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OS (Commentary) -- 6

23 Just as a man who holds a mirror

What is this mirror? For this chapter is based on a simile between a physical mirror and what the ascetic looks into when he ‘stoops down and peeps into his own heart’. What is St Hesychios driving at? Does it have anything to do with St Paul’s passage in 1 Cor. 13, 12: ‘For now we see by means of a mirror in a riddle; then, however, face to face; now I know in part, then, however, I shall look upon even as I was looked upon.’?

And Evagrius spoke of seeing ‘the place of God’, saying in fact ‘when, during the time of prayer, that light shines upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God’.[1] Does this have any connection with what St Hesychios is saying? Why do all of these people talk about a mirror, about things seen indirectly?

Let us continue with St Hesychios’ text:

in his hand, standing in the midst of many persons and gazing into the mirror, sees on the one hand his own face, of what sort it is, and on the other hand sees in that one mirror also the faces of the others who are stooping down and peeping in—thus he who completely stoops down and peeps into his own heart on the one hand sees his own condition and on the other hand sees also the black faces of the intelligible Ethiopians.

Before we turn to the riddle, let us remark on ‘completely stoops down and peeps into his own heart’. We think that the allusion to a stooped posture of the person praying is evident, and we will not dwell on that. However, we think it fair to remark that Elijah the Prophet stooped down and placed his head between his knees to pray.[2] More important, however, is the clear sign that St Hesychios really does speak of prayer in the heart. The evidence is unequivocal: the stooping down and peeping into the heart corresponds exactly to the experience of bringing the mind into the heart.[3]

Let us also remark, before turning to the riddle, that the ‘black faces of the intelligible Ethiopians’ refers to the demons. Recall that demons are intelligible beings—fallen minds or angels—and not physical beings in the same way that a man, body and soul, has both a physical and an intelligible being.

Now, the riddle: How are intelligible things known by a man? They are not known by the senses, because sensible things are known by the senses. Indeed that is why, as we discussed in Volume I, since the Enlightenment, Western philosophers have rejected the objective existence of intelligibles—because they cannot be known sensibly the way I can know the cup or pencil which is in front of my eyes.

Recall that in the Kephalaia Gnostica Evagrius has written the following:

II, 35 The mind (nous) also possesses five spiritual senses through which it apprehends its familiar materials: sight presents to it bare the intelligible objects themselves; the hearing receives the reasons (logoi) concerning them [i.e. those intelligible objects]; the sense of smell enjoys the aroma which is unmixed with any lie; and the mouth partakes of the pleasure which is from them; by means of the sense of touch, then, it [i.e. the nous] is confirmed with the exact proof of the objects received. [Greek fragment.]

II, 28 The sensible eye, when it regards something visible, does not see the whole of it; but the intelligible eye either has not seen, or, when it sees, immediately surrounds from all sides that which it sees.

II, 45 The organs of sense and the nous partake of the sensibles; but the nous alone of the mental representations of intelligibles, that nous which becomes a seer of objects and of mental representations.

II, 83 Just as the senses are changed by the mental representations of diverse qualities, so also the nous is changed, when at every moment it considers various contemplations.

So it is a matter of how the person who stoops down and peeps into his own heart sees with his spiritual or intelligible sight, or, generally, perceives with his spiritual or intelligible senses.

To solve the riddle, we have to discuss two things: first, the relation between mind (nous) and intellect (dianoia); second, the conditions of spiritual sight for a mind (nous) conjoined to a body.

What is the mind (nous) and what is the intellect (dianoia)? As we have discussed in Volume I, the mind (nous) is the bearer of the image of God in man. St Gregory of Nyssa discussed with his sister, St Macrina, how the mind (nous) is conjoined to the temper and the desiring part, the three constituting the soul of man. We also discussed Evagrius Pontikos’ views on these matters. The mind (nous) was considered by St Gregory of Nyssa, St Macrina and Evagrius Pontikos to be an intelligible substance that was unknowable in its essence. However, that unknowable substance, the mind (nous), was knowable by its operations, just as God is known by his operations. We also pointed out that in St John of Damascus, the mind (nous) is treated as the eye of the soul, the most pure part of the soul, and the image of God is treated as residing in the whole soul—although it is not clear that St John really intends to disagree with the doctrine of St Gregory of Nyssa described just above.

Now the intellect (dianoia) is an operation of the mind (nous) and not a substance. The intellect (dianoia) has the same relation to the mind (nous) as the laugh to the person who laughs. The person laughs: the mind (nous) of the person, a substance, has an operation, laughing, expressed in this case by means of the body. I know the person from his laugh: this is an operation, laughing, which manifests the intelligible substance unknowable in itself, the mind (nous) of the person laughing.

So the intellect (dianoia) is an operation. Which operation is it? It is not reasoning. There is an operation of the mind (nous) called reasoning, ratiocination. It too belongs to the mind (nous). But that is not what we are discussing. It too is sometimes called intellect (dianoia), but here our terminology is specialized: intellect (dianoia) is an operation of mind (nous) to render conscious the facts.

I see a pencil; that is a fact. How do I see the pencil? I have a likeness in my mind (nous). This is an Evagrian mental representation, or even a Thomist similitude or sensible species.[4] Now this likeness is in the mind (nous) in the form of a mental representation in the intellect (dianoia). What are we driving at? We have a mind (nous), an intelligible substance; it sees; that act of seeing creates as it were the field of consciousness within which the person, the agent, sees, and that field of consciousness is the intellect (dianoia). Hence, when we stoop down and peep into the heart, we have a field of consciousness (we are not asleep) and this is our intellect (dianoia). This intellect (dianoia), in the example we are giving, is centred in the heart: we understand where we are; we can leave the heart.

Now my mind (nous) can be connected to a sense-perception: I see the pencil; I have in my intellect (dianoia) a mental representation of the pencil. Similarly, when I perceive with my spiritual senses I have in my intellect (dianoia) a spiritual or intelligible mental representation.[5]

OTT 41 discusses the types of mental representations in accordance with the type of object (sensible, intelligible, angelic, divine). When I have a genuine mental representation of an angel, I do not see a fantasy of a being with wings, but I receive into my intellect (dianoia) a spiritual or intelligible mental representation. This spiritual or intelligible mental representation alters my mind (nous) so as to conform my mind (nous) to itself, the mental representation of the sensibly invisible but spiritually visible angel. This is the import of KG II, 83, quoted just above: the mind (nous) becomes angelic. But this occurs in the intellect (dianoia): the intellect (dianoia) is where things become conscious to the person.

Now this is what St Hesychios is driving at: When my mind (nous) is in my heart, I am stooping down and peeping into my heart. I have an intelligible mental representation of the space of my heart. I then also have an intelligible mental representation of my own condition[6] and even also intelligible mental representations of the demons. Of course, only were I to dwell on contemplating the demons would my mind become demonic, and that in fact is what happens when yogic methods are allied to witchery.

Let us also remark that the purity of the ascetic’s mind (nous) plays a role here: I stoop down and peep into my heart. However, only if my mind (nous) is pure will I perceive the intelligible mental representation of my own condition, or even the intelligible mental representations of the demons. It is as if my spiritual vision were clouded: I see things vaguely or not at all.

Only when my physical vision is not clouded do I see sensible things in their proper shapes. Thus it is when I look into my heart: at the beginning, my spiritual vision is quite clouded. Later, if I work at the purification of my soul and God helps, I see more clearly: since this is a spiritual sense, I also understand more—this is the import of KG II, 28, also quoted just above. I begin to understand my own spiritual condition; I begin to understand the spiritual war; and so on. However, in the Gnostic, Chapter 40,[7] Evagrius has a caveat:

40 Take care to the fact that, for each created thing, there is not just one reason, but a great number, and according to the measure of each person. The holy powers alone attain to the true reasons of objects, but not the first, that which is known only by the Christ.

Hence, although I see in a total way with the spiritual sight when I am stooped down and peeping into my heart, I see in accordance with my spiritual measure.

We can now turn to the second topic, the conditions of spiritual sight for a mind (nous) conjoined to a body.

Why does St Hesychios compare the intellect (dianoia) to a mirror? The problem revolves round how the mind (nous), when it is still conjoined to the body, cognizes intelligible and spiritual mental representations. In this flesh we cannot directly cognize intelligible things or God. The intellect (dianoia)—remember how we have defined it—cannot contain the ‘likeness’ or mental representation of God, nor the likeness or mental representation of an angel nor the likeness or mental representation of any other intelligible thing, in the same way that it can contain the likeness or mental representation of a pencil or a cup. It is this difference in the cognition of the mental representation that is being approached with the image of the mirror: the authors are saying that the experience of cognizing the spiritual or intelligible mental representation is similar to the experience of seeing a sensible object in a mirror, and that an ancient mirror.

Evagrius’ metaphor of the light that ‘shines upon the mind [and] that works in relief the place which is of God’[8] is apt. We do not see God, but the place of God, and that in relief. We see the place of God after a fashion, but not fully. This is what St Paul—without our suggesting that he shares all of Evagrius’ ideas—means in 1 Cor. 13, 12: ‘For now we see by means of a mirror in a riddle…’ It only need be remarked that in St Paul’s day mirrors were of a dark substance, not of silvered glass, and that the image in such a mirror was truly enigmatic, as a trip to a museum will easily persuade the reader.[9]

We cannot in this flesh see intelligibles directly. We see in the mirror of the intellect—‘by means of a mirror in a riddle’—the mental representation of the intelligible. Hence, also, the subsequent part of the passage of St Paul: ‘then, however, face to face’—after I have departed from the flesh, I will see the Lord face to face. St Paul continues: ‘now I know in part, then, however, I shall look upon even as I was looked upon.’ Our knowledge of intelligibles, including God, is imperfect as long as we are in this flesh. Of course, in Orthodox theology, even after our departure from the flesh we cannot know the substance of God. However, this is why, while we are in the flesh, we long for our departure, why we conduct ascesis, why we fast. For this ‘I know in part’ is not static. Insofar as I purify myself, I purify my spiritual senses and I am able to cognize more clearly the intelligible and spiritual mental representations of the objects of contemplation—here, in the chapter of St Hesychios under consideration, my own spiritual condition and the demons. St Hesychios quotes St Maximos the Confessor to the effect that the spiritual gnosis related to natural contemplation and to the contemplation of God that we have increases in proportion to our purification.[10]

This is the basis of our mysticism, of the three-part mystical ascent of praktike, natural contemplation, and Theology. For the whole ascent—seen from the point of view of our knowledge or gnosis—is an ascent by means of the purification of the ability of our mind (nous) to see in the intellect (dianoia) spiritual or intelligible mental representations conveyed by the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created objects, the contemplation of angels and their reasons (logoi), and, finally, the contemplation of God.

Moreover, as we remarked in Volume II in discussing the contemplative ascent, according to the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian (7th C.?–8th C.?), this purification entails the divestiture of the senses in the passage from the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created objects to the contemplation of the angels:[11] by this divestiture the mind (nous) becomes even more purified, so as to be able to apprehend the higher intelligible mental representations, without for all that ever surpassing the limitation of a mind (nous)—or, better to say, soul—conjoined to a body: the intelligible mental representations ever remain ‘in a mirror’.

In this flesh we can never see face to face, and this quite apart from any question of the ultimate knowability by man of the substance of God. As members of the Orthodox Church, we do not accept the knowability of the substance of God, but only his knowability through his uncreated operations. But even through these energies—through the light that works in relief the place of God—the seer in this flesh still sees by means of a mirror in a riddle. It can never be otherwise. The limitation is the limitation of a mind (nous) conjoined to a body in that mind’s ability to cognize intelligible and spiritual mental representations. Ascesis can make the man virtuous, but it cannot make him, in this flesh, a seer of God face to face: the limitation is a limitation of the mind (nous) conjoined to the flesh. The ascetic’s mind (nous) may become more pure, and the ascetic may become more illumined by the rays, the uncreated operations, of the Divinity, but it is still ‘by means of a mirror in a riddle’ that the ascetic sees God. And the ascetic sees God, in Evagrian language, precisely by means of a spiritual mental representation in the intellect (dianoia). This spiritual mental representation is experienced by the ascetic as light. And this is language that St Hesychios adheres to closely in OS.

As Jesus himself puts it: ‘The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it will; and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes and whither it goes. So it is, everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma). (John 3, 8.)

St Paul remarks: ‘For we walk through faith and not through sight.’ (2 Cor. 5, 7.) In this flesh we never surpass that boundary, even in the greatest mystical experience.

To summarize the rather difficult logic, the mind (nous) has an operation, the intellect (dianoia), the field of consciousness. It is in the intellect (dianoia) that we as agents or persons encounter the mental representations, whether of sensible objects or of intelligible objects or even of God. The mind (nous), being purified, becomes more able spiritually to see the higher spiritual mental representations; this is the goal of contemplation. However, these intelligible or spiritual mental representations always present themselves in the intellect enigmatically, as if in an ancient mirror. This limitation is surpassed when we depart for the heavenly abode after death—but not the limitation that prevents us from ever knowing the substance of God.

Now what St Hesychios is saying is that when we have brought our mind (nous) into our heart and our intellect (dianoia), our field of consciousness—the mirror—is centred there, then we will see our own spiritual condition, and we will also see the faces of the demons ‘peeping into our heart’.

In the Way of the Pilgrim,[12] that fascinating introduction to Hesychasm written by an anonymous Nineteenth Century Russian author, the author presents a blind man—physically stone-blind—who prays the Jesus Prayer in the heart. The blind man and the author, or at least the narrator, of the Way are walking along a road; the blind man is praying in the heart. The blind man sees the steeple of the church in the town to which they are walking, many versts away, burn and topple. The two men reach the town and find that indeed the steeple of the church has just fallen in a fire. In this little vignette, the very skilful author of the Way of the Pilgrim has presented an extension of what St Hesychios has just said: the gift of clairvoyance works in exactly the same way that St Hesychios has said concerning the sight of one’s own spiritual condition.

But, alas, it is not so simple. Let be reader be warned: bringing your mind into your heart does not automatically make you a discerner of spirits, a clairvoyant or a prevoyant. It makes you someone who prays in his heart. If—and this is a very big if—you continue Hesychian sobriety, you will purify your mind (nous), and you will acquire virtue, including saving humility. If at some time your mind (nous) is adequately purified, you will be able to commence second natural contemplation. And so on. That is your road: the use of the method or way of sobriety, persisting and travelled upon willingly, to come close to God. If at some time God wishes to give you a spiritual charism, he will. If not, remember why you started out. It was to come close to God, not to discern spirits or to see a man on a deck of the ship in Daphne.

Be that as it may, we now see how the charism works when it is present.

Recall that the Evagrian criterion for the identification of the demon which has approached, for those who lack the charism of the discernment of spirits, is the nature of the object of sense which is the subject-matter of the impassioned recollection that has commenced in the intellect (dianoia). St Hesychios himself in later chapters of OS explicitly follows this model. Here we walk not by the charism but by the theory of the eight most general thoughts that we discussed at great length in Volume II in commenting on Evagrius’ TPL and OTT.

The next chapter marks St Hesychios’ own correction to the methods of Evagrius for fighting the immaterial war.

24 But the mind (nous) is unable to conquer demonic imagination by itself alone.

For ‘demonic imagination’, read ‘demonically sown mental representation’ or ‘demonic thought’. The difference is merely a matter of St Hesychios’ preference, consistent but not absolute, for ‘imagination (phantasia)’ over ‘mental representation (noema)’.

On no account let it ever take courage in this.

Recall OTT 19, where Evagrius presents the method of division of a demonic thought into its components, and the method of single combat with the demon or Devil. Evagrius has other methods, for example, the weaving in supposition of a thought opposed to the passion related to the thought that is annoying the ascetic,[13] all of which methods place a great weight on the ascetic’s mental or spiritual strength.

For being ready to do anything,

They really are.

the demons make a pretence of being defeated, tripping up one’s heels from another place by means of vainglory.

Evagrius said much the same thing. All the demons withdraw—Ah! Dispassion!—except one: the demon of vainglory. See TPL 57:

57 There are two peaceful conditions of the soul, the one given forth from the natural seeds, the other, however, coming to pass on account of the withdrawal of the demons. And humility with compunction, tears, limitless yearning after the Divine and measureless zeal towards the work [of monasticism, ascesis, etc.] follow upon the first. Vainglory with pride, dragging the monk down in the elimination of the remaining demons, follows upon the second. Therefore, he who keeps the borders of the first condition will detect more quickly the raids of the demons.

Here, however, St Hesychios’ analysis is slightly more refined: the other demons withdraw willingly, intentionally leaving the demon of vainglory to trip the monk up from behind.

With the invocation of Jesus Christ, however,

By this, understand the Jesus Prayer prayed continually.

they do not endure even for a moment to stand and practise trickery on you.

Would that it were so easy: we would all be dispassionate in a day. It takes time to win; there are successions of demons. St Silouan the Athonite was afflicted grievously for fifteen years. He worked at manual labour, praying twenty-four hours a day. He struggled. He fought. Now he is a star which gives light to the whole inhabited world.

What St Hesychios is saying is extremely important. He is emphasizing the need for the ascetic to depend on Jesus Christ by means of invocation, not to depend on his own strength. This would include the case of someone who wished to treat the Jesus Prayer ‘merely as a mantra’, without bothering about that aspect of it which is the humble, pious, Orthodox invocation of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

In the commentary preceding OS 54, we will learn that this modification by St Hesychios to the Evagrian system has roots in On Holy Baptism by St Mark the Ascetic.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios turns to a passion allied to vainglory: conceit.

25 Watch lest you be conceited like the ancient Israel and you yourself be handed over to the intelligible enemies.

The demons.

For that one,

The ancient Israel.

freed from the Egyptians

The Egyptians symbolize the demons.

by the God of All, invented for himself a cast idol [Exod. 32, 4].

Since the next chapter explains exactly what St Hesychios means, we will proceed directly there:

26 Understand by ‘cast idol’ our weak mind (nous).

As St Hesychios will later explicitly state, the immaterial war is a battle of mind against mind: our mind (nous) against the demonic mind (nous). Hence, what he is saying is that we might make an idol of our ‘weak mind’: we might depend on our own mental or spiritual strength, the power of our own mind (nous), in the battle against the other mind (nous), the demon.

On the one hand, he who calls on Jesus Christ against the spirits of wickedness—in any event, as long as he does so—easily gives chase to them, and with a skilful science

This phrase is important, for it shows that the dependence on Jesus Christ brings with it its own skill, its own art or science. There is nothing naïve about it. This is important for those persons to understand who would treat the Hesychast method as merely a matter of the incessant repetition of a formula of invocation.

puts to rout the invisible and hostile powers of the enemy.

On the other hand, whenever the same person foolishly should altogether take courage in himself,

Or, ‘have confidence in himself’. In his own powers. This is just what we were saying above about the difference between Evagrius and St Hesychios: St Hesychios insists that the ascetic humbly and piously invoke Jesus Christ and that he depend on Jesus Christ, not on the power of his own mind (nous) or on the strength of his own rebuttal.

he is taken captive by them as foolish and weak.

Following the reading in Alphabetic Z’ for ‘he is taken captive by them as foolish and weak’, instead of ‘he will be thrown down as the so‑called “fast-wing”’, which has the air of being an ill-informed correction of a corrupt text by a later hand. In general, the alphabetic version, for reasons we discussed in the Introduction, cannot automatically be considered better than the main text, but we have consulted it in the cases where the main text has been difficult to construe, and in many cases, although not all, we have adopted its reading.

He says: ‘My heart hoped on God and I was helped and my flesh found vigour afresh.’ [Ps. 27, 7.] And: ‘Who except the Lord will raise me up and draw up together with me in battle array against the numberless thoughts (logismoi) which act wickedly?’ [Cf. Ps. 93, 16.]

St Hesychios in general quotes Scripture from memory—at least we think so, because his quotations seldom follow the text of Scripture, or even recognized variant readings in the manuscript tradition of Scripture. Part of the difference is certainly due to the lack of a critical edition of OS.

In some cases St Hesychios actually adapts the text of Scripture to his own purposes. Here, for example, he has completely recast the passage from Psalm 93 to suit his context, without for all that making the passage unidentifiable.

The sense of what St Hesychios is saying is that rather than depend on the strength of our own mind in the battle against the demon, we must hope on God through invocation so that we be helped and our flesh find vigour afresh. For the Lord will raise us up and draw up together with us in battle array against the numberless thoughts, the demons, which act wickedly. This might be considered to be a fundamental doctrine of St Hesychios, and one in which he diverges from Evagrius. Moreover, in his emphasis on the invocation, St Hesychios certainly also goes beyond St Mark the Ascetic in On Holy Baptism.

He who takes courage in himself and not in God will fall a most extraordinary fall [cf. Job 18, 12].

The reader need only recall TPL 14 and OTT 23. In OTT 23, Evagrius writes:

We have known many of the brothers to fall into this very shipwreck, whom the remaining brothers with tears and prayer brought back again to a human life. Certain ones, having caught an irreversible forgetfulness (lethe), no longer had the strength to find their first condition and, until today, we humble men see the shipwrecks of our brothers.

St Hesychios is insisting that the root of such shipwrecks is a reliance of the ascetic on his own strength to the exclusion of the humble invocation of the help of Jesus Christ.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios turns to describe the subjective experience of the exercise of sobriety:

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[1] OTT 40.

[2] Cf. 3 Kgs. 18, 42.

[3] It is well to note, however, that the phrase ‘stoops down and peeps into’ is the dictionary translation of a single Greek verb.

[4] See Chapters III and IV of Volume I, respectively.

[5] This is similar to the intelligible species of St Thomas Aquinas, although St Thomas certainly had a different theory of cognition: see Chapter IV of Volume I.

[6] We have already discussed ‘condition’ as Evagrius defined it; St Hesychios means the same thing as Evagrius by ‘condition’.

[7] Henceforth, Gnostic 40. See Appendix 1 of Volume II.

[8] OTT 40, emphasis added.

[9] Nowadays, the Orthodox theology of these matters follows the teaching of St Gregory Palamas, and is expressed, as regards God, by the difference between the uncreated operations of God, which grant us the gnosis of God, and the substance of God, which is forever unknowable by man in this life or the next. We do not in any way reject this theology. However, we expressed ourselves above in a manner which is closer to the thought world of St Hesychios. Our formulation should not be considered either as a repudiation of Palamite theology or as an attempt to create a new theology, but merely as a matter of explaining a difficult text written before St Gregory Palamas’ time by a man who drew heavily on the ascetical psychology of Evagrius Pontikos, an ascetical psychology which played a formative role in the development of the spirituality of the tradition represented by the Philokalia. Hence, we are merely elucidating the ascetical psychology which underlies the earliest layers of the Philokalic tradition.

[10] OS 75.

[11] Isaac Homily 3, p. 23, fn. 29.

[12] Pilgrim.

[13] TPL 58.


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