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OS (Commentary) –- 11

48 Let a model of stillness (hesychia) of the heart be for you he who holds a mirror and gazes towards it, and at that time you will see in your heart those things which intelligibly are written in it, both wicked and good.

In order to understand St Hesychios here, it is useful to return to two previous chapters of OS.

This is the second use of the simile of the man holding a mirror. The first was in OS 23, where St Hesychios stated: ‘…he who completely stoops down and peeps into his own heart … sees his own condition…’

We have already discussed in the commentary on OS 23 the relation of the mirror to the intellect (dianoia), and we have already discussed what the ‘condition’ of the ascetic is.

In OS 27, St Hesychios introduced as the ‘the type and order of stillness (hesychia) of the heart … the small little animal, the spider’.

This chapter, OS 48, is addressing the condition of the ascetic, which the ascetic sees when he stoops down and peeps into his own heart watching for the inception of a demonic thought just as the small little animal, the spider, patrols its cobweb.

The condition of the ascetic that St Hesychios is here referring to is constituted of conceptions (ennoies).[1] These conceptions (ennoies) are here, for St Hesychios, ‘those things which intelligibly are written in it [the heart], both wicked and good’. They are something like thoughts which have congealed, something like attitudes, something like beliefs, sometimes something like the presence of Grace. It is here a matter of the layers of the person. It is a matter of the fabric of the personality. And St Hesychios sees both good things and bad.

However, St Hesychios is also beginning to address the nature of the guard of the mind. He is beginning to define how one enters into the guard of the mind. The model of stillness is the man who gazes into a mirror. That is what we should do. We stoop down and peep into the heart, repeating the formula. Moreover, we gaze into our heart just as we would gaze into a mirror. We then see whatever is in our heart, either good or bad: we see the conceptions (ennoies) in our heart. This is the beginning.

The next chapter should now be clear:

49 Keep watch ever to have in your heart no thought (logismos) at all, either irrational or reasonable, so that thus you recognize easily the foreigners, that is to say, the first-born sons of the Egyptians.

The Egyptians are the demons; their first-born sons are the impassioned recollections of objects of sense. The ‘foreigners’ (or, ‘Philistines’) are also a type of the demon. However, it must be clear that normally we do not see the demon, unless we are clairvoyant, but the mental representation that arises when the demon’s spiritual bad odour excites the passion to which the demon corresponds.[2] Thus, when we ‘stoop down and peep’ into the mirror of our intellect (dianoia) in our heart, we should not expect to see little black men with horns and tails, but, intelligibly in the intellect (dianoia), the thought or mental representation of an object of sense that corresponds to the demon, for any of the eight most general demons.[3]

This chapter presupposes the previous chapter. We are stooping down and peeping into the heart, continually repeating the formula and gazing into the heart as into a mirror. We take care to have no thought at all in the heart either good or bad. Then we are able to spot immediately an impassioned mental representation of an object of sense and to rebut it.

St Hesychios’ point in this chapter is fundamental. He will return to it. It is not a matter of having good thoughts in your intellect, in your mind, in your heart, but of having no thoughts at all. All that you should have is the automatic repetition of the formula. This is the road to the guard of the mind. Readers who have read that at a certain stage of prayer even the repetition of the formula stops should be careful on this point: insofar as it depends on us, we must continue the formula without ever stopping. In certain cases of contemplation, of rapture of the mind (arpage tou nou) by the Holy Spirit, the repetition ceases—but this cessation of the repetition of the formula is a temporary involuntary operation by the Holy Spirit which suspends our will, not a voluntary cessation by us of the repetition of the formula.

The guard of the mind is the road to contemplation. That is why St Hesychios continues the way he does in the next chapter.

The next chapter is a paean to this method of sobriety, based on these words of Psalm 79: ‘It extended its vine-branches unto the sea, and unto the river its offshoots.’ (Ps. 79, 12.) In the literal meaning of the psalm, the vine is Israel, the sea is the Mediterranean, and the river is the Euphrates. As before, St Hesychios identifies Israel with the mind (nous) of the ascetic, and he himself will explain the sea and the river:

50 As a good and delightful, bright and most sweet and all-beautiful and brightly shining and comely virtue, sobriety, prospered by you, Christ God, and travelled in much humility by the human mind (nous) which has kept awake.

Consider this passage from the Transfiguration of our Lord on Tabor: ‘Peter, then, and those who were with him, were weighed down with sleep; keeping awake to the end, however, they saw his glory and the two men who were standing together with him.’[4]

In both cases there is a reference to the all-too-human tendency to fall asleep during the night vigil, during prayer.

Of course, given the underlying Greek, the phrase ‘which has kept awake’ could also be taken by the reader in the sense of ‘which has kept alert’. This is somewhat less than the ‘which has kept attention’ that St Hesychios’ method demands.

For it extends its vine-branches unto the sea and abyss of contemplations

Natural contemplation.

and its offshoots unto the rivers of delightful and divine mysteries [cf. Ps. 79, 12];


and it waters

St Hesychios has mixed his metaphor: from the vine, sobriety has become the river. St Hesychios often mixes his metaphors in the middle of a sentence.

the mind (nous) parched for much time in impiety by the brine of the thoughts (logismoi) of wicked spirits and the hostile-mindedness of the flesh, which is death [cf. Rom. 8, 6].

Sobriety is not only for those who are born saints, but also for us sinners: for us it is a means of repentance and purification. This dimension—soteriological, conversional—is quite important in the historical situation of Orthodoxy today: many have been watered by the brine of Communism, militant atheism and the hostile-mindedness of the flesh in the generations since 1917; many have been swept away by the briny tide of the worldliness, hedonism and apostasy from Christ of the West. St Hesychios offers a way, but an Orthodox way: a spirituality which seeks to recover the sinner, to purify him and to make him a vessel of election. It is well worth pondering the model of St Hesychios in comparison with the model of conversion of the Evangelical Protestant: the spiritual depth and difficulty of Orthodoxy are evident.

St Hesychios will return to this conversional dimension of sobriety.

The next chapter is St Hesychios’ first reference to Hesychian sobriety—Evagrian praktike with the Jesus Prayer prayed continually in the heart—as Jacob’s Ladder.

Of course, one knows that this image is the basic structural element in the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai, where it is clear that the ‘ladder’ refers to Evagrian praktike. That is, although he has bitter words for Evagrius personally, St John of Sinai is heavily influenced by Evagrius’ ascetical doctrine. We already touched on this in Volume II.

Although it is known that the original title of the work of St John of Sinai was not the ‘Ladder of Divine Ascent’, still the image of the ladder that permeates the Ladder is due to St John of Sinai and not to a later hand. We say this because there is a chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica, KG IV, 43, which introduces Jacob’s Ladder as a metaphor for praktike, the practical life:

IV, 43 If the Christ who has appeared to Jacob on the ladder [cf. Gen. 28, 12–13] designates natural contemplation, the likeness of the ladder teaches concerning the road of praktike; but if he [the Christ] signifies the gnosis of the Unity, the ladder is the symbol of all the worlds.

The second interpretation that Evagrius gives need not concern us here; it is clear that both St John of Sinai and St Hesychios are concerned with the first sense.

We wonder to what extent either or both of St John of Sinai and St Hesychios were influenced by KG IV, 43 in their own use of the image of Jacob’s Ladder for the practical life or sobriety. Of course, we will never know. The matter is made more complex by the fact that St Diadochos of Photike, in GC 85, also introduces the image of Jacob’s Ladder, and we know that he influenced both St John of Sinai and St Hesychios—and that he himself was influenced by Evagrius Pontikos![5]

St John of Sinai in the Ladder has a very broad sense of praktike, the practical life which step by step purifies the passions, much broader than merely the immaterial war of Evagrius: it includes elements of the war waged through objects.[6]

St Hesychios also goes somewhat further than praktike in his own understanding of the sobriety he compares in the next chapter to Jacob’s Ladder. He makes a reference there to sobriety that focuses on the stillness that the Hesychast practises—the stillness we have just looked at in the preceding three chapters—and that the Hesychast finds sweet in itself. This is reminiscent of Evagrius’ own words in TPL 36:

Therefore, the anchoretic life is sweet after the emptying of the passions; for then the only memories are mere memories, and the wrestling no longer prepares the monk for battle, but for contemplation itself.

Hence, St Hesychios has in mind sobriety not only as a method of purifying the passions, but also as a method of contemplation. It is in this context that we should consider the previous three chapters and the concept of sobriety as the guard of the mind: this guard of the mind, as might be inferred from the complete absence of impassioned mental representations in its definition, prepares the ascetic for natural contemplation and even for Theology. This is a broader meaning for sobriety than Evagrian praktike, the Evagrian practical life.

51 Sobriety is similar to Jacob’s Ladder upon which God abides and the angels

The Hesychasts.

ascend [cf. Gen. 28, 12]. For it takes out of us every evil.

We have already studied this aspect of sobriety: this is the immaterial war which purifies us of the moral passions, the practical life which is oriented to the keeping of the commandments in thought and action.

For it cuts off loquacity, revilement, slander and the catalogue of all the sensible evils,

The passions and sins in act.

not enduring even for a little time to be deprived for the sake of these things of its own sweetness.

You do not want to get mixed up with sin when you have tasted the sweetness of stillness. In TPL 32, Evagrius writes:

He who has attained to gnosis and has harvested the pleasure which comes from it will no longer be persuaded by the demon of vainglory even should it present to him all the pleasures of the world—for what could the demon even promise that would be greater than spiritual contemplation?

This makes us realize that, here, Hesychian sobriety is none other than gnosis or contemplation. And so we have a new sense or meaning of sobriety: gnosis. This sense is closely related to the guard of the mind. In St Hesychios, sobriety is a method which spans the whole Evagrian mystical ascent from praktike through to Theology. The guard of the mind is the entry into, the beginning of, contemplation, and the sobriety here being defined is gnosis taken as the fruit of contemplation in the advanced ascetic.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios turns to yet another exhortation to humility, one which is quite important. This exhortation is thematically dependent on the preceding development, which has introduced in more detail the concept of stillness of the heart—this is the precondition of the guard of the mind—and which has also introduced contemplation as a fruit to be expected from the cultivation of stillness.

52 Let us pursue this thing willingly, my brothers.

Sobriety, here taken as natural contemplation. The importance of this exhortation to humility arises from its situation in the context of natural contemplation, for this chapter provides a specific method of pursuing humility that is suited to that level of attainment.

And flying in its views

Sights or contemplations. This passage is difficult to translate into fluent English. ‘Flying’ might also be rendered ‘on the wing’. This passage refers to natural contemplation.

with a pure intellect (dianoia)

St Hesychios has discussed this purity. It is a freedom from thoughts and mental representations, especially impassioned ones. Hence, we are clearly in the realm of contemplations to which we have attained by the practice of sobriety, here in the sense of an intellect (dianoia) free from thoughts, the beginning stage of the guard of the mind. This is the first, Evagrian, reason why we must not allow any thoughts into the intellect: they prevent contemplation.[7]

in Christ Jesus,

Out contemplations are Christ and Christ-centred and in Christ Jesus.

let us set in motion the contemplation

Recall that this is by no means an exercise in imaginative fantasy: that will damage the ascetic and undo what he has accomplished. It is a spiritual contemplation, taught, God willing, by the Holy Spirit.[8]

of our sins and of our former life, so that being crushed and humbled by the remembrance of our sins

This is certainly not an exhortation for us to remember our sins one by one. The exhortation to the remembrance of death is not an exhortation to form lurid imaginations of one’s last gasping breaths. These are spiritual contemplations and must be engaged in spiritually. Caution must be exercised by men who have committed serious sins lest they excite the passion and lest they fall prey to the demon of sorrow; we will discuss this matter in more detail in the commentary on OS 64.

we will have unseparated the help of Jesus Christ our God in the invisible war.

St Hesychios is giving us a self-interested reason to cultivate humility through this contemplation of our sins and our former way of life: so that we have unseparated the help of Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing.

For having been deprived of the help of Jesus through pride or vainglory or self-love,

Note that at every step of the spiritual ascent, St Hesychios says, and believes, that we are still subject to these passions. We are never perfect. We can always fall.

we have fallen short of purity

With a one-letter emendation by us for the grammar.

of heart,

Dispassion or even, here, sobriety as natural contemplation or even the active presence of Grace or the Holy Spirit in the heart. It might be worthwhile to reflect on the connection between purity of heart and the guard of the mind: it might be said that for the most part, for St Hesychios purity of heart is the same as the guard of the mind. Recall that we ourselves made the guard of the mind equivalent to Evagrian dispassion (apatheia). It is the freedom of the ascetic from impassioned and unimpassioned mental representations of objects of sense while his mind is in his heart and he is repeating the formula of invocation with extreme attention. In St Hesychios’ doctrine, this extreme attention is intimately connected to purity of heart: the greater the attention, the greater the purity of the ascetic’s heart.

through which God is known by man. For the cause, as is the promise [cf. Matt. 5, 8], of the second is the first.

What this terse sentence means is this: The cause of the deprivation of the help of Jesus Christ—abandonment—is pride or vainglory or self-love. As for the promise, St Hesychios has this passage of Scripture in mind: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Matt. 5, 8.) Here, too, the cause of the second, seeing God, is the first, purity of heart. St Hesychios says ‘promise’ in regard to this Beatitude because he considers that the Beatitude promises the sight of God even in this life to those who achieve purity of heart. It is in this context that the equivalence of the guard of the mind to purity of heart takes on its significance in the Hesychian system: for St Hesychios, the Beatitude promises the sight of God (we said, contemplation) to those who attain to the guard of the mind.

The next and last chapter of this series now turns to the remaining good to be discussed: how sobriety helps the ascetic to maintain the custody of the senses. St Hesychios’ logic is impeccable. Since you are concentrated in your heart on the guard of the mind—note that we are no longer discussing sobriety as praktike—and since you are receiving the good mental representations that come from prayer and contemplations pleasing to God, you do not want to waste your time on the mental representations of objects of sense, which are both material and vain. These mental representations are not necessarily impassioned; they may correspond to the ‘mere thoughts’, or unimpassioned recollections of objects of sense, of OTT 40. Here, St Hesychios is ascribing these ‘mere thoughts’ to the operation of the bodily sense organs themselves. Recall that in Evagrius’ psychology of contemplation, the mental representations introduced by natural contemplation are intelligible and not material or sensible,[9] and, moreover, that the higher mental representations of contemplation displace the ‘mere thoughts’.[10] Here, however, St Hesychios sees the ‘mere thoughts’ as interfering with contemplation. For these reasons, the Hesychast for the most part contracts his senses within himself. This contraction is quite real.

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[1] Etymologically, ‘those things which are in the mind or nous’.

[2] TPL 39.

[3] Volume II.

[4] Luke 9, 32.

[5] Diadochos p. 145, ll. 19–23.

[6] TPL 48, quoted in the commentary on OS 43, above.

[7] OTT 40.

[8] Compare TPL 33, where this contemplation is advanced in much the same language by Evagrius as a therapy for pride; we quoted TPL 33 in the commentary on OS 29, above.

[9] OTT 40–1.

[10] OTT 40.


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