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OS (Commentary) -- 10

42 It is good that the inexperienced

The inexperienced Hesychasts. As should be evident, St Hesychios is presenting things in a way that captures the inexperienced, but he could hardly be considered reading for the novice in the cœnobium. He is also skilled in rhetoric, and he might mean ‘inexperienced’ in this sense: ‘We are all inexperienced, and I more inexperienced than anyone else.’

also know this, that enemies bodiless and invisible and evil-intentioned and prudent in doing evil and untiring and light and experienced in war the years from Adam up to now,

Let us analyse this demonology. The demons are fallen angels; hence they are bodiless and invisible.[1] They are enemies. This comes directly from Jesus’ own teaching in the Gospel. It is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Buddhism, especially its Tibetan form, which has a more open attitude towards the demons. We are not sure how Hindus view the demons. Certainly some of the Hindu gods appear demonic and despite that are worshipped. Judaism and Islam have much the same attitude as Christianity to the demons.

These enemies are evil-intentioned and prudent in doing evil. They are malicious—consciously so!—and intelligent to do evil. They are not blind, instinctive drives.

They are untiring[2] and light.[3] They are not omnipresent or omniscient,[4] but they are quick to move from one place to another and light.

They are experienced in war from the day the Devil himself seduced Eve to be disobedient and Eve seduced Adam to be disobedient. Then the demons got Cain to kill Abel, and they have been working since then with implacable hatred for God to destroy his masterpiece, man. They never tire.

St Hesychios now explains the implications of this.

we who are gross

We have a material body.

and weighed down towards the earth both in body

By the body. Recall that St Hesychios treats the body as equivalent to St Paul’s ‘flesh’.

and mindedness

By the passions. St Hesychios explicitly adopts, as we shall see, the whole Evagrian apparatus of the eight passions.

have in no other way at all the possibility of conquering

That is, we have in no other way at all the possibility of conquering the demons.

than by means of everlasting sobriety of mind (nous)

This is Evagrian praktike.

and invocation of Jesus Christ our God and Maker.

This is the Hesychian adaptation of Evagrian praktike, or Evagrian sobriety, to the practice of the Prayer of Jesus—what we have called Hesychian sobriety.

The next passage we ourselves find somewhat ambiguous:

And for the inexperienced, on the one hand, let the prayer (euche) of Jesus Christ and the exhortation to assay and know the good be enough.

We think that this assaying and knowing the good is precisely Evagrian praktike, the immaterial war: one ‘assays’ the mental representation that is proffered by the demon so as to discern the passion to which it relates and to rebut the demon appropriately. Correctly identifying the demon that is proffering the impassioned mental representation is an integral part of the Evagrian and Hesychian methods. Such an identification of the demon has important implications for the practice of the immaterial war and for the psychological relation of the ascetic to the impassioned mental representation: the identification of the type of the demon that is proffering the impassioned mental representation helps the ascetic to reject psychologically the impassioned mental representation. Hence, in Hesychian sobriety, this assaying is to be combined with the Prayer of Jesus.

In the experienced, on the other hand, the practice

That is, the repetition of the Prayer of Jesus.

and the assaying

As for the inexperienced, above. The immaterial war.

and the repose of the good

This is contemplation.

are an excellent way and teacher.

43 Just as a small child, that is also to say, innocent,

This is a very important expression of St Hesychios’ anthropology: the mind (nous) is here compared to an innocent child. This takes us very far from St Augustine’s views on the nature of fallen man. Modern Orthodox theology possibly has a more intermediate view of the consequences of the Fall than either St Augustine or St Hesychios.

seeing a certain conjuror

The demon, or, more precisely, the mental representation whose inception in the intellect (dianoia) was provoked by the excitation of a passion by the demon.

takes delight and follows the conjuror out of guilelessness,

And who has not experienced his own guilelessness of this wretched sort?

thus also our soul,

It will become clear that the mind (nous) is meant.

being a simple thing and good—

This is the anthropology.

for thus it was created by its good Master—,

As concerns the state of man at his creation, this is quite Orthodox. St Hesychios is quite optimistic. Moreover, despite his optimism, there is no trace of the Origenist pre-existence of souls. St Hesychios seems to have taken this anthropological orientation from the Life of Anthony by St Athanasios of Alexandria: see the commentary on OS 179, below. However, as we just pointed out, St Hesychios here seems to be ignoring the consequences of the Fall on the mind (nous) and soul of man, something that we do not discern in the Life of Anthony.

takes delight in the imaginative assaults of the Devil

These are the demonically sown mental representations that Evagrius taught us about.[5] ‘Imaginative’ has the sense we have already seen: St Hesychios prefers ‘imagination (phantasia)’ to ‘mental representation (noema)’ for the initial image of an object of sense which presents itself to the mind (nous) in the intellect (dianoia) when the demon approaches to excite the relevant passion with its spiritual ‘bad odour’.[6] The degree to which the mind (nous) takes delight in the ‘imaginative assault’, or impassioned mental representation of an object of sense, is a measure of the strength in the ascetic at that time of the passion that has been excited by the demon. The ascetic’s ability to withstand and reject the excitation of the passion is a measure of his strength of will. Grace and the spiritual condition of the ascetic play a role in this strength of will. Of course, as the ascetic progresses in the immaterial war, the passions become less strong, and this also makes the rejection easier.

and, being deceived, runs towards the worse as towards the better

This is fundamental to neptic psychology and to the theology of the Neptic Fathers. Compare Evagrius in TPL 48:

48 The demons wrestle with seculars more by means of objects; with monks, for the most part, by means of the thoughts. For the monks are deprived of objects because of the desert. And as much as it is easier to sin in thought than in action, so much more difficult is the war in the intellect from that which is joined by means of objects. For the mind is an easily moved sort of thing and hard to restrain from the lawless imaginations.

St Hesychios will, in OS 145 and 195, below, quote the last sentence of TPL 48 in slightly modified form.

as the dove

Guileless also.

towards him who is plotting against its own children.

That is, the dove, being guileless, approaches the hunter of its own children as it would a friend. St Hesychios is saying that the mind (nous) of man acts in the same way in accepting the demonic mental representation.

The next sentences of this chapter of St Hesychios are fundamental:

And thus the soul mixes its own thoughts (logismoi) with the imagination of the demonic assault.

Following the punctuation of Alphabetic D’ for a full stop here.

St Hesychios emphasizes this phase more than Evagrius, although Evagrius, in OTT 24, for example, certainly recognizes its existence:

If, however, the mind, containing the object [this ‘object’ corresponds to St Hesychios’ ‘imagination of the demonic assault’], does not change course, it is immersed in the passion; and then it is at risk, travelling towards sin in act. And such a mind, really, stands in need of much purification and vigil and prayer.

In OTT 25, moreover, Evagrius states the following:

It is therefore necessary for him who is living the life of solitude to watch over his mind during the time of temptations, for the mind is going to seize the figure of its own body, as soon as the demon stands near to it, and, within, to engage in battle with the brother or to touch a woman.

The language is different but the underlying sense the same.

St Hesychios’ increased emphasis on this phase of the mixing of the ascetic’s own thoughts with the demonic provocation arises from his reliance on sources other than Evagrius, notably St Mark the Ascetic in On Holy Baptism and St John of Sinai in the Ladder, and, most certainly, from his own experience and observation of others. We will discuss the influence of St Mark the Ascetic and St John of Sinai on St Hesychios in this matter, in the commentary just before OS 54.

If should chance the face of a comely woman or some other thing entirely forbidden by the commandments of Christ,

In OS 143, St Hesychios will present the three standard examples of Evagrius: rancour, fornication and avarice.

it deliberates with them, as it were, what cunning devices it must employ to lead into action (ergon)

Following the reading in Alphabetic D’ for ‘it deliberates with them, as it were, what cunning devices it must employ to lead into action (ergon)’ instead of ‘it wishes, as it were, to use cunning devices to lead into action (ergon)’. The reading in Alphabetic D’ appears to give a reading which is both close to the reading of Philokalia G and more consistent with St Hesychios’ doctrine of the deliberation of the ascetic’s mind (nous) with the demonic thought, as expressed, for example, in OS 46, below.

In the evolution of the temptation, this deliberation is a separate stage from the mixing of the ascetic’s thoughts with the demonic provocation. This stage of deliberation is not taken from St Mark the Ascetic.

the beautiful thing

As St Hesychios will explain in a later chapter, this beauty is fraudulent and deceptive: it is unreal, being in the nature of what we would today call a fantasy. Moreover, as we studied in Volume II, this ‘beautiful thing’ is the bait that calls us out to a pleasure of the senses related to one or another of the eight most general moral passions.

which appeared to it; and the soul, at that time having come to consent,

Evagrius certainly recognizes the role of consent in sin, as we can see from TPL 74 and 75:

74 The temptation of the monk is the thought which ascends through the passionate part of the soul and which darkens the mind.

75 The sin of the monk is the consent towards the forbidden pleasure of the thought.

However, when Evagrius is providing a detailed analysis of temptation in OTT 25, he does not emphasize the role of consent.[7] St Hesychios is using the models of St Mark the Ascetic and St John of Sinai in addition to that of Evagrius.

further leads the iniquity which appeared to it in the intellect (dianoia) into action (ergon) through the body, to its own condemnation.

This certainly is consistent with the Evagrian model. The differences are differences of emphasis and degree of refinement.

‘Through the body’: This does not refer just to sins of the flesh—sins related to the passions of gluttony or fornication—but also to the doctrine that the commission of any sin related to any of the eight most general moral passions requires the body for its practice: to commit theft, for example, the man must make use of his body; and similarly for any of the eight most general passions.

St Hesychios continues:

44 This

What St Hesychios has just outlined in OS 43: the process of temptation and sin.

is the art of the evil one and with these arrows it poisons every soul.

St Hesychios has just presented a summary of the immaterial war. He now goes on to draw a conclusion, one that we did not see in Volume II in the works of Evagrius that we studied:

And on account of this, it is not safe before

Following the reading in AlphabeticD’ for ‘before’ instead of ‘towards’.

much experience of the mind (nous) in war to allow the thoughts (logismoi) to enter into our heart,

This practice is attested in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Curiously enough, Evagrius, who lists many methods, does not list it. It is the method of allowing the thought—demonically sown, remember, and therefore having an independent demonic mind behind it—into the heart, there to battle with it. This is not impassioned intercourse with the thought but a dispassionate combat. St Hesychios further explains this practice below.

and certainly in the beginning since our soul still enjoys itself in the demonic assaults and takes delight and follows them.

If you are still subject to the passions of the flesh, it will not do to let a comely and loose woman into your room alone with you.

But it is necessary only to perceive them

This has this meaning: We are practising attention and the Jesus Prayer. We are observing the inception of each demonic thought in the intellect. This inception takes the form of an impassioned recollection of an object of sense. Any one of the eight most general thoughts might be involved, not just a thought of the flesh, as our example just above suggested.

and directly to cut [them off] from spreading and assault.

The syntax is a little difficult, but the sense is this: Immediately upon perceiving intelligibly the impassioned mental representation, block its evolution in order to prevent your mind (nous) from seizing the figure of your own body so as to engage in lawless practices in the intellect. Cut off the demonic provocation at the earliest instant of the provocation itself so that it does not spread throughout your intellect. This spreading can actually be perceived; it is as if a noxious gas has been released into the air of the intellect or heart.

‘From spreading and assault’: This appears to be virtually a quotation from On Holy Baptism by St Mark the Ascetic.[8] The underlying Greek in OS is ‘ex anadoseos kai prosboles’.[9] The underlying Greek in On Holy Baptism is ‘ek protes prosboles kai anadoseos’. We discuss the nature of assault and spreading both in the commentary just before OS 54 and in the commentary on OS 143, where St Hesychios uses the phrase ‘from spreading (ex anadoseos)’.

This is the first case: beginners should proceed in this way, and those ascetics who are still impassioned and therefore at risk of becoming passionately involved with the demonic mental representation. St Hesychios now goes on to give the second case:

When, however, the mind (nous), having persisted in this wonderful work (ergon),

Hesychian sobriety, the immaterial war adapted to the use of the Prayer of Jesus, and that prayed constantly and in the heart.

should be thoroughly trained

Should have mastered the method completely, a matter of decades.

and should have discernment

The text should literally be translated ‘should understand’, but ‘should have discernment’ seems closer to the sense of the passage. The passage means: ‘should have attention and be able to follow the formation and evolution of demonic thoughts and know what they are’.

and should come to be in uninterrupted habit of the war,

An important criterion of the ascetic’s ability to engage in the practice that St Hesychios is about to describe, and an important criterion of mastery of St Hesychios’ method. The sense is that the ascetic continually—not just in the night vigil but throughout the day—maintains sobriety, cutting off the demonic thoughts at their inception in the way described.

of perceiving these

The same word in the Greek as ‘should have discernment’ but this time the verb has ‘these’ (the demonically sown thoughts) as its object. The meaning is the same.

truly, and, as the Prophet says, of being itself able easily to seize the little foxes [cf. S. of S. 2, 15],

The demonically sown mental representations and thoughts. Recall that a demonically sown thought (logismos) is an evolved form of a demonically sown mental representation (noema).[10] By implication, however, since the impassioned mental representation or thought has a demon behind it we must infer, following Evagrius’ psychology in OTT, that the ascetic must be strong enough to ‘seize’ or master the demonic mind itself—and this not actually but in the demonically sown mental representation or thought in his intellect (dianoia). That is to say: following Evagrius’ psychology, in order to be able to ‘seize’ the little fox, which is the impassioned mental representation or thought, the ascetic must be able to conquer its mother, the demonic mind which is behind the impassioned mental representation or thought and pushing it.


Now St Hesychios describes the method.

at that time it ought with science

With intelligence, understanding, discernment and skill—not naïvely and foolishly.

Accepting for the remainder of the sentence from this point the reading in Alphabetic D’, which is rather more full. However, AlphabeticD’ omits the ‘it ought’ above (‘it ought with science’), which seems necessary for the grammar since ‘to allow’ remains in the infinitive. The text of Philokalia G simply has ‘then at that time it ought to allow and cross-examine.’. This has the air of a passage that has been truncated by a copyist in error.

to allow them to come within,

That is, to allow the thoughts, which have demons behind them, to come into our heart or intellect (dianoia). For those who pray in the heart this actually means, ‘into the space of the heart’. The significance of the intellect (dianoia) is that it is the field of consciousness, here centred by supposition in the heart, on which field the battle will be fought.

and to war against them


with the help of Christ,

We are continually praying the Prayer of Jesus.

and to cross-examine them,

Once we have defeated them. This is the basis of the many remarks of St John of Sinai in the Ladder of Divine Ascent about the results of his interrogations of the thoughts concerning who their progenitor thoughts are and who their progeny thoughts are.

and to lead them down.

To obliterate the mental representations or thoughts, to expel the demon.

Let us first summarize this method before discussing it.

When the ascetic has his mind in his heart, he can perceive in his intellect, in the field of his consciousness, the inception of the demonically sown mental representation or thought. The ascetic is all the time praying the Prayer of Jesus in the heart. He is keeping stillness, which is to say that he is undistracted. Ordinarily, keeping stillness and attention in the heart, and having before him the Hesychian goal of the guard of the mind, which is this practice of stillness and attention in the heart without any images whatsoever, he is cutting off each mental representation or thought or impassioned recollection of an object of sense at its inception.

It might be remarked here that this practice of cutting off such thoughts has profound psychological effects.

By supposition, then, the ascetic has progressed and he has come into the uninterrupted habit of this war, which we have called, following Evagrius, the immaterial war. Now, as a spiritual endeavour, with a conscious decision, after consulting with his Confessor or Elder, the ascetic is going to engage in combat: he is not going to cut the impassioned mental representation off at its inception with a rebuttal, but he is going to allow it to come into his heart. This means that he is intentionally going to ‘let down his guard’ in the sense of refusing to block the thought. He is going to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the demon that is behind the thought. And the ascetic is going to select with which thought he is going to engage in hand-to-hand combat. He is proceeding after cool deliberation with his Confessor or Elder.

This method of St Hesychios has certain similarities to the method called the form of war that Evagrius described in OTT 19, and it is not out of the question that Evagrius is presenting in OTT 19 his version of this method. However, the form of war as Evagrius presents it in OTT 19 seems to have significant differences from this method as it is presented here by St Hesychios and elsewhere by the ascetical literature. We cannot say to what extent the two methods might be related.

How does the ascetic engage in combat? As St Hesychios states in OS 47, below, mind is invisibly engaged with mind in battle. The weapon of the ascetic is the invocation of Jesus Christ, the Prayer of Jesus. Allowing the thought to enter into his heart, the ascetic is going to whip and burn it with the Prayer of Jesus until he subdues it. Then he is going to learn from it what he wants to know. Then he is going to expel the demon by obliterating the thought. Fr Sophrony (Sakharov), quoting St Silouan, remarks that this is a game at which the ascetic can lose: evidently, if he is not at the level of ascetical attainment required, he might not be able to expel the thought (and the demon) when he wants.[11]

What are we to make of this method? It does not have the air of being a madcap enterprise the way the form of war of Evagrius in OTT 19 seemed to us to be positively dangerous. Moreover, it is well-attested. However, it has its dangers, especially if it is engaged in prematurely. It must also have its benefits, for otherwise St Hesychios would not recommend it and St John of Sinai would not dwell on its results in the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

However, it is well to remember that this method is not the primary goal of the ascetic. The guard of the mind is his primary goal. Here, we must understand the guard of the mind to be the stage of sobriety in which the ascetic practises Hesychian sobriety in the heart without images at all; this is quite the opposite from engaging in battle in this way. Moreover, as we have already remarked, in St Hesychios the guard of the mind is on the one hand closely allied to contemplation; it is on the other hand closely allied to the Evagrian doctrine, which St Hesychios accepts, that the mind must be completely free of all mental representations whatever in order for the light of the Divinity to shine on it.

Hence, it would seem that a more advanced ascetic should engage in this practice with circumspection but without losing sight of what his goal is.[12]

The next chapter is a succinct statement of the fundamental principle of the school of which St Hesychios is a member. It needs no commentary. ‘Imagination of a wicked assault’ is St Hesychios’ way of saying ‘impassioned mental representation or impassioned recollection of an object of sense sown by one of the eight most general types of demons’.

45 As it is impossible for fire and water to pass through one pipe at the same time, thus it is impossible for sin to enter into the heart if it does not first knock at the door of the heart through the imagination of a wicked assault.

St Hesychios now explains the matter once again, using a model of temptation and sin based on both St Mark the Ascetic and St John of Sinai in addition to Evagrius. This model differs to a degree but not essentially from the model of Evagrius.

46 First is the assault. Second, intercourse, that is to say, our thoughts (logismoi) and the thoughts (logismoi) of the wicked demons becoming mixed promiscuously.

This is the stage of mixing that in the commentary on OS 43 we remarked that Evagrius did not emphasize so much.

Third, consent, that is to say, the thoughts (logismoi) of both evilly taking counsel together how it is necessary that the thing happen.

This is the passage which supports our accepting, in OS 43, above, this reading from Alphabetic D’: ‘it deliberates with them, as it were, what cunning devices it must employ to lead into action (ergon)’.

Although St Hesychios here seems to be saying that consent and deliberation are the same thing, it is well to take them as separate stages. The scholarly reader might like to compare the stages of consent and deliberation in St Hesychios’ model of temptation and sin to the model of human action of St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae that we discussed in Chapter IV of Volume I.

The meaning of ‘deliberation’ is that our thoughts and the thoughts of the demon discuss together how to put the sin into practice. The ascetic should ponder this.

Fourth is the sensible act, that is to say, the sin.

In our count, this would now be fifth. This is the actual practice of the sin, whatever it might be, and whichever of the eight most general moral passions might be involved.

If, then, the mind (nous) attends, being sober, and through rebuttal and invocation of the Lord Jesus puts to flight the assault from spreading,

Before it spreads, like a noxious gas in the air of the intellect we said in the commentary on OS 44. This concept depends on St Mark the Ascetic in On Holy Baptism.

the rest of these things remain idle.

And this is St Hesychios’ point about how the practice of sobriety, which clearly is none other than the Evagrian immaterial war, Evagrian praktike, the Evagrian practical life that we studied in Volume II, adapted to the use of the Prayer of Jesus, fulfils all the commandments of the Old and New Testaments. It is the great truth of the ascetical tradition with which we are occupied.

Note that this is the standard model. This is the method which leads, properly and consistently practised, to the guard of the mind. The method of allowing ‘the little foxes’ into the heart in order to battle with them is the non-standard variant which may have its uses for the attainment of ‘the gnosis of discernment’, to use Evagrius’ phrase for the discernment of spirits.[13]

Now, in a very important passage, which continues into the next and final chapter of this development, St Hesychios clarifies a very important aspect of his demonology.

For being a bodiless mind (nous), the wicked one

The Devil or the demon.

cannot otherwise deceive souls if not by imagination and thoughts (logismoi). And concerning the assault, David says: ‘In the mornings, I killed…’ [Ps. 100, 8] and so on.

Evidently, the meaning is that we should rebut the thought at its inception—‘in the mornings’—but there is also a sense of the night vigil of prayer, which takes place ‘in the morning’ before dawn.

And the great Moses concerning consent: ‘And you will not consent to these things.’ [Exod. 23, 32.]

47 Mind (nous) is invisibly engaged with mind (nous) for battle: the demonic mind (nous) with our own.

This is the point.

And, on account of this, there is a need at each moment

Note the emphasis on the continual invocation of Jesus Christ.

to cry out of the depths [cf. Ps. 129, 1]

As we discussed in the commentary on OS 20, above, this crying ‘out of the depths’ means that we are praying ‘from the heart’, ‘in a heartfelt way’ or ‘with the heart’. We are praying in utter seriousness.

to Christ to drive away, on the one hand, the demonic mind (nous),

Note that we are praying at each moment intensely from the heart to Christ for him to drive away the demonic mind that is assaulting us. We are not praying to be freed of the impulsions of a subconscious drive.

and to give to us, on the other hand, the prizes of victory

These are: an increase in the gnosis of the battle, an increase in purity of heart (dispassion), an increase in Grace.

as Lover of Mankind.

‘Lover of Mankind’: This of course is a very important element in the psychological orientation of the Hesychast: he is utterly dependent on Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God made flesh and who is ‘Lover of Mankind’: these are the psychological preconditions for the trust and faith that the Hesychast must have in Jesus.

St Hesychios keeps repeating the same things, but each time he goes more deeply into the matter.

We now have, above, a statement of the immaterial war that dovetails with Evagrius’ own account in TPL. Evagrius’ treatment in OTT is somewhat more advanced than St Hesychios’ presentation here, evidently because St Hesychios thinks that the full Evagrian system would be difficult for the monks for whom he is writing to grasp.

The next two chapters discuss stillness and attention in the heart, which are the preconditions of the guard of the mind. The third chapter turns to the results of the method.

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[1] As we have seen in Chapter IV of Volume I, later Fathers such as St John of Damascus would have the angels, and a fortiori the demons, semi-material.

[2] The underlying Greek word could also be translated ‘free-moving’.

[3] This might also have the sense of ‘subtle’ in regard to the material of their bodies.

[4] Recall Evagrius’ remarks in OTT 37 and elsewhere.

[5] See Volume II.

[6] TPL 39.

[7] This we saw in Volume II.

[8] Mark Volume I, p. 322, ll. 105–6.

[9] Philokalia G Volume I, p. 148.

[10] See OTT 25.

[11] We referred to Fr Sophrony’s remarks in Volume II in our commentary on TPL 51.

[12] For St Silouan’s views on this matter as presented by Fr Sophrony, see Silouan, pp. 67–9.

[13] See OTT 26.


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