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OS (Commentary) -- 24

133 A wayfarer, having begun to be sent on a long and inaccessible and difficult road and suspecting error in his return, will plant certain signs and guides firmly in the ground during his journey, which signs procure for him an easy return to his own property. A man who journeys soberly,

That is: with sobriety; as a Hesychast; becomes a hermit or Hesychast; applies the method of Hesychian sobriety.

however, will set up words (logoi), he also suspecting this very same thing.

The topic of these two chapters is the intellectual formation of the Hesychast.

St Hesychios describes the road as ‘long and inaccessible and difficult’. He clearly is referring to the road of the Hesychast. And in such a case, he says, the wayfarer sets certain signposts firmly in the ground to secure his safe return to his own places. As he will clarify in the next chapter, St Hesychios does not intend that the Hesychast return to the impassioned life. What he is driving at is the ‘words’ that the Hesychast will ‘plant firmly in the ground to guide him’.

What St Hesychios means is that the Hesychast must have a theological formation. Hesychasts read. Even those with formal schooling. Even those without.

What do they read? Scripture. The Psalter. St Isaac the Syrian, but in the Greek translation prepared in the Byzantine epoch at the Monastery of St Savas at Jerusalem. The Philokalia.

Scripture they read as Christians.

The Psalter, when they use it as ascesis, they read by reading it through aloud over one day or two, as ascetics such as St Seraphim of Sarov read the New Testament through aloud over the week. This practice is analogous to the Jesus Prayer in that it continually and repetively introduces holy mental representations into the intellect.

They might read books that excite their fervour, their Eros (eros) towards God. Lives of the Hesychast saints. Pious reflections.

However, they also read theology. First, St Isaac the Syrian, who, it is now well-known, based himself on Evagrius.

Then the Philokalia.

The above is the practice of Hesychasts of whom we have had personal knowledge, who have lived and died on Mount Athos.

More educated monks will read St Symeon the New Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa, the Spiritual Homilies of St Makarios the Egyptian, St Maximos the Confessor.

St Theophan the Recluse (1815–1894) had a full library in his hermitage and found time to prepare a new, enlarged edition of the Philokalia.

The important thing to grasp is that one does not go into hesychia simply with enthusiasm. One must understand what he is doing and where he is going.

That is why we commenced this study.

It is clear that Evagrius Pontikos is a central figure in Christian asceticism and mysticism—the list of those who in ascetical matters have been directly influenced by him, his writings or his doctrines is astonishingly broad and comprehensive—and this despite the difficulties introduced by his just condemnation for heresy by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.[1]

It is also why we have taken the pains to discover the Evagrian aspects of OS: we are here at the foundation of the tradition of the Philokalia, in an epoch when, we deem, there are no dogmatic controversies to complicate the issue such as occurred in the Fourteenth Century. Certainly Evagrius Pontikos was condemned, and justly, for his heterodox cosmological and eschatological ideas. But these are for the most part separable from his ascetical theory, which was never condemned. The only complications come in Evagrius Pontikos’ theory of contemplation: a study of the Kephalaia Gnostica demonstrates that the higher Evagrius goes in his theory of contemplation, especially at the level of first natural contemplation and the transformation from that to Theology, the more his heterodox eschatological ideas appear. He is a bit like a rocket which, being launched vertically upward, because of some fault in its guidance system diverges the more from the true the more it ascends.

Part of this is due, certainly, to the fact that for the most part Evagrius hides his heretical ideas in those works which are intended for the less accomplished ascetic. He really only brings those ideas out—if indeed we accept the thesis of the learned Professor Guillaumont that the version intégrale (S2) of the Syriac version of the Kephalaia Gnostica reflects the original form of the Kephalaia Gnostica in the Greek, which we do[2]—in the Kephalaia Gnostica, and then in an intentionally obscure way. (We are of the opinion that the significance of the fact that each century of the Kephalaia Gnostica has only ninety chapters lies in this, that Evagrius wanted to say that he had ‘hidden’ that portion of his teaching that would have been covered by the missing six sets of ten chapters.)

However, the basic outline by Evagrius of inner ascesis—the immaterial war—remains standard. We see that in an early form of Hesychasm, that of OS, it is explicitly married to the use of the Jesus Prayer.

We have also taken the position that the basic outline of contemplation given by Evagrius—second natural contemplation, first natural contemplation and Theology—also remains standard, even in St Hesychios, and even at the risk of our forcing somewhat into the Evagrian schema the formulations of St Hesychios concerning the stages and types of contemplation.

We have done these things precisely for the reason that St Hesychios addresses in the present chapter: the Hesychast needs a theoretical formation. He needs to conceptualize, in accordance with his intellectual capacities surely, the struggles he will encounter and the stages through which he will ascend; he needs to have criteria for assessing his own experiences and behaviour, and perhaps the experiences and behaviour of those under his pastoral charge; he needs to have criteria for assessing his own psychological states, his own motives and motivations, his own conformance to the Gospel and good mystical practice.

Evagrius provides this. His doctrine of the eight most general thoughts, while it may not, it is true, be completely original with him, is systematized by him with remarkable psychological insight. Similarly for the doctrine of the three parts of the soul and their operations contrary to nature in passion and according to nature in virtue.

Evagrius synthesized disparate elements into an ascetical psychology of remarkable power: That, transmitted to the West by St John Cassian, became the basis for Benedictine and other similar spiritualities. That, transmitted within the Greek world under various names including Evagrius’ own, became the basis for the Ladder of Divine Ascent, the standard textbook of ascetical psychology in the Orthodox Church; the basis for St Maximos the Confessor’s ascetical psychology, a fact not now in dispute; and the basis for the spirituality of the Philokalia. That, transmitted to the Syrian world, both Monophysite and Nestorian, became the basis for the ascetical psychology of St Isaac the Syrian, which ascetical psychology was then reintroduced into Greek monasticism by means of the Greek translation of St Isaac prepared at the Monastery of St Savas. All these facts testify to the power of Evagrius’ ascetical psychology.

It works. It answers questions, and in a way that makes sense to the Hesychast. Moreover, and here is Evagrius’ significance, it provides a conceptual framework for the ascetic—precisely those road signs that St Hesychios is speaking of in this chapter.

We do not think that the Hesychast should rely on enthusiasm or even piety. The enthusiasm often conceals pride and arrogance; the piety, ignorance. We think that the Hesychast should have a clear intellectual formation, sound in its outlines and free, certainly, of any taint of heterodox doctrines, to the level that the Hesychast’s intellectual attainments allow him to proceed, so that he not fall into pitfalls from a lack of psychological insight into what the various passions are, how they are excited, how they manifest themselves once excited, how they are recognized—very important, because their manifestations are often subtle in the extreme—and how they are to be treated; so that he understand what his goals are—the cutting off of the passions and the acquisition of the virtues, which process results in dispassion, the door to contemplation—and what they are not—antinomian ecstatic visions which free the Hesychast from the moral precepts of the Gospel.

This has been our goal in this study. We hope that it might prove useful to Orthodox monks, especially to our brothers in Russia. Their Church has contributed great Hesychast saints such as St Sergius of Radonezh, St Nil of Sors, St Seraphim of Sarov, St Paisy Velichkovsky and that great line, unparalleled anywhere, of the Elders of Optina, but that great Church spent all of its resources in the martyrdoms of the Twentieth Century, and now, while rich in saints, it is poor in the concrete presuppositions of the spiritual life. May this study provide a help to a monk there who needs some signposts on the journey.

134 But for the wayfarer, on the one hand, to turn back again whence he went out is the occasion of joy. For the sober man,

He who practises sobriety.

on the other hand, to turn back again to the rear is the destruction of a rational soul

These rather severe words must be understood as a paraphrase of the chapters, such as OS 68 and 69, which are quotations from St Maximos the Confessor on the same subject.

and a sign of apostasy from works (erga) and words and conceptions (ennoies)

We have already encountered the term, ‘conception (ennoia)’. Since St Hesychios places it here with ‘works’ and ‘words’ let us look at its meaning; we will also find such a discussion useful in OS 137, below, a very important part of the series of chapters on ‘afflictions, despairs and hopelessnesses’.

We ourselves have identified conception (ennoia) with mental representation (noema) in the commentaries on previous chapters, including the commentary on OS 131, which refers to conceptions (ennoies) in the sense, we take it, of contemplations. The words in Greek here translated ‘conception’, ennoia, and ‘mental representation’, noema, are closely related. Etymologically, ‘ennoia’ means something in the nous;noema’ means something thought by the nous, the result of thought. ‘Nous’, of course, is ‘mind’.

Noema, mental representation, is used by Evagrius, (evidently following Stoic psychology although the term itself is said to be due to Aristotle),[3] to refer in the first instance to the image of an object of sense received into the mind by means of the bodily sense organs. Evagrius extends the meaning to the recollection of an object of sense (the image of an object of sense brought forth to the intellect in an act of remembrance), and he particularly emphasizes the role of the demonic excitation of the passion in cases where there is an impassioned recollection of an object of sense. We discussed these matters in Volume II.

In TPL 80, using the term logismos, thought, and not noema, Evagrius begins to expand the sense to include angelic thoughts (i.e. mental representations introduced into the mind by angelic powers). This process culminates in the rather dense chapter, OTT 41, where, again using the term, noema, mental representation, Evagrius distinguishes among—let us crudely say—sensible, intelligible and spiritual mental representations.

In the Kephalaia Gnostica, Evagrius continues this process, referring in that work largely to ‘gnosis’ or ‘contemplations’. What seems clear in the Kephalaia Gnostica, although on account of both its intentionally obscure style and the loss of the original Greek text difficult to ‘prove’ with a series of proof texts, is that Evagrius proceeds somewhat in this logical fashion:

The nous, mind, is an intelligible substance. Gnosis is its intelligible food. Here, it is well to quote TPL 56:

And we say that dispassion is health of the soul and that its [i.e. the soul’s] nourishment is gnosis, which very thing alone has the custom to unite us to the holy powers, if indeed it is natural that union with the bodiless [powers] should result from a like disposition.

To continue with Evagrius’ probable train of thought in the Kephalaia Gnostica, gnosis increases the nous but also changes it. Contemplations are intelligible substances; gnosis is an intelligible substance.[4] Hence, the change effected to the nous by the gnosis is an alteration of the intelligible substance that is the nous. Now Evagrius, perhaps fearing the consequences of such an assertion if made publicly, does not come out and say that explicitly: it would tend to pantheism when one considered the implications on the intelligible substance of the nous, of the gnosis of the Holy Trinity—although Evagrius certainly comes close to such an assertion in saying that in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity in Theology, the nous becomes God: ‘When the mind (nous) will receive the essential gnosis, then it will be called God, also, because it will also be able to found diverse worlds.’[5] Of course, the Orthodox Christian would not under any circumstances accept the transformation of the nous into the substance of God; he would speak only, in much the same language that Evagrius uses in TPL 3, of the divinization (theosis) of the nous, defined as the permeation of the nous by the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) of God.[6] These uncreated operations restore the likeness to God, the kath’ homoiosin, in the person divinized by transmitting the fullness of the divine properties to the nous (this is St Macrina’s language in On the Soul and the Resurrection that we looked at in the first two chapters of Volume I). These divine properties are precisely the virtues that Adam and Eve had in Paradise before the Fall.

Now the importance of the above lies in the nature of the noema or mental representation, especially the noema or mental representation which is of an intelligible substance or even of a spiritual reality.

It seems to us that, following his tendency to view things such as gnosis or contemplation as intelligible substances, Evagrius also tends to view the noema or mental representation in the same way. This would be the import of his analysis in OTT 41 of the typology of the noemata or mental representations. Now in the case of intelligible or spiritual mental representations, and even in the case of sensible mental representations, the nous is conformed to the noema or mental representation it receives: ‘Just as the senses are changed when they apprehend diverse qualities, thus also the mind (nous) is changed when it ever gazes intently upon various contemplations.’[7] In other words, there is little difference between the gnosis which makes the nous of like disposition to the angelic powers,[8] and hence unites the nous to them—both habitually as the spiritual condition of the nous and as a matter of the actual contemplation by the nous of an angelic power—and the noema or mental representation of the angel which conforms the nous of the ascetic to itself.[9] The concepts are very similar, and that is why in this study we have interpreted Evagrius to say that the noema or mental representation is the vehicle that bears the gnosis, in this case of the angel, into the mind (nous) of the ascetic.

An Orthodox Christian today, following St Gregory Palamas and his theology, would not, in regard to the contemplation of intelligible substances, speak in this fashion, but he would speak of uncreated operations (aktistes energeies). In later Orthodox theology, this is certainly true of the gnosis of God. However, nothing is said there about how the mind (nous) knows an intelligible reality such as an angel in first natural contemplation. We do not want to pronounce on matters that are beyond us, but it seems to us that the lesser gnosis conveyed to the mind by the contemplation of, say, an angel could be construed to be either or both of the following: the uncreated operations of God transmitted through the instrumentality of the (holy) angel, or the created energies of the angel itself taken as person or nous.

Generally speaking, the noema or mental representation which conveyed to the nous the gnosis related to a contemplation would be seen in Palamite theology as an energy or operation (energeia) of the substance which was purveying the contemplation: in the primary case, this would be the uncreated energy or operation (aktiste energeia) of the divine substance, God, who was purveying the gnosis; in the other cases it would be the created energy or operation (energeia) of the nous that was purveying the gnosis. Then, in the case, say, of the noema of an angel, the energy or operation would be that of the created nous of the angel united to the grace of God.

In the case of a demon, then what Evagrius refers to as the spiritual bad odour of the demon, a created but fallen nous, would be the created energy or operation (energeia) of the demonic nous.

In the case of the reason (logos) of a created object, the subject matter of second natural contemplation, the noema of the reason (logos) might perhaps in Palamite theology be construed to be the uncreated energy (aktiste energeia) of God called his wisdom. However, Evagrius himself viewed the reason (logos) of a created object more as the form of that object embedded in creation by the wisdom of God. This would seem to make it a purely created energy (energeia) of God or even a created substance. Treating the reason (logos) of a created object as the uncreated energy (aktiste energeia) of God called his wisdom would be more in line with St Augustine, who treated the reasons (logoi) of created objects as existing in the Mind of God.

The import of the tendency of Evagrius to treat gnosis as an intelligible substance, and, evidently, also the noema or mental representation of the contemplation as an intelligible substance, is that the presence in the mind, heart or even intellect of such a noema or mental representation can be conceptualized in the Evagrian system as being substantial. In the Palamite terminology of the energies or operations (energeies) as just discussed, however, the result of the contemplation on the nous of man would be seen as the result of an energy or operation (energeia) on the substance of the nous of man—for the mind (nous) of man remains, even in Palamite theology, an intelligible substance—and not as the entry into the mind (nous) of man of the intelligible substance of the noema of the contemplation, as Evagrius seems to be tending to assert.

Now St Hesychios does not often use the term noema. When discussing the process of temptation; he prefers the term phantasia, imagination, although in OS 4, 18 and 30, he does use the term ‘conceptions (ennoies)’ in precisely the sense that we have discussed concerning demonically sown noemata or mental representations. We learn from the introduction to the critical edition of OTT that noema is a word originally used by Aristotle, whereas phantasia is a word originally used by the Stoics.[10] However, say Gehin et al., noema is used by Evagrius Pontikos in exactly the sense that the Stoics used phantasia. We ourselves doubt that St Hesychios had read the Stoic; we tend to view his use of phantasia as according more with the common usage of his time and place.

We think that St Hesychios usually captures the senses of noema, mental representation, that we have just discussed above, the more intelligible and spiritual senses, with the term ennoia, conception. This is why, we think, he speaks in OS 131 of the Hesychast’s ‘having received in the heart the depth of lofty conceptions (ennoies) of the limitless and of divine (conceptions)’. These are precisely the spiritual noemata, the spiritual mental representations, that are the vehicles of gnosis. In other words, to a large extent in St Hesychios, ennoia, conception, is a synonym for noema, mental representation, in Evagrius. However, there does seem to be a tendency in St Hesychios for ennoia to emphasize that the mental representation is already in the mind, and not the vehicle for the contemplation that is yet to be received into the mind.

We can now comprehend what ‘conceptions (ennoies)’ means in the present chapter of OS: ennoies, conceptions, are the spiritual noemata or spiritual mental representations related to natural contemplation.

In OS 137, below, we will see another use of ennoia by St Hesychios, one that has much the same sense that we encountered earlier in OS 4 and 30, but above all in OS 48, although there St Hesychios does not actually use the term ennoia, conception. This is ennoia, conception, taken to be the intelligible fabric of the soul or personality: after a fashion, frozen thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and ideas. We will leave further discussion of this matter until OS 137.

Before we leave the subject, it is well to consider one last use of the term noema: this is the use that Evagrius conveys in OTT 41 with a reference to the opening words of the Gospel of John:

Of the mental representations, some imprint and form figures in our ruling part while others provide gnosis only, neither imprinting nor forming figures in the mind (nous). For the ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’ [John 1, 1] puts a certain mental representation into the heart but it neither forms a figure in nor imprints the heart.

Now let us suppose—we are not counselling this as a method but wishing to explain something—that the reader were continually to repeat as a formula ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God’. Then, according to the doctrine that Evagrius espouses in OTT 41, the reader would continually be putting a certain mental representation into his heart which ‘neither forms a figure in nor imprints the heart’—as we point out in our commentary in Volume II on OTT 41, the mental representation involved is too exalted to form a figure in or to imprint the heart of man. Now let the reader pass to repeating continually the standard formula of invocation, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ Then would he not also continually be putting ‘a certain mental representation’ into his heart, or to be more precise, certain mental representations into his heart? Now these mental representations are spiritual; they have to do with the spiritual or noetic content of the particular formula being repeated. Since the formula contains both a reference to Jesus Christ as a person and a dogmatic confession of his divinity, then the formula introduces into the heart of the person praying a mental representation of Jesus Christ: we earlier commented that this mental representation could be compared to an icon that rendered, in the language of St Theodore Studite, the prototype, here Jesus Christ, charismatically present in the heart of the person praying—without for all that our suggesting that in our heart we see, or should see, an image of the man Jesus Christ. This is similar to the oft-repeated assertion that prayer is a communion with the person to whom we pray. Now the question we have is this: since the mental representation involved arises from our repetition of the formula, how is it to be construed? For on the one hand, it depends on us, since it is we who are repeating the formula; but on the other hand it refers to a person, here Jesus Christ, who is ontologically separate and distinct from us: Jesus Christ is objectively real. Moreover, the mental representation is clearly connected to the words of the formula, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, to the words of the formula as they are understood or intended by the person repeating the formula. How is the mental representation, noema, that is continually playing in our heart to be construed? Without wishing to give a definite answer, let us say that the noema or mental representation can be construed to be an energy or operation (energeia) of the person praying—for he repeats the formula with a certain understanding or intention—and an energy or operation (energeia) of the Holy Spirit or even of Jesus Christ himself—for the person praying is a baptized Orthodox Christian who has received the Holy Spirit and who has been united to Jesus Christ in Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion—and a matter of the verbal content of the formula. This discussion will be useful to us when we arrive at OS 152, below.

pleasing to God;

The works, words and conceptions that St Hesychios is referring to in discussing the apostasy of the sober man who turns back to the passions are those works, words and conceptions which are godly.

and in the time of the death-bearing sleep of the soul,

This phrase is somewhat ambiguous. Does St Hesychios mean the sleep of physical death, and intend the goads which follow to be the pricks of the devils in hell? Or does he mean the spiritual or sometimes even physical sleep of lethe (insensibility or accidie) that he has already discussed in OS 128, above, and intend the goads to be either the pangs of conscience or the pricks of the thoughts sown by the demon of sorrow?

he will have the thoughts (logismoi) as goads waking him with the reminder of the great torpor and of the indifference that occurred to him out of negligence.

Here, St Hesychios seems to mean that the Hesychast has physically died and that the demons remind him of ‘the great torpor and indifference that occurred to him out of negligence’.

This chapter is clear enough.

135 When we have fallen into afflictions and despairs and hopelessnesses,

‘Hopelessnesses’: We are following the Greek here, which obliges us to use a plural noun different from ‘despairs’, even if we are abusing the English language in doing so like this.

Good preparation for this chapter of St Hesychios would be to reread OTT 12. That chapter of Evagrius has a very deep psychological analysis of sorrow. TPL 10 has a more elementary discussion of sorrow, but includes a definition of sorrow that is useful.

For a more modern appreciation of sorrow in the life of the Hesychast, based on the personal testimony of Fr Ephraim of Katounakia, see the book about him prepared by his disciples that has quotations from him on the matter.[11]

St Hesychios’ analysis has a very significant difference from that of Evagrius: it is clear that St Hesychios is here concerned with sorrow that has an objective cause; the use of the term ‘afflictions’ demonstrates this.

These objective causes might be a grave injustice that the monk has suffered: we know that St Gregory Palamas was confined to a narrow, dark dungeon for some time for the sake of Hesychast practice and his defence of it; that many monks suffered banishment, imprisonment, torture and even martyrdom during the Iconoclast controversy; that St John Chrysostom, for the sake of having condemned an injustice, was banished and driven by forced march until he perished; that St Paul, by his own testimony, despaired of life itself in Ephesus.[12] Or they might be a deprivation of essentials such as food, water and raiment. Or such bad weather as to endanger the health or life of the monk. Or serious problems in the health of the monk, such as cancer, diabetes or other incurable illnesses. Or such things as forest fires, wars, the raids of foreigners, sellings into slavery, and the pressure to apostatize from Christianity under threats of martyrdom. Or they might be betrayals by persons of trust. All these things are afflictions. They are difficult, and while they might make a saint of the man, they might break him.

Despairs can be taken either to be the advanced psychological aspects of afflictions, such as we read of men confined to the Gulag; or, in the Evagrian sense, to be the sign of a serious, persistent attack of the demon of sorrow, where the objective cause may or may not be significant in itself.

Hopelessnesses—readers will forgive this construction of a word which does not otherwise exist in English—are to be taken to be the final stages of despair.

The topic that St Hesychios is addressing is very serious. A monk today might face similar afflictions; they come by the permission of God. Hence, St Hesychios’ prescriptions are valid even today, and quite important for the monk to reflect on even before the affliction comes.

Let us note that as usual St Hesychios concentrates on the aspects of the problem that above all concern the Hesychast: how to confront the afflictions with prayer. Let us also remark that today, a monk faced with similar afflictions, if he is able both morally and actually—morally in the sense that the confessor is trustworthy and appropriate; actually in the sense that he can physically reach and communicate with the confessor—, would do well to make a very deep confession, and if the circumstances are such that the confessor agrees, to make his Communion. If he wishes, the monk may request the Mystery (sacrament) of Unction, which has very deep properties of salvific forgiveness of sins and spiritual healing and, if God himself wishes, also physical healing.

Discussion with the Confessor will bring to light whether there is a need for the Prayers of St Basil the Great or for any other prayers from the Priest’s Book of Prayers (Euchologion) that might be useful or even necessary for the salvation and peace of mind of the monk.

Let us remark here that all Orthodox Christians are obliged to confess their serious sins to a priest charged with hearing confessions.

These things all having been said, and not disparaged, let us turn to St Hesychios’ own prescriptions. Let us remark that only a Christian of a certain maturity—such as one would expect of an experienced Hesychast according to the model of St Hesychios—would be able effectively to put these prescriptions into practice.

it is necessary to do in ourselves the [practice] of David: to pour out our heart towards God and to report our entreaty and affliction, as they are, to the Lord [cf. Ps. 141, 3]. For let us confess to God as to One who is able wisely to administer those things that pertain to us and to make the affliction easy if that is for the profit, and to deliver us from the ruinous and destructive sorrow.

What is St Hesychios saying?

First, the passage of the Psalms that he has in mind is this: ‘I will pour out my entreaty before him. I will announce my affliction before him.’ (Ps. 141, 3.)

There is a similar passage in 1 Kgs. 1, where Hannah, the future mother of Samuel the Prophet, afflicted by her barrenness and her ill-treatment on account of her barrenness at the hands of her husband’s other wife, pours out her heart before the Lord, before the Temple of the Lord at Shiloh. Having been rebuked as a drunkard by the priest’s servant, she answers: ‘No, sir; I am a woman (in) a hard day, and wine and intoxicating drink I have not drunk, and I pour out my soul before the Lord.’ (1 Kgs. 1, 15.)

We can see in the passage about Hannah both the objective nature of the affliction—the barrenness and the ill-treatment are for her objective hard-to-bear facts of life—and what St Hesychios is counselling: that the monk pour out his heart from the depths of his soul in utter truth to God. This is the significance of St Hesychios’ phrase ‘as they are’: that we speak to God with utter frankness. Note that St Hesychios is not counselling mysterial (sacramental) confession; he is speaking of a from-the-heart confession in prayer to the Lord. It is not easy to pray in this way; it takes courage to come before the Lord in utter humility and honesty about what is troubling one. However, the whole key to this approach is to talk to God in this utter humility and frankness from the utter depths of the soul.

What then? God is ‘One who is able wisely to administer those things that pertain to us and to make the affliction easy if that is for the profit…’. Remember, we are here dealing with serious, very serious, matters: cancers, wars, temptations, apostasy from Christ to save our life and so on. This is not a time for spiritual exercises; it is a time to pour out in utter frankness our heart to God, speaking in utter humility. And he is ‘One who is able wisely to administer those things that pertain to us’, to arrange matters as he sees fit: by obvious miracle, by less obvious intervention, by the strengthening of the man, as he did for his Son in the Garden of Gethsemane. God is also One who is able ‘to make the affliction easy’: in the case of terminal illnesses, to cure the illness or to relieve the pain or to bring about an easy death (certainly not by an overdose of painkiller); in the case of temptations, to remove the temptation or to strengthen the resolve and fortitude of the tempted man so that the temptation be easier to bear; in the case of martyrdom, to make the suffering easier ‘if that is for the profit’—for the salvation of the man, for the good of the Church, and even, in the case of his Only-Begotten Son, for the salvation of Man. We must pray in utter frankness; we must be obedient. The model for us is Christ in the Garden.

The final phrase is important: ‘and to deliver us from the ruinous and destructive sorrow’. One thing is the objective affliction; another, the ‘ruinous and destructive sorrow’ with which we confront the affliction. In this matter, deliverance from the sorrow may not be something that God grants in an evening, although he may. We must not lose heart, but pray until we are delivered from the sorrow which has accompanied the affliction, and until the affliction itself has been set right in our life according to the wisdom of God himself. Why?

136 For temper (thumos) set in motion against men contrary to nature

Against our fellow man. We know this well from Evagrius, and even from St Hesychios. St Hesychios is not admonishing the afflicted monk; he is simply stating which passions—anger, sorrow and accidie—are similarly destructive of a monk’s spiritual condition.

and sorrow not according to God [cf. 2 Cor. 7, 10]

There is a charism of spiritual mourning, penthos, which, since it is a charism of the Holy Spirit, is according to God. St Paul makes this distinction: ‘For the sorrow which is according to God works repentance unto salvation not to be repented of; the sorrow which is of the world, however, works death.’[13]

This ‘sorrow not according to God’ is what Evagrius calls the passion or thought of sorrow; it is what is accompanying the affliction.

However, in the case that the sorrow is unaccompanied by an objective affliction, but corresponds more to sorrow as Evagrius has described it—a demonic temptation sometimes but not always related to previous serious sins—the monk, if he is strong enough, should proceed as St Hesychios advises in the preceding chapter: he should pour out his heart to God. See also our discussions in Volume II in the commentaries on TPL 10 and OTT 12.

and accidie are similarly destructive of the good and gnostic thoughts (logismoi)

Concerning this, in OTT 5 Evagrius remarks that the temper used contrary to nature is the destroyer of pure prayer; in OTT 12, he describes the dire consequences of sorrow when it persists; in OTT 36, he describes the consequences of sorrow arising from a serious sin committed by an ascetic who has previously made good progress; and in TPL 12, he describes the thought of accidie and its consequences.

‘The good and gnostic thoughts’: These good and gnostic thoughts are similar to the spiritual mental representations (Evagrius) or spiritual conceptions (St Hesychios) that we have just been discussing. They constitute the fabric of the spiritual condition of the monk. Hence what St Hesychios is saying is that the temper contrary to nature, sorrow not according to God and accidie (here he does use the usual Greek word for accidie) can destroy the spiritual condition of the Hesychast.

scattering which things

That is, the anger (or temper) contrary to nature, the sorrow not according to God and the accidie.

in confession,

As was made clear in the previous chapter concerning ‘afflictions, despairs and hopelessnesses’, St Hesychios is exhorting us to make a heartfelt confession in prayer when we are troubled by any of these three passions, with the promise that the Lord will scatter them.

the Lord produces joy.

The monk confesses to the Lord like David, like Hannah; and the Lord produces joy in him when he, the Lord, scatters the anger contrary to nature, the sorrow not according to God and the accidie.

As we remarked in the beginning of this series of chapters, the Orthodox Christian is obliged to confess serious sins to a priest charged with hearing confessions and may attend confession even for less serious sins. However, here, St Hesychios is referring to prayer and its power to free the monk from afflictions. The two approaches—mysterial (sacramental) confession and confession in prayer—are mutually supportive the one of the other.

The next chapter is a very important—nay, utterly important!—observation about the role of the Prayer of Jesus in the matter of thoughts. Here, we ourselves understand that, in line with the previous chapters, the monk is afflicted and sorrowed; and that, here, in fact, the monk finds that a thought has become rammed into or nailed into his heart, and he cannot get it out. A psychologist might call this a trauma, we do not know.

Now what does St Hesychios counsel and that in utter sobriety and seriousness?

137 It is the nature of the prayer (euche) of Jesus with sobriety utterly to destroy out of the depths of the conception (ennoia) of the heart, thoughts (logismoi) which, even when we do not want, have become fixed and established in the heart.

This is a prescription for a Hesychast. We say this because there is a danger of turning this passage into a pop psychotherapy.

As the mind (nous) descends into the heart, it descends through the various levels of the person much like a needle piercing an onion to its core. We say ‘person’ to avoid the confusion that might result from the use of ‘personality’, a technical term in modern psychology: perhaps ‘personness’, although a neologism, or even ‘personhood’ might do service for what we mean. Just as a needle, then, descends through the layers of the onion, the mind (nous) descends through the various layers of the person, and as the mind (nous) descends, it encounters thoughts at various strata of the person.

We might change the metaphor and speak of a drill drilling through rock strata to the centre of the earth.

Now, strange as it may seem, the thought that is afflicting the man is somewhere: it is lodged in some layer of the onion or other, some concrete geological stratum or other: it is lodged in some layer of the person or other.

This thought is precisely a noema (mental representation), or ennoia (conception), here understood in the sense of a frozen thought, attitude and so on. The significance of the phrase of St Hesychios, ‘conception (ennoia) of the heart’ is that the inner space of the man is made up of a fabric of such mental representations or conceptions, and that the troublesome mental representation or conception is like a foreign body in the fabric or geology or layer of the onion, one that irritates the man just as a foreign body in the eye irritates him.

Now what St Hesychios is saying is this: If you practise sobriety and the Jesus Prayer in the heart—not the Jesus Prayer alone, but also sobriety—, then you will eventually make conscious contact with the troublesome thought that is embedded in some layer or other of your person. When you do that, St Hesychios is saying, then the Prayer of Jesus, both on account of the effect of the repetitive play of mental representations of the Prayer and on account of the invocation, will utterly destroy the thought. It is as if the drill intelligibly would intelligibly grind the embedded thought until it disappears.

Now this is one way. In the less accomplished man, sobriety itself practised together with the Prayer of Jesus will equilibrate his person and his inner world, so that, indirectly, the thought will begin to lose its predominating and overwhelming force.

These prescriptions presuppose that the monk—or even the afflicted layman—has properly arranged the rest of his religious life. We have seen advertisements emanating from the United States of America for cassettes that teach the Prayer of Jesus. They promote the Prayer as a means of relaxation. Whatever the merits of these cassettes and of the Prayer as a means of relaxation, St Hesychios is speaking on a profound level to men who every day have dedicated their day of twenty-four hours to prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, and not to men seeking to relax from the hustle and bustle of life in the United States. It would be silly for the afflicted layman in America to listen to a few cassettes in the hope that twenty minutes a day of the Prayer of Jesus will cure his affliction. Those twenty minutes might—miracles do happen—but the Hesychast life is far more serious and profound than what such advertisements hold out.

The next chapter deals with the next particular case. In this chapter, OS 137, the troublesome thought, mental representation or conception, is embedded in the ‘conception (ennoia) of the heart’, in the fabric of consciousness. In OS 98 and in the next chapter, OS 138, the troublesome thoughts are due to a concerted onslaught of the demons: they are assaults from without.

In OS 98, the prescription is to use the Prayer of Jesus against the thoughts or mental representations or conceptions with which the demons are assaulting us in much the same way as in OS 137: by focusing the repetition of the formula of invocation on the afflicting thoughts until they dissipate. In OS 98 the prescription is to ‘cast into the middle of them [the oppressive thoughts that are multiplied in us due to a concerted attack of the demons] the invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and at that time we shall see them immediately dissolved like smoke in the air…’. In OS 138, however, the prescription is different. Let us see what St Hesychios says:

138 When we are in the affliction of many irrational thoughts (logismoi),

‘Many irrational thoughts’: This is the classic euphemism for a sudden outbreak of thoughts of fornication. These thoughts can be due to an excess of food (OTT 27) or else to the malice of the demons (OTT 16). Those two chapters are well worth reading in connection with the present chapter. One should also read in connection with this chapter of On Sobriety, OTT 34, which begins ‘Since there also occur successions of demons…’.

we will find alleviation and joy

Spiritual joy, and that together with an alleviation of the thoughts.

when we condemn ourselves in truth

Really and truly. According to where we have failed. More profoundly, however, following an ancient prescription of the Egyptian Fathers, we sincerely accept responsibility before God for the thoughts. St Hesychios greatly emphasizes the practice of self-condemnation throughout OS.

and with detachment,

Objectively, dispassionately, with clinical sobriety in observing our own selves.

This is St Hesychios’ first prescription for an upsurge in the war of the flesh: dispassionate self-condemnation in truth and clinical accuracy. This requires spiritual maturity; these are not prescriptions for a beginner.

or by declaring everything to the Lord as to a man.

This is the second prescription and it hearkens back to OS 135, where in the commentary we ourselves made Hannah the model. It also adds a dimension to the afflictions that St Hesychios intends in OS 135: the severe temptations that by divine permission on occasion are due to concerted attacks by the demons.

‘As to a man’: This conveys two things. First it describes our manner before Jesus Christ when we are pouring out our heart to him. We speak with the frankness and familiarity—and humility!—that we would use in speaking to a trusted counsellor and friend.

Moreover, and this is the second sense, we speak to our Saviour who is truly man and who truly understands.

And by all means, from these two things we will find repose from everything.

We should use both methods. And, St Hesychios says, we will find repose—relief or alleviation—from the war. Recall that a third method is that of OS 98: to cast the invocation into the middle of the thoughts.

These thoughts can be very oppressive. The ascetic is advised to study these counsels and methods so as to have them ready in his or her hour of need.

AlphabeticC’ adds the following sentence at the end of this chapter:

If we reward the cause of the calamities [i.e. the body] with punches with the hand, we shall understand. The Lord says: ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear.’ [Matt. 11, 15.]

This an allusion to the use of the fist or the whip against the rebellious flesh that we in any event see in OS 33 and 172 of the main text. Recall that ‘many irrational thoughts (logismoi)’ is to be taken to be an allusion to temptations by the demon of fornication. Recall also our description in Volume II, in the commentary on OTT 16, of the use of the stick against such temptations by the saintly Joseph the Hesychast. We will comment on this matter further in our commentary on OS 172, below.

In the next two chapters, St Hesychios returns to the distinction that St Maximos the Confessor established in the quotations that St Hesychios presented to us earlier, that is, to the distinction between the inner and the outer man, between our nous and our man of action. One might refer to OS 70, above, and especially to the actual text of St Maximos that we presented in the commentary there, for the concepts, as defined by St Maximos himself, of the inner and the outer man.

The significance of these two chapters, OS 139 and 140, rests in St Hesychios’ remarks on the prerogatives of the nous after the experience of Theology, to use the Evagrian term, or after divinization (theosis), to use a later term now in common use, and in St Hesychios’ insistence that the nous must rule the outer man of action. The inner man is Moses, who legislates; the outer man is Aaron, who fell and was rebuked for his failure by his brother Moses.

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[1] See Chapter III of Volume I.

[2] See Volume I, Chapter III.

[3] OTT G pp. 23 ff.

[4] Whence, we think, Evagrius’ unexplained assertions (e.g. KG VI, 10) that ‘The Holy Trinity is essential gnosis.’

[5] KG V, 81.

[6] This would correspond to Evagrius’ ‘gnosis of the Holy Trinity’ in TPL 3.

[7] KG II, 83—Greek fragment.

[8] See TPL 56, quoted above.

[9] See OTT 41 and KG II, 83.

[10] Ibid. p. 24.

[11] Ephraim E, F, or G.

[12] Cf. 2 Cor. 1, 8.

[13] 2 Cor. 7, 10.


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