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OS (Commentary) -- 15

76 The watchtower of the reasons (logoi) concerning every virtue is the keeping of the mind (nous), as David’s watchman of old made manifest beforehand the circumcision of the heart [cf. 2 Kgs. 13, 34; 18, 24–7].

In this chapter, the circumcision of the heart symbolizes Evagrian dispassion,[1] which corresponds to the Hesychian guard of the mind (nous). Moreover, the watchtower is an image of attention,[2] here extended to the keeping of the mind (nous), itself a synonym for the guard of the mind (nous).

The simile used by St Hesychios in this chapter is based on the references in 2 Kgs. 13 and 18 to the watchman on the tower. This is not a very successful use of those passages of Scripture since the watchman plays a very minor role in those passages and his connection to the circumcision of the heart, Evagrian dispassion or the Hesychian guard of the mind (nous), is remote, except to the extent that the watchtower on which he stands corresponds to the attention that the ascetic exercises.

However, the meat of this chapter is the calling of the keeping of the mind—here taken to be the immaterial war in the heart with attention and without images, that is, the guard of the mind—the watchtower of the reasons (logoi) of the virtues. This can be taken to refer to the guard of the mind (nous) as the starting-point and foundation of contemplations concerning the virtues—surely this is second natural contemplation—, which contemplations purvey to the Hesychast the reasons (logoi) of the virtues and thereby infuse the virtues into him. What St Hesychios wants to say is that the keeping of the mind (nous), attention, leads to the virtues’ becoming present in the ascetic by means of the very contemplations that the ascetic engages in concerning those virtues. It is well here to recall TPL 79:

79 The operations of the commandments are not sufficient towards healing completely the powers of the soul, if contemplations appropriate to these commandments do not also succeed to the mind.

‘The operations of the commandments’ in TPL 79 refers to the practical life. What both authors are discussing is the transition from the practical life, through the attainment to Evagrian dispassion or the Hesychian guard of the mind (nous), to contemplations which complete the healing of the powers of the soul, which contemplations are here called by St Hesychios the reasons (logoi) of the virtues. St Hesychios is saying is that the foundation of the necessary contemplations is the attention that the ascetic exercises in the keeping of the mind (nous), here synonymous with the guard of the mind (nous).

77 Just as we are damaged when we see with the senses those things which are damaging, thus also in the mind (nous).

What St Hesychios wants to say is that just as seeing a morally damaging external object is damaging to us, so also seeing its impassioned mental representation or recollection in the mind is damaging to us—of course, if we do not cut off that impassioned mental representation but let it develop into a full-fledged demonic thought or fantasy. Evagrius dwelt at length, especially in OTT 22, with the damage done by demonic thoughts which are allowed to persist. See also the Skemmata, especially Skemmata 45, 56 and 58.

78 Just as he who has pierced the heart of the plant has laid dry the whole, thus understand concerning the heart of man. This very moment it is necessary to attend since the thieves are not idle.

AlphabeticX’ omits the last sentence. We think it should be retained, as it explains why we must be attentive at all times in the heart: so that the demons do not lay it dry.

The sense of this chapter is this: If your heart is taken captive by a demonic thought, then you have been conquered. By ‘If your heart is taken captive’ understand ‘If you have come to consent or allowed the thought to persist for a very long time’. Then what St Hesychios is saying is related to what he was just previously quoting St Mark the Ascetic and St Maximos to say, and to what he himself has already said: the battle of temptation and sin is fought in the heart of man, well before sin in act. If you have been conquered in your heart, then sin in act is a ‘mere formality’. This is not to negate the process of temptation and sin that St Hesychios has already described: St Hesychios is insisting on the necessity of attending in the heart so that the process of temptation and sin be cut off at the beginning, at the stage of the assault. That assault takes place in the heart. If the Hesychast has been defeated in the heart, he has been laid dry—laid waste.

The ‘thieves’ in the last sentence are, of course, the demons.

St Hesychios now closes this long series of quotations with seven connected chapters from St Mark the Ascetic which are concerned with our duty to keep the commandments. They are Chapters 2–8 of the work, On Those Who Think That They are Justified by Works,[3] found in Volume I of the Philokalia and also in Volume I of the critical edition of St Mark’s writings.[4]

The full significance of this extract from St Mark will become apparent if the reader reflects on this passage of Evagrius from TPL 81:

Charity is the offspring of dispassion. Dispassion is the flower of the practical life. The observance of the commandments constitutes the practical life. The guard of the commandments is the fear of God, which very thing is the offspring of correct faith.

Evagrius says: ‘The observance of the commandments constitutes the practical life.’ Let us recall once again that the higher stage of the practical life, the keeping of the commandments in thought, is the immaterial war against the demonically sown impassioned mental representations, and that this is the road of sobriety which according to Evagrius, St Maximos and St Hesychios, not to mention St Mark the Ascetic, leads to God in pure prayer—that is, contemplation and Theology. Hence, what is involved here is our right attitude to our practice of Hesychasm: our attitude towards our repetition of the formula, whether it be the standard formula of the Jesus Prayer or a variant; our attitude towards why we are cultivating attention—that ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’[5]—; our attitude towards why we are practising the cutting off of the thoughts—all thoughts, insists St Hesychios—by rebuttal at the stage of the inception of the impassioned or unimpassioned recollection in the intellect; our attitude towards the acquisition of the humility that St Hesychios, evidently following St Maximos’ placement of humility in the place of Evagrius’ spiritual charity or meekness as the therapy of the passions of the soul, counsels us to acquire; our attitude towards our relationship to our Lord in the midst of the mystical ascent—this last is an extremely important but subtle issue here.

These are the issues that are implicitly being touched on in the series of quotations from St Mark.

Also being touched on are our attitude to the charisms—of word or healing, whichever of the charisms that St Paul lists—that God gives us; our attitude to the grace God has given us in the midst of the mystical ascent; our attitude to the visions—whether of natural contemplation or of Theology, whether of the saints or of the angels or of God himself—that God has given to us in the midst of the mystical ascent.

Finally, also being touched on are the difficulties, the temptations, that arrive.

This seven-chapter extract from St Mark is very important for the monk to reflect on concerning his correct attitude towards his spiritual ascesis.

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[1] Cf. KG IV, 12; etc.

[2] As St Hesychios already has indicated in OS 8 with the related image of the fortress from which the ascetic sees from afar the advent of the bands of demons.

[3] Henceforth, OJW 2–8.

[4] Philokalia D, E, F or G and Mark, respectively.

[5] OS 7.


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