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OS (Commentary) -- 13

62 We received a great good, really, from experience, that he who wishes to purify his own heart should continually invoke the Lord Jesus against the intelligible enemies. And see how the word spoken by me from experience is in agreement with the scriptural witnesses. He says: ‘Prepare, Israel, to invoke the name of the Lord your God.’ [Cf. Amos 4, 12.] And the Apostle: ‘Pray unceasingly.’ [1 Thess. 5, 17.] And our Lord says: ‘Without me, you can do nothing. He who remains in me and I in him, he it is who bears much fruit.’ [John 15, 5.] And, again: ‘If one should not remain in me, he was cast out as the vine-branch.’ [John 15, 6.] Prayer (euche) is a great good and embraces

The reading in AlphabeticL’ is ‘purveys’, a difference of a few letters. The sense seems clear enough with either reading, and we see no reason to change the text.

all goods as purifying the heart, in which God is seen by the faithful.

This is a significant doctrine.

St Hesychios clearly is commenting on the passage of St Mark he has just quoted, and interpreting it to suit his own model of sobriety. Here, he makes the goal the purification of the heart ‘in which God is seen by the faithful’ in the way he has indicated in the theophanies he has described and yet will describe. He makes the means the continual invocation of the Lord Jesus against the intelligible enemies. This is what prayer means to St Hesychios. His second scriptural text is the classic Hesychast justification for the incessant repetition of the formula: ‘Pray unceasingly.’ Moreover, St Hesychios is extremely Christocentric: he ties the unceasing repetition of the formula to the Johannine passages, ‘Without me you can do nothing…’ and ‘If one should not remain in me [here, through unceasing invocation of the Lord Jesus against the intelligible enemies], he was cast out…’. When, finally, St Hesychios says ‘Prayer is a great good…,’ he clearly means prayer in precisely this sense of unceasing repetition of the formula of invocation—and that not mechanically but with a heartfelt sense of the invocation of, the love for and the dependence on Christ.

The next two chapters are a serious and elevated discussion of the nature of humility and the means to acquire it.

63 This thing called humility, because by nature it is exalting

That is, humility exalts the man (cf. Matt. 23, 12; etc.).

and beloved by God and destructive of almost all those things

St Hesychios qualifies his statement: ‘almost all’.

in us which are evil and hated by God—on account of these things by nature it is got with much labour.

And much suffering. Humility is the hardest thing for the monk to acquire.

And you could easily find in one man some partial labours of many virtues;

Some continence, some long-suffering…

having sought in him the odour of humility, however, you will barely find it.

That is, you will barely find a trace of humility in the ascetic, even though he might have the partial labours of many virtues to show.

On account of this, there is a need of much <cleansing>

With an emendation by us for ‘cleansing’ instead of the main text’s ‘humility’, which makes the argument circular, on the basis of the context. ‘Purification’ would also fit the context, but ‘cleansing’ has the advantage of a thematic continuity with the discussion of uncleanness which follows. A marginal note in Philokalia G, evidently due to St Makarios or St Nikodemos, suggests an emendation to ‘earnest effort’. The sense of the passage is in any event clear.

so that this possession might be acquired. For Scripture also calls even the Devil ‘unclean’ because from the beginning he put away from himself the good thing called humility and loved pride.

This is the traditional Christian teaching: because of pride the Devil fell ‘like lightning from Heaven’.[1]

Therefore he is called ‘unclean spirit’ in all the Scriptures [cf. Matt. 10, 1; 12, 43; etc.]. For what bodily uncleanness can he work—the completely bodiless and fleshless and unstable—

Although Evagrius does not refer to this last characteristic of the demons, including the Devil—their lack of stability—St John of Sinai does. The demons are continually changing shape, form and appearance; it is not in their nature to retain a fixed shape, form or appearance. This is particularly evident in demonically inspired dreams or, as St John of Sinai remarks, in the fantasies which occur to us just as we are falling asleep.

so that from this he might be called ‘unclean’?

This is St Hesychios’ argument, that the uncleanness of the Devil (and of all the demons) does not refer to a bodily uncleanness but to pride:

It is quite clear that on account of pride he was called ‘unclean’, and out of clean and bright angel, he showed himself to be unhallowed. And: ‘Unclean before the Lord is every man whose heart is raised up.’ [Prov. 16, 5.] For he says: ‘The first sin is pride.’ [Cf. Sir. 10, 13.] For thus the proud Pharaoh was wont to say: ‘I do not know,’ he says, ‘your God and I will not send Israel out.’ [Exod. 5, 2.]

Having here analysed the nature of humility, St Hesychios in the next chapter turns to the means to acquire it. It should be evident that the means he proposes are directed to the Hesychast and not to one living in the cœnobium or the entourage round an Elder, for there is nothing here about obedience, the primary means for those living in the cœnobium or entourage to acquire humility. The methods that St Hesychios proposes are contemplations.

64 There are many actions done by the mind (nous)

This is a key qualification: these are things done mentally: they are contemplations. The next chapter will extend the scope of the actions done by the mind (nous) from these contemplations leading to humility, to a daily examination of conscience.

which are able to acquire for us the good gift

This is a terse statement of the principle that we make the effort and God, through his mercy and charity, gives us, his slaves, the good gift. Although St Hesychios’ quotations from St Mark the Ascetic have not yet referred to this, it is an important element of St Mark’s doctrine. St Mark asserts that we must keep the commandments but we must not expect God to respond like an employer obliged to pay us a wage, but like a master freely granting a boon to a good slave. We will find this doctrine in the quotations from St Mark given by St Hesychios as OS 79–82, below.

of humility—if indeed we are not negligent of our salvation—

The monastic and eremitic states do not render the man automatically immune to indolence, laziness, boredom, or to accidie, the most general thought which includes all these particular thoughts—or, indeed, to any of the other seven most general thoughts. It is possible to be a monk or solitary and still to neglect your salvation. Time passes; nothing is accomplished; we grow old.

namely, the memory of sins in words and in works (erga) and in the intellect (dianoia),

Caution must be exercised. First, the Fathers caution against remembering sins, especially sins of the flesh, in detail, for fear lest the man fall into unclean thoughts or even into a further excitation of the flesh.

Moreover, those who have committed serious sins and who are disposed in character to thoughts of sorrow might find this practice of remembering one’s sins dangerous. They might provoke a serious depression in themselves—thinking that they were engaged in a noble mourning for their sins. That is, they might make themselves a prey to the demon of sorrow. There is a difference, a very great difference, as much as Heaven is far from hell, between mourning, the charism of the Holy Spirit, and sorrow, the thought sown by the demon of sorrow. The first saves; the second wants to kill. St Paul speaks of a godly sorrow which is unto repentance and of a sorrow which is unto death.[2] The danger in engaging in a contemplation such as St Hesychios is counselling is that we might not be able to discern between the two types of sorrow.

An example of a Patristic caution against remembering one’s sins in detail is to be found in St Mark the Ascetic, in Chapter 151 of On Those Who Think They are Justified by Works. There, St Mark addresses both problems—the further excitation of the flesh and the danger of sorrow:

151 Old sins, when they have been recalled in detail, damage the one who has good hopes. For having spread with sorrow, they would revolt from hope; having been imagined in detail without sorrow, however, they store up the old defilement in [the heart].[3]

Moreover, maturity is required—and the counsel of an Elder—where questions of restitution, apology, making up for bad actions done and so on, are involved. These may be noble and proper; they might be traps or temptations ‘from the right’. One cannot simply listen to his own thoughts in such a case, for the demon of sorrow loves to disguise itself in the sheep’s clothing of nobility, duty and love or charity.

and many other things which contribute to humility when recalled in contemplation.

These are contemplations for the mature ascetic.

This also produces genuine humility: that one should every day turn round in his mind (nous) the accomplishments of his neighbours

Although this suggests a community, we still think that St Hesychios is addressing the Hesychast. Even Hesychasts have neighbours—perhaps the ascetic over the next mountain that the Hesychast sees once in a while.

and magnify in himself the other natural advantages [that they have] and search out and examine their [works]

We examine the works of our neighbours with a view to extolling them, not to belittling them.

together with his own [works];

With a view to belittling them.

The reading by us, ‘works’, in these two places is inferential. Possibly ‘natural advantages’ is meant.

and, thus, the mind (nous) seeing its own paltriness and how much it falls short of the perfection of the brothers, the man considers himself earth and ash [cf. Gen. 18, 27] and not a man, but some dog, as in all things being inferior to and falling short of all rational men upon the earth.

The Fathers had a very great idea of the heights to which humility had to reach for a man to find the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

St Hesychios now turns, quoting St Basil the Great, to another exercise of the mind ( nous), the daily examination of conscience:

65 The mouth of Christ, the pillar of the Church, our great father, Basil, says:

A great good towards not sinning and not falling the next day into the same sins is, after the completion of the day, to examine closely in our conscience our very selves, what we have done. In what, on the one hand, have we erred? In what, on the other hand, have we acted justly?

Philokalia F gives the reference for this passage as the Great Rule, Chapter 37, and we ourselves do not know of any other passage of St Basil the Great to which St Hesychios’ reference might apply. However, the closest passage in Chapter 37 of the Great Rule is this:

When the day is completed, then, thanksgiving concerning those things which have been given to us or accomplished by us in it, and the confession of the omissions, either voluntary or involuntary—or [if,] in some degree, a transgression also has occurred unawares—in words or in acts or in the very heart, propitiating God concerning all things by means of prayer. For the investigation of those things which have passed is a great help towards not falling again into similar things.[4]

It is clear that St Hesychios has not provided a direct quotation. He has simplified the language and also the nature of the examination of conscience, keeping the main elements but rather changing the tone of St Basil’s prescription: St Hesychios’ own prescription comes across as somewhat lighter, more serene and less severe than that of St Basil. Whether St Hesychios made the change consciously or not, there is no way to know.

Note that as St Hesychios presents him, St Basil wants an honest and balanced appraisal. It is not a matter of weeping over minor faults, but of a sober evaluation of what we have done during the day.

And Job also used to do this concerning both himself and his children [cf. Job 1, 5].

Those who have a pastoral charge, take note.

For the daily examinations of accounts illumine the hourly [business transaction].

We might be excused if we have used an accounting metaphor—although St Hesychios does use metaphors from business and the Greek word we have translated ‘examinations of accounts’ does bear that meaning. ‘Business transaction’ is our inferential reading given the lack of a noun in the text. That this is what St Hesychios means can be seen from this chapter of St John of Sinai:

An excellent banker calculates the profit or the loss of the day in the evening; he is clearly unable to know this if he does not write on the tablet every hour. For the hourly examinations of accounts make manifest the daily ones.[5]

St Hesychios has here inverted St John’s last sentence. In OS 124, he will present a paraphrase of that last sentence which retains St John’s meaning. Clearly, here, if the text is not corrupt, St Hesychios’ sense is that a daily examination of conscience makes a person much more sensitive to how he is handling himself as he goes through his affairs of the day: he is much more sensitive to his faults and can cut them off at the root, the thought, when, during the day, he is about to act.

The daily examination of conscience is a practice that supports sobriety, and, indeed, its placement here should help us grasp what sobriety is all about—that ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’.[6]

Moreover, although at first sight St Basil’s prescription has the air of the practice of a man engaged in many affairs, even the Hesychast has a daily program in which he can commit a fault—not in his dealings with other men, perhaps, but in his dealings with God.[7]

We have heard a modern ascetic, considered quite saintly, endowed with great charisms of discernment and with the working of miracles, a disciple of the Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Fr Ephraim (Papaniketas) of Katounakia (1912–1998), say while catechizing younger monks in the cœnobium that a struggler (one who takes his vocation and his salvation seriously) will practise a daily examination of conscience. It is a living element of Athonite asceticism.

In the next chapter, at least in part a quotation, St Hesychios turns to the principles of asceticism.

66 And another of those, again, who are wise in things divine said: ‘The beginning of fruit-bearing, the flower; and the beginning of the practical life, continence.’

This, we learn by following the textual reference given by the English or French translators of St Hesychios,[8] is the opening line of a work entitled On the Eight Spirits of Malice, traditionally ascribed to St Neilos the Ascetic and found under that name in Migne.[9] However, Gehin et al. list On the Eight Spirits of Malice as a work by Evagrius Pontikos.[10] It can be found in English translation in Sinkewicz.[11]

There is a parallel passage in OS 165, below, which, however, is more in the nature of a paraphrase.

The rest of this chapter of OS does not seem to be a direct quotation but it is easy to see that it is imbued with Evagrius’ ascetical doctrine.

Accordingly, let us be continent, and this with the measure and the balance as the Fathers teach.

‘Let us be continent’: This clearly refers to self-restraint in food and drink, both in kind and in quantity.

Compare TPL 94:

94 I met at high noon exactly the holy father Makarios and, greatly burning from thirst, I requested water to drink. He said ‘Let the shade be sufficient for you. For many now travelling by land or sailing by sea are deprived even of that.’ Then after I had put words through their paces for him concerning continence, he said ‘Courage, child. In all of twenty years, neither bread nor water nor sleep have I taken to satiety. For I have eaten my bread by weight; I have drunk water by measure; and, inclining myself to the walls, I have snatched some small part of sleep.’

This chapter of TPL clearly explains what St Hesychios means by ‘with the measure and the balance’: Eating my bread by weight is my way of avoiding satiety: I ration myself. Similarly for drinking my water by measure.

With regard to ‘with the measure and the balance’, we think that the English and French translators have misunderstood the sense of the passage. The rendering of Galites, the modern Greek translator, is ambiguous. True, in TPL 29, Evagrius quotes his ‘holy and most practical teacher’ to say the following:

Thus must one ever prepare the monk … to use the body, as living together [with the monk] for many years.… [This] guards the body whole, and ever preserves the continence in equal measure to the body.

That passage of Evagrius is indeed a plea for ascetical moderation, but we think that the proper interpretation of this chapter of St Hesychios is that given by TPL 94.

Evagrius is quite clear in TPL that continence in food and water is the therapy of the passions of the body. Consider TPL 35:

35 The passions of the soul have their occasions or starting-points from men; the passions of the body, from the body. And continence cuts off the passions of the body, while spiritual charity cuts off those of the soul.

The passions of the body are gluttony and fornication; the passions of the soul, the remaining six.

And let us pass the whole day of twelve hours

This is our twenty-four-hour day.

in keeping of the mind (nous).

This is the guard of the mind. It is worthwhile to repeat here the definition in OS 3 of the guard of the mind: ‘Sobriety … is also called stillness (hesychia) of the heart and, accomplished without images, the very guard of the mind (nous).’

In the present chapter, St Hesychios appears to be addressing the advanced ascetic. However, here, let us take this keeping of the mind in the first instance to be sobriety understood as the immaterial war explained in TPL and OTT and modified by St Hesychios in OS. The Hesychian system of humility, attention, rebuttal, continual invocation of the Lord Jesus Christ and the memory of death is implied. Let us, in the second instance, then, take this system of Hesychian sobriety to be the guard of the mind in the more advanced ascetic. That is, in the second instance, let us assume that the ascetic has attained to a stillness of the heart which is free of images. As we have already pointed out, this implies that the ascetic has attained to dispassion in the Evagrian sense. For the guard of the mind is the gate to contemplation.

For, doing this, with God

This should be clear: the help of God is a central aspect of both Evagrius’ and St Hesychios’ doctrines, the more so in St Hesychios.

we will be able with a certain violence

This of course is a reference to this passage of Scripture: ‘From the days, then, of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of the Heavens is taken by storm and the violent plunder it.’[12]

to extinguish and reduce the vice.

This is precisely the practical life, praktike, the pursuit of dispassion. Note that the orientation is to reducing the evil, to keeping the commandments, to attaining to virtue, not to ascending to great contemplations. As we have seen, St Hesychios holds these contemplations out as the fruit of his method; however, one must do things in their proper order: one must begin by pursuing dispassion, and then, having attained, at least in great measure, to Evagrian dispassion or to the Hesychian guard of the mind, a stillness of heart free of images or imaginations or mental representations, then one will enter into contemplation.

For the virtuous way of life, by means of which is given the Kingdom of the Heavens, is attained by violence [cf. Matt. 11, 12].

This evangelical violence is the monk’s asceticism, his self-denial as expressed in his ascetical practices. This evangelical violence must be placed under the command of prudence.[13] Only a fool goes to war without a general—prudence. The monk does fight the immaterial war, but with prudence. Both the violence and the prudence are needed.

St Hesychios now introduces a set of nine chapters from St Maximos the Confessor (580–662). St Maximos is a great Father of the Church but we are in no position to discuss his theology. It is known that he adopted the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa[14] and that he was influenced by Evagrius Pontikos. Indeed, Evagrius’ terminology can quite clearly be seen in the quotations from St Maximos presented here by St Hesychios.

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[1] Cf. Luke 10, 18.

[2] Cf. 2 Cor. 7, 10.

[3] Philokalia G; = Chapter 139 of the same work in Mark.

[4] St Basil the Great, Great Rule 37, 4: Basil p. 350, ll. 5–11.

[5] Ladder G Step 4, 116; = Ladder E Step 4, 115 (part).

[6] OS 7.

[7] As we saw in Volume II in OTT 17.

[8] Philokalia E or F.

[9] Migne 79, col. 1145A.

[10] OTT G.

[11] Pp. 73 ff.

[12] Matt. 11, 12.

[13] OS 34, above; TPL 89.

[14] See Section 12, Chapter III, of Volume I.


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