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OS (Commentary) -- 2

4 He who is born blind does not see the light of the sun.

St Hesychios is not a philosopher but a poet. He is introducing and reintroducing concepts, each time proceeding more deeply into the concept’s essence. He is also proceeding thematically from the most elementary stages of spiritual sobriety to the most advanced stages, and each time he passes to a new spiritual stage he repeats himself, pitching, however, the content of his discourse to the higher spiritual state he wishes to address. Here it is a matter of light, something that will play a very important role in the Hesychian method.

In the same way, he who does not travel in sobriety does not see richly the rays of the grace from above;

These rays of grace will later be described by St Hesychios as light.

neither will he be freed from works (erga) and words and conceptions (ennoies)

‘Conception’ is our translation of ennoia, that which one has in one’s mind. ‘Mental representation’ is noema, the thought which one has thought or thinks. The two concepts are related. We think ennoia—‘conception’—is a broader concept which refers to something like one’s mental attitude: it is an idea.

The three words—‘works … words … conceptions’—, with the substitution here of ‘conceptions’ for ‘mental representations’, are a repetition of the first part of OS 1, above. They are what St Hesychios uses to describe in a broad way the passions, but including vicious[1] or evil or impassioned acts. Here, sobriety is being treated as a synonym for praktike, the practical life.

It is curious that St Hesychios includes sin in act. It is as if he is pitching his treatise a little lower than Evagrius pitched TPL, as if he is addressing men who might still be prone to committing sin in act and who need an introduction to praktike that will take them from sin in act through conversion all the way up to mystical union with God. We mentioned previously that it seemed paradoxical that although with respect to solitude St Hesychios envisages a more severe eremiticism than Evagrius, he himself emphasizes the custody of the senses more than Evagrius. Here we see the reason: St Hesychios is pitching his treatise a little lower spiritually than Evagrius did and addressing more impassioned men than Evagrius. In fact, St Hesychios has elements, including diction, from Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios),[2] which is a work of Evagrius pitched a little lower spiritually than TPL. Of course, we will later see that in the higher stages of sobriety, the custody of the senses is necessary for the sake of contemplation, as we discussed in Volume II in the Digression, but that does not seem to be the level at which St Hesychios means the custody of the senses in this part of OS.

which are wicked and hated by God;

This clearly puts the preceding into the context of Evagrius’ second renunciation, ‘the putting aside of vice which comes to one by the grace of our Saviour Christ and by the pains of the man’ (OTT 26). This is the renunciation that pertains to praktike.

and in their departure such men will not pass by the Tartarean rulers in a free manner.

This is based on the traditional Orthodox belief—never codified—that the souls of those who die make an ascent to Heaven, passing through various ‘custom-houses (teloneia)’ of the Devil. When there is sin in act—serious enough to lead a man to hell—then the demons at the custom-houses have ‘rights (dikaiomata)’ over the soul, and the more serious the sin, the greater the rights. That there are various custom-houses depends on the fact that there are various types of sin: each custom-house handles a certain kind of sin.

However, St Hesychios also seems to be suggesting something else. To the extent that we are impassioned, even though we might not have sinned seriously in act, then, even if we be monks with a proper external comportment, the passions are going to act a bit like magnets to attract us to the demons which correspond to our passion at the custom-house that corresponds to our passion. We will be delayed, attracted; hence the expression ‘not … in a free manner’.

This passage is a quotation from GC. The actual passage of St Diadochos reads:

For he who is then found in fear will not pass by the Tartarean rulers in a free manner.[3]

St Hesychios has changed the number of the subject and verb from the singular to the plural; he has changed ‘then’ to ‘in the departure’ (we added ‘their’ for the sake of style); he has deleted ‘found in fear’, as being unnecessary because of his context; he has somewhat simplified St Diadochos’ word order, which is difficult. A comparison of the two passages in the original Greek makes it quite clear that St Hesychios is quoting St Diadochos: he is using exactly the same words and exactly the same syntax.

Chapter 100 of GC[4] is a discussion by St Diadochos of the problem for the gnostic of having a clear conscience at the hour of his death; St Diadochos is particularly concerned about the ill-defined fear that the gnostic might have due to an inadequate confession in prayer to God of his previous involuntary sins. This is the fear to which he is referring in the passage being quoted. St Hesychios has adapted the passage to a discussion of the benefits to his reader of sobriety, including the benefits to his reader at the hour of his reader’s death.

The use here by St Hesychios of this passage of St Diadochos on how to die well gives us a clue to precisely what St Hesychios understands by ‘sobriety’: it is a method of ascesis.

We will see later that OS 141, below, is a quotation, in the nature of a brief summary, of the first half of GC 62.

That St Hesychios quotes St Diadochos is important. Although we ourselves are not aware of any other direct borrowings from St Diadochos in OS, the existence in OS of these two quotations from GC raises the question of St Hesychios’ doctrinal dependence on St Diadochos. What we can say is that some of St Hesychios’ terms are clarified by reference to GC and that there is moreover a very deep spiritual unity between the content of OS and the content of GC. Much of St Hesychios’ higher spiritual content—for example, the guard of mind and the repetition of the Prayer of Jesus in the heart with attention directed within the heart and not externally towards objects of sense, matters that we will discuss throughout this commentary on OS—can already be found in GC in what seems to us to be a spiritually complete form: St Diadochos already had and described the same inner experience that St Hesychios is discussing in OS. However, the verbal formulation of the stages of inner ascesis is more highly articulated in St Hesychios, even though St Hesychios’ language and presentation are much simpler than those of St Diadochos. That is, by the time we reach St Hesychios, there has been a great elaboration in the literature concerning the method of ascesis: much thought has gone into discussing and understanding the method of spiritual ascesis since St Diadochos. This is reasonable, since the date of composition of GC can be conveniently taken to be c.450, whereas we ourselves date the composition of OS to c.750. However, the method itself, and its results, seem to be essentially the same in St Hesychios and in St Diadochos.

This matter is somewhat complicated by the fact that there appears to be a doctrinal relation between GC and the works of St Mark the Ascetic—very poorly understood since next to nothing is known about either of these two saints, although St Diadochos (c.400–a.486) appears to be somewhat later than St Mark (2nd half of 4th C.–p.431)—and St Hesychios quotes both St Diadochos and St Mark. Moreover, St John of Sinai and St Maximos the Confessor, to both of whom St Hesychios is directly indebted doctrinally, also have a direct doctrinal dependence on both St Diadochos and St Mark the Ascetic.

What is involved here is the notion of the ‘School of Sinai’ to which St John of Sinai and St Hesychios are both considered to belong. St Diadochos was Bishop of Photike, which was the second city of ancient Epirus in mainland Greece, between present day Ioannina and Preveza[5] in the valleys of the Pindus Mountains. Whatever one might say about ancient Photike, and it is known that there were monks there in relatively ancient times, it was a somewhat isolated part of Greece far removed from Sinai.

GC shows influences—not as extensive as those that St John Cassian and St John of Sinai show in their works—of the works of Evagrius Pontikos. GC also refers explicitly to the Prayer of Jesus; it is in fact the earliest known work to record the use of the Prayer of Jesus, although St John Cassian’s Conferences,[6] written c.425, already refers to the repetition of a passage from the psalms in the same way that we today understand the repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

The style of GC is very polished and not at all provincial.

All of this leads to a very big question: where did St Diadochos get his monastic formation? No one knows. It is tempting to speculate that he spent his formative years of monasticism in Egypt or in another similar centre. We ourselves think that St Diadochos is not so much the source or the first member of the School of Sinai as a witness to the tradition of ascesis from which the ‘School of Sinai’ evolved.

That this is so can be gleaned from the merest perusal of the homilies of Abba Isaiah.[7] These homilies are considered to reflect the spirituality of the Fathers of Egypt, and according to the introductory note to the English translation of the extracts contained in the Philokalia, their author is now supposed to have died in either 489 or 491, having lived both in Skete in Egypt and in Palestine.[8] The Philokalia contains only a few extracts from these homilies, and they have only just recently been published in English. The complete homilies show a great commonality with GC as concerns the basics of the method of inner ascesis, the guard of the mind. This remark is somewhat complicated by the fact that the homilies of Abba Isaiah in Isaiah are clearly somewhat corrupted by later interpolations and even by compositions of an obviously late date; however, even with the reservations that the state of the text introduces we still think that this commonality exists. If the dates given for Abba Isaiah are to be taken as correct, then he was a strict contemporary of St Diadochos and the one cannot be considered to be literarily dependent on the other. Hence, the commonality between the two authors must be taken, we think, as an indication that St Diadochos also reflects the spirituality of the Fathers of Egypt, account being taken of his great personal literary culture and spiritual attainment.

For we think that the School of Sinai derives from the monasticism of Egypt. St Diadochos’ role, then, in the formation of the School of Sinai would not so much be as the literary source of the School of Sinai, as an excellent literary witness to the form of monasticism which flowered in St John of Sinai and in St Hesychios.

In other words, we do not think that either St John of Sinai or St Hesychios learned the Prayer of Jesus from reading St Diadochos. We think that having learned the Prayer of Jesus from their spiritual teachers they found it very useful to read GC and to reflect on that work.

We also think that St John of Sinai and St Hesychios, and their spiritual teachers, were influenced by St Diadochos’ own views on certain matters. For example, although St Diadochos uses the Evagrian term, dispassion (apatheia), the meaning he gives to the term is not the same as the meaning that Evagrius Pontikos gives to it: for St Diadochos, dispassion is the consummation of the spiritual journey, not merely, as for Evagrius, the purification of the passionate part of the soul, the stage prior to the entry into natural contemplation or gnosis. But this sense of dispassion as the consummation of the spiritual journey is precisely the meaning of the term as it is found in St John of Sinai.

Given the very complex interrelations among the authors being discussed, it would be futile to try to discern in OS direct borrowings from St Diadochos, apart from the two direct quotations already mentioned. However, as we go on, we will find it useful to remark on aspects of GC which illuminate various passages or terms of St Hesychios.

The next chapter, which continues OS 3, is very important.

5 Attention is unceasing stillness (hesychia) of the heart from every thought (logismos), Christ Jesus, the Son of God and God, ever and everlastingly and unceasingly him alone breathing and invoking;

This is an astonishing piece of work, this chapter. For it is the verbal manifestation of the Prayer of Jesus. The Prayer of Jesus wrote this chapter. That is why it is important to translate St Hesychios literally: he breathes the Prayer; the Prayer writes; he listens. Even the syntactical non sequiturs in St Hesychios are the work of the Holy Spirit.

Let us suppose that we are hermits. We have received Communion; we have confessed; we are well with Christ God. Attention is the focus of the mind on a place. Here, we bring the mind down into the heart and we are still from every thought. We focus on Jesus not in visual imagery, but in repeating the Prayer of Jesus. ‘Breathing and invoking’ here has this sense. There is nothing here about breath retention; the breath flows easily and normally, and the invocation is attached to the breathing.

‘Still from every thought’: There are times when the Prayer is easy, and the mind easily attends in the heart to the words. In everyday terms, we are not distracted by worldly affairs and the hustle and bustle that today even a monk encounters. Moreover, we do not give heed to ‘the one-worded appearance in the heart of some wicked object hated by God’. This of course is the impassioned mental representation. We are practising the immaterial war that Evagrius took such care to describe, with the heart the battleground: the mind is in the region of the heart. This is possible; it is not a myth. Here, stillness conveys the idea that, today, the battle is easy.

Let us here introduce some material from GC. We are quoting GC 61:

61 When the soul (psuche) is disturbed by wrath or is clouded by drunkenness or is troubled by severe melancholy, the mind (nous) cannot become master, even if one should force it in some way, of the memory of the Lord Jesus. For darkened completely by the harshness of the passions, it becomes completely alien to its familiar perception (aisthesis). For this reason, the desire does not have any place to imprint its own seal so that the mind (nous) might bear the incessant form (eidos) of the meditation (melete), the memory of the intellect (dianoia) becoming hard from the savageness of the passions. If however, the mind (nous) should be free of these things, then even if that which is sought should be stolen for a brief time by forgetfulness (lethe), then the mind (nous), again making use of its native quick movement, warmly lays hold on that greatly desired and salvific quarry. For then the soul (psuche) has Grace both meditating with it and crying out together with it the ‘Lord Jesus’, just as a mother might teach and meditate together with her own infant the name ‘father’, until such a time as she lead the infant into the habit of calling distinctly on the father even if the infant should be asleep, in place of any other kind of infantile speech whatsoever. For this reason, the Apostle says: ‘In like manner, then, the Spirit also comes to the assistance of our infirmity, for we do not know for what we will pray, as it ought, but the Spirit Itself intercedes on our behalf with unspeakable sighs.’ [Rom. 8, 26.] For since we are infants with regard to the perfection of the virtue of prayer, we at all times require the Spirit’s help, so that, all our thoughts (logismoi) having being kept from dispersion and having been completely sweetened by the Spirit’s inexpressible sweetness, we are set in motion with our complete disposition towards the memory and love of our God and Father. Whence, when we have been trained by the Spirit to call unceasingly on God the Father, then, as again the divine Paul himself says, we cry in the Spirit, ‘Abba, Father!’. [Rom. 8, 15.]

Given that we know that St Hesychios had read St Diadochos, this passage is very important for an interpretation of St Hesychios’ own references to the Prayer of Jesus throughout OS.

First, let us note that St Diadochos refers to the ‘memory of the Lord Jesus’. We will see this expression later in OS. Clearly, this expression is connected to the use of the Prayer of Jesus and should not be divorced from the context of the Prayer of Jesus.

Next, St Diadochos uses the term ‘perception (aisthesis)’. This refers to the faculty of spiritual perception in St Diadochos’ system; St Hesychios also uses the term and we will discuss it in the commentary on OS 120. We have already discussed spiritual perception in Volumes I and II.[9]

Next, St Diadochos uses a very difficult expression concerning the imprinting of the seal ‘so that the mind (nous) might bear the incessant form (eidos) of the meditation (melete)’. This is clearly an expression which arises out of St Diadochos’ own experience of the Prayer of Jesus and refers to what we will discuss later: the imprinting of the mind (nous) by spiritual mental representations by means of the repetition of the Prayer.

Next, St Diadochos refers to the Prayer as the ‘Lord Jesus’. As we will remark later in the commentary concerning St Hesychios’ own references to the Prayer of Jesus, we think that ‘Lord Jesus’ is not the full text of the Prayer as St Diadochos taught it or is teaching it, but a sort of ecclesiastical shorthand whereby the first word or two of a liturgical text provides a name for the text. That is, we should understand that ‘Lord Jesus’ is the name of the formula, not the formula itself. That this is so can be seen from the fact that in St Diadochos’ text, the phrase ‘Lord Jesus’ is in the vocative case, the case of invocation: it would not make sense for a single isolated phrase such as ‘Lord Jesus’, intended to be repeated incessantly, to be in the vocative case—unless, of course, invocation were to be understood in the way that St Diadochos gives us to understand the infant’s repetition of the single word ‘father’, that the infant is being taught to call upon his father without for all that saying anything more than ‘father’. But it would be odd, even though possible grammatically, for a formula of invocation to consist simply of two words in the vocative case: this seems unnatural, especially since the formula is clearly intended to be repeated twenty-four hours a day and to produce a state of peace. Moreover, since St Diadochos later, in GC 85, refers explicitly to unceasing invocation, it is most likely that the formula contained a verb of invocation. All the formulas we are aware of, with the exception of the ‘Prayer of Ioannikios’, contain a verb of invocation.[10]

Finally, the image of the mother who teaches her infant to repeat the word ‘father’ until such a time as the infant repeats it incessantly even in its sleep—the mother is the Holy Spirit who teaches us how to pray—is a clear indication that even in 450, the approximate date of composition of GC, the Prayer of Jesus was understood to be the incessant repetition of a formula which led to its automatic repetition even in sleep, something that is to be experienced on Mount Athos even on this very day. Moreover, this repetition of a formula cannot be considered to be ejaculatory prayer, here taken to be the continuous repetition of short phrases, not of a fixed nature, from the heart as the ascetic feels moved. For only with the repetition of a fixed formula is it possible to attain to an automatic repetition which continues even in sleep. Other passages in GC refer to attention and to the guard of the mind, and it is clear, even if very tersely expressed, that St Diadochos understands the repetition of the formula to occur with the attention in the heart. This is what we meant when we said that St Hesychios’ system is present already in GC, but not in so highly articulated a form.

It is worthwhile to remark that St John Cassian has a doctrine of repetitive prayer which is very similar in tone and diction both to St Hesychios and to St Diadochos.[11]

Let us return to St Hesychios.

in a manly way drawn up with him

St Hesychios is very Christ-centred.

in battle order against the enemies;

This is what we have just said: the battle is the immaterial war against the thoughts (logismoi).

St Hesychios has joined the Evagrian immaterial war to the Prayer of Jesus, and that prayed in the heart. That is what his treatise—and this book—is about.

and to him alone confessing,

This is the confession that one prays. St Hesychios is silent on mysterial (sacramental) confession and absolution. Perhaps in his day the practice was not so highly developed as now.

who alone has the authority to forgive sins;

The next passage is critical:

enwrapped continually, secretly, in Christ, him who alone knows the hearts, by means of invocation;

‘Enwrapped continually, secretly, in Christ’: How better to express the Prayer—or, better, for the Prayer to exteriorize its own hypostasis in Christ Jesus our Lord! The Prayer continuously prayed in the heart is continually enwrapping the mind in Christ, who alone knows our hearts.

‘Continually, secretly … by means of invocation’: This is the Prayer: ‘continually’ connotes the continual invocation, and ‘invocation’ the use of a petitionary formula. We need not discuss which formula. That is not essential to the Prayer. What is essential is what is conveyed by this passage: the continual enwrapping of our mind in our Lord through the continual petitionary supplication: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ This is the full form; there are others.

the soul attempting in every way to escape the notice of men, its sweetness and the struggle within,

There are two things: the sweetness and the struggle. Note that a criterion of the presence of Grace in the use of the Prayer is the urge to escape the notice of men.

lest the wicked one unseen prosper vice and destroy a most beautiful labour.

‘Labour’ could well be translated ‘activity’ here. ‘Labour’ is correct; ‘activity’ is merely our way to explain the sense in which ‘labour’ is to be taken.

The Prayer is a secret. It is hidden. It manifests itself extremely rarely.

The next chapter is very important. Having introduced the basic ideas and now having introduced the notion of prayer in the heart with the attention free of thoughts—and in the heart not metaphorically but actually!—St Hesychios can introduce in the chapter following a clear explanation of the immaterial war fought in the heart.

It is important to understand St Hesychios here. He is not speaking about ‘advanced’ methods of prayer; he is saying: bringing your mind into your heart—really, actually—and keeping it there, commence now the immaterial war. The mind is brought into the heart by use of the Prayer connected to the normal breathing, or by Grace; we need not digress at the moment into the Hesychast technique of St Gregory of Sinai (1255–1346) for the use of breath retention when Grace is not helping the mind to come naturally into the heart.[12] Here, let us be content with normal breathing, praying the Prayer in quiet and repose.

So the mind is in the heart. It is kept there by the repetition of the Prayer in harmony with the breathing. Now we can begin.

It is well to understand that having made an introductory summary of his system, St Hesychios is now turning to explain his system from the beginning: praktike, the practical life, the immaterial war. We are now going to see how St Hesychios wants us to fight the immaterial war of the thoughts that Evagrius defined in the works that we discussed in Volume II.

6 Sobriety is the steadfast fixing of thought (logismos)

For ‘thought’, read ‘attention, consciousness, the mind’. See OS 145, below.

and its stationing in the gate of the heart [cf. Ps. 126, 5].

There is a certain stationing of the attention—St Hesychios will use many images—in the gate of the heart. The gate is where people enter in, and where David, the Psalmist, conversed with his enemies—in the gate of Jerusalem. This is the sense. We do not think that the gate refers to an actual objective psychic structure, but to the fact that the mind positioned in the heart encounters the impassioned mental representations as soon as they begin, just as a man would encounter his enemies in the gate of the city.

Compare the Ladder of Divine Ascent: not only is the image scriptural, being taken from the psalm noted, but there is here a parallel between St John of Sinai and St Hesychios: the Ladder contains the very same image of the positioning of the mind at the gate of the heart.[13]

This thought (logismos) sees and hears

Spiritually, in the field of consciousness, the intellect. There is nothing here of hearing voices.

the thoughts (logismoi)

Strictly speaking, St Hesychios means the demons. Evagrius explained this to us in TPL, especially in TPL 39: the demon approaches, exciting the passion, and the ascetic experiences this excitation of the passion as the inception of an impassioned recollection of an object of sense, the inception of an impassioned thought (logismos), in his field of consciousness, here centred in the heart.

which are coming, thieves,

St Hesychios has bitter words for the demons and the impassioned mental representations sown by them.

what they are saying and what they are doing, the murderers;

This is not a fantasy that we visualize in a dream-like state of the approach of murderers with knives and clubs. St Hesychios is speaking figuratively. In accordance with the analysis of Evagrius, the key is the mental representation.

‘Murderers’: Evagrius uses the same term for the ‘thoughts (logismoi)’ in Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios).[14]

and what is the form

This is the mental representation sown by the demon when it excites, by means of its ‘bad odour’,[15] the passion to which it corresponds or pertains. Recall Evagrius’ analyses throughout TPL and OTT.

carved and erected by the demons

St Hesychios is using the metaphor of an idol or statue carved by the demons, but the best way to treat his language is as a poetic description of the process described more analytically in the works of Evagrius that we discussed in Volume II.

and endeavouring through itself

That is, the carved image which is an impassioned mental representation. Evagrius would say: the impassioned recollection of an object of sense.

to deceive the mind (nous) by means of imagination.

‘Imagination’ has the sense ‘mental representation’. St Hesychios prefers the term ‘imagination (phantasia)’ to the Evagrian term ‘mental representation (noema)’, although he sometimes uses ‘mental representation (noema)’. Recall our discussion of the expression ‘without images (aphantastos)’, under OS 3, above: to be ‘without images’ is to be ‘without imaginations’ in the sense of ‘imagination’ that St Hesychios is using here.

Evagrius did not emphasize the imagination in our present-day sense of dream-like fantasies. He spoke in OTT 25 of the demonic thought (logismos) as:

an image of the sensible man composed in the intellect, imperfect, with which [image] the mind, being set in motion passionately, says or does something lawlessly in secret towards the image which is formed by the mind in succession [to the first].[16]

This is surely what St Hesychios intends.

For these things

That is, the immaterial war.

worked on diligently

This must be emphasized. At the level we are discussing, the Prayer of Jesus is a lifelong (and even after that, St Hesychios will say) occupation, twenty-four hours a day.

show us very scientifically,

The sense here is ‘gnostically’, in the Evagrian sense of a comprehension or knowledge supernaturally given by Grace.

if we wish,

St Hesychios emphasizes the voluntary nature of this activity: ‘if we wish’.

the enterprise of the intelligible war.

Or, ‘the conduct of the immaterial war’. We here see precisely what is important: the Prayer of Jesus prayed calmly in the heart and an attention in the heart which sees and repels every demonic attack, and in the way we have been describing: the logismos begins as a ‘one-worded’ assault, as the impassioned mental representation of an object of sense.

The battle is much easier to fight in the heart. When the mind is in the heart, the deeper parts of a man’s personality are in conscious operation; the inception of the demonic thought is recognized with much greater clarity; the man can see that much more clearly the inception of the thought in the impassioned recollection of the object of sense, the impassioned mental representation. The man can observe, if he wishes, the formation of the thought; he can grasp the significance of the eightfold Evagrian analysis of the eight most general thoughts; he can identify which thought is troubling his soul; he can learn to repel it with a ‘punch to the head of the demon’. This, as we said, is a lifelong endeavour. It is the road of the Hesychast.

7 The double fear

Galites, the modern Greek translator,[17] refers this to the abandonments and trials that St Hesychios is about to address. The French translators[18] refer it to the fear of hell and the fear allied to charity that St Maximos the Confessor addresses in the Centuries on Charity, Chapter I, 81.[19] The English translators[20] refer it to the fear of hell and the fear of God. We do not know.

knows how to give birth to it,

Let us start with TPL 81:

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. Faith is an indwelling good which very thing exists by nature even in those who have not yet believed in God.

In the preceding chapter, St Hesychios was referring to sobriety, but as praktike. Hence, the ‘it’ in his text just above refers to sobriety, but taken as praktike. Judging from Evagrius’ quotation above, St Hesychios has this in mind: correct faith gives birth to the fear of God; the fear of God is the guard of the commandments; the guard of the commandments constitutes praktike or sobriety.

Turning specifically to the fear of God, let us see what St Maximos says in Chapter I, 81 of the Centuries on Charity:

I, 81 The fear of God is double: the first, which is given birth in us out of the threats of hell, on account of which [fear] continence and the hope which is in God and dispassion, then charity, in order come to be born within us. The second fear is yoked together with the charity, ever producing reverence in the soul, so that it [i.e. the soul] not come, on account of the familiarity of love, into contempt for God.

It can be seen that the first sentence of this passage of St Maximos is quite close to TPL 81.

and the abandonments by God

We discussed these abandonments in Volume II in our commentary on OTT 10. Evagrius there discusses something quite apposite to the present chapter:

The hatred which is against the demons contributes for us greatly to salvation and is useful to the working of virtue. And we do not have the strength to nourish this hatred in ourselves even as some good offspring, since the spirits, which are lovers of pleasure, corrupt this hatred and call the soul out again to friendship and habitual intercourse. But the Doctor of Souls cures through abandonment this very friendship—or, rather, gangrene which is difficult to cure. He permits us to suffer something fearsome from them day and night, and the soul again runs back to the archetypal hatred…

and the pedagogical occurrences of the temptations.

‘Abandonments’ refers to the devastating subjective sense of the absence of Grace, although there is also an objective aspect to abandonment by God. ‘The pedagogical occurrences of the temptations’ are more objective. They are temptations permitted by God, without necessarily a sense of abandonment, both those from the demons by direct attack—Evagrius was clear on this—and those through other men or difficult circumstances, even wars and bombings, plagues and natural—or, today, unnatural—catastrophes.

What is St Hesychios saying?

Recall that the subject is sobriety, praktike, practised in the heart: the thought, or attention, standing in the gate of the heart and rebutting the enemies, the demonically sown impassioned mental representations.

The double fear that St Hesychios is addressing as something that can give birth to this practice of praktike is a charism of the Holy Spirit. Because it is a charism, it creates the atmosphere in the soul, and in the intellect, conducive to the fear of hell—and in the more spiritually mature to the reverence for God our Father who sent his Son for our salvation—which naturally leads the thought or attention to stand in the gate of the heart and discourse with—rebut or refute—its enemies.

This is not psychological. It is not a matter of resolutions taken, decisions taken, names invoked and the practice begun, although at the very beginning stage, the would-be Hesychast might see things that way. As Evagrius has said, and St Maximos has paraphrased, the fear of God which gives birth to the keeping of the commandments, praktike, is the child of correct faith. But this means that it is a spiritual operation of the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit by Baptism; it is our Faith. By the Holy Spirit we confess that Jesus is Lord. By the grace of the Holy Spirit we accept the commandments of Jesus Christ. Out of the fear of hell we endeavour to put them into practice. In the particular case of the method being discussed, this putting into practice of the commandments is a matter of having the thought or attention stand in the gate of the heart and refute the enemies, the impassioned mental representations: this is the immaterial war, praktike, of Evagrius. Later, as we mature spiritually, the Holy Spirit is our Love, and our fear of hell turns to reverence. We cry out ‘Abba, Father!’ by the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 4, 6). However, the practice continues: we continue to stand in the gate of the heart and to refute the enemies.

This fear of hell, this reverence for God our Father, naturally helps us to focus our attention in the heart. The Holy Spirit is One and its charisms work in harmony. Hesychian sobriety is a charism; that is why we commented that in its highest form it is the conscious presence of Grace. Moreover, when we grasp that the method that St Hesychios is advocating is a means of avoiding hell or of living in reverence for God our Father, then we are naturally led to practise the method.

We have seen from Evagrius in TPL 81 where we are; we have seen from St Maximos in Chapter I, 81 of the Centuries on Charity what the two fears are; we now understand how the double fear can give birth to the practice of sobriety.

We have also seen from St Hesychios that when we have been negligent in the practice of the method, or even before we have begun, the abandonments and pedagogical occurrences of the temptations might scare us and make us run back to God and to the practice of rebuttal of the demonically inspired thoughts (logismoi), or perhaps even to take the method up for the first time.

St Hesychios now continues. Despite the syntactical deficiencies of the next sentence, he is in fact ‘portraying’—manifesting the essence or gnosis of—this practice of attention in the gate of the heart.

[It is] superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of the man who is attempting to dam the source of evil thoughts (logismoi) and works (erga). For the sake of it also [occur] the abandonments and the unexpected temptations from God towards our correction of our way of life—and certainly in those who taste the repose of this good and who are negligent.

At the level at which St Hesychios is here discussing the immaterial war, it is experienced as a ‘superintending continuity of attention’. An awareness. A carefulness, an attention ‘in the ruling part of man’. The ruling part of man is the rational faculty, the mind or nous. The nous is all eyes and watches. This watching is superintending in nature: it is paying attention lest some evil befall. The reader may recall that in Volume II in our discussion of TPL 47, where Evagrius speaks of how the demons watch our words and gestures for signs of the passions in our soul and for signs whether we are rejecting their thoughts or not, we commented that this does not necessarily produce a ‘the demons are watching me’ attitude in the ascetic. But what, then, is the ascetic’s proper attitude? It is precisely this ‘superintending continuity of attention’. It should now be clear what sobriety is: it is a charism which allows us to focus on our salvation with a ‘superintending continuity of attention’, at precisely the level of the immaterial war against the thoughts, and more particularly, at the level that the immaterial war is fought in the gate of the heart.

‘Attempting to dam the source of evil thoughts’: This is the immaterial war. It should not be construed to be an attempt, in the psychoanalytical sense, to repress bad thoughts. As Evagrius remarks in TPL 6:

Whether all these thoughts trouble the soul or do not trouble the soul is among those things which are not within our power; for these to persist or not to persist, or to set passions in motion or not to set in motion, is among those things which are within our power.

The ‘superintending continuity of attention’ grasps (in the psychological sense of ‘perceives’) the inception of the wicked thought and—Lo!—rejects it. This is sobriety. Note the word ‘continuity’. One must practise this method twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It is not enough one day to be careful; the next day to fool around. Seriousness is required. Why?

Continuity begets habit;

This is the key. This ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’ becomes a habit.

habit, then, begets a certain natural density of sobriety;

If you acquire the habit of sobriety, the repetition of the Prayer of Jesus and the ‘superintending continuity of attention’ which seeks to rebut the evil thought at its inception in the gate of the heart, then even without extraordinary grace—that is the meaning of ‘a certain natural’: in the normal course of affairs, according to the very psychological nature of man—you will acquire a density of sobriety. ‘Density’ is a word well chosen by St Hesychios. Your attention becomes thicker, heavier, stronger. You have exercised your spiritual muscles and you can lift spiritual weights—you are more alert and more precise in your attention, stronger in your rebuttal.

So, if in fact we practise the ‘superintending continuity of attention’, we will come to be in the habit of it. The alternative? ‘The abandonments and the unexpected temptations from God towards our correction of our way of life—and certainly in those who taste the repose of this good and who are negligent’. It is a fact of the spiritual life that God often gives charisms knowing that they will be abused, neglected, treated contemptuously or treated with a heedless disrespect. He is just. He has given the charism; he waits to see what we will do with it. When we are negligent—perhaps inflated with childish pride at having received the gift—God sends the abandonments and unexpected temptations so that we come to our senses. Needless to say, a man who treats the charism of attention negligently will make no progress even if he has an exalted idea of his own spiritual measure.

this sobriety meanwhile begets a contemplation of the war gentle in quality;

What St Hesychios means is that we enter a supernatural God-given state of grace, here the supernatural gnosis of the war: we see with eyes illumined by the grace of God how the war is conducted. This state is gentle in quality. This befits a grace given by our Lord. The demons are—well, demons!—and the battle can be rough. But the grace ‘falls as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath’. This gentleness calms the Hesychast. It makes his face serene, although the war may be severe. This is the sense of the ‘contemplation of the war gentle in quality’: it is the serene and gentle spiritual condition that the Hesychast enters into while the war is still being fought.

to which thing succeeds in turn the abiding prayer (euche) of Jesus and an imageless delightful tranquillity of mind (nous)

The ‘abiding prayer of Jesus’ is the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner,’ prayed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We do not spend much time in this work on formulas; they are not the essence of the matter: the Prayer prayed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week is a charism. As a charism, it must be cultivated, as we remarked above concerning attention. However, the charism is such that it works: the Prayer continues on its own: when we speak, we turn our attention to what we are saying; the Prayer continues; when we sleep, the Prayer continues; when we awake, the Prayer is the first thing that we are aware of, the first thing that we ‘hear’ in our field of consciousness. This is the ‘abiding prayer of Jesus’.

One aspect of the cultivation of this charism is the attention we pay. The Prayer continues, but we must turn our attention to it; otherwise how will we be ‘enwrapped continually, secretly, in Christ, him who alone knows the hearts, by means of invocation’?[21] Moreover, it is by turning our attention to the Prayer that we commence the immaterial war, that standing ‘in the gate of the heart’ in refutation of our enemies. The Prayer may continue automatically, but if my mind is drifting what do I gain? Nothing. I gain something if I am silent; it is easier to attend, at least partially, to the Prayer. But ultimately I must stand in the gate—this is facilitated by attending to the words of the Prayer—and I must fight: I must reject the impassioned mental representations at the moment of their inception in my heart. What comes of it? ‘An imageless delightful tranquillity of mind (nous)’. We have already discussed in OS 3, above, what ‘imageless’ means. This imagelessness is acquired with struggle, for I must learn to rebut at their inception the demonic thoughts, the impassioned recollections of objects of sense. These are the images to which St Hesychios is referring. Practised within the Hesychast framework of a solitary life free of distraction—on Mount Athos today a solitary can be more distracted than a cœnobite!—this rebutting of the demonic provocations eventually empties the intellect, and ever expands the perceived space of the heart, so that the mind finally rests in the heart free of images, repeating, or attending to, or united to, the Prayer of Jesus. This is pleasant, ‘delightful’, the guard of the mind.

‘Tranquillity’: This deserves comment. The underlying Greek word is eremia, which could also be translated ‘quietude’, ‘stillness’ or ‘rest’, in addition to ‘tranquillity’.

Although St Hesychios does not say it here, this practice of sobriety can be physically exhausting. One needs to be strong both mentally and physically to exercise this practice. One gets tired. It is at this level that we must be careful. First, this is a lifelong labour: we must not expect that in two weeks without sleep we will reach divinization (theosis). We will only lose our reason. Next, we must take care to pace ourselves like athletes. In On the Two Methods of Prayer, St Gregory of Sinai speaks of a method of resting the nous from the labour: the Hesychast reads the service, or, even better, St Gregory says, if he has a disciple, then he has the disciple read the service while he allows his nous to ascend from the heart and enwrap itself in the words of the service. There are other methods; we referred to some of them in our commentary on OTT 17. The important thing to realize is that the human mind (nous), being conjoined to a material body, tires. It must rest. The methods are unimportant at the level of discourse in which St Hesychios is engaging here.

The next passage is very important:

and the condition constituted from Jesus.

What is this ‘condition constituted from Jesus’? We met ‘condition’ when we discussed Evagrius in Volume II. It is the habitual state of our nous. In particular, it is the state of our nous during prayer. However, this state of our nous is habitual, so it also denotes the stable, habitual spiritual condition of our nous as we are going through our day.

Recall OTT 17. There, Evagrius spoke of the hermit’s daily routine in a way which manifested his approach to Hesychian sobriety:[22] the hermit tends the mental representations of this Age as a shepherd tends the sheep entrusted to him. The habitual state of the hermit’s mind (nous) while the hermit is going through the day tending the sheep of the mental representations of this Age is the hermit’s spiritual condition.

In this chapter, St Hesychios is describing a hierarchy of habitual spiritual conditions. So, we infer that there is an habitual spiritual condition that follows the abiding Prayer of Jesus and a certain imageless delightful tranquillity of mind—these constitute the guard of the mind—, and that this condition is constituted from Jesus.

What does St Hesychios mean?

He means conscious, habitual union with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

St Hesychios wants to say that when we put off the old man—the vices and the passions—we attain to a state called the ‘guard of the mind’. Afterwards, as we progress in contemplation, we are clothed by Jesus himself in the new man, the image of Adam, full of the virtues.[23] Here, virtue must not be understood in a negative sense—I sweat to force myself to behave—but in a positive—very positive, indeed—sense: Jesus Christ our Lord himself clothes us with the virtues that he himself had and has. Recall St Macrina’s description of the soul as the image of God: the soul is like a little bit of glass which reflects perfectly, but in small, the image of the sun.[24] Moreover, St Macrina went on, the virtues are transmitted from God to the soul. Recall TPL 94, where Evagrius refers to Didymus the Blind:

That same person used to say, again, that virtue is in its nature one and that it is moulded in the powers of the soul. He said ‘For the light of the sun is without form; it is its nature, however, to be conformed to the doors through which it enters in.

This light of the sun that is transmitted to the glass to reflect the sun is none other than the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of Jesus Christ. And what is reflected are the virtues, which are precisely the properties that God himself has. Hence, ‘the condition constituted from Jesus’ means, finally, the insufflation by the Holy Spirit, who fills us with sonship, a sonship that is constituted from Jesus, who is the giver who gives from the Father.

Now, we have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and, as Orthodox, also immediately after Baptism in the Mystery of Chrismation. So what is involved here that is more or different? It is the conscious union with Jesus. For the Hesychast adopts the condition—in miniature—of Jesus. He has put on Christ, his Lord, in conscious union with Jesus Christ.

But we will never arrive if we do not start at the beginning in great humility, putting off our old man in praktike. And we will never arrive if we do not persevere up to the very end, again in great humility. This is not something that takes a week. It takes a lifetime.

Having shown the heights of the vocation, St Hesychios returns, in the next chapter, to the immaterial battle.

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[1] For us, ‘vicious’ is always the adjective related to ‘vice’.

[2] Sinkewicz pp. 310 ff. (Greek), pp. 29 ff. (English); = Migne 79, col. 1096A ff.

[3] Diadochos Chapter 100 p. 162, ll. 20–1.

[4] Henceforth, GC 100.

[5] Ancient Nikopolis, the first city of ancient Epirus.

[6] Cassian C.

[7] Isaiah.

[8] Philokalia E p. 21.

[9] For a thorough discussion of Evagrius’ terms, ‘spiritual sense’ and ‘spiritual senses’, probably equivalent to St Diadochos’ ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis’ or ‘perception (aisthesis)’ in the (lost) underlying Greek of the Kephalaia Gnostica, see the discussion of the relevant passages in the Digression in Volume II.

[10] See the commentary on TPL 49 in Volume II.

[11] Cassian C Conferences 10, 10 ff.

[12] On the Two Methods of Prayer, Volume IV of Philokalia D, E or G; Volume II of Philokalia F.

[13] Ladder G Step 27, 2; = Ladder E Step 27, 3.

[14] Sinkewicz p. 317 (Greek); = Migne 79, col. 1108C.

[15] TPL 39.

[16] Cf. Skemmata 13—Appendix 3 of Volume II.

[17] Philokalia D.

[18] Philokalia F.

[19] Philokalia D, E, G Volume II; Philokalia F, Volume I.

[20] Philokalia E.

[21] OS 5.

[22] Without our meaning to suggest that Evagrius had read St Hesychios, who, obviously, is much later.

[23] Cf. OTT 39.

[24] See Chapter I of Volume I.


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