OS (Commentary) -- 17
83 The property of the star
The characteristic, the peculiar property, of the star.
is the light around it. The property of the religious man and of him who fears God,
The characteristic of the monk.
poverty and humility. For by nature there is no other token and declarative sign of the disciples of Christ than a humble-mindedness [cf. Matt. 11, 29] and a poor habit.
That is, clothing of poor quality. St John Cassian in the Cœnobitical Institutions qualifies this that the habit should be clean and not disorderly due to a studied insouciance or affected carelessness.
And this the four Gospels cry out in everything.
Recall that humility has taken the place of spiritual charity or meekness as the primary therapy of the passions of the soul. St John of Sinai remarks in the Ladder of Divine Ascent as follows:
Whenever you see or hear that someone has attained the most sublime dispassion in a few years, believe that he has gone on foot by no other road than this very blessed and short road itself [of humility].
For this passage of the Ladder to be clear, it is necessary to understand that for St John of Sinai, dispassion corresponds to Theology or the adoption as son or divinization (theosis).
He who is not thus, that is, living humbly, falls from the share of him who humbled himself even to the Cross and death [cf. Phil. 2, 8], of him who is the practical
This is a clear use of the Evagrian word praktike as an adjective.
Legislator of the Divine Gospels [cf. Matt. 5, 17–22; etc.].
84 ‘You who thirst,’ he says, ‘go for water.’ [Isa. 55, 1.] You who thirst for God, go in purity of intellect (dianoia).
‘Purity of intellect’ is to be taken in multiple senses: as moral purity of heart, without which no one will see God; as purity of heart in the sense of an absence of mental representations, either dispassionate or impassioned, while the mind (nous) is in the heart; and as purity of the intellect (dianoia), the field of consciousness, which purity is purity of heart taken in the second sense.
However, it is necessary for him who is flying
Or, ‘who takes wing’.
Through the operation of the Holy Spirit. St Hesychios is discussing natural contemplation.
This is natural contemplation.
through purity of intellect (dianoia)
This purity of intellect (dianoia) is the precondition for the ascent, which is accomplished by means of the grace of God. However, in our commentary on OS 30, above, we discussed the voluntary aspect of natural contemplation.
also to look towards the earth of his own poverty.
This is very important, precisely to the extent that the ascetic has voluntarily entered into contemplation: there is a danger that he will lose sight of the necessity of humility. And, in point of fact, humility is exalted, not contemplation, in the sight of the Lord:
For no one is loftier than the humble. For as when the light is not present, all is gloomy and dark, thus also when humility is not present, all things of ours are vain and the works done according to God a day out of date.
85 ‘The end of the speech, hear the whole:
The peroration which sums up the discourse.
Fear God and guard his commandments,’ [Eccl. 12, 13] both intelligibly and sensibly.
‘Intelligibly’: In the mind. This is the immaterial war.
‘Sensibly’: In act. This the war waged through objects, the normal Christian duty.
For if intelligibly you force yourself to keep them,
This is the immaterial war of Hesychian sobriety in all its aspects: humility, attention, rebuttal, continuous invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ and the memory of death.
then seldom will you need sensible toils in [keeping] them.
This is the fundamental doctrine: the conqueror in the immaterial war is the conqueror in the war waged by means of objects, in the custody of the senses and in the normal Christian duty to be virtuous in act.
The ascetic cuts the temptation off at its root, at the stage of the impassioned mental representation, or impassioned recollection, of an object of sense when it first appears in the intellect, and thereby has cut off the whole process of sin. He has kept the commandments in the fear of God.
For David says: ‘I wished to do your will and your Law in the middle of my belly.’ [Ps. 39, 9.]
St Hesychios now interprets this passage from Psalm 39:
86 If a man should not do the will of God and the Law in the middle of his belly, that is, in the middle of the heart,
This is an important proof text that in OS the descent of the mind (nous) into the heart is meant not metaphorically (‘from my whole being’) but literally.
not even outside [the heart]
In his actions.
is he able easily to accomplish this.
This is the fundamental doctrine again. This was the import of all the passages of St Maximos the Confessor that St Hesychios quoted above.
The next sentence is severe:
And he who is not sober and who is indifferent will say to God ‘I do not wish to know your ways,’ [Job 21, 14]
The refusal to practise sobriety, to wage in the intellect (dianoia) the immaterial war against the thoughts, is not in St Hesychios’ view merely a disinclination to practise a certain optional method of spirituality, but a rejection of God himself, and by implication culpable.
at all events from an absence of divine illumination.
This appears to say that he who refuses God in refusing to practise sobriety has at bottom the problem of a lack of divine illumination that would make him see what he was doing to himself in taking this course. This seems to imply that St Hesychios thinks that the monk would change his attitude were he to be illumined somewhat:
He who participates somewhat in that illumination is not without inner spiritual assurance
This is the plerophoria of the inward presence of Grace.
but also will become sufficiently steadfast in regard to things divine.
‘Sufficiently steadfast’: The text has both words as adjectives, something insupportable in English; we have made the one an adverb.
This is an exhortation to begin the work of sobriety. The last sentence is quite qualified: ‘participates somewhat’, ‘not without … assurance’, ‘sufficiently steadfast’.
The sense is: ‘Even a beginner can profit from the labour of sobriety: let us begin.’
These chapters are very much a commentary on the passages, especially those of St Maximos the Confessor, that St Hesychios has quoted above.
The next chapter is a comparison of the guard of the mind to salt. Curiously, St Hesychios does not explicitly allude to the saying of our Lord, ‘Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.’
In order to prepare for the next chapter, and for St Hesychios’ subsequent discussions of the guard of the mind, let us look at some passages from the Ladder of Divine Ascent.
In the Ladder St John of Sinai makes the following distinctions:
26, 50 One thing is the guard of the thoughts (logismoi) and another the keeping of the mind (nous). As far as the east is distant from the west, the second is established more sublimely and with more hardship than the first.
26, 51 It is one thing to pray against thoughts (logismoi) and another thing to speak against [i.e. rebut] them and another thing to despise them and to set oneself higher [than them]. And he bears witness to the first manner (tropos) who says: ‘O God, attend to my aid…’ [Ps. 69, 2], and the like. To the second, he who said: ‘And I will reply to those who cast evil reproaches on me a word (logos) of rebuttal,’ [cf. Ps. 118, 42] and again ‘Thou hast placed us in contention with our neighbours.’ [Ps. 79, 7.] The witness of the third is he who sang, ‘I was dumb and did not open my mouth,’ [Ps. 38, 10] and ‘I placed a guard on it when the sinner stood opposite me,’ [Ps. 38, 2] and again ‘The proud were transgressing exceedingly much; from thy contemplation, then, I myself did not turn aside.’ [Cf. Ps. 118, 51.]
Of these [manners (tropoi)], the intermediate [manner (tropos)] often has need of the first manner (tropos) on account of being unprepared. The first [manner (tropos)] does not yet have the strength to repel the enemies with the second manner (tropos). The third [manner (tropos)] has spit on the demons once and for all.
In the first chapter,
We remarked that in St Hesychios the guard of the mind was closely related to contemplation, that it was the gate to contemplation. In St John of Sinai, however, it is clearly identified with contemplation itself, and the best way to understand the guard of the mind in St John of Sinai is to make a comparison of the stages of the spiritual journey that St John presents in the chapters quoted above with the stages of the Evagrian system: the practical life, natural contemplation and Theology.
The second way is to rebut the thoughts or demons. This corresponds to the manner (tropos) given by St Hesychios in OS 14, where we take rebuttal to be implicit: we are identifying the way of OS 14 with the Evagrian immaterial war. OS 14 says that one manner of sobriety is ‘to watch densely over the imagination, that is to say, the assault, on account of the fact that without imagination Satan cannot create and display thoughts (logismoi) in the mind (nous) for the sake of a lying fraud’.
The third way that St John of Sinai presents corresponds to the guard of the mind properly so called. The Hesychast no longer rebuts the demons, but he has put a guard over his mouth (we think that
III, 90 The demons do not cease to slander the gnostic, even when he is not at fault, to the end that they attract to themselves his nous. Indeed, a cloud holds itself over the thought and chases the nous far from contemplation, at the moment that he [i.e. the gnostic] reproves the demons as slanderers.
This clearly positions the Hesychast in natural contemplation or even Theology.
Now in the second paragraph of the second chapter quoted, St John of Sinai succinctly explains the relation of each of these three ways of confronting the demons to the others. There is a progression: the lowest way, for the beginning Hesychast, is the humble invocation of the help of God—we take this here, perhaps conventionally, not to be the repetition of a fixed formula but ejaculatory prayer. This first way corresponds to the lowest stage of Hesychian sobriety, to a stage which might be considered quite rudimentary in the context of the Evagrian immaterial war or practical life. The important thing that St John says about this is that the beginning Hesychast, he who is situated by degree of attainment in the use of ejaculatory prayer, does not yet have the strength to use the second way, rebuttal, or, by our identification, the whole apparatus of Hesychian sobriety: humility, attention, rebuttal, the continual invocation and the memory of death.
St John then comments that the intermediate Hesychast, he who by attainment is situated in the use of rebuttal—that is, in the immaterial war—sometimes is obliged to make use of the first manner, the humble ejaculatory prayer, on account of being unprepared. The demons come upon him unawares—he has not adequately kept attention and is not sufficiently clairvoyant so as to have perceived in advance from afar the demons’ approach—and he is obliged to cry out to the Lord for assistance. We would position this Hesychast, in Evagrian terms, in the middle stages of the immaterial war. Recall that Evagrius had a somewhat more flexible understanding: in OTT 34, he expected the experienced ascetic who experienced a sudden increase in demonic temptation due to a succession of demons to make use of humble petitionary or ejaculatory prayer because he would not have the strength to rebut the new demons in the same way that he was able to rebut the old ones. In all these writers, the schematic aspects of their systems must be interpreted as an attempt by each writer to present the main outlines of the spiritual life succinctly: much latitude is necessary in the interpretation of any of these authors, especially in the case where one wants to apply what he is reading to his own spiritual endeavour. Much discernment is needed; that is why it is best for the ascetic to have an Elder who can judge what is important for the ascetic concerned.
Before we continue it is well to clarify a point. St John of Sinai presents a progression from humble invocation to rebuttal. St Hesychios insists on the need for humble invocation at all times. Does this mean that St Hesychios has permanently positioned his Hesychast in a rudimentary form of Hesychasm? We think not. We think that St Hesychios has a different opinion from both Evagrius and St John of Sinai about the necessity of the invocation, an opinion that literarily, at least, he seems to a certain extent to have taken from St Mark the Ascetic. That is, one of St Hesychios’ own contributions to ascetical theory is the insistence on the need for continual humble invocation. For he explicitly states that the rebuttal is not enough: he expects the Hesychast to use rebuttal, but he is adamant that he not depend on it: the Hesychast must depend on the invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In this, he goes further than St Mark the Ascetic. Moreover, it is well, again, to distinguish between the humble invocation taken as petitionary ejaculatory prayer—even in St Hesychios this would be construed to be an elementary form of sobriety—and the humble invocation taken as the continual repetition of a formula, whatever the formula. The second is far more difficult. What we understand St John of Sinai to be saying, in Hesychian terms, then, is that the rudimentary form of Hesychasm depends on a humble ejaculatory prayer that is divorced from invocation in the full Hesychian form of a petitionary formula incessantly repeated together with the use of rebuttal, and that it progresses to that form.
However, we think that the guard of the mind of St John of Sinai is positioned somewhat higher on the Evagrian scale of natural contemplation than the guard of the mind of St Hesychios. That is why we continue to characterize the guard of the mind in St Hesychios’ usage as the gate to contemplation, whereas we view the guard of the mind in St John of Sinai to be the full entry into the higher stages of first natural contemplation. These differences are not essential; they are merely matters of the personal style of each of the authors being discussed.
We ourselves understand the progression from the second way, the immaterial war with rebuttal—let us say, the whole Hesychian apparatus of humility, attention, rebuttal, continual repetition of a formula of invocation of Jesus Christ and the memory of death—to the full guard of the mind to work in this way: As the Hesychast continues to rebut the thoughts, his attention, which is focused on the automatic repetition of the formula of invocation, grows clearer and his intellect, positioned in his heart, becomes progressively freed from impassioned mental representations. As the impassioned mental representations recede, the unimpassioned mental representations also begin to recede. This ultimately leaves the Hesychast’s intellect free of all mental representations—‘images’. This is the significance of St Hesychios’ phrase that the guard of the mind is ‘imageless’ or ‘without images’. The end of the process is the guard of the mind.
But there is a subtle point here. We have just presented this process as a human matter, without reference to the operation of Grace. Grace, however, is present in this process, although perhaps in a hidden way, so that the mind (nous) of the Hesychast is being raised to gnosis or contemplation while this process—which could take a considerable number of years—is going on. Hence, by the time the Hesychast has entered into the Hesychian guard of the mind, properly so called, then Grace is operating in such a way that his mind is in an elevated spiritual condition. This we take to be the significance of St John of Sinai’s remark that the ‘keeping of the mind’ differs from the ‘guard of the thoughts’ as much as the east (the direction in which we pray; the direction from which we await the Second Coming) is far from the west (the direction that is associated with the demons). Now this elevated spiritual condition, although it depends on Grace, is not yet the conscious union of the ascetic with the Holy Spirit; that is a further stage, the consummation of the spiritual marriage of the soul with Jesus Christ. These two stages, that of the guard of the mind and that of the spiritual marriage are distinguished by St Hesychios in OS 7, above, as follows: the guard of the mind is ‘the abiding prayer (euche) of Jesus and an imageless delightful tranquillity of mind (nous)’, whereas the spiritual marriage is ‘the condition constituted from Jesus’.
However, we ourselves do not think that the Hesychian spiritual marriage, ‘the condition constituted from Jesus’, is to be considered to be the heights of Theology. While it obviously is a very important stage in the mystical ascent of the Hesychian Hesychast, and while it obviously has profound effects on the ascetic who experiences it, we think that the mystical ascent continues. This is not because we are making an Evagrian distinction between the realms of Jesus Christ and the realms of the Father—God forbid!—but because it seems to us that the conscious union with the Holy Spirit positions the mystic in the higher reaches of natural contemplation, from which he soars with the wings of the Holy Spirit—to use Evagrius’ own characterization—to Theology. We might be refuted.
To return to St John of Sinai’s three methods of confronting the thought or demonic assault, the progression to the guard of the mind is not only a matter of the receding of the impassioned mental representations—this is the matter as seen from the point of view of the subjective experience of the Hesychast—and not only a matter of the degree of the presence of Grace in the soul of the Hesychast—this is the matter as seen from the point of view of the charismatic elevation of the Hesychast’s mind—but also a matter of how the Hesychast confronts the thoughts that do come.
St John makes an interesting alteration to a passage, Psalm 118, 51, that he quotes in regard to the third manner of confronting the demon: instead of saying ‘from thy Law, then, I did not turn aside,’ he says ‘from thy contemplation, then, I did not turn aside.’ It is clear that
In the material just presented, we see that the progression of the Hesychast towards the guard of the mind takes place along several axes. First, it is a progression in the Hesychast’s ability to repel a thought or demonic assault—first by humble ejaculatory prayer, then by rebuttal (here we use St John of Sinai’s formulation), third by silent disdain.
However, in parallel, we see a second development, that of the Hesychast’s ability to contemplate. For as the Hesychast progresses in his ability to repel a thought, his heart is stilled and purified and his intellect is purified—the air of his intellect is purified, to use an expression that St Hesychios will use in OS 90, below. The guard of the mind—the practice of sobriety in the heart without images—is the point in the Hesychian system at which contemplation can begin. St Hesychios himself will later explain how contemplation can come about.
Finally, we see a progression in the presence of Grace, the Holy Spirit, in the Hesychast, which Grace raises the mind of the Hesychast spiritually as he progresses towards the guard of the mind, so that the guard of the mind, while it may not yet purvey the conscious union of the Hesychast with the Holy Spirit, nonetheless is supported by Grace, the Holy Spirit. The guard of the mind is not a merely human phenomenon, but one which is supported by the grace of the Holy Spirit, perhaps silently and secretly. That is why
Much of the latter part of OS is dedicated to a discussion of various aspects of the spiritual life of the Hesychast who has entered into the guard of the mind. We have here prepared the reader to understand more clearly what the guard of the mind is in St Hesychios and we are now in a much better position to understand St Hesychios when he speaks of the guard of the mind. We can now grasp the sense of the next chapter and of those following it.
87 Even as sensible salt seasons bread and every food and keeps some meats unrotten and long-lasting, thus concerning the guard of the mind (nous) also conceive of the intelligible seasoning
We think that this is attention. It might be construed to be Grace as it supports that attention.
and the wonderful labour.
This is the practice of Hesychian sobriety—humility, attention, rebuttal, continual invocation of our Lord and the memory of death—here applied to the stage of the guard of the mind.
For the guard also seasons in a godly way the inner and the outer man
The inner man is the mind (nous) and the outer man is the man of action, that is, our actions.
and casts out the stink of the evil thoughts (logismoi)
This is clear enough. The demons have a spiritual bad odour which is conveyed into ascetic’s mind by his acceptance of the demonically sown thought (logismos). Those who have the charism of spiritual discernment remark on this bad odour even today in the cases of men who have accepted a demonic thought.
and keeps us long-lasting in the good [thoughts (logismoi)]
These good thoughts (logismoi) are to be understood as mental representations (noemata) or conceptions (ennoies) that are purveyed to the mind (nous) by contemplation. To use Evagrian language, they are the spiritual or intelligible mental representations which convey a contemplation or gnosis into the mind. They are not the good thoughts (logismoi)—let us say, pious ejaculatory expressions of the goodness of God, bright ideas, insights and so on—that the Hesychast may earlier have had that St Hesychios has counselled that he avoid completely. The road towards the guard of the mind is the divestiture by the mind (nous) of all mental representations of objects of sense. We will see why later.
88 From assault, many thoughts (logismoi); from these, then, the wicked sensible act. He who with Jesus directly extinguishes the first, however, has avoided the rest;
This is the fundamental doctrine again.
and he will be enriched with sweet, divine gnosis,
Contemplation. Here, it is obvious that natural contemplation is meant. The guard of the mind results from the extinction of all thoughts (images or mental representations), and it is the gate to contemplation.
through which he will find God who is present everywhere.
This is Theology.
Having planted the mirror of his mind (nous)
This is St Hesychios’ third use of the image of the mirror. The two previous uses were in OS 23 and 48.
firmly in him,
That is, in God. St Hesychios means that the Hesychast has entered into contemplation and that the intellect is like a mirror of God’s ineffable light. Moreover, because of his progression in the grace of the Holy Spirit as he has progressed to the guard of the mind, the Hesychast has ‘planted the mirror of his mind (nous) firmly in [God].’ This means that he is both able consciously to turn to God himself—to recognize God, and God as present—and able to establish his consciousness or intellect (dianoia) solidly in that spiritual apprehension of God, or, more precisely, in God himself. Moreover, having done that, the Hesychast keeps his intellect (dianoia) firmly planted in God.
From the subjective point of view, however, the Hesychast who has not yet attained to this rather high state of contemplation must be careful to avoid seeking an experience of Grace or Light. His road to the guard of the mind is the denuding of his mind (nous) from all mental representations, whether good or bad. He must concentrate on the practice of Hesychian sobriety: humility, attention, rebuttal, continual invocation of Jesus Christ and the memory of death. From the subjective point of view, the planting of his intellect in God at this lower stage comes from his faith in and his wholehearted surrender to God, until such a time as he has attained to the high spiritual state that St Hesychios is describing.
he is enlightened continually after the likeness of clear glass and the sensible sun.
It is well to recall St Macrina’s description of the mind (nous) as the image of God: it is like the small piece of glass that reflects perfectly but in small an image of the sensible sun. This is also the image used by St Macrina for the insufflation of the souls of Adam and Eve with the virtues by the Holy Spirit before the Fall. The same image applies when the ascetic attains to dispassion in the sense of St John of Sinai, to the restoration of the likeness to God, the kath’ homoiosin, to the adoption as son or divinization. Here, however, in this chapter of St Hesychios, it is not yet a matter of having reached the end of the mystical journey: the Hesychast is ‘enlightened continually’: he is still growing in the gnosis of God, still progressing. Although St Hesychios’ terminology does not here easily map to Evagrius’ terminology, we think that the state that St Hesychios is describing in this clause corresponds to the higher stages of first natural contemplation. The next sentence, however, indicates that Theology causes all natural contemplation to cease and explains why.
And at that time the mind (nous) will take its rest from every other contemplation in him,
That is, in God. However, it is conceivable that ‘in the mind (nous)’ is intended. This passage must be understood in the sense of the transition from first natural contemplation to Theology.
having arrived at the last of desires.
This is the reason that the mind (nous) takes its rest from every other contemplation: once the Hesychast has found God himself, all other contemplations are paltry, however rich they might have made the Hesychast.
The next chapter, OS 89, gives a theoretical explanation how the various dimensions of the mystical ascent of the Hesychast that we referred to above are integrated. OS 89 is extremely important to an understanding of St Hesychios the thinker: it is in part a quotation from OTT 2; in part, along with OS 88, this chapter, it is a summary of Evagrian doctrine and a paraphrase of OTT 40.
 Cassian I.
 Ladder G Step 25, 35; = Ladder E Step 25, 36.
 Mark 9, 50.
 Step 26, 50–1 of Ladder G; = Step 26, 78–9 of Ladder E.
 OS 3.
 We discussed the very difficult topic of the Evagrian system in Volumes I and II, and we cannot hope to repeat ourselves here.
 See the commentary before OS 54.
 See the commentary on OS 3, above, concerning the provenance of these phrases in the translation and commentary.
 See the commentary on OTT 38 in Volume II.
 See the Digression in Volume II.
 Ambigua (Peri Diaphoron Aporion) 10, 17: Migne 91, col. 1128C–D.
 See Chapter I of Volume I.