The Three Stages of Spiritual Life: Joseph the Visionary

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’.

See further:
3 Stages
“The Three Stages of Spiritual Realization According to Joseph Hazzaya” by Thomas Olickal [H.I.R.S. Publications, 2000]
Early Christian Mystics
“Early Christian Mystics” (Volume 7 of Woodbrooke Studies), Alphonse Mingana (Editor) [Heffer, 1934; Gorgias Press, 2012]
Syriac fathers
“The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life” [Cistercian Studies – Book 101, 1987] Sebastian Brock (Translator)


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