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OS (Commentary) -- 4

13 Behold! I will not shrink from explaining to you with an unadorned and unintricate tongue

In fact, here, St Hesychios is using intricate syntax. This is rhetorical.

how many ways according to me there are of sobriety

The Greek word, tropos, here translated, in the plural, ‘ways’, can mean ‘way’ or ‘manner’, or else ‘a way of life or habit’. The sense should become clear as we proceed.

which up to now are able little by little to purify the mind (nous) from impassioned thoughts (logismoi).

This is precisely Evagrius’ definition of praktike, since the mind can be purified from impassioned thoughts only by purification of the passionate part of the soul. TPL 78 has this definition of praktike:

78 The practical life (praktike) is a spiritual method cleaning out the passionate part of the soul.

OTT 40 explains the necessity of the mind’s being free from the mental representations of sensible objects in order to see the place of God in itself: ‘The mind would not be able to see the place of God in itself not having become higher than all <mental representations> which are in [sensible] objects.’

St Hesychios implies the passionate part of the soul.

For in times of war

The immaterial war of praktike.

I did not judge that in this treatise I should hide the benefit through the use of words, and certainly for those who are more simple.

This is rhetoric. His style is quite polished—and difficult for even the most experienced translator.

He says:

St Paul.

‘You, then, Timothy, my child, attend to those things that you read.’ [1 Tim. 4, 13.]

14 One manner

The same word, tropos.

of sobriety:

Of conducting the immaterial war against demonically sown thoughts.

to watch densely over the imagination, that is to say, the assault, on account of the fact that without imagination Satan cannot create and display thoughts (logismoi) in the mind (nous) for the sake of a lying fraud.

‘Densely’: Here, this means: ‘with great intensity of focus and at all times’.

‘Assault’: As we saw, and will discuss in the commentary before OS 54, below, ‘assault’ is the term of St Mark the Ascetic that St Hesychios uses for the inception in the intellect of an impassioned mental representation of an object of sense.

‘Imagination’: Although he occasionally uses the Evagrian term ‘mental representation (noema)’, St Hesychios, prefers the term ‘imagination (phantasia)’. We have discussed this already. What St Hesychios means is the impassioned image of a sensible object as it first appears in the intellect. Although St Hesychios uses the Markan[1] term ‘assault’, he is in fact not using the Markan analysis of temptation in On the Spiritual Law, but the Evagrian analysis and the analysis of St Mark in On Holy Baptism: in On the Spiritual Law, the initial movement of temptation is without image; in On Holy Baptism, and for Evagrius and St Hesychios, the initial movement of temptation is the appearance in the intellect of a mental representation or imagination of an object of sense. We will discuss this in greater detail prior to OS 54.

This first method is none other than the Evagrian system of praktike or the immaterial war as expressed in St Hesychios’ own language.

The import of the clause ‘on account of the fact that without imagination Satan cannot create and display thoughts (logismoi) in the mind (nous) for the sake of a lying fraud’ is precisely what St Hesychios later will emphasize: the demon, being itself a mind or nous, has no other means to tempt man.[2] This is fundamental to this whole school: sin only begins with temptation, temptation which is sown by a demon in the form of the inception in the intellect of an impassioned mental representation or recollection of an object of sense. There is no other way for a man to sin than by first accepting such a mental representation, conversing with it, consenting to it and bringing the consent into sin in act. St Hesychios adopts this model wholeheartedly. This, then, is the first method of Hesychian sobriety, the Evagrian immaterial war.

15 The second: to have the heart deeply silent throughout, and still from every thought (logismos), and to pray.

We have already encountered this way or manner or sobriety; it is precisely what we found in OS 10, above: the guard of the mind. It should be remarked that the previous method is the basic method with which one begins the Hesychian program. The method of this chapter, the guard of the mind, is the result to which one attains after considerable exercise of the basic method.

16 Another: continually to call the Lord Jesus Christ to aid in humility.

This is the Jesus Prayer prayed in humility. It should be understood here that St Hesychios has in mind the automatic repetition with humility of a formula.

17 The other way: to have in the soul the unceasing memory of death.

Evagrius remarks in TPL 52: ‘For our fathers call the life lived in solitude a meditation on death, and a flight from the body.’ Nowhere else that we are aware of does he dwell on the memory of death. This is plausible. Evagrius had a completely different orientation. St John of Sinai speaks of the memory of death in Step 6 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. There it is clear that the memory of death is a charism of the Holy Spirit. This charism, when it is properly exercised, automatically engenders nepsis or sobriety in exactly the same way that the double fear (the fear of hell and reverence for God our Father) automatically engenders nepsis.[3]

We will return to the memory of death just below.

18 These are all the labours, beloved, which after the manner of doorkeepers [cf. Ps. 126, 5]

Recall that the mind is stationed at the gate of the heart.

impede the wicked conceptions (ennoies).

To look towards Heaven, then, and to regard the earth as nothing, which very way is efficacious along with the others, I will exhibit at greater length in another place, God giving me words.

St Hesychios never does. This is contemplation, and it requires an advanced ascetic; that is why St Hesychios says nothing here.

Let us now look at these four methods: the watch over the imagination (OS 14), silence of soul (OS 15), the humble invocation of Jesus Christ (OS 16) and the unceasing memory of death (OS 17). By the time we have finished St Hesychios’ text, it will be evident that these are four components which among themselves constitute the full program of St Hesychios for the ascetic, partial solitary, solitary, hermit or Hesychast. That is, these four methods are mutually exclusive only in St Hesychios’ manner of presentation. What the hermit does is combine in a personal way the different methods in varying proportions. What we mean is this: the full hermit will practise all four aspects in a harmonious blend.[4] Now this means that we should not think that the one way excludes the others. All four methods are integrated in varying proportions according to the person into a whole, which is called Hesychian sobriety. The proportions vary according to the person; the time; the place; the season; the external conditions; the age; the physical, spiritual and emotional strength or health; and the spiritual maturity and progress. These methods are not exclusive the one of the other.

The fifth method, as we said, is contemplation. That is a matter both of will and of spiritual attainment. St Hesychios recognizes the existence of natural gnosis, the second and first natural contemplations; he certainly recognizes the existence of Theology, unitive prayer to God; and he consciously places the benefits of both natural contemplation and Theology before the ascetic as things to which the ascetic can attain if he persists in his method of sobriety; but he does not dwell in OS on the details of contemplation. In part, it seems, he thinks that the ascetic will learn by grace what he needs to know when he needs to know it; in part he wishes to remain silent. Let us leave it at this point, this fifth method. St Hesychios will later make references to contemplation on which we will comment.

Let us now look more carefully at the four methods which, we say, St Hesychios wants us to blend into a harmonious whole.

The first is Evagrian praktike, the watch over the thoughts. This is basic. However, it requires a certain solitude and a certain emotional maturity. One must be able to perceive the inception of the demonic thought—this is the solitude, or at least a cœnobitical program free from excessive distraction of the mind—and one must have the maturity to recognize the inception for what it is and not to be frightened. The ascetical apparatus of Evagrius—the eight most general thoughts, the demons and so forth, even as expressed by St Mark the Ascetic—can be disconcerting to the young monk. Hence, we often find the Jesus Prayer taught to beginners, even monks, novices and latecomers, without any mention at all of the immaterial war. One is counselled to attend to the words of the formula in harmony with the normal breathing without paying attention to ‘thoughts’.

This has a certain validity. One way to cut off the inception of a demonic thought is not to dwell on it, as we can see from OTT 24:

Therefore, in times of temptation, it is necessary to attempt to transfer the mind from the unclean thought onto another mental representation and from that to another, thus to escape that evil taskmaster. If, however, the mind, containing the object, does not change course, it is immersed in the passion; and then it is at risk, travelling towards sin in act.

If the monk or layman turns from the impassioned mental representation or impassioned thought to the words of the formula that he is repeating, he is doing what Evagrius is counselling: he is transferring his mind from the unclean thought to another mental representation—precisely that brought into his mind by the formula.

It should be evident that the Prayer of Jesus, whatever the formula, or the Lord’s Prayer prayed just like the Prayer of Jesus, or any other similar formula, introduces mental representations into the mind.[5] The attentive reader of OTT 41 will have grasped that some of these mental representations imprint and form figures in the mind, whereas others of them do not.

Hence, at the very foundation of the Prayer of Jesus is this flight from the wicked mental representation proffered to the intellect by the demon, to the good mental representations, those introduced by the repetition of the Prayer, whatever the formula—although it must be remarked that the formula plays a role, since it is by means of the formula itself that the mental representations are introduced into the mind.

This is the Jesus Prayer prayed as meditation. And this is precisely the word—Greek, melete—that the Egyptian Fathers, including St John Cassian, use. The fact, however, that Evagrius nowhere refers to the use of a repetitive formula that would introduce good mental representations into the mind, which good mental representations would cut off the demonically sown mental representations, is strong evidence that he himself did not make use of such a formula.

Now the monk or layman can combine this melete, meditation, with the pious humble invocation of Jesus Christ.[6] All that is required is that he pray from the heart. We are saying that St Hesychios’ first way—Evagrian sobriety—can be reduced in the extreme to a mere flight from the evil thought to the words of the Prayer, and that to this form of prayer can be attached the third way, humble invocation: nothing changes; the prayer is repeated; but now the monk or layman is praying from the heart with a certain intensity. As we remarked, this is the way that the Jesus Prayer is often taught to beginners on Mount Athos today.

This method is quite powerful, for it easily becomes the way of tears and compunction. As the way of tears and compunction, it is in common use on Mount Athos today. It is used even by ascetics. It is well-described (even though the Jesus Prayer is not mentioned) in Catechism 14 of St Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022).[7] This method can certainly lead to contemplation and it is easily combined with the memory of death. It is the road of humble penitence. (But let us recall that the memory of death is a spiritual charism that is foreign to mawkish or emotionally ill tears and sentimentality.)

However, this method is not the whole of Hesychian sobriety.

To the extent that the person—male or female, monk or layman, ordained priest or not—enters more deeply into his heart, he will automatically begin to learn Evagrian praktike—the cutting off of thoughts at their inception at the gate of the heart. This road is more difficult. It requires emotional and moral maturity or sobriety, taken here in its ordinary sense of ‘serious clarity of purpose’.

Let us be clear: Rather than proceeding on the road of tears and compunction, the monk or layman can enter more deeply into his heart, emphasizing the first method, that of the immaterial war, the cutting off of impassioned mental representations in the gate of the heart in the way that St Hesychios will discuss throughout OS. For this is the method of St Hesychios himself. As the monk or layman proceeds on this road of the immaterial war, coupling to it the third method of the humble, pious invocation in the way that St Hesychios will also discuss throughout OS, he will make such progress as to enter into the second way, that of the ‘heart deeply silent throughout, and still from every thought (logismos)’.[8] This is the guard of the mind. In St Hesychios’ method, this is the goal of the ascetic, to enter into this guard of the mind: it is from this guard of the mind that the Hesychian ascetic enters into contemplation.

When one has attained to the guard of the mind, one prays in sober clarity; one’s love is true. There are no tears: although St Hesychios recognizes that tears are a fruit of his method, he does not emphasize them, and does not speak at all of their cultivation. That is the other road, the one of tears and compunction. Here, in the guard of the mind, the memory of death takes the form of a silent love which recognizes the end of this world. This is a love compassionate for all living beings and silent; it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul, breathing a gentle breeze through the mirror of the intellect, the sea of the soul being fanned.[9]

Now St Hesychios does not mean that we are all able to do all things. Some men have one road more apt to them—that of tears and compunction—; others the other road of extreme sobriety and stillness of soul. He does mean that we must advance on a road which contains the four methods in varying proportions.

Now that leads us to a thorny topic: Did St Theodore Studite read OS? Yes. He read it and adopted the road that was suitable in his estimation to the cœnobium of his day, the road of sobriety engendered not by the repetition of the Prayer of Jesus, or by the repetition of any other formula, but by the memory of death. For in his catechisms, St Theodore Studite joins the memory of death to the refutation of the wicked thought in the intellect at its inception, the Evagrian praktike or immaterial war that we have just discussed.

It is a narrow reading of St Hesychios to think that only if you are repeating the Prayer of Jesus twenty-four hours a day—or doing something allied to that—are you sober.

We think that St Theodore Studite read OS and judged that the cœnobium was not the proper place for the Hesychast—leave that to St Ioannikios (754–846) he will say in one of his catechisms. He did judge, in our opinion, that the memory of death was the proper activity of monks in the cœnobium. His catechisms repeatedly refer to it, and explicitly couple it to the immaterial war of the thoughts in language that is quite reminiscent of St Hesychios. Indeed, in regard to the immaterial war, St Theodore Studite even refers to the need for the prayer (euche), although we doubt that he intends the continuous repetition of the Prayer of Jesus.

Was St Theodore Studite right to emphasize the memory of death and not the Prayer of Jesus? He might have been. On Mount Athos in recent times, the repetition of a formula has become—if anything has become—the standard method of spiritual ascesis. While individuals may emphasize the memory of death, we are unaware of a monastery or cœnobitical skete on Mount Athos where it is practised as the ‘house’ spirituality the way the repetition of the Jesus Prayer has been introduced in some cœnobia and the way the memory of death appears, judging from the catechisms of St Theodore Studite, to have been the ‘house’ spirituality of the Studion.

It is not our place to judge, but we would like to raise this question: Why did St Theodore Studite adopt the memory of death as his basic spiritual ascesis? For even if we were to be refuted in our assertion that he had read OS, he had a monastery, the Sakkoudion, on Mount Olympus in Bithynia, a district where there were many ascetics, including the great Hesychast, St Ioannikios, whom St Theodore Studite had certainly met. Hesychasm was not foreign to St Theodore Studite. He knew it. He saw it.

Hesychasm is difficult. The proper setting of the Jesus Prayer in the cœnobium is in the Hesychast who is a member of the cœnobium, who leads the Hesychast life with the concurrence and support, both material—food, clothing, medical care—and spiritual of the cœnobium. It should become clear as we go on that this is what St Hesychios himself seems to foresee for Hesychasm in the cœnobium: the Hesychast inserted in the cœnobium in the manner of the Carthusian semi-eremitic monk in the West who lives alone in the cell supported by the lay brethren.

Now, as far as we know, St Theodore Studite nowhere makes provision for this way of life even at the Sakkoudion. The life of the Studite cœnobitical monk was Church services, manual labour and a night vigil in the cell that St Theodore Studite never fully details—and those things with the memory of death accompanied by the immaterial war. Why?

First let us remark that St Theodore Studite was a reformer who reintroduced Basilian monasticism to Byzantium. Nowhere does St Basil the Great make provision for the Hesychast in the cœnobium. (However, according to St Gregory the Theologian, Homily 43, ‘Funeral Oration on St Basil’ 62, (Migne 36, cols. 576C–7B), St Basil did wish to have Hesychasts living close to the cœnobium. For discussion, see TPL G Tome I, pp. 45–6. We are not aware of such a close relationship between the Hesychast and the cœnobium in the reform of St Theodore Studite.)

But we think that the more fundamental answer is that the way of life detailed by St Theodore Studite is easier. The Prayer of Jesus is difficult in the cœnobium. We need not amplify this. We will simply say that the memory of death is perhaps the easier way when the environment is more active.

We can see, in any event, that the topic of St Hesychios’ work is sobriety, not the Jesus Prayer. For, in Hesychian terms, the catechisms of St Theodore Studite, that resolute and redoubtable cœnobite, are full of Hesychian sobriety—but in a form that concentrates and depends not on the Prayer of Jesus but on the memory of death.

To return to the more general topic of the relation of the Jesus Prayer prayed in the heart to asceticism, the Prayer of Jesus prayed in the heart is set by St Hesychios into a broad ascetical framework. This is our point, that the practitioner of Jesus Prayer must understand its ascetical setting. And that is precisely the set of four—or five—methods of sobriety that St Hesychios is listing in this series of short chapters.

They are, to repeat them, first the cutting off of the demonic thought when it begins, at the level of the impassioned mental representation of an object of sense. Then, second, to have the heart deeply silent and still from every thought and to pray. Third, to pray the Jesus Prayer humbly as invocation. Fourth, to have the memory of death unceasingly in the soul. And fifth, to be raised to contemplation.

This is the way of OS.

The next chapter is a quotation from St Maximos the Confessor, Chapter III, 69 of the Centuries on Charity, with the numeration of the Philokalia.[10]

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[1] I.e. of St Mark the Ascetic.

[2] See, for example, OS 173 and 180.

[3] OS 7.

[4] That is the significance of the use of the word ‘harmonious’, or ‘harmoniously’, in OS 120 and 160, below.

[5] We mentioned some of these formulas in Volume II in our commentary on TPL 49 and St John Cassian himself in one of his conferences discusses the use of a passage from Scripture in the same way (see Cassian C 10,10).

[6] OS 16.

[7] Symeon Volume II; = Oration 26, translated as Homily 65 in Zagoraios.

[8] OS 15.

[9] OS 156.

[10] As we learn from the learned Fr Jean Kirchmeyer (Kirchmeyer). The Centuries on Charity can be found in Volume II of Philokalia D, E or G or in Volume I of Philokalia F.


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