first turn, the culture of purification or recollection.  The mysteries of direct recognition are the immediate concern of the illumined, but deification is the concern only of those who are entering directly into the unifying mysteries of the deifying remembrance of God.

The Name embraces all three turns in turn, purification, illumination and deification, but does so in these three different ways, purifying fire, uncreated light and deifying glory.  The way begins with turning, metanoia, never abandoning deep repentance when it proceeds to the second turn, the contemplative vision of God, theoria, or the third turn, deification, theosis, which completes both metanoia and theoria.  All three turns are modes of hallowing turning but differ in the ways grace unveils glory, as purification of the heart, enlightenment of mind and heart, and integral glorification, unifying heaven and earth.  Although Orthodox Hesychasm employs the language of all three turns, it does not follow that it is confined by fixated schemas or determinate stages, because the mysteries of grace are living mysteries of wisdom and glory, expressions of the free Spirit, not products of rigid conceptual speculation.  Although some western authorities do speak of ‘contemplatives,’ not all institutionally defined contemplatives are in fact enlightened contemplatives and by no means all academic theologians are mystical theologians.   At each unfolding within all three great turns, the language differs in meaning and spiritual significance.  For those who integrate all three turns, wisdom deepens in subtlety and heightens in intensity, leading to a freedom and spontaneity that is profoundly infused by the insight of the Holy Spirit.  There is, indeed, rigour but not pedantry, realism but not reification, clarity but not literalism, insight but not pride.

The three great turns are characteristic of wisdom’s unfolding, always and everywhere, although each traditional wisdom has its own unique way of expressing and embodying them.  Not all contemplatives can handle the comparative analysis of these differences, even though they may partake of wisdom’s insight into what is her own with all three turns.  The cultures of recollection are understood by the wisdom of recognition, just as the cultures of enlightenment are understood by the wisdoms of intuitive remembrance.  It does not follow, however, that every elder is able to give a coherent account of how the tradition changes as it is re-interpreted with each great turn.  That is the responsibility of certain sages among the saints who combine wisdom with insight and the capacity to give a coherent account of all three turns.  Most disciples do not not ask questions that bring such issues to awareness, so few elders are required to speak in the integral language of wisdom.  But this begins to change to the degree that their disciples’ questions begin to change, obliging elders to embrace the comprehensive wisdom of sages.  All three wisdom turns are embraced by glorification, so as seers awaken to the mysteries of glory of grace, Hesychast wisdom begins to expand and deepen from the culture of purification to that of enlightenment and ultimately of deifying glorification.  All three turns are implicit in the Name and present to the wisdom of its glory, as treasures of revelation sustaining desert wisdom in its expanding, deepening openness.  Three great turns give boundless scope to three enlightened spheres and realms of glory, founded on the inspired basis of sound metanoia and the heart enlightened by theoria, opening to theosis, deification.