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OS (Commentary) -- 3

8 The intellect (dianoia) standing and invoking Christ against the enemy and fleeing to him for refuge, as some beast encircled by many dogs,

The reader will recall what Evagrius said in TPL 42: ‘Tempted, do not first pray, before you say certain words with anger towards him [the demon, not the brother] who is afflicting you.’ We remarked then that we originally thought that Evagrius had it backwards. True, Evagrius there meant prayer as a concerted activity, and intended the case where the hermit approached the hour of prayer bothered by an insistent thought of rancour. However, there is a significant difference between St Hesychios and Evagrius on this point. Evagrius was very much the man of great strength who could combat demons with his own might. As we commented in Volume II, that is perhaps where he fell.[1] However that may be, the Hesychian schema of the immaterial war is rebuttal followed by the invocation of Jesus Christ. St Hesychios is insistent on the necessity of ‘fleeing’ to Jesus for refuge by invocation: he by no means discards rebuttal—quite the contrary—but he greatly emphasizes the need to flee to Jesus. For here the dogs are the demons that are assailing the Hesychast with thoughts (logismoi) or impassioned mental representations, and the Hesychast is being counselled to flee to Jesus for refuge: this is the invocation of Jesus Christ as part of the immaterial war.

The next thing to observe is stylistic. Do not try to approach St Hesychios’ text logically. It does not work. The unity of his thought is supernaturally given; it is not the work of human reason. This is also evident in the psalms.

St Hesychios says, in a chapter composed of a single sentence without a verb:[2] ‘The intellect standing and invoking Christ against the enemy…’ What this is, is an image of the mind stationed in the gate of the heart: The mind (nous) is beset by demons. The thoughts come fast and hard; there is a battle. The ‘imageless delightful tranquillity of mind (nous)’ of the last chapter is not for now.

‘And fleeing to him for refuge’: This is the invocation. Earlier we emphasized the noetic—the mental, spiritual, contemplative—aspects of the abiding or continual repetition of the Prayer of Jesus, to which we could attend or not in order to do battle or in order to speak or converse with our fellow man. Here, however, the battle is severe; we are beset ‘as some beast encircled by many dogs’. Do not look for logic, the ‘How is the beast encircled by many dogs going to flee to Jesus?’ These are images, each of which conveys a truth. St Hesychios very much is a writer who juxtaposes images. Hence his lack of verbs; hence his other syntactical irregularities.

Now what does St Hesychios mean? We are a wild beast—a tiger. We are beset by many dogs. Encircled. Our life is at stake. The dogs mean business. They have been trained—since the time of Adam, St Hesychios will say—to kill. We flee to Jesus. What is involved? It is possible to ‘lean into’ the Jesus Prayer.[3] By joining not only our attention to the Prayer—what we were just referring to above as the noetic aspect of the Jesus Prayer—but also our temper, we can pray with great urgency and intensity. Let us clarify this: When we attach our temper to the Prayer, we are not angry, enraged, disturbed or so forth, but we are battling with manly courage, with great strength. We are fighting. This is apart from the anger against the demon that normally is expressed in rebuttal. We are here coupling a functioning according to nature of the temper to the Prayer. We are praying with temper, just as a tiger would seek to save itself surrounded by many dogs that intended to kill it.

and setting itself in a fortress in opposition;

This is the third image. It is the image of the man in a fortress surrounded by thick walls. What does it have to do with being a wild beast surrounded by many dogs? Nothing. Or, rather, just this: there is an idea of being in the centre, surrounded on all sides, by walls in the one case, by murderous dogs in the other. The image of being in the centre arises from the lived experience of having the mind in the heart. I am deep inside myself, surrounded by the thick walls of my body. They protect me. I pray continuously. Outside my body—this is a time of battle—I am surrounded by demons. These are two separate images, but the root of both is the experience of being in a central space, in the heart.

from afar, then, intelligibly seeing in advance the intelligible bands of the invisible enemies;

This is a continuation of the fortress imagery. From the watchtower, the spiritual watchtower, from afar with the charism of spiritual discernment, I discern spiritually the intelligible bands of the invisible enemies: the demons are spirits. Evagrius himself referred discreetly to this ability to discern spirits. We will leave discussion of it at the moment, since St Hesychios will later return to the subject. In a later chapter he will also refer explicitly to the image of the watchtower.

and, on account of entreating continually against them the Peacemaker Jesus, persevering unwounded by them.

This is clear. The reader might like to refer at this point to OTT 34. It is too long a chapter to be quoted here. However, the passage which begins ‘Let the mind flee towards the Lord when it sees these things [the sudden boiling of a passion without there being negligence on the part of the ascetic]…’ is apposite here. St Hesychios is optimistic, as he is everywhere, but Evagrius foresees that the ascetic might be bloodied by the attack. OTT 34 is well worth reading in connection with this chapter of St Hesychios.

9 If you know and it has been given to you to appear in the mornings and to be seen [cf. Ps. 5, 4]—but also to see—you know what I am saying. If not, then, be sober and you will receive.

The basis of this chapter is Psalm 5, which begins:

O Lord, hearken to my words; understand my cry; attend to the voice of my supplication, my Lord and my God: for to thee will I pray, O Lord; in the morning thou wilt hear my voice; in the morning I will appear in your presence and will see.

The words in italics agree with the Greek text of the psalm in the Septuagint on which is based the translation of Sir Lancelot Brenton.[4] The Greek text that corresponds to the words in italics is different in the Septuagint of the Psalter of the Church of Greece[5] and in the edition of the Septuagint published by ‘Zoe’;[6] there are a variety of readings in the Septuagint. The latter two editions have ‘…I will appear in your presence and thou wilt see me.’

St Hesychios has taken the last line that we have quoted from the psalm to read: ‘…I will appear in your presence and be seen.’

He has then added: ‘but also to see.’

AlphabeticI’ treats ‘but also to see’ as a later interpolation in, or gloss on, the text of the alphabetic version of OS. We think, however, that it is consistent with St Hesychios’ theology, as expressed, for example, in OS 131, below, and therefore to be retained until a critical edition of the main version of OS should demonstrate otherwise.

What is the significance of this chapter of St Hesychios?

By ‘morning’ we understand—here and throughout OS—the last hours of the night, when the sun is still approaching its morning splendour. We do not take it to mean: ‘after dawn, in the brightness of the day’. David in these hours of the ‘morning’, that is, the last hours of the night, cried to the Lord from out the depths (cf. Ps. 129, 1). That is what the monk does. This is the night vigil. It is executed in solitude, before the Lord. The significance of ‘and be seen’ is this presenting of oneself to the Lord in petitionary prayer. The ‘but also to see’ brings us to Evagrius’ OTT 42:

The mental representations which imprint and form figures in our ruling part make quite turbid the right eye, the one which 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].

David knew the Lord. In Psalm 15, 8–9, he says:

I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken. And for that reason, my heart made merry and my tongue greatly rejoiced; moreover my flesh will sojourn in hope.

Hence, what St Hesychios is saying is this: ‘You know the Lord and are seen by him when you present yourself to him in humble petitionary prayer in the last hours of the night; and you see him when the right eye of your soul is pure. If you have not attained to this state of prayer and union with God, practise my method of sobriety and you will.’ ‘Right eye’ is our gloss; nowhere does St Hesychios use such an expression, although he uses a related expression in OS 131.

The point is knowledge or gnosis of God, how it is attained. The fundamental point is what sobriety is all about: it is ‘a spiritual method or way that entirely frees the man, with the help of God, from impassioned mental representations and impassioned words and wicked works (erga) when it persists and is willingly travelled upon’.[7] But the result of that freeing is the gnosis of God, according to the doctrine, which St Hesychios explicitly adopts, of Evagrius Pontikos in OTT 2 and 40.

Hence, what St Hesychios is saying is this: ‘If you know God and it has been given to you to appear before God in the mornings in prayer and to be seen by him—but also to see him—then you know what I am saying. If not, practise sobriety, and when you will have been purified by this method called sobriety, you will receive this conscious knowledge, gnosis or contemplation of God.’

OS 10 continues this idea:

10 The systems of the seas: much water. The system and strong foundation of sobriety and of soberness and of stillness (hesychia) in the depth of the soul, and abyss of extraordinary and ineffable contemplations and of pardoning humility

‘Pardoning’: Or, ‘prudent’. Both meanings are to be found in the dictionary, although ‘pardoning’ seems to be a later sense. ‘Pardoning’ seems to fit the context better, although St Hesychios will later discuss the charism of prudence, in OS 194. There, ‘prudence’ has much the same sense as ‘discernment’ or ‘discretion’. The idea of a ‘prudent’ humility, although it is in fact evangelical (cf. Matt. 10, 16), does not seem to be as Hesychian as the idea of a ‘pardoning’ humility.

and of uprightness

‘Uprightness’ could also be rendered ‘sincerity’.

and charity:

St Hesychios here and elsewhere has an elliptical syntax coupled to pleonasm. The effect is to create an atmosphere that is imagistic, but to make it difficult, sometimes, to grasp his sense.

The basis of this chapter is a simile: the systems of the seas are compared to the system and firmament of these following things: sobriety, soberness, stillness, an abyss of contemplations, pardoning humility, sincerity and charity. Then that which makes the systems of the seas what they are—much water—is compared to that which makes the system and firmament of sobriety and so on what they are—we will see what that is.

Hence, the first part of each sentence is the result—the systems of the seas; the system of sobriety and so on—and the second part is the cause—much water; those things we will come to presently.

Therefore ‘system and strong foundation of sobriety’ is a description of a state, what Evagrius calls a ‘condition’. This state is the spiritual condition of the monk.

What are its components?

‘Sobriety’, here taken in the of sense of a purity of heart to which the Hesychast has attained. Dispassion, we would say, following, this time, Evagrius’ definition.

‘Soberness’: We take this to be a nuance in part pleonastic with sobriety. St Hesychios means clarity apart from focus.

‘Deep stillness of the soul’: The Hesychast method, properly practised, leads to a deep settling of the soul, just as a settling tank if it is left alone will allow the water within it to grow still and clarify.

‘Abyss of extraordinary and ineffable contemplations’: We spent much time in Volume II discussing Evagrius’ theory of contemplation, despite the problems that arise because of Evagrius’ heterodox doctrines, precisely to be able to make this clear. St Hesychios, in our opinion, is speaking of natural contemplation.

‘Pardoning humility’: Evagrius did not speak much of humility; he used the terms charity and meekness, the equivalent of charity. St Hesychios’ introduction of humility and his emphasis on it is refreshing. Note that this is a pardoning humility. One usually thinks of humility as that which seeks pardon, and ‘pardoning’ here could well be construed as ‘causing the pardon by the Other of my sins, by my humble petition’. However, it would be wonderful to see this ‘pardoning humility’ as St Hesychios’ recognition that there is a humility that pardons him who has sinned against us, a humility fully cognizant of human frailty, both our own and that of the other who has sinned against us.

‘Uprightness’: This word is used to describe Adam’s condition in Paradise before the Fall. See, for example, the quotations from the Life of Anthony in OS 179, below.

‘Charity’. This is clear. ‘Charity is the offspring of dispassion.’[8]

We have here a partial portrait of humility and a full portrait of Evagrian dispassion.

The cause of the systems of the seas, says St Hesychios, is their much water. What does he say is the cause of the spiritual condition he has just described?

extreme sobriety and the prayer (euche), without thoughts (logismoi), of Jesus Christ—and this straitly and densely—and not to be faint-hearted.

St Hesychios is giving specific instructions in this passage. Keep, he is saying, extreme sobriety—in the heart. This extreme sobriety is an intense undeflecting watchfulness or attention in the heart. It does not waver. It is coupled to the Prayer of Jesus Christ. The Prayer continues unabated. I am attending with extreme sobriety. Each word registers clearly in my field of consciousness, which St Hesychios himself will call the mirror of the intellect. Without thoughts. There are no mental representations. Those that come are refused admittance. This refusal is at this stage possible to accomplish with a gesture of the mind. In cases where the thought is more insistent, it might be wise to rebut it more vehemently, but again in thought. This rebuttal or gesture of the mind neither stops the Jesus Prayer, which continues unabated, nor, essentially, does it deflect my attention from the words. Now St Hesychios adds another direction: the Prayer of Jesus straitly and densely. ‘Straitly’ means ‘with intense focus’; ‘densely’ means ‘very rapidly and heavily’.

Finally St Hesychios adds: ‘and not to be very faint-hearted’. Hesychasm requires courage; the Prayer prayed in this way requires dedication and courage—manliness.

This passage is a portrait of the guard of the mind. This is the goal of the beginning Hesychast and his ground state when he is advanced. It is this guard of the mind that St Hesychios says is the cause of the spiritual condition of the Hesychast that he has described above. To attain to the spiritual condition St Hesychios has described above, the Hesychast must aim for the guard of the mind and, when he has attained it, he must maintain that guard of the mind undeviatingly until the end of his earthly life. The contemplations, the raptures, the conscious union with Jesus Christ—all these things build on the guard of the mind, the ground state of the advanced Hesychast: it is the state he maintains in going through his daily routine; it is the state in St Hesychios that corresponds in Evagrius to the tending of the sheep of the mental representations in OTT 17.

The next chapter seems on the surface a bit simple-minded. It is the basis, however, of the whole Hesychian program.

11 He says: ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom of the Heavens, but he who does the will of my Father.’ [Matt. 7, 21.] The will of his Father is: ‘Those who love the Lord, do you hate wicked things.’ [Ps. 96, 10.] Therefore, in company with the prayer (euche) of Jesus we will also hate wicked thoughts (logismoi); and Behold! we have done the will of God.

In OS 1, St Hesychios wrote that sobriety is ‘productive of every commandment of God, of the Old as well as of the New, Testament…’. As will become evident in OS 112 and 113, the Old Testament corresponds to sin in act and the New Testament to sin in thought. Moreover, as also will become evident, St Hesychios adopts the whole Evagrian system: the inception of the demonic thought in the impassioned mental representation, the acceptance or refusal of the thought—that is the basis of the Evagrian psychology of ascesis—and, if the thought be accepted, its final outcome in sin in act, although St Hesychios modifies the Evagrian system on the basis of St Mark the Ascetic. What Evagrius’ model is, should be clear from our discussion of Evagrius in Volume II. Hence, here taking Hesychian sobriety as a synonym for Evagrian praktike, the practical life, sobriety is the keeping of the commandments of God in thought. We dwelt much on this in Volume II. St Hesychios’—and all the Fathers’—point is that as Christian ascetics we must cut off sin at its very inception in the impassioned recollection, the impassioned mental representation, of the object of sense. This is what St Hesychios means when he says ‘we will also hate wicked thoughts (logismoi)’. So, while St Hesychios seems a bit simple-minded, he is in fact introducing the whole Evagrian ascetical system of the immaterial war or praktike. Now, as we have pointed out, St Hesychios marries the Evagrian immaterial war, or praktike, to the Prayer of Jesus prayed in the heart, and in the manner, in advanced ascetics, that he has just described in the passage that closes OS 10, above. That is the significance of ‘in company with the prayer (euche) of Jesus’ in this chapter.

While it is clear that Evagrius did not pray in the manner that St Hesychios has described and will describe—Evagrius’ whole heterodox cosmology and Christology precluded it, as will be evident from an attentive study of Evagrius’ theory of contemplation[9]—and while it is clear that St Hesychios has an elaborated theory of prayer, as concerns the use of the Prayer of Jesus, which makes him later than Fourth Century Egypt, still we know from St John Cassian that the repetition of a formula—say, a passage of a psalm—was in common use in Fourth Century Egypt. We discussed this in Volume II.

The significance of the Prayer of Jesus in the Hesychian system is twofold: First, it concentrates the mind in the heart and is thus the vehicle of the sobriety described in the directions given in the preceding chapter; and, second, it is an invocation of our Lord. St Hesychios examines and modifies the Evagrian system, and a clear modification is St Hesychios’ emphasis on the need to invoke our Lord. Although this is not evident in the preceding chapter, it will become so as we go on. We will discuss in the commentary before OS 54 how this modification relates to St Hesychios’ adoption of certain positions of St Mark the Ascetic in On Holy Baptism.

This chapter clearly states the program of St Hesychios—and of all later Hesychast authors. Their point is that the twofold system—Evagrian rebuttal and the invocation—which constitutes Hesychian sobriety cuts off sin at its root in the inception of the impassioned mental representation in the intellect—and this while the mind is in the heart. Since the Hesychast cuts off the impassioned mental representation (‘hates … wicked thoughts’ has that import in this chapter), he has done the will of God: he has cut off sin at its root.

Recall that praktike is the keeping of the commandments of God in thought and that Evagrius was not insensitive to the acquisition of virtue. That was a central feature of Evagrian spirituality. Evagrius says, in TPL 40: ‘…[I]t is necessary … to make an attempt to keep the possible commandments, as much as is possible [for the solitary], of course.’ St Hesychios would not disagree. The emphasis here is on praktike, and the fundamental orientation is the cutting off of demonically inspired thoughts at their inception in the appearance of an impassioned mental representation in the heart, and that ‘in company with’—coupled or joined to—the Prayer of Jesus. This is the whole of OS. As St Hesychios will later say, keeping the commandments in thought enables the ascetic more easily to keep the commandments in action.[10] Moreover, only by keeping the commandments in thought can the ascetic ‘arrive at something spiritual and pleasing to God’—that is, ascend to contemplation.[11]

The next chapter elaborates on this:

12 Our Master and God Incarnate placed before us a model of every virtue [cf. 1 Pet. 2, 21] and a pattern of the human race and the recall of the ancient Fall,

That is, the recall from the Fall of Adam.

having painted the all-virtuous way of life in his flesh.

St Hesychios is very strong on Christ the Model.

Together with all his good works that he showed to us,

The miracles, the healing, the exorcisms.

going up into the desert after the Baptism [cf. Matt. 3, 13–4, 11; etc.]

His own Baptism by St John the Baptist in the River Jordan.

he begins with fasting the intelligible battle

This is the immaterial war or praktike. Although St Hesychios later quotes with approval passages from St Maximos the Confessor that emphasize the value of the immaterial war over bodily ascesis, here he values fasting positively.

the Devil drawing near to him as to a mere man [cf. Matt. 4, 3; etc.]; and through such a manner as this of victory,

Of Christ over the Devil in rebutting each of the three temptations. See the last part of OTT 1 for Evagrius’ analysis of the three temptations of Christ as referring to the three ‘generator thoughts’ of gluttony, avarice and vainglory that Evagrius discusses in that same chapter.

the Master taught us also, who are unfit for war,

This is true. We must learn.

how we must conduct the battle against the spirits of wickedness, that is to say, in humility and fasting and prayer (euche) and sobriety—

This is the immaterial war of Evagrius as adapted by St Hesychios. By sobriety, St Hesychios here means the actual method, which he will explain later in detail, of cutting off an impassioned mental representation in the heart as soon as it has appeared in the intellect. By prayer, St Hesychios means invocation by means of the Prayer of Jesus continually repeated. By fasting, he means just that; later he will give instructions concerning moderation in bodily ascesis. Humility is clear: an ascesis that does not advance in a humble spirit of repentance towards the acquisition of virtue is demonic.

he who has no need of such things since he is God and the God of gods [cf. Ps. 83, 8].

Since, according to the formula of St Basil the Great (c.330–379), Jesus Christ as man was divinized—that is, attained as man to complete perfection, such as, or even more than, Adam had in Paradise, and also Eve—from the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, he had no need of fasting, classic means of repentance. Nor did he have need of the purification which comes to us from sobriety (i.e. praktike), since he was utterly without sin and passion, the tendency in us to sin. Hence, St Hesychios says, those things were done by Jesus Christ as a model for us, how we who are unfit for war should conduct the battle. Note that this battle is precisely the immaterial war and that the three temptations of Christ in the desert are for St Hesychios a model of the immaterial war. In this, he is following the doctrine of OTT, from which he will later make direct quotations.

St Hesychios now begins an important discussion of the means to purify the mind from impassioned thoughts; that is, he will now begin to discuss the ways of sobriety, with sobriety here taken as a synonym for praktike.

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[1] See the commentary on OTT 19 in Volume II.

[2] We ignore the reading of Alphabetic ‘Ι’ which would make a main verb of the final participle.

[3] St Hesychios himself will later refer to this.

[4] Brenton.

[5] Psalter.

[6] Zoe.

[7] OS 1, above.

[8] TPL 81.

[9] See Volume II.

[10] OS 85, 111, etc.

[11] OS 109.


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