OS (Commentary) -- 23
127 The mind (nous) is darkened and remains barren when it speaks worldly words
These are actual words spoken. They serve any of the eight most general passions. They include discussions of politics, of ecclesiastical affairs, of public persons and so on. However, St Hesychios may also intend thoughts in the mind silently spoken.
or, having accepted [them] converses with them in the intellect (dianoia),
While this sounds as if the Hesychast has accepted the worldly words of a human visitor to his cave or cell, we think that what St Hesychios really means is that the Hesychast has accepted impassioned thoughts, just as he will say explicitly in OS 143 and 144, below, and as he has already said in other chapters.
We have already seen this. This is the stage of temptation called the intercourse of the mind with the impassioned mental representation of an object of sense. At this stage, the impassioned mental representation has developed into a thought and the intercourse is with that thought. This is a more elaborated intercourse, although it is still in the intellect. It does not yet necessarily imply consent to do the wicked act suggested by the thought; that comes at a later stage. St Hesychios is saying that even intercourse with impassioned mental representations and impassioned thoughts darkens the mind and makes it barren. Of course this would also be true in the case that the Hesychast accepted to converse in a worldly way with a visitor to his cave or cell. Evagrius himself emphasizes the damage done by a demonic thought that is allowed to persist, in OTT 22 and 24 and in various chapters of the Skemmata.
or the body along with the mind (nous) occupies itself with certain sensible things,
We do not think that St Hesychios here means outright sin; we think that here he has more in mind the wasting of time by the Hesychast, who ought to be practising the guard of the mind, in distractions—trivial activities of the body and mind which involve the senses. These sensible activities would fill the intellect with the mental representations of sensible objects. These mental representations, even if unimpassioned, would impede the guard of the mind, and, according to the doctrine of Evagrius, prevent the ascent of the mind (nous) into the higher states of contemplation.
or the monk gives himself over to vanities.
Here, what St Hesychios has in mind are the frivolous things that a monk, and certainly a Hesychast, might involve himself in: good food, good clothing, good singing, beautifying the cave and so on.
For directly and on account of these things, the mind (nous) loses warmth,
Spiritual warmth from the presence of Grace.
The natural disposition, from Grace, to tears.
and both the bold familiarity
‘Bold familiarity’: Parresia. This is the bold familiarity that is spiritual and that gives the monk the confidence or assurance that he is heard by God when he prays. It is highly prized.
and the gnosis
As we have already explained, this gnosis is on the one hand contemplation and on the other hand the supernatural intuitive knowledge acquired in contemplation that constitutes the spiritual state or condition of the ascetic.
which are in God.
That is, the faults mentioned make us lose the bold familiarity and the gnosis which are given to us by Grace and which render God consciously present in our heart.
St Hesychios now concludes:
For as much as we exercise attention in the mind (nous)
This must be taken to mean the whole program of Hesychian sobriety, especially at the level of attainment of the guard of the mind. St Hesychios here is echoing St Maximos the Confessor, for example in OS 68 and 69, above. However, we might consider that when the ascetic has attained to the stage of the guard of the mind, then his spiritual condition is much more sensitive to lapses in attention, the ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’ (OS 7), than it might otherwise be at a more elementary level of Hesychast practice.
we are illumined; and as much as we do not exercise attention, we are darkened.
The important thing to remember for the Hesychast tempted to negligence, worldly conversations, intercourse with demonically sown mental representations and thoughts, sensible distractions and vanities is that he can lose what he has accomplished: he can lose his spiritual state or condition, and, even if he does not completely lose it, he can damage it.
St Hesychios now continues in the same vein:
128 For he who pursues and seeks every day the peace and stillness (hesychia) of the mind (nous)
Is this not why the ascetic undertook hesychia?
easily will despise every sensible thing,
Recall that the mind must be free from all mental representations of sensible things in order to enter into the guard of the mind, the gate to contemplation.
so that he not toil in vain.
According to the doctrine of OS 89, in order to enter into contemplation, the ascetic must in the intellect be freed of all mental representations of sensible objects. If he occupies himself with actions and vanities which prevent him from emptying his intellect of these mental representations, what has he accomplished with the toil of his Hesychasm?
If, then, he misreckons his own conscience,
Ignores it. Here, the Hesychast knows that what he is doing or tempted to do is wrong.
bitterly will he sleep the death of insensibility (lethe),
This has the sense that the Hesychast will lose his spiritual condition, but lethe (insensibility or accidie) can also lead to a sort of depression that manifests itself in excessive physical sleep.
which, indeed, the divine David prays not to sleep [cf. Ps. 12, 4].
‘Look upon me, hearken to me, O Lord my God; enlighten my eyes lest I sleep unto death.’ (Ps. 12, 4.)
The next sentence manifests a very important aspect of St Hesychios’ moral psychology:
And also the Apostle says: ‘To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.’ [Jas. 4, 17.]
Not only does St Hesychios say that your negligence in the hermitage concerning your Hesychast program does you damage, but he also says that it is sin. You are morally culpable before God for your negligence. Lethe (insensibility or accidie) is a serious problem for the advanced Hesychast and St Hesychios is dealing with it from every point of view imaginable.
St Hesychios now turns to the therapy:
129 The mind (nous) from negligence
From this neglect of the guard of the mind, or, more generally, from this neglect of Hesychian sobriety. Also, from this lethe (insensibility or accidie).
comes again to its own order
Spiritual condition. St Hesychios is optimistic: you can regain what you have lost.
Both the program of Hesychian sobriety and the state of ‘superintending continuity of attention in the ruling part of man’ (OS 7), the ‘extreme attention’ (OS 94).
if indeed it again attains to carefulness,
In the Greek, the word used here for ‘carefulness’, ‘epimeleia’, is etymologically closely related to the word used here for ‘negligence’, ‘ameleia’. This shows that St Hesychios treats these two characterizations as opposites. Hence we must give up negligence, treated as an act of our will, and attain to ‘non-negligence’—carefulness or diligence—treated again as an act of our will.
and if we again establish the practical life (praktikon)
Here, the word used by St Hesychios is praktikon, almost identical to the Evagrian term praktike, the only difference being a change of gender. Because such a change of gender might arise from a completely different use or sense of the word, we cannot assert unequivocally that St Hesychios is quoting Evagrius and means exactly the same thing, but, despite that, we have translated the words identically.
of our mind (nous)
This is Evagrian praktike, the immaterial war. As we have many times pointed out, Hesychian sobriety is an adaptation of Evagrian praktike, the practical life, to the use of the Jesus Prayer in a more Hesychast context than that foreseen by Evagrius in his own program.
in warm zeal.
This is how you recover from your negligence: you recover your zeal. Recall that we just previously saw that a therapy for lethe was ‘divine Eros (eros)’, the operation of the desiring part of the soul according to nature. Here we see the other major aspect of the therapy of lethe: the return to the zealous practice of the Hesychian method. Hence, the general therapy of lethe might be seen to be a return to a zealous practice of the Hesychian method coupled to the attainment of a ‘divine Eros (eros)’ which would make that zealous practice pleasant in itself, and therefore something that the Hesychast would want to pursue willingly.
The next three chapters go together. They are important. St Hesychios provides us with yet another theophany, this time in the explicit framework of a contemplative ascent that starts from Evagrian praktike.
OS 130 begins with the necessity of correcting those things which are within. It uses the metaphor of a donkey at the mill and ends with a statement that the impassioned mind is blind to virtue and to Jesus flashing with light.
The next chapter, OS 131, makes use of the contrast of a spirited and haughty horse with the donkey at the mill, and proceeds from praktike, the practical life, through the Evagrian divestiture of mental representations and through natural contemplation to Theology, using there an expression reminiscent of OTT 42.
The third chapter, OS 132, like a brief musical reprise, remarks on the role in contemplation of stillness of the heart.
130 A donkey at a mill will not advance beyond the circle in which it has been bound;
A donkey which is grinding at a mill walks in a circle so as to make the millstone revolve; it is bound to its task; and it has been fitted with blinders so as not to see. Here, of course, St Hesychios is making a comparison between such a donkey and the mind (nous) that has not corrected those things which are within.
neither will a mind (nous) advance in the virtue which makes perfect,
Here we take ‘virtue’ to be a metaphor for the contemplation which makes perfect. However, it might also be considered that virtue, when complete, conveys perfection to the whole man: virtue constitutes the likeness of God, the kath’ homoiosin, in man, for virtue is the operation of the soul according to nature, as God created man, when he created man in his own image and likeness. But, St Hesychios seems to be saying, that perfection necessarily includes the perfection of the mind, which is attained in contemplation, and especially, as we shall see below, in Theology. This accords with the doctrine of St Diadochos of Photike in GC 89, where the perfection of the kath’ homoiosin is granted in the ‘illumination (photismos)’ of the Holy Spirit that conveys the virtue of divine love to the ascetic.
not having corrected those things which are within it.
Let us again consider TPL 61:
61 The mind will not advance nor depart that good departure and come to be in the land of the bodiless [powers] if it has not corrected what is within. For the disturbance of the familiar [parts of the soul] is accustomed to return it to those things from which it has departed.
The similarity of the phrase in this chapter of St Hesychios, ‘not having corrected those things which are within it’, to the phrase in TPL 61, ‘if it has not corrected what is within’ is suggestive of a direct influence of Evagrius, the more so since St Hesychios has just used the term praktikon, so close in form and meaning to the Evagrian term, praktike. However, St Hesychios nowhere foresees that an unprepared—impassioned—monk would be able voluntarily to engage in contemplation, as Evagrius evidently foresees in TPL 61. We pointed out in the commentary on OS 30, above, that St Hesychios does foresee that a prepared monk—one who has made progress in the immaterial war—will be able to enter voluntarily into contemplation. In general, this chapter of OS shows that St Hesychios treats the passions as preventing contemplation, in accordance with the doctrine expressed by Evagrius in OTT 40–1, which we know that St Hesychios had read.
‘Not having corrected those things which are within it’: Strictly speaking, St Hesychios is being imprecise. In TPL 61, ‘if it has not corrected what is within’ refers to the moral passions of the passionate part of the soul, whereas, literally speaking, St Hesychios is referring in his parallel phrase to that which is within the mind (nous), the rational part of the soul. This is not an important matter.
For it is ever blind in the eyes within,
This blindness will be contrasted by St Hesychios at the end of the next chapter with the seeing eye of the mind (nous) of the ascetic.
The doctrine expressed here is that of OTT 2 and 40. We discussed this doctrine in the commentary on OS 89, above, quoting OTT 2 and 40 there.
not being able to see virtue
It is clear that ‘virtue’ here is a synonym for natural contemplation, or even the Uncreated Light.
and Jesus flashing with light.
This passage is to be contrasted with the end of the next chapter. The whole of the next chapter should be read in the context of this one.
131 A spirited and haughty horse leaps with delight accepting a rider.
Note the contrast—and therefore the thematic continuity—with the previous chapter. In that chapter it was a matter of a donkey at a mill wearing blinders and walking endlessly in a circle; in this chapter it is a matter of a spirited and haughty horse leaping with delight in accepting a rider.
A mind (nous) which delights will delight entering into the light of the Lord
Here, for those who are preoccupied with the dogmatic issue of the Uncreated Light, we have an explicit reference to that light.
in the mornings, being set free of mental representations.
This is clearly a reference to the doctrine of OTT 2 and 40.
We have already discussed ‘morning’ as the monk’s night vigil of prayer.
For it will go from strength of practical philosophy
Here, the Greek is ‘praktike philosophia’, again an expression extremely close to and parallel in meaning to the Evagrian term, praktike, the practical life. For the context shows clearly that what is meant is praktike. However, we shall see later, in OS 157, that St Hesychios uses the phrase praktike philosophia in the sense of the guard of the mind, so we must understand praktike to be a concept with a broader range in St Hesychios than in Evagrius: it includes in St Hesychios not only the immaterial war of praktike that Evagrius speaks of in TPL and OTT, but also the higher states of spiritual attainment that Evagrius would call dispassion and natural contemplation. In the absence of a critical edition of OS, we cannot be sure whether in these chapters St Hesychios wished to use euphemisms for the Evagrian expression, praktike, whether the slight differences are due to an imprecision in St Hesychios’ diction or whether they are due to copyists’ errors.
of mind (nous), the mind (nous) denying itself,
‘The mind denying itself’: This does have a sense of the immaterial war, but it especially has the sense of the divestiture by the mind of mental representations of objects of sense that Evagrius refers to in OTT 2 and 40. Let us also recall Evagrius’ third renunciation, the renunciation related to contemplation or gnosis: ‘The third renunciation is the separation from ignorance concerning those things which naturally become manifest to men in proportion to their [spiritual] condition.’
to unspeakable strength contemplative of unspeakable things and virtues;
Let us take this to correspond to second natural contemplation.
We might also take ‘strength contemplative of … virtues’ to mean that the Hesychast receives the virtues into himself charismatically during the contemplation.
For ‘unspeakable things’, see just below.
The following words, below, from ‘and having received’ up to ‘of divine (conceptions)’ are difficult to construe, and the received text may be faulty. St Hesychios, however, is clearly referring to first natural contemplation.
and having received in the heart the depth of lofty conceptions (ennoies) of the limitless
St Hesychios is fond of these paradoxical expressions. They arise from the lived experience of depth when the intellect is centred in the heart, together with the spiritual sublimity of what is experienced when the Hesychast enjoys the contemplations that arise while he has his mind in his heart.
and of divine [conceptions],
We understand ‘lofty conceptions (ennoies) of the limitless and … divine (conceptions)’ to mean ‘lofty conceptions (ennoies) of the limitless (or infinite)’ and ‘divine conceptions (ennoies)’, two kinds of conceptions (ennoies). Let us take them both to be types of first natural contemplation.
Philokalia D construes ‘lofty conceptions (ennoies) of the limitless and … divine (conceptions)’ thus: ‘divine and lofty concepts of the limitless [or infinite].’
Philokalia F: ‘lofty divine thoughts of the infinite’.
Philokalia E: ‘Then the heart is filled with perceptions of infinite and divine realities … in its depths.’
A difficult passage to construe.
These conceptions (ennoies) are not discursive. In St Hesychios they correspond to the mental representations (noemata) in Evagrius that are introduced into the mind by a contemplation. These mental representations are the vehicle by which the mind knows the contemplation, by which it receives the gnosis. This of course is precisely the topic of the last chapters of OTT, especially OTT 41.
Once the mental representation (noema) is in the mind, then, in Hesychian language, the mind experiences it as a conception (ennoia). This clearly has nothing to do with ‘concept’ in a discursive sense. Rather, as OTT 41 explains, the mental representation that corresponds to the contemplation is itself intelligible and imprints the mind differently from the way that the mental representation of a sensible object imprints the mind. And of course, there are various levels of contemplation: a mental representation which corresponds to a different level of contemplation imprints the mind in a somewhat different way from a mental representation of a lower contemplation. Hence, what is involved is spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, and how it is known by the mind of the contemplating monk.
That the mental representations introduced into the mind by the contemplation, or the conceptions (ennoies) in the mind derived from these mental representations, are of ‘unspeakable things’ has to do with the fact that these mental representations are not of sensible realities. They are of spiritual realities that cannot be conceptualized or verbalized by the mind in the way that concepts related to sensible realities can. This indeed is the whole point of Evagrius’ discussion in OTT 41 of which mental representations ‘imprint and form figures’ in the mind and which do not. Reference to the commentaries on OTT 38–42 in Volume II will make these matters clear.
Here, what is in part involved is a contemplation of the limitless or infinite. Fr Sophrony (Sakharov) has referred to such a contemplation in his own autobiographical writings.
However, we have construed St Hesychios in the passage at hand to refer to two types of contemplation or conception (ennoia): one of the limitless, and one of divine realities. In this we are somewhat closer to the English translators than to the French or Modern Greek translators, who treat the contemplation as one.
Although it is impossible to map the categories of contemplation that St Hesychios is using in this chapter directly to the categories of second natural contemplation and first natural contemplation of Evagrius, we think that it is useful to make the identifications we have made. For St Hesychios is clearly aware of the Evagrian schema of contemplation, even if he modifies it to suit his own purposes and his own experience.
the God of gods [cf. Ps. 83, 8] will be seen by it as is attainable in the heart.
This is Theology.
Clearly St Hesychios is centred in the heart here; we do not think that he here means ‘heart’ as a synonym for the mind or intellect.
We know from later Orthodox theology that what is seen is the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies—‘the Uncreated Light’) of God, not his substance. That is the first sense of ‘as is attainable’. The second sense is that the created, finite mind (nous)—the small piece of glass of St Macrina—has only a limited capacity to receive the divine: the small piece of glass reflects a perfect image of the sensible sun, but in miniature. (St Macrina, of course, was referring to the virtues; here we take her image to refer to the mystical apprehension of God.) The third sense is the limitation of the mind conjoined to the body in cognizing intelligible or spiritual realities. We discussed these matters in detail in the commentary on OS 35.
The next passage of St Hesychios is quite reminiscent in tone and content to the last part of OTT 42, which reads: ‘…[The right eye of the soul] contemplates during the time of prayer the blessed light of the Holy Trinity, by means of which eye the bride in the Songs of Songs ravished the heart of the Bridegroom himself [cf. S. of S. 4, 9].’ This is what St Hesychios says:
The mind (nous), amazed, lovingly glorifies God, who is seen and who sees, and who on account of the one and the other saves him who thus gazes towards him.
‘God, who is seen and who sees’: The ascetic sees God (with the right eye of the soul, Evagrius would say), and God sees the ascetic.
‘Who on account of the one and the other’: On account of being seen by the ascetic through the ascetic’s right eye—‘by means of which eye the bride in the Songs of Songs ravished the heart of the Bridegroom himself’—and on account of seeing the ascetic. This is a personalist mystical theology. The eyes are persons: the ascetic and God: although St Hesychios does not explicitly refer to Jesus Christ in this passage, the Christocentric orientation that he clearly has and the reference at the end of the last chapter to ‘Jesus flashing with light’ here leads us to the identification of ‘God’ with the person of Jesus Christ.
‘Saves him who thus gazes towards him’: Clearly, St Hesychios has put Theology, mystical unitive prayer to the Holy Trinity, into a soteriological context. The Hesychast works out his salvation following the path—toilsome as it is, for as many years as he has to live—of Hesychian sobriety. This toilsome road brings the Hesychast finally to gaze on God, who ‘saves him who thus gazes towards him’. Dogmatically, however, this experience of salvation cannot be taken as absolute, but only as a foretaste of salvation: even St Hesychios himself after each of his theophanies cautions the Hesychast against the dangers of pride and similar sins. For, when the vision recedes, as it surely will, then the Hesychast, unless he himself leave the flesh for the next life, will still be subject to free will and to temptation until his departure for that next life.
Given the indications that St Hesychios had read the last chapters of OTT, it seems to us that St Hesychios has been influenced in this chapter by Evagrius’ presentation in those last chapters of OTT of the ascent through second natural contemplation and first natural contemplation to Theology. However, it also seems to us that St Hesychios wanted to simplify the Evagrian schema.
It seems quite clear to us that this chapter is not merely a literary creation of St Hesychios but that he is describing a mystical experience of his own. It seems that St Hesychios uses other writers as a means to focus his own thinking and as a framework within which to portray experiences that he himself has had. At the end of OS, St Hesychios, a humble man, uses a quotation from his master, as we think, St John of Sinai, to portray the heights of the Hesychast endeavour. We do not think that St Hesychios did that lacking his own mystical experience, but that he found the passage of St John of Sinai suitable to his purposes. So here: he has used OTT to provide a framework within which to describe, to articulate, to explain, his own personal experience of a vision of Christ.
Let us now review the stages that in the Hesychast lead up to this vision. As we have seen, the Hesychast or ascetic exercises Evagrian praktike, the practical life, in the form taught by St Hesychios: humility, attention, rebuttal, continual invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ and the memory of death. With the passage of time and with sedulous application of the method, the ascetic enters into the guard of the mind, where the mind in the heart continues the practice of Evagrian praktike as taught by St Hesychios, but now without images or mental representations. This guard of the mind corresponds, by the principles enunciated by Evagrius in OTT 40, to Evagrian dispassion. This guard of the mind is the gate to contemplation. The ascetic, however, continues the guard of the mind without pursuing contemplation, except in the rare cases that the war draws back and he has spiritual assurance from God that entering into contemplation would be pleasing to God. Continuing the practice of the guard of the mind in his hermitage, the ascetic by the grace of Jesus Christ is at some time raised to Theology, passing through the stages of second natural contemplation and first natural contemplation. These stages are not as clearly defined in St Hesychios as they are in Evagrius. As St Hesychios has explained, using quotations from St Mark the Ascetic, the experience of Theology is not the wage of ascetical works but grace readied by the Master for the faithful slave. The experience of Theology is presented variously and can be experienced variously: sometimes as the advent of the Holy Spirit, sometimes as a vision of the risen Christ. The intensity and nature of the vision cannot be foreseen or programmed by the Hesychast; that would be to court spiritual disaster. However, one aspect of the vision in some of its forms is the experience of being united to God and another aspect is the experience or foretaste of salvation: this latter corresponds to dispassion in the sense of St John of Sinai, the resurrection of the soul prior to the General Resurrection and the knowledge of God second only to that of the angels. We take the ‘condition constituted from Jesus’ to be a stage of the spiritual journey which confers habitual union with Jesus Christ; we view the vision described in this chapter which confers the foretaste of salvation to confer that habitual union. As is well-known, however, it is possible to experience union with God in an intense experience which may not itself confer habitual union with God. Hence, not ourselves having such exalted mystical experiences as these so as to be able to speak with the authority of experience, we might be faulted on our particular analysis of the relation of the ‘condition constituted from Jesus’, habitual union, to the various forms of the experience of Theology, including the vision presented here by St Hesychios.
The next chapter is the brief musical reprise:
132 Stillness (hesychia) of the heart accomplished will view the lofty deep with gnosis;
This clearly is a reference to the contemplations whose verbal formulation by St Hesychios in the last chapter we found difficult to construe. We consider these contemplations to be those of natural contemplation.
‘With gnosis’: This might also be rendered ‘gnostically’. The sense here is of a contemplation that illumines—gnostically, really, truly; the mind (nous) is an intelligible substance—the mind (nous).
‘Lofty deep’: As we have remarked, this paradoxical formulation is based on the experience of the deep while the mind is in the heart and on the spiritual sublimity of what is contemplated while the mind is there.
‘Stillness (hesychia) of the heart’: We have already encountered this expression in OS 3:
3 Sobriety is the road of every virtue and commandment of God. It is also called stillness (hesychia) of the heart and, accomplished without images, the very guard of the mind (nous).
Hence, what St Hesychios is referring to is none other than the guard of the mind properly accomplished, and he is saying that the ascetic or Hesychast will enter into natural contemplation from the guard of the mind when the guard is properly accomplished.
As St Silouan remarks, in the case of a rapture of the mind (arpage tou nou) by the Holy Spirit, which when it occurred would be superadded to the guard of the mind, or even to natural contemplation, the Prayer of Jesus automatically stops for the duration of the rapture.
The next clause is important:
and the ear of stillness (hesychia) of the mind (nous)
The spiritual ear, not the sensible ear. We quoted Evagrius on the spiritual senses in the commentary on OS 23.
Following the reading in Alphabetic ‘A’ for ‘will hear’ instead of the ‘will be heard’ of the main text.
extraordinary things of God.
Compare the Ladder, which seems to be the source of this passage.
These are the reasons (logoi) of created beings, the reasons (logoi) of bodiless powers, and personal, or private, revelations. In the commentary on OS 117, above, we quoted in part a passage of St John of Sinai that in its full form refers to such a private revelation.
The next two chapters, OS 133 and 134, are a pair that discuss the need for signposts on the Hesychast journey—clearly an appropriate topic since in the previous chapters St Hesychios has whetted the appetite and stirred the enthusiasm—; and they also discuss the dangers that arise from not carrying the Hesychast journey or program through to the end. Then OS 135–8 address the extremely important topic of how we are to handle ‘afflictions and despairs and hopelessnesses’ in the hermitage.
 OTT 25; see also the discussion of ‘much thought (polunoia)’ in the doctrine of St Mark the Ascetic, in the commentary just before OS 54.
 See OS 89, above, which quotes OTT 2 and 40; concerning the contemplative ascent, see also in Volume II both the Digression and the commentary on OTT 38–43.
 See TPL 79.
 Cf. Gen. 1, 26–7.
 OTT 26.
 OS 30.
 OS 7, above.
 Ladder G Step 27, 24; = Ladder E Step 27, 26.
 Ladder G Step 27B, 13; = Ladder E Step 27, 47.