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OS (Commentary) -- 19

95 A useful tutor of both body and soul is the unremitting memory of death and, passing over all that is between, ever to see it [i.e. death] in advance, the very bed where, giving up the ghost, we will lie outstretched—and the remainder.

This is a contemplation, one which St Hesychios recommends that we attach to our practice of his method of sobriety. In OS 17, above, the memory of death is listed as one way of sobriety, and we have interpreted that to mean that it is one component of sobriety; for that reason, in the commentary we have included it in most of our summaries of the Hesychian method.

Despite all these indications that St Hesychios wants us to practise the unremitting memory of death, in OS he does not spend much time on it, evidently preferring to emphasize other aspects of his system. There is a certain air in OS of the memory of death’s being an afterthought, or at least of its being a spiritual exercise that is good but really only for the more advanced Hesychast. For stylistically, the memory of death does not seem to be well integrated into the rest of OS.

However, the memory of death is very good: it uproots all our frivolousness. It orients us to the things of Heaven—indeed, it places us mentally or spiritually (noeros) in Heaven making us acutely aware that the affairs of the flesh, the goings-on in this world, the things of the earth, are temporary things, things which cannot give us lasting nourishment, joy or abode.

The memory of death is a very strong aid to concentration on the Prayer of Jesus, or on the particular formula that we are using. For the Prayer of Jesus is a communion with God, and the memory of our departure from this world makes us the more attentive spiritually to that aspect of our departure: our communion with our Lord.

However, the essence of such a practice of the memory of death does not lie in our fantasizing about our departure for the next life, despite the apparent indications here to the contrary. The memory of death is a charism, and that means that it is a matter of attending spiritually to the conception (ennoia) or mental representation (noema) of the memory of death: the memory of death is a spiritual apprehension maintained in the intellect that we are here only in a passing way.

Readers who are familiar the commentary on OTT 41 in Volume II will grasp that the difference between a fantasy and a spiritual conception or spiritual mental representation is a matter of both the source of the conception or mental representation and how the mental representation imprints the mind (nous). We will discuss the relation between conceptions and mental representations in the commentaries on OS 131 and 134, below.

96 Brothers, it is not for him who wishes to remain forever unwounded to take his sleep,

Consider TPL 94, Makarios the Alexandrian, where St Makarios is represented by Evagrius as saying that for the last twenty years, ‘…inclining myself to the walls, I have snatched some small part of sleep’.

However, this is an admonition to sleep little, not to go entirely without sleep. That, the Fathers—for example, St John Cassian in his Cœnobitical Institutions[1]—categorically say, damages the mind (nous).

but one of the two is a necessity: either to fall and be lost,

The metaphor is of battle.

denuded of the virtues, or continually to stand, fully armed in the mind (nous).

Although St Hesychios does not say so, the Prayer continues unabated, and also the immaterial war, while the ascetic sleeps. This is a matter of a charism. We discussed this in Volume II in the commentaries on OTT 27–9; and in OS 5, above, we quoted GC 61, which clearly states the doctrine of the automatic repetition of the Prayer even during sleep.

For the enemy also ever stands with his troops in battle array.

We have already seen this aspect of St Hesychios’ demonology.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios wishes to describe a certain state that the Hesychast enters into, in which he goes on the offensive against the thoughts. This state is quite real. This chapter also contains an outline description of the Hesychast program.

97 There occurs a certain divine condition

We have already encountered this concept. It means the habitual level of spiritual attainment of the Hesychast. It can also mean the more transitory spiritual condition that an ascetic finds himself in on any particular day or hour. Here, St Hesychios is referring to a certain ‘divine’ level of spiritual attainment, which is he is going to describe, one which may not be habitual: the ascetic may enter into this condition, may maintain it for a certain period of time—say, days—may lose it, may regain it, may pass to another condition, and so on. As will be evident, this chapter is in thematic continuity with the previous chapters: the ‘divine condition’ described in this chapter arises from the implementation of St Hesychios’ previous instructions. It is well to bear in mind that in these chapters, St Hesychios is addressing Hesychasts at a level of attainment at which discussion of concrete methods to attain to the guard of the mind is meaningful.

in our mind (nous) from the continual remembrance and invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, if we are not negligent of the continual

Alphabetic G’ has ‘frequent’ instead of ‘continual’, but we think it is well to leave this reading as is.


This is the continual repetition of the formula of invocation of Jesus Christ.

towards him in the mind (nous), and the dense sobriety

Intense, highly-focused attention and rebuttal of thoughts.

and the work (ergon) of oversight.

We take this work of oversight to be the ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’. See OS 5–7.

But, really, we have ever the same

Inserting for sense an article in the Greek.

work (ergon), and in the same manner accomplished, of the invocation of Jesus Christ our Lord, crying out with an inflaming of the heart

This is, attached to the invocation, the desiring part of the soul operating according to nature: the invocation with intense Eros (eros). Hence, since the desiring part of the soul (epithumia) is not located in the heart, ‘of the heart’ must be taken figuratively: according to Evagrius, the temper (thumos or thumike) is located in the heart. However, this ‘inflaming’ can also be a charism which might very well be experienced in the region of the heart.

so that we communicate

Alphabetic G’ has ‘intercede’ here, and a marginal note in Philokalia G, evidently due to St Makarios and St Nikodemos, the original editors of the Philokalia, suggests that ‘intercede’ is the correct reading. Philokalia E follows this suggestion, but Philokalia D and F retain ‘communicate’ or its equivalent. This is a sensitive issue today because of the Heresy of the Name that arose on Mount Athos at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.[2] It seems clear, however, that St Hesychios’ theology is related to the theology of the School of Sinai, reference implicitly being made to that school’s Evagrian orientation in ascetical theology, rather than to any theology that might be discernible in a minor heresy that arose over a thousand years after he wrote. Here, the concept of communicating the name of Jesus can be considered in the sense of the mental representation that conveys the gnosis of Jesus: the name of Jesus, it is clear from OTT 41, would convey into the mind the intelligible or spiritual mental representation that is related to Jesus himself, and, it is clear from the chapters of OS already discussed, St Hesychios had read that part of OTT.

the holy name of Jesus Christ.

All prayer is communion. Moreover, we discussed earlier how the repetition of the formula introduces repetitively and continually into the intellect mental representations which act in a manner similar to the action of an icon in rendering charismatically present the person portrayed, here, depending on the formula, Jesus Christ himself. Of course, this metaphor of the icon is not intended to encourage the Hesychast to attempt in his mind’s eye to visualize Jesus Christ himself. That is to court a delusive vision. Moreover, it is not to suggest that Jesus Christ himself, or the mental representation of him, is ‘cut to the measure of the human mind’: concerning spiritual mental representations introduced into the human mind which are beyond the cognitive capacity of the human mind, see the discussion of the mental representation introduced by ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’ (John 1, 1; quoted by Evagrius in OTT 41) in the commentary on OTT 41 in Volume II, and in the commentary below on OS 134.

For even in regard to virtue and vice, continuity is the mother of habit; and habit, then, prevails as nature.

Somewhere in the Ladder, St John of Sinai states that habit is a second nature. Elsewhere in the Ladder,[3] he emphasizes the role of habit in the acquisition of the virtues. The role of habit in the acquisition of the virtues and vices derives from Aristotle’s ethics, where the virtues are defined as moral habits.

What we must take from this, apart from the necessity of care in our daily behaviour, is the importance of habit in our practice of humility, in our practice of superintending attention, in our rebuttal of the thoughts, in our repetition of the formula and in our attention to the mental representation of the memory of death. We must not stop.

In the 153 Chapters on Prayer, attributed to St Neilos the Ascetic in the Greek manuscript tradition and in Philokalia G but now generally considered to be a work of Evagrius, we find two short chapters relevant to the roles of habit and of Eros (eros):

87 If you have not yet received the charism of prayer or psalmody, persevere [literally, stand watch] and you will receive.

43 The condition of prayer is a dispassionate habit which seizes [in rapture] with the most extreme Eros (eros) the philosophizing [i.e. ascetic] mind (nous) to the intelligible height.[4]

Whether or not the 153 Chapters on Prayer is a work by Evagrius or St Neilos the Ascetic, the conceptions contained in these two chapters are clearly connected to what is here being discussed by St Hesychios.[5]

And the mind (nous), having come into such a condition,

Here, St Hesychios introduces the attachment to the repetition of the formula of the temper operating according to nature, in addition to the attachment of the desiring part operating according to nature that he has already described.

seeks the enemies just as a hunting dog [seeks] a hare in the brushwoods; but the latter so that it may devour, the former so that it may utterly destroy.

The temper having been attached to the prayer, the mind (nous) rips the demonic thoughts and mental representations to shreds. It is truly ferocious.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios addresses the case where there is a sudden onslaught of demonically sown thoughts or mental representations. This is similar to the various cases that Evagrius discusses in TPL and OTT.[6]

98 At all events, when and as often as it happens that wicked thoughts (logismoi) are multiplied in us,

It should be clear that this is a matter of external demonic provocation, not of an internal subconscious activity of the ascetic. Moreover, what St Hesychios is referring to is a sudden increase in wicked thoughts, a sudden frontal attack by the demons.

let us cast into the middle of them the invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

This is conceptually continuous with the previous chapter, where both Eros (eros)—the desiring part operating according to nature—and the temper operating according to nature were attached to the repetition of the formula of invocation.

This chapter is not a metaphor. The repetition of the Prayer is focused and consciously directed by the Hesychast. Moreover, the last chapter discussed the attachment of the temper to the repetition of the formula so that the mind (nous) of the Hesychast could be compared to a prize hunting dog ferociously seeking a hare in the brushwoods.

The Hesychast can use the repetition of the formula as a weapon directed against the demons. In this regard consider the Life of St John of Sinai that prefaces the Ladder of Divine Ascent: After having been alerted by an angel that his disciple was in danger, St John:

immediately armed himself with prayer on behalf of the disciple. Then, when towards evening the disciple came back, he asked him if he had met with anything terrible or unhoped for. The disciple replied: ‘Around midday a very large boulder under which I was very soundly sleeping was very soon going to fall on and crush me, if, indeed, thinking that I heard your voice, I did not leap up from the place in a bound filled with tumult. And immediately I saw that rock breaking off and falling down to the earth.’

There are other episodes in the lives of the saints and ascetical saints that speak of this directed use of the repetition as a weapon.

and at that time we shall see them immediately dissolved like smoke in the air [cf. Ps. 36, 20; Ps. 67, 2], as experience has taught.

What St Hesychios is counselling is this: when the Hesychast encounters a sudden onslaught of the demons, which he experiences as a sudden, perhaps overwhelming, increase in impassioned mental representations, then while the temper and the desiring part operating according to nature, and also the heart, are attached to the repetition of the formula, let him coolly direct the repetition of the formula of invocation into the middle of the impassioned mental representations until they are ‘dissolved like smoke in the air’. Compare OS 47: ‘Mind (nous) is invisibly engaged with mind (nous) for battle: the demonic mind (nous) with our own.’

The reader should refer in Volume II to TPL 59 for a summary, and to OTT 34 for a detailed discussion, of Evagrius’ doctrine of the succession of demons. There, this sudden onslaught is interpreted as a changing of the guard of demons assigned to assault the ascetic. Of course, there might be causes for a sudden onslaught other than a changing of the guard. See, for example, TPL 44, where the cause is a stratagem of the demons coupled to the ascetic’s negligence. Moreover, OTT 16 discusses ‘the villainy of the spirit of fornication’, from which villainy arise intense assaults by the demon of fornication by means of obscene fantasies, precisely when the ascetic has ‘acquired dispassion of the desiring part’—purity. In OTT 16, Evagrius himself remarks on the use of the temper according to nature in the case of such obscene fantasies:

The seething of the temper set in motion against this demon is very useful against such thoughts, which very temper the demon has certainly feared when it [the temper] is agitated on account of these thoughts and is destroying utterly its [the demon’s] mental representations.

Note that Evagrius is describing much the same subjective state of the ascetic that St Hesychios has described in OS 97: the ascetic goes on the offensive.

The only difference between what Evagrius is saying in OTT 16 and what St Hesychios is counselling in this chapter, OS 98, is that, in the method of St Hesychios, the temper is focused on the obscene mental representations by the attachment by the afflicted Hesychast of the ‘seething of the temper’ to the repetition of the formula and by the focusing of the repetition of the formula into the midst of the disturbing mental representations. However, this method of St Hesychios is to be practised not only for obscene fantasies but also in every case where any of the demons which rule over the eight most general passions is making a sudden, heavy onslaught and there is a sudden increase in wicked thoughts.

Evagrius himself has a passage in Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios) which indicates the heights to which the war can attain:

The demons were imprinting terrible fantasies on a certain one of the brothers who was keeping vigil by night, not only to the outward eye but also to the inward gaze, so that the next night, struggling with anxious care, he was in danger of the plundering of his senses; and, indeed, the war was upon his soul for more nights. He who was in danger, then, struggled within to keep possession of the governor of his senses, hanging his soul on the Giver of Prayer. And reciting to himself the practices of his faults, he struggled to look upon himself with his mind’s eye. Afterwards, wheeling about, he frightened his soul with the fire of the Judgement, so that, striking fear with fear, he beat off cowardice. And that is just what occurred, as the one said who suffered the war. For, the demons in many ways frightening his soul, the afflicted man sought after God with prayer; they then wheeling about his soul with the fantasies, this man, reckoning the weight of his faults, showed those faults to God. When again, then, they drew down his eye from prayer, he, having repaid with the fear of the Judgement, made the fear which arose from the fantasies to disappear. For the one part of the fear being in excess, with God he overcame the other part of the fear, the one from delusion. For, being humbled with the memory of the sins and being awoken from sleep with the fear of the Judgement, his soul blew away from within the terrors of the demons. Everything occurred by the grace which is from on high: the expelling on the one hand of the terrors of the demons; the shoring up on the other hand of the collapsing soul. ‘For the Lord supports all those who are falling down and raises up all those who are dashed down.’ [Ps. 144, 14.][7]

The onslaught may not so easily be repulsed as St Hesychios suggests. It may take time. Let us continue to pray in the way that St Hesychios suggests until such a time as the demonic fantasies, thoughts or mental representations dissolve like smoke in the air.

And the mind (nous) alone having been laid hold of,

This means the practice of the guard of the mind: this practice has been disturbed by the sudden onslaught of demonic images, and with the Prayer used as St Hesychios says, we have been able to regain possession of ourselves in the mind (nous). St Hesychios is addressing the advanced Hesychast.

at that time let us again begin the continual attention and invocation.

Having recovered our guard of the mind, let us maintain it. This is a clear description of Hesychasm as the guard of the mind—that is, of Hesychasm at the level of the habitual practice of the guard of the mind.

And as often as we suffer this from temptation, let us do in this way.

This is clearly a specific Hesychian instruction to the advanced Hesychast how to meet this sort of attack.

99 As it is not possible to enter into war naked in body or to swim a great sea with clothes or to live without breathing, thus it is impossible without humility and continual entreaty towards Christ to learn thoroughly the intelligible and secret war, and with art to pursue closely and strike this one.

‘This one’ is the demon.

This is an important statement. St Hesychios has placed this admonition in the context of admonitions and instructions to the experienced Hesychast. Recall that Evagrius has discussed in TPL 50 how a monk might receive a more experimental knowledge of the demons, and how the demons are altogether savage with those monks who share in the practical life in a more gnostic way; and, in OTT 26, how and when an anchorite should pray for the gnosis of discernment (the charism of the discernment of spirits).

St Hesychios has a different approach to receiving the gnosis of the ‘intelligible and secret war’: humility and the continual entreaty towards Christ. This humility is not merely a substitute for spiritual charity or meekness as a therapy for passions of the soul—though it is that—; it is not merely the stepping-stone to discernment that St John of Sinai says it is—though it is that, too—: this humility has an absolute value: St Hesychios is speaking to the experienced Hesychast and insisting that humility is the foundation for any progress that he is going to make in the immaterial war. That and the continual entreaty towards Jesus Christ, the formula prayed from the heart.

Only by humility, St Hesychios is saying to the experienced Hesychast, will you learn thoroughly—spiritually—the intelligible—immaterial, we call it—and secret—in the depths of the heart—war. Only with humility, St Hesychios is saying to the experienced Hesychast, will you learn to pursue closely—chase down like a hunting dog chasing down a hare in the brushwoods—and strike—destroy—this one—the demon and its thought.

Humility and the continual entreaty—the continual repetition of the formula from the heart, with the desiring part operating according to nature, with meekness, and with the temper operating according to nature—: this is the only way to learn the immaterial war.

The next chapter is an exhortation against insensibility (lethe). We discussed this term in the commentary on OS 32, above.

100 The great and most practical David

Compare Evagrius in TPL 29: ‘Our holy and most practical teacher…’ ‘Most practical’ means ‘most experienced in the practical life, praktike, or [in St Hesychios] sobriety’.

says towards the Lord: ‘I will guard my might towards thee.’ [Ps. 58, 10.] Therefore, that the might of hearty

We have usually translated the adjective here rendered as ‘hearty’ by ‘of the heart’, and that is to be preferred since ‘hearty’ is rare in the sense we are using it here. However, the parallel construction obliges us to use an adjective. ‘Hearty’ is to be understood here in the sense of ‘of the heart’—and that as St Hesychios has been defining and discussing throughout this treatise.

and mental stillness (hesychia),

This is the might of the Hesychast: a heart and mind (intellect) free of images, in which the Hesychast keeps attention and practises in humility the continual invocation of Christ. Compare OS 20, above. Rebuttal would be used when an impassioned mental representation were perceived to commence. In a more general context, the memory of death would be attached to this practice.

from which thing are born all the virtues,

This is fundamental. We keep the commandments in this way, and that is the human or active aspect of virtue. Here, however, St Hesychios means the divine aspect of virtue, the insufflation of grace that brings the three parts of the soul into their operation according to nature and that restores the image of God. This insufflation is not a once and for all event—although such dramatic events as the signal advent of the Holy Spirit do occur—but, at the stage that we are discussing here in OS, the gradual transformation of the person.

St Hesychios is saying that the guard of the mind is not only the gate to contemplation but also the gate to the restoration of the image of God: the guard of the mind is the presupposition of the ascetic’s attainment to the stage in which the ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis)’ of the operation of the Holy Spirit conveys to the ascetic the virtues, the fullness of which comes from the illumination (photismos) of the Holy Spirit which conveys the fullness of divine love.[8]

should be guarded in us comes to [us] through our being helped by the Lord

This is St Hesychios’ interpretation of ‘I will guard my might towards thee.’ (Ps. 58, 10.) The might of the Hesychast is his hearty and mental stillness, and that this stillness, which is none other than the guard of the mind, should be guarded, or maintained, in him, comes to him through his being helped by the Lord. This is an explicit recognition—and admonition—on St Hesychios’ part that the guard of the mind is a state that cannot be maintained without the grace of the Holy Spirit; we spoke of this in the commentary just before OS 87, above. The guard of the mind can neither be attained nor maintained without Grace.

who both gives us his commandments

Recall that the foundation of Hesychasm is the practical life, the keeping of the commandments.

St Hesychios also intends this to refer to the love that Jesus has shown us in giving us his commandments. There is moreover in this clause a nuance of being given Jesus’ commandments in the sense of being made able to accomplish them by his grace.

and banishes from us the unclean insensibility (lethe)

Recall from OS 97 that ‘…really, we have ever the same work (ergon), and in the same manner accomplished…’. This very focused, monotonous life can tire the man. He can get fed up, bored, ‘forgetful’ or ‘insensible’: he can ‘forget’ or lose his spiritual condition. It can be quite hard to maintain the first enthusiasm; this is simple human nature. Hence the need for Jesus Christ to drive away from us the ‘unclean insensibility (lethe)’. Taken in this sense, lethe seems very similar to Evagrius’ accidie.

It is interesting to remark, however, that, conceptually, ‘forgetfulness (lethe)’ is the opposite of ‘remembrance or memory (mneme)’ and that we have seen that the ‘memory (mneme) of Jesus’ is connected to the invocation: see GC 61, quoted in the commentary on OS 5, above. That is to say, lethe can be construed to be the loss, in more than a passing way, of the ‘memory of Jesus’, here taken to be the ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis)’ of Jesus himself conferred by the practice of Hesychian sobriety, especially the continual invocation. We will discuss the ‘memory of Jesus’ more fully just below.

Moreover, in OS 32, above, St Hesychios uses the simile he is about to use of water being opposed to fire for the opposition of lethe not to stillness of the heart but to attention. Hence, lethe cannot be taken merely in the sense of Evagrius’ accidie, but must contain elements of a spiritual insensibility: the Hesychast afflicted by lethe cannot exercise the spiritual ‘extreme attention’ (OS 94) that is necessary in St Hesychios for the Hesychast to maintain the guard of the mind, which guard of the mind is the foundation of all the progress that the Hesychast will thenceforth make.

this insensibility (lethe) certainly being destructive of stillness (hesychia) of the heart as water is of fire—

The implication is that St Hesychios considers one of the great problems of the Hesychast who has attained to the guard of the mind to be this lethe (insensibility or accidie).

when continually he is invoked by us in a loud voice.

‘In a loud voice’ is to be understood as meaning ‘silently but with intense supplication’.

St Hesychios sees the solution to the problem of lethe to be intense, continual invocation. Recall from OS 94 that the invocation and the extreme attention are constituents the one of the other: the practice of the one contributes to the attainment of the other.

This emphasis on the continual invocation is important. It can only be seen in the context of the repetition of a formula in the heart, especially given that St Hesychios is discussing the maintenance of the guard of the mind, not the condition of a beginner. A continual invocation ‘in a loud voice’ in the manner of free-form ejaculatory invocations ‘at the top of our lungs’ is inconsistent with the idea of the guard of the mind as ‘stillness (hesychia) of the heart … accomplished without images’ (OS 3, above), and such an oral practice would certainly disturb the mental equilibrium of the man praying. This is not to deny that very accomplished Hesychasts do on occasion make use, even intensely, of oral ejaculatory prayer. However, the sense in St Hesychios’ text is that we repeat the formula with intensity in the depths of the soul, in the depths of the heart—silently but with intense supplication of Jesus Christ from the soul and from the heart.

Therefore, monk, do not out of negligence sleep unto death [cf. Ps. 12, 4]

This is clearly an excessive physical sleep that arises from depression, sorrow or despondency—from lethe (insensibility or accidie). It takes a great effort of will to maintain the Hesychast program. St John of Sinai comments on this often.

but with the name of Jesus be whipping the enemies,

This is the Jesus Prayer prayed continually and with art. See OS 98 and 99, above.

and, as a certain wise man has said, ‘Let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath and then you will know the benefit of stillness (hesychia).

St John of Sinai.[9] The exact form of the text that is in Ladder G is: ‘Let the memory of Jesus be united to your breath, and then you will know the benefit of stillness (hesychia)’. St Hesychios’ text is slightly different: instead of ‘the memory of Jesus’, he says ‘the name of Jesus’. If this difference is not in fact due to a copyist’s error, then there is a slight difference in meaning in St Hesychios’ version of the prescription.

The difference rests in this: In St John of Sinai’s text in Ladder G, the emphasis is on the ‘memory of Jesus’, which could be taken to be a sort of non-verbal attention to the memory of Jesus joined to the breathing. This could conceivably have nothing to do with the repetition of a fixed formula, being rather a non-verbal meditation on or attention to an intelligible conception of Jesus himself; however, as far as we ourselves know, such a method, if it ever existed, is not in use anywhere in Orthodoxy in our day. In the case of St Hesychios’ text in Philokalia G, the emphasis is on the ‘name of Jesus’: this is clearly a verbal formulation. Now it is conceivable that St Hesychios means the repetition of the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ’. However, given the other indications in OS, especially St Hesychios’ extremely great emphasis on the continual invocation, the most likely interpretation is that he means a formula of invocation directed to the person of Jesus Christ. This would accord with St Diadochos of Photike’s usage in GC of ‘Lord Jesus’ as the name of the formula of invocation. Moreover, it would accord with the reference in OS 170, below, to the ‘prayer of the name of Jesus’ which we are to make use of ‘as our own breath’. Finally, in OS 182, below, St Hesychios counsels that we ‘stick’ to our breath the ‘prayer of Jesus’: we do not think that he is counselling the repetition with the breath at one time of the ‘name of Jesus’, at another time of the ‘prayer of the name of Jesus’ and at a third time of the ‘prayer of Jesus’: these are synonyms.

As we pointed out in the commentary on OS 5, St Diadochos refers to the ‘memory of Jesus’ in GC 61, a chapter dedicated to a discussion of the Prayer of Jesus. This indicates that in these writers the expression ‘memory of Jesus’ cannot be divorced from the context of the Prayer of Jesus. It is known that St John of Sinai was influenced by St Diadochos, and it is most likely that in these authors the ‘memory of Jesus’ is to be understood as an attention focused on Jesus, as a ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis)’ of Jesus, that is to be accompanied by, or even accomplished by, the unceasing repetition of the formula of invocation. This is very much the sense of St Diadochos in GC 61.[10] Moreover, St Diadochos himself addresses the problem of lethe in that chapter, and leaves his reader to understand that lethe is the spiritual inability of the mind (nous) to retain the memory of Jesus—precisely in the sense of the ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis)’ of Jesus attained through the continual repetition of the formula—and this on account of wrath, drunkenness or severe melancholy.

It is the ‘memory of Jesus’, taken as an ‘extreme attention’ (OS 94) focused on Jesus, as a ‘spiritual perception (aisthesis)’ of Jesus attained by the unceasing repetition of the formula of invocation, that would be lost when the Hesychast fell subject to ‘forgetfulness (lethe)’.

There are those who believe that in OS, St Hesychios does not refer clearly to the use of a repetitive formula. It is true that he is not explicit in the sense of giving a specific formula with concrete instructions on how to pray it. However, since we know that St Hesychios has direct quotations in OS from GC, and that GC explicitly discusses the continual repetition of the Prayer of Jesus, the references of St Hesychios to the ‘prayer of Jesus’ or the ‘name of Jesus’ must be interpreted in that light. It is not the style of St Hesychios to give a formula; that he would have left to the Confessor or to the Elder of the Hesychast. The formula is something that the Hesychast would have learned when he became a Hesychast—or even a cœnobite.

It is also very clear that St Hesychios is quite dependent literarily on St John of Sinai and that the form of Hesychasm that St Hesychios is discussing is very closely related to the form of Hesychasm that St John of Sinai discusses in the Ladder of Divine Ascent. To a certain extent, OS is an appendix to the Ladder. These men were writing in a certain cultural milieu that took certain things for granted, in a cultural milieu that had a certain style. One of these things was to take for granted the existence of formulas, and to refer to the use of the formula in this veiled and obscure way for the sake of spiritual clarity about what the formula was to be used for. Moreover, these men were certainly charismatically endowed and speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit: the Holy Spirit does not speak with the rational clarity of the mediæval Scholastic, but with the higher spiritual clarity of the psalms.

To turn to the question of the breath, the saying of St John of Sinai, and a fortiori of St Hesychios, is today normally taken by the Orthodox to refer to the Jesus Prayer, and to the practice of uniting the formula to the breath—one half in the inhalation and one half in the exhalation. We have already mentioned the renowned ascetic and practitioner of mental prayer, the saintly Fr Ephraim of Katounakia. In a book prepared by his disciples as a memorial to him after his death, he is quoted as follows on the subject of the breath:

So that’s mental prayer (noera proseuche), Geronta [Elder]? And should we use the inhalation and the exhalation when we do it?

No. That [the use of the breath] is the beginning of mental prayer. Mental prayer is an operation (energeia) of Grace, and may God give it to the strugglers in prayer. When the soul is ready, then God advances it to the perfection of mental prayer. Until then we are obliged to struggle with the prayer (euche), having as a sure basis, obedience. The inhalation and exhalation are not required to be joined with the prayer (proseuche). They are secondary elements. Much more, the prayer should not be joined with the beat of the heart. With the place of the heart, yes. With the beat, no.[11]

Hence, while the credentials of St John of Sinai and of St Hesychios are impeccable, the breath is not the essence of mental prayer.

It should be noted that the School of Sinai foresees a more severe reclusion of the Hesychast than is customary today on Mount Athos. The insistence of St Hesychios on the breath can be seen as a response to the special needs of the enclosed hermit, one who is here envisaged to be tempted by a form of lethe (insensibility or accidie).

However, all that having been said, there is a school, even today on Mount Athos, that emphasizes both the joining of the Prayer to the normal breathing and the use of breath retention. We ourselves will not spend any time on giving instructions on these matters, considering Fr Ephraim’s views to be sound: the breath is not the essence of the matter.

Let us remark that the spiritual level of this chapter of OS seems to be about the same as the spiritual level of On the Two Methods of Prayer of St Gregory of Sinai. That is, both men have in mind the same intended reader: the full-blown Hesychast.

While St Hesychios discusses lethe (insensibility or accidie), St Gregory of Sinai discusses the tiring of the mind (nous). St Gregory’s advice to the Hesychast is to have two forms of the formula and to alternate between them over broad stretches of time. This works: the brain being what it is, it is relieved by the change; and our mind (nous) does not work apart from the brain while we are in this flesh. Moreover, St Gregory suggests bringing the mind (nous) out of the heart from time to time so that it follow for a time the church service, preferably read by the disciple if there is one.

St John of Sinai writes:

27, 21 Sitting on a high place, keep watch over yourself, if, indeed, you know how, and then you will see how and when and whence the thieves come in and steal your clusters of grapes. Tiring, the watchman, having stood up, prays; and again having sat down, he clings to his former labour in a manly way.[12]

(Note that governing the stylistic texture of this passage of the Ladder is the image of the watchman who sits on a high platform in the vineyard to keep watch for the thieves who come to steal the grapes. This is the traditional way of protecting the crop in the Mediterranean vineyard. In the case of the Hesychast, of course, the thieves are the demons.)

Here, St John of Sinai counsels the Hesychast who has tired keeping watch—this is the immaterial war, the practical life—to stand up and pray, and then to resume in a manly way the labour of watching. This counsel might be compared to Evagrius Pontikos’ instructions in OTT 17:

If, then, something happens to us on account of the toil and the accidie, running back for a bit to the rock of gnosis, let us hold intercourse with the harp [the nous], striking with the virtues the harp strings of gnosis.

Hesychasm is hard labour. Let no one fool you that it is trivially simple or easy.

We are now halfway through OS. The second half says much the same things as the first half, but is more occupied with the guard of the mind. There are still a few—not many—topics that St Hesychios will introduce for the first time. It seems that St Hesychios is repeating himself incessantly—and perhaps that your commentator is also. However, that seems to be St Hesychios’ style: on the one hand, to approach the same thing continually from different angles so as finally to create a montage that covers the whole; and, on the other hand, gradually to advance the spiritual level of his discourse, so that from addressing the beginning Hesychast in the beginning of his work, he advances now to discuss almost exclusively the guard of the mind—all the while seeming to say the same things. This is the opposite of a systematic presentation. We will endure, like the good watchman in the chapter of St John of Sinai just quoted who stands up and prays a bit, then sits down again to attend to his labour in a manly way—like him, we will endure in commenting, even repetitively, on St Hesychios’ text in the hope that at the end, the reader will understand theoretically and in depth the psychological basis of mental prayer in the heart.

However, the underlying spiritual unity that informs OS should already be evident to the reader: it is a misreading of St Hesychios to think that he merely threw extracts from here and there together with some of his own thoughts into a pastiche without order and without inner structure. However, OS has an inner structure that derives from the experience of Grace, not from rationalistic discussions concerning Grace. It has an inner structure that derives from the experience of a lifetime praying the Prayer of Jesus. May we all attain to such an experience and to such a structure to our own thinking before we pass on to the next life.

The next chapter is St Hesychios’ sole discussion of the Holy Mysteries.

We should clarify the presuppositions of that chapter. In the Orthodox Church, reception of the Holy Mysteries, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not a matter of personal discretion, but of the permission and direction of one’s Confessor. In the present case, St Hesychios assumes that, but says nothing about who the Confessor might be—whether the Abbot or another priest. In fact, St Hesychios is completely silent on the matters both of mysterial (sacramental) confession and of spiritual direction; nowhere in OS does he address these issues. His instructions are for a Hesychast who is alone with God, except here, where he discusses Holy Communion, and in a few other places, for example OS 31, above, where he discusses obedience to the Abbot for those Hesychasts who live in cœnobia. This means that the Hesychast that St Hesychios has in mind is quite a spiritually experienced man—and quite spiritually mature—even if he is a beginner in Hesychasm, and this despite our remarks that St Hesychios envisages that his reader is at a lower level spiritually than the reader presupposed by Evagrius in the works that we discussed in Volume II. Let would-be Hesychasts take note of these presuppositions of the author of OS lest they fall into a snare.

It is clear that, while theologically quite sound, the following presentation of the reception of the Holy Mysteriesis focused quite narrowly on the concerns of the Hesychast. In general, all of OS is very tightly focused on Hesychast concerns: how to maintain sobriety and how to deal with problems that confront the Hesychast in his hesychia.

101 When dreadfully and horribly

These are words which ring a little harshly in our day. They convey the mysterium tremendum, the awe, the certainty that what we are partaking of, the Body and Blood of Christ, are truly the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, the Word of God Incarnate: ‘My Lord and my God!’ (John 20, 28) cried out the Apostle Thomas when he had put his finger into the holes of the nails and his hand into the side of the risen Jesus.

we are found worthy, the unworthy,

Who is worthy of the Body and Blood of our Saviour?

of the divine and immaculate Mysteries

The language used in this chapter to describe the Mysteries, the Body and Blood of our Lord, is quite liturgical.

‘Mysteries’ itself is a term to describe the Body and Blood of Christ that the Fathers of the Church adopted early in the history of Christianity from the pagan rites we now call ‘mystery religions’.

of Christ

These are the Mysteries of Christ.

our God and King,

Out Lord and Saviour.

then let us rather exhibit sobriety

Now above all: before, during and after the reception of Holy Communion.

and keeping of the mind (nous)

The Hesychast has communicated Christ: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.’ (John 6, 56.) After Communion, there is naturally a spiritual awareness within the Hesychast of the presence of Christ, and certainly within the Hesychast who has attained to the guard of the mind. After Communion, it behoves the Hesychast to gaze intelligibly on Christ and to contemplate him, not to scatter his mind.

and exactness,

This has the same meaning as denseness of sobriety or attention. Being united to his Lord, the Hesychast is that much more aware of every movement of his inner and outer man. Hence with the ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’ (OS 7) he must maintain great exactness both in his inner man—here, his contemplation—and in his outer man—here, his actions.

so that the divine fire,

Someone once in our hearing asked the prophetically-endowed Fr Ephraim of Katounakia: ‘Well, what about Communion from the common cup? Some people have Aids.’ He thought about it and replied: ‘It [Holy Communion] is fire.’

that is to say, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, consume our sins

This is sound Orthodox theology. The liturgical texts speak of the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ ‘for the remission of sins and for eternal life’.

and the stains both small and great.

These are the spiritual stains on our soul that occur because of sins—whether small or great. The soul, the person communicating, is renewed and enlivened spiritually.

Curiously, there is nothing here about the Divine Liturgy itself. Nothing is said here about the mystagogical dimension of the Divine Liturgy.

For also, entering into us, it

Holy Communion.

directly drives the wicked spirits of wickedness

Thus the text.

The demons cannot withstand the presence of Christ in the soul of the communicant. As we remarked earlier, this must be understood not as the actual presence of demons in the soul of the communicant, except in the relatively rare cases of demonic possession, but as the presence in the heart of the Hesychast of demonically sown mental representations: St Hesychios is saying that the Divine Mysteries expel the impassioned mental representations from the heart of the communicating Hesychast. See, in addition, in the commentary on OS 28, the discussion of the doctrine of GC. In the present case, the reception of Holy Communion would be construed by St Hesychios to have the same effect on the demons—forcing them further away from the ascetic—as the increased conscious presence of Grace in the ascetic due to spiritual progress that is discussed there.

out of the heart and it forgives the sins which previously have occurred in us

Serious sins must be confessed before Communion to the priest, who in the Greek Typikon must also have been raised to the rank of Confessor by the laying on of hands of a bishop. The Russian Typikon does not make such a distinction between the simple priest and the priest-confessor. The Confessor must absolve the Hesychast and direct him when to receive Communion. The reception of Communion, when it occurs, completes the reception of every other Mystery (sacrament); hence the above statement of St Hesychios that Holy Communion ‘forgives the sins which previously have occurred in us’, although he could also be referring to minor sins that need not be confessed before Communion. This is our understanding today in the Greek Typikon, although there are also found more severe practices within the Greek Church. In the Russian Typikon, the person who wishes to communicate must necessarily go to confession first. That St Hesychios is silent on mysterial (sacramental) confession can be ascribed to one or both of the following: first, he might have been writing in an age when the practice of mysterial (sacramental) confession was not so highly developed and closely bound to the reception of Holy Communion as it is today—this would be an argument for an early dating of OS—;[13] second, speaking to mature monks, he might be taking the practices that we are discussing here to be well-known and undeserving of comment—he would here be speaking narrowly of what Holy Communion meant to the Hesychast, not to the Christian in general.

and at that time it leaves the mind (nous) without the disturbance of wicked thoughts (logismoi).

Not always. Our acquaintance who is troubled by imaginations sown by demons in his sleep[14] says that sometimes the demons go at it more strongly when he is resting after a Divine Liturgy at which he has communicated. What St Hesychios says is true, but there occur differences by divine permission and according to the actual spiritual condition of the person involved. One cannot be anxious that perhaps he might have been inadequately prepared if the demons bother him after Communion. If in fact he was prepared, then the disturbances must be treated as a divinely permitted peirasmos or trial.

And, if indeed we keep our mind (nous)

This is the guard of the mind.

Free will enters in. Hesychasm is a way which requires firm inner discipline and strength of character.

after this

After having communicated the Body and Blood of our Lord.

with exactness

This is the ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’ (OS 7) directed to the maintenance of the guard of the mind in the heart. St Hesychios wants the Hesychast to make a special effort after having received Communion.

and stand in the gate of our heart [cf. Ps. 126, 5],

To rebut the demon, with the temper operating according to nature, at the inception of the impassioned mental representation or recollection of an object of sense.

It is interesting to note and reflect on the fact that according to the schema of St John of Sinai of the three stages of the Hesychast in the confrontation of the demonic thought that we quoted and discussed in the commentary just before OS 87, above, St Hesychios concentrates exclusively on the intermediate way of confronting demonic thoughts with rebuttal, although he always couples rebuttal to the continual, humble invocation. St Hesychios ignores the beginner’s way of humble invocation—here taken to be humble ejaculatory prayer without rebuttal—and the advanced ascetic’s way of silent disdain for the demons. This may be St Hesychios’ personal judgement that this is the only way that an ascetic should confront demonic thoughts, but, as we have discussed in the commentary just before OS 54, in his formulation he has been influenced by On Holy Baptism by St Mark the Ascetic. We will find that in the last parts of OS—for example, in OS 186, below—St Hesychios will refer to the third stage that St John of Sinai lists. The reader will find it valuable to situate St Hesychios within the framework of St John’s schema.

when again we are deemed worthy of the Divine Mysteries, the Divine Body yet more and more brightens our mind (nous)

St Hesychios is clearly speaking to Hesychasts about Hesychast concerns. This remark would fall on deaf ears in a layman.

and makes it into the form of a star.

Radiant. St Hesychios also uses this image in a later chapter that refers to the transformation of the mind by the Divine Light which shines in the heart of the Hesychast on account of the purity of heart that the Hesychast has acquired in attaining and maintaining the guard of the mind.[15]

This image is very similar to that used by Evagrius in the last sentence of OTT 43: ‘Then dispassion of heart will rise upon you and you will in prayer see the mind (nous) in the form of a star.’ The context is different but the image again suggests that St Hesychios had read OTT.

St Hesychios now returns to lethe (insensibility or accidie), and its treatment. The treatment proffered by St Hesychios is one of those recommended by St John of Sinai in the Ladder for accidie, which goes to reinforce the notion that lethe is close to, if not quite the same as, accidie.

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[1] Cassian I.

[2] Historical details can to a certain extent be found in Fennell pp. 201–4.

[3] E.g. Ladder G Step 4, 57; = Ladder E Step 4, 64.

[4] See Volume I of Philokalia D, E, F, and G.

[5] For our own views on the authorship of the 153 Chapters, see the commentary on OTT 22 in Volume II.

[6] See Volume II.

[7] Sinkewicz p. 329–30 (Greek); = Migne 79, col. 1132A–D; our translation.

[8] See Volume I, Chapter V, where we discuss GC 78, 4 and 89.

[9] Ladder G Step 27B, 26; = Ladder E Step 27, 61.

[10] See the commentary on OS 5 for a translation of GC 61.

[11] Ephraim G, p. 114; our translation.

[12] Ladder G Step 27, 21; = Ladder E Step 27, 22–3.

[13] However, it is clear that St Hesychios is subsequent to St John of Sinai, and St John certainly has a doctrine that sins must be confessed in order to be forgiven. See Ladder G Step 4, 15; = Ladder E Step 4, 12.

[14] See Volume II, commentary on OTT 27–9.

[15] See OS 197, below.


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