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OS (Commentary) -- 7

27 Let the type and order of stillness (hesychia) of the heart, O monk,

Following the slightly better reading in AlphabeticZ’ for ‘O monk’ instead of the ‘O so-and-so’ of the main text.

be for you—ever the pattern if you wish to contend in battle—the small little animal, the spider. If not, then you have not yet kept stillness (hesychia) in the mind (nous) as you ought.

Step 27 of the Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai has a similar passage:

On the one hand, the huntress of the mouse keeps watch for the mouse; on the other hand, the conception (ennoia) of the Hesychast [keeps watch for] the intelligible mouse. Let not the model previously spoken be for you something to be thrown away as worthless. If not, then, you have not yet known stillness (hesychia).[1]

Although the metaphor is not exactly the same—in the Ladder it is a matter of a cat and a mouse rather than a spider and a fly—the two passages seem to have much in common, especially since the last sentence of St Hesychios, ‘If not, then, you have not yet kept stillness (hesychia) in the mind (nous) as you ought,’ is very close to the concluding line of the passage from the Ladder.

In general, Step 27, ‘Stillness’, of the Ladder is well worth reading in connection with the matters that we are discussing.

In the similes of St John and St Hesychios, the imagery is based on a centred attention (St Hesychios) and on an intense and pure attention which follows the prey (St John). In St Hesychios, the centred attention departs from the centre to rebut any thought which might appear anywhere in the field of consciousness, the intellect (the spider’s web symbolizes the intellect). In St John, the attention—this is the conception (ennoia), the cat—follows the mouse, the impassioned mental representation, and does not allow it to escape. These are models of Hesychast attention. The idea is of a very concentrated gaze as we stoop down and peep into the heart, an attention which nothing can elude. These things should be understood: this gaze is focused in the gate of the heart; it is in the gate of the heart that we watch; and we are watching with a spiritual and not a sensible attention.

We said that the ‘conception (ennoia)’ of St John of Sinai’s passage is attention. We will later see a similar usage by St Hesychios: in certain later chapters he will refer to the Hesychast’s attention as the Hesychast’s ‘thought (logismos)’, in exactly the same sense as St John of Sinai’s ‘conception (ennoia)’ here. When these authors use ‘conception (ennoia)’ or ‘thought (logismos)’ for ‘attention’, they appear to be emphasizing the conscious person who keeps attention, the principle of attention in the mind, the agent. For it is this conception (ennoia) or thought (logismos) which judges the impassioned mental representation and rejects or accepts it.

St Hesychios now explains his simile:

And that little animal

The spider.

hunts little flies: you, then, if thus you keep stillness (hesychia), and as one taking pains in the very soul itself,

This phrase emphasizes that Hesychian sobriety is hard work.

will not cease ever killing Babylonian infants, on account of which murder you are blessed by the Holy Spirit through David [cf. Ps. 136, 8–9].

The reference is to these lines of Psalm 136:

Wretched daughter of Babylon, blessed is he who will repay you with your repayment which you repaid to us. Blessed is he who will seize and dash to the ground your infants against the rock.

The Babylonian infants are the demonic mental representations, or impassioned recollections, of objects of sense. When these infants are left alone or nurtured, they grow up into sin in act. They are the flies—or the mice—that the intelligible spider—or the conception (ennoia), the intelligible cat, of St John of Sinai—is hunting.

These flies or Babylonian infants are killed by means of rebuttal and invocation.

St Hesychios now has explained how we implement the attention part of his four-part method of humility, attention, rebuttal and invocation: we are ever alert in the gate of the heart for the inception of a demonic mental representation: this is how the Hesychast passes his day in the hermitage.

St Hesychios now turns back to the invocation.

28 Just as it is not possible for the Red Sea to be seen in the firmament in the midst of the stars

This is contrary to its nature as a sea on the face of the earth.

and just as it is not possible for a man walking upon the earth not to breathe this air—

Why did St Hesychios put this simile here? Does he simply mean ‘it is impossible’? Is he hinting at the use of normal breathing with the Prayer of Jesus?

in the same way it is impossible to purify our heart from impassioned thoughts (logismoi)

This is clearly Evagrius’ praktike, the practical life.

and to cast intelligible enemies out from it

Evagrius did not, in the texts we analysed in Volume II, discuss the presence of the demon in the heart, although he makes one or two references to this in the Kephalaia Gnostica. We do not think that St Hesychios or Evagrius mean that in the normal case we are possessed by demons—Evagrius’ model in TPL 39 is the approach of the demon close to the ascetic, which demon excites by its spiritual bad odour the passion to which it corresponds. We think that St Hesychios here means: ‘purify our heart from impassioned thoughts’. Moreover, he will later refer, in OS 137 and 188, to the use of the Jesus Prayer to remove conceptions (ennoies) deeply rooted in the heart. These are not demons but demonically sown thoughts which have become stuck in our soul.

It may well be that St Hesychios is here drawing on the doctrine of GC. In GC 33, St Diadochos teaches us that after Baptism, ‘while Grace dwells in the depths of the mind (nous), the evil spirits sojourn around the parts of the heart’.[2] In GC 85, he teaches us that after Baptism, Grace conceals itself, dwelling secretly in the mind (nous).[3] He continues that, afterwards, if we begin to progress through the keeping of the commandments and if we unceasingly invoke the Lord Jesus, then the fire of Holy Grace burns up the weeds of sin in the more external faculties (aistheteria) of the heart. The demons then stand further away from the Christian and shoot arrows at him (these of course are the excitations of the passions, the assaults), since they are no longer able to come as close to him as before. When the Christian then further attains to the virtues, Grace illumines in a deeper spiritual perception (aisthesis) the Christian’s whole nature with the love of God. ‘For,’ St Diadochos says, ‘the breeze of the Holy Spirit, setting the heart in motion towards winds of peace, completely extinguishes the arrows of the fire-bearing demon while they are still borne in the air.’[4] The sense is that in the beginning ascetic, as it were, the demons can approach close to the periphery of the heart, although they cannot occupy the mind (nous) itself because of the presence there of the Holy Spirit, received in Baptism.[5] As the ascetic makes spiritual progress by keeping the commandments and by continually invoking Jesus Christ, then on a continuing basis, Grace, the Holy Spirit, becomes present more consciously, beginning from the centre of the mind (nous) and working outward, this expansion of the conscious presence of Grace forcing the demons further and further away from the ascetic until they are powerless to excite the passions of the ascetic.[6] It seems to us that this may be what St Hesychios has in mind in the passage under consideration.

Readers of a more scholarly bent will recognize that in the part of GC 85 summarized above, St Diadochos of Photike is correcting the doctrine of the simultaneous presence of the Devil and Grace in the Christian after Baptism that is found in the Spiritual Homilies of St Makarios.[7] The author of the Makarian homilies posits that the Devil is cast out of the soul of the Christian only at a stage which we understand to be the same as the restitution of the kath’ homoiosin as described by St Diadochos, the same as the dispassion (apatheia) of St Diadochos and St John of Sinai: full mystical union with God. While the Makarian homilies have much that is Orthodox and of great value, this doctrine of the simultaneous presence of the Devil and Grace in the heart of the Christian after Baptism has never been received by the Orthodox Church. Moreover, as we have already remarked, although some of St Hesychios’ images are already to be found in the Spiritual Homilies, there is no indication in OS of any direct borrowing by St Hesychios from that work. The two works seem quite different, so much so that it seems impossible that St Hesychios should be directly dependent on the Spiritual Homilies.

without the frequent invocation of Jesus Christ.

This should be clear, and it should have begun to become persuasive that St Hesychios does not mean frequent ejaculatory prayer which invokes Jesus without a fixed formula. Such a practice of ejaculatory prayer—‘Christ, help me! Help me, Lord! If you do not help me, I will not be able to get through the day! Save me, my Lord! Get rid of these demons for me! Save me!’—would not blend harmoniously with the practice of attention that St Hesychios has just compared to a spider hunting after flies. Such ejaculatory prayer among the weak—and we are all weak at one time or another—is quite useful. But the formulaic repetition of the Jesus Prayer is what allows the Hesychast to keep attention on a twenty-four-hour a day, seven-day a week basis.

The next chapter is a very important overview of the practical life as leading to natural contemplation and then to Theology.

29 If with a humble attitude

Note the primary role given to humility.

and the memory of death and self-condemnation

Note that St Hesychios does give the memory of death a primary role in his method.

Self-condemnation is a means of cutting off a thought of vainglory, or even pride, by means of humility: rather than thinking about our attainments, we think about, and condemn ourselves for, our faults, failings and shortcomings. Self-condemnation is a kind of rebuttal of thoughts of pride and vainglory. It increases humility. Consider TPL 33:

33 Bring to remembrance your former way of life and your ancient faults and how, when you were impassioned, by the mercy of Christ, you passed towards dispassion and how again you left the world which had many times humbled you in many things. And reckon this too for me: who is it that guards you in the desert and who is it that expels the demons that gnash their teeth at you? For, on the one hand, such thoughts work humility; and, on the other hand, they do not admit the demon of pride.

Reference should also be made to this passage of TPL 58:

To repel, however, the thought of vainglory by means of humility or the thought of fornication by means of chastity would be a very deep token of dispassion. … [W]ith whatever strength you have, ask from God that the enemy be warded off in [this,] the second way.

and rebuttal and invocation of Jesus Christ you always make your employment in your heart

If the reader will now reread OS 14 through 17, above, he will perceive that all four ways or manners of sobriety listed there are included here. The four ways must not be treated as independent parallel methods, but as parts that must be blended into a harmonious whole by the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is not a matter of systems and handbooks and rationalistically determined directions for the Hesychast life. That would be grotesque, and disastrous for the mental stability of the ascetic.

Moreover, the ‘If … you always make your employment in your heart’ corresponds to the sense of OS 19, above, the chapter that St Hesychios took from St Maximos the Confessor concerning the necessity of persistence in the immaterial war. Of course, OS 27 explains in detail this ‘employment in your heart’.

and you travel with these weapons

Although St Hesychios here uses a word which actually means ‘weapons’, ‘weapon’ is a good explanation of tropos, the word that St Hesychios used in OS 13 to introduce the four ways of sobriety, the word that we translated ‘way’ or ‘manner’. The Hesychast must be armed cap-à-pie.

every day

This is not something we do on weekends. It is normally the occupation of monks, who can dedicate themselves fully to the Hesychast way of life, or else of laymen who are to all intents and purposes monks. Moreover, even the monk can be distracted today. In regard to the pernicious effects of distractions on the Hesychast labour, see Step 27 of the Ladder of St John of Sinai. St Hesychios will himself later address the issue of distractions.

the strait

It’s difficult. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

but also gladdening and delightful road of the intellect (dianoia),

For ‘intellect (dianoia)’, read ‘mind (nous)’. The distinction that is intended by ‘road of the intellect (dianoia)’ is, as will later become clear, that between St Hesychios’ method of sobriety and a merely bodily ascesis.

‘Gladdening and delightful’: These adjectives refer to the consolations that a man still battling the immaterial war receives—lest he faint—and also to the pleasures of gnosis or contemplation. Evagrius writes in TPL 36:

Therefore, the anchoretic life is sweet after the emptying of the passions; for then the only memories are mere memories, and the wrestling no longer prepares the monk for battle, but for contemplation itself.

St Hesychios himself continues:

keeping sobriety, you will come into holy contemplations

Following the reading in Alphabetic E’ for ‘holy contemplations’ instead of the reading, quite ambiguous, of the main version, which the other translators have rendered thus: ‘a vision of the Holy of Holies’;[8] ‘holy contemplations of holy mysteries’;[9] or ‘holy contemplations of saints’.[10]

It is useful to discuss the reading in the main text of OS and how it has been construed by the various translators.

The phrase in the main text can be construed either as ‘You will come into contemplations of the Holy of Holies,’ or ‘You will come into holy contemplations of saints.’ The English translators and a modern Athonite Elder have construed it as ‘You will come into contemplations of the Holy of Holies.’ The modern Greek translator has construed it in the second way. The French translators have construed the passage thus: ‘You will come into holy contemplations of holy mysteries.’

Let us start with ‘contemplations of the Holy of Holies.’ This is Theology. ‘Holy of Holies’ is the equivalent to Evagrius’ phrase in OTT 39, ‘the place of God’. Both phrases refer apophatically to the vision of God in prayer.

The interpretation ‘holy contemplations of saints’ puts the contemplation into first natural contemplation, the higher stage of natural contemplation, the one before Theology. In this reading, either the saints are counted with the angels or the word translated ‘saints’ is construed to mean ‘the holy powers’, which is not unreasonable.

We have accepted the reading of the alphabetic version of OS, which is not necessarily the authentic one, as giving the best sense: ‘You will come into holy contemplations.’

We take the position that St Hesychios has the broad outline of the Evagrian system of contemplation in mind—by the time we have finished this commentary, we think that our position will be seen to be quite sound—and that he is beginning to discuss his doctrine of contemplation. Hence, all that he need say at this point is ‘You will come into holy contemplations.’

The key to the Hesychian doctrine of contemplation is the role of the Holy Spirit. Although Evagrius himself, as we saw in Volume II in the Digression on the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation, discussed the Holy Spirit as providing the wings for the ascent from first natural contemplation to Theology, we will see just below that St Hesychios views the role of the Holy Spirit in a much more fundamental—and more Orthodox—way than Evagrius.

and you will be enlightened with deep mysteries issuing forth from Christ

The syntax as concerns the grammatical role of ‘deep mysteries’ presents a problem and the alphabetical version retains the same reading. The English translators read ‘with deep mysteries’.[11] The modern Greek translator, Galites, construes this as ‘in deep mysteries’ not ‘with deep mysteries’.[12] The French translators adopt an elaborate paraphrase.[13] The sense, it appears to us, is that deep mysteries will be revealed to us which issue forth from Christ.

with whom are ‘the hidden treasures of wisdom and gnosis’ [Col. 2, 3],

The deep mysteries span both natural contemplation and Theology: they are the reasons (logoi) of created things, those reasons (logoi) that were in the mind of Christ when he made all things,[14] that wisdom with which all things were made; they are the mysteries learned in contemplation of the angelic powers and in the contemplation of their reasons (logoi); they are the mysteries learned in the contemplation of God himself.

Thus, here, St Hesychios is construing the Pauline phrase ‘the hidden treasures of wisdom and gnosis’ to refer to natural contemplation and to Theology.

Here we see the radically Christ-centred nature of Hesychian mysticism. For these mysteries issue forth from Christ—

‘in whom dwells the whole fullness of the Godhead bodily’ [Col. 2, 9].

These two quotations from St Paul put us squarely into an Orthodox Christology. The second quotation also presents the gnosis of God, Theology, for it is clear that in Hesychian mysticism to know Christ in contemplation is to know the persons of the Holy Trinity, that is, is to know God himself.

Concerning natural contemplation and Theology and their connection to the gnosis of God, let us recall KG III, 81:

III, 81 He who knows God has either the gnosis of his nature or that of his wisdom, of which he made use in making all [things].

Theology is the gnosis of the nature of God—here we take this with an Orthodox interpretation: ‘by means of a mirror in a riddle’, by means of the apophatic vision of the ‘place of God’ worked in relief in the mind by the uncreated operations of God. We do not take it to mean that man can know the substance of God, whatever Evagrius himself might have understood.

Natural contemplation is the gnosis of the wisdom of God. It includes second natural contemplation, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created things, and first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angelic powers and their reasons (logoi).

In OS 117, St Hesychios will describe the stages of contemplation in language strongly reminiscent of Evagrius in TPL and the Kephalaia Gnostica. While there are differences between St Hesychios’ system of contemplation and Evagrius’ system of contemplation, which differences arise from St Hesychios’ strongly Christocentric orientation in ascesis and contemplation, and from his emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in contemplation, the use in OS 117 by St Hesychios of strongly Evagrian language for the stages of contemplation justifies us in imposing an Evagrian model on St Hesychios’ system of contemplation.

We have a question here: Is the contemplation of the angelic powers the contemplation of the wisdom of God only, or does it contain elements of the contemplation of his nature? We are by no means suggesting that the angelic powers participate in any way in the Divine Nature. However, we think that the contemplation of the angelic powers contains elements higher than the contemplation of the Divine wisdom. For Evagrius states in KG I, 42:

I, 42 It is said that God is there where he acts, and where he acts the more, there he is present the more; for he acts the more in the natures [which are] reasonable and holy. Therefore he is present most of all in the celestial powers.

Evagrius seems to be suggesting in this passage that in contemplating the angelic powers, we contemplate more than the wisdom of God.

It seems to us that the answer to our question is as follows: Wisdom is one of the energies or operations of God. There are others. Hence, the special presence of God in the angelic powers must be seen not as a greater presence of God’s nature, but as an operation of the divine energy of holiness in the angelic powers. Encountering this uncreated energy of holiness in the contemplation of the angels takes us closer to God, but it is not the same thing as encountering the ‘place of God’ in Theology, the contemplation of God himself.

Evagrius, however, does seem to be suggesting in KG I, 42, just quoted, that, after a fashion and analogically, the angelic powers are indeed also the ‘place of God’. Such a doctrine would best be treated with caution.

If, however, we accept that the greater presence of God in the angelic powers is to be understood as the greater presence of God’s uncreated energy of holiness, then the transformation from second natural contemplation to first natural contemplation marks a transition from gnosis or contemplation of the wisdom of God only, to a gnosis which is higher than the gnosis of the wisdom of God only, albeit still imperfect in comparison to the gnosis which is of the ‘place of God’, the gnosis that comes from Theology.[15]

Now let us see how St Hesychios treats of Theology. His approach is quite consistent with the theology of St Symeon the New Theologian, although, since we are unaware of any direct quotations or paraphrases of St Symeon in OS, we think that this is to be taken as an independent anticipation of St Symeon, and not as evidence that St Hesychios wrote after St Symeon. A case could be made that St Symeon is certainly much later that St Hesychios in view of the style, in view of the spiritual atmosphere, of his catechisms. Moreover, St Symeon was certainly very deeply influenced by St Diadochos of Photike whom we know also to have been read by St Hesychios. However, while St Hesychios was also himself very deeply influenced by St Diadochos, we do not think that his doctrine of the role of the Holy Spirit in contemplation can be ‘deduced’ directly from the content of GC.

For you will perceive in Christ that the Holy Spirit has come upon your soul,

It is clear that in St Hesychios, Theology is a matter of the advent in Christ of the Holy Spirit: Theology is a gift of God actualized in the advent to the ascetic of the Holy Spirit in Christ. Now in the next chapter, St Hesychios will discuss voluntary ascent into natural contemplation. Here, however, he is making the important point that the advent of the Holy Spirit is necessary to Theology.

In truth, there are many advents of the Holy Spirit, and each advent has a varied strength and work (ergon) in our spiritual life; it is not usually a matter of a vision in the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ such as St Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833) or St Silouan the Athonite had at the beginning of their monastic careers, before they had begun systematically to exercise the practical life of Evagrius.

There are, as we said, many advents, and we cannot know how, how much, when, where, and if Christ will give the advent of the Holy Spirit.

That is why it is dangerous for immature monks and laymen to read St Symeon the New Theologian. He is a great mystic and a great saint, but he makes it sound easy. It is easy—if you are a great saint such as St Symeon.

The only sure road is that of sobriety. For sobriety—St Hesychios’ version of Evagrius’ practical life: humility, attention, rebuttal of impassioned thoughts, continual invocation of Jesus Christ and the memory of death—does not pursue the vision of the Uncreated Light, although we see in this and other chapters of OS that St Hesychios holds out contemplations and the vision of Christ in the Holy Spirit as fruits of a sobriety properly lived over time.

Sobriety, instead, pursues the guard of the mind: this is sobriety that has attained to an attention in the gate of the heart that is free of ‘images’ or impassioned mental representations, or even unimpassioned mental representations. In the Hesychian system, the guard of the mind is the gate to contemplation.

The advent of the Holy Spirit comes when and if Jesus Christ wants; and the danger is that being enamoured of the Uncreated Light, ambitious, and just a little bit arrogant, we think that we are worthy of the Uncreated Light, of the Holy Spirit. Then the Devil comes along ‘transformed into an angel of light’ (2 Cor. 11, 14) to suit our whim; we accept the ‘vision’; we venerate it; and we spend the rest of our lives recovering—if we do. The pursuit of the guard of the mind, if we are intelligent, secures us from this danger because the goal is no longer contemplation and light but freedom from impassioned thoughts and mental representations in the humble invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with the memory of death. The orientation is different. Within the orientation we are recommending, the Uncreated Light is seen as a possible experience, but not as a goal to be sought: the goal is the guard of the mind.

These things having been said, let us see how St Hesychios elaborates on the character of the advent of the Holy Spirit:

by whom the mind (nous) of man is handed the torch,

This very charming and very important image is taken from the Eleusinian Mysteries. The details of the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries are unknown to us today,[16] but the initiation of the postulant included his being handed a lighted torch. Here the learned author, St Hesychios, uses this Classical image to convey quite well and quite clearly the nature of the Christian mystical initiation which comes with the advent of the Holy Spirit to the soul in Christ.

It is the mind (nous) which is handed the torch: note that St Hesychios retains this anthropology, which we discussed in Volume I as something that issued out of the circle of the Cappadocians, including Evagrius, the wayward son of the Cappadocian Fathers. However, in the matter of his anthropology St Hesychios is also influenced by St Mark the Ascetic, St Diadochos of Photike and the Life of Anthony.[17]

seeing ‘with unveiled face’ [2 Cor. 3, 18].

St Symeon the New Theologian, in Catechism 33, speaks of the illumination by the Holy Spirit quite aptly to this passage of St Hesychios, and the reader is encouraged to study that catechism in connection with this chapter of OS.[18] Catechism 14 is also a very interesting description of the advent of the Holy Spirit.[19]

In the present case, ‘with unveiled face’ is taken from the following passage of St Paul:

The Lord, however, is the Spirit; wherever, then, is the Spirit of the Lord, there is freedom. We, then, all mirroring with unveiled face the glory of the Lord, are transfigured into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Lord, the Spirit.[20]

Now as St Paul presents it, this is the gnosis of God, Theology. It would be useful for the reader to read the whole of 2 Cor. 3, 7–18 here.

In a few words, St Hesychios has covered the gamut of contemplation.

He says: ‘No one says “Lord Jesus” if not in the Holy Spirit,’ [1 Cor. 12, 3] that is, confirming secretly what is sought.

St Hesychios has put this line here to indicate that it is in the Holy Spirit that we attain to the gnosis of Jesus Christ. For a modern discussion of this point, one might consult St Silouan’s writings together with the remarks of his disciple, Fr Sophrony (Sakharov), in his introduction to St Silouan’s writings.[21]

The quotation from 1 Cor. 12, 3 is the classic, biblical criterion of the presence of the Holy Spirit: the confession that Jesus is Lord.

‘Confirming secretly what is sought’: How well St Hesychios puts the inner spiritual assurance that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit!

The Holy Spirit is hidden; it touches our heart and illumines our mind (nous), making us to see with uncovered face the glory of Christ, making us certain, making us happy.

‘What is sought’: This conveys the goal, the mystical union with Christ; hence the plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) that the Holy Spirit in its advent brings to us conveys the confirmation that we have found Christ and that we are being transformed into Jesus’ image. And is this not what is sought—to recover the image that Adam lost in Paradise?

In the next chapter, St Hesychios returns to the immaterial war. It might be remarked that his method foresees by and large a lifelong struggle against the thoughts. St Hesychios’ method of sobriety issues in the guard of the mind, where the method is practised without impassioned or even unimpassioned mental representations or thoughts, and this practice of sobriety without thoughts, this guard of the mind, is the ground state of the accomplished Hesychast. After the Hesychast attains to the guard of the mind, he passes through the gate of contemplation into contemplations and the Holy Spirit may come upon his soul in an advent which confers habitual union, the state that seems to be hinted at in the present chapter. However, the guard of the mind remains the ground state of the Hesychast in all these later stages: it is the basis of the contemplations; it is the foundation of the union with the Holy Spirit; and the wise Hesychast, St Hesychios will make clear, will never abandon the guard of the mind. It is in this sense that we say that St Hesychios’ method foresees a lifelong struggle against the thoughts. Moreover, as we have already seen, it is possible to be tempted by the demons that rule over the passions of the soul right up to one’s last breath:[22] this is the sense of the saying in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that we should never bless anyone as a saint until he has died; it is the sense of the remark of St Anthony in the Sayings concerning the younger ascetic who had done a miracle: ‘He is like a heavily laden ship, but I do not know whether he will reach port.’ The ascetic later fell miserably.

It might also be remarked that after each theophany, of which the present chapter is one, St Hesychios immediately turns to cautioning the reader against some vice. In the next chapter, what St Hesychios cautions against is a premature confidence based on a relaxation of the immaterial war. Let us see what he has to say.

30 However, this at any rate must also be known by those who love learning—that, indeed, sometimes the envious demons often both hide themselves and draw the intelligible war back from us, the terrible things envying us the benefit and also the gnosis that are derived from the war, and the ascent towards God; and so that, we being unconcerned, they suddenly seize our mind (nous) and again work certain careless conceptions (ennoies) in the intellect (dianoia).

Following the reading in Alphabetic H’ for ‘careless conceptions (ennoies) in the intellect (dianoia)’ since the main text lacks the necessary noun, having only ‘careless [plural adjective] in the intellect (dianoia)’.

Next, compare TPL 44:

44 When the demons, battling against the monks, are unable to accomplish anything, then, withdrawing for a bit, they keep watch which of the virtues is in the meantime neglected, and, suddenly making an attack on that virtue, they tear the wretched soul to pieces.

This ‘tear the wretched soul to pieces’ of Evagrius is to be considered the same as St Hesychios’ ‘seize our mind (nous) and again work certain careless conceptions (ennoies) in the intellect (dianoia).’

Evagrius said nothing in TPL or OTT about the demons’ drawing back from us because of their envy of the benefit to us from the immaterial war. What is this benefit?

Recall that for St Hesychios, the whole method of sobriety is humility, intense attention in the heart, rebuttal, humble invocation of Jesus Christ and the memory of death. On the one hand, this is Evagrian praktike adapted to the repetitive use of the Jesus Prayer, with a greater emphasis on humility and the memory of death; on the other hand, it has a great similarity to the sobriety that Evagrius describes in OTT 17.

So far, we have presented these methods in a negative fashion: they are means to keep the commandments in thought, to avoid sin in thought. However, we are now learning from St Hesychios that there are positive aspects to the practice of his method of sobriety: the rebuttal of the demonic mental representation followed by the invocation (‘with an unutterable sigh’, he says) not only cuts off the temptation but also confers a benefit.

This benefit can in part be construed to be an increase in purity of mind or heart. The perceived space of the heart grows larger as the man progresses; the heart grows deeper; it becomes easier to pray, to enter into the heart at will, to penetrate more deeply into the heart. One is more integrated, more consciously founded on the deeper strata of his personhood.

St Hesychios has also said that there is an increase in virtue.

Moreover, using the Evagrian concept of gnosis, a gnosis which transforms the mind of him who receives the gnosis, St Hesychios posits that there comes an increase in gnosis with the practice of the war. We do not remain in one place spiritually when we are deflecting the demonic thoughts: by the act of deflection we progress in gnosis. This progress in gnosis constitutes a spiritual ascent of the mind (nous) by the principle of the spiritual conformation of the knowing mind (nous) by the gnosis which it knows.[23]

In other words, St Silouan, for example, thought he was battling demons all those fifteen years, and he was. What was not evident, however, is that over the span of those fifteen years of his immaterial war, his praktike, his mind (nous) was not only purified (this is a gnostic criterion of the purification of the mind (nous) apart from the criterion of the purification of the passionate part of the soul from the moral passions), but was also raised up bit by bit into the realms of gnosis—contemplation.

There is a battle which we perceive subjectively; what we do not perceive subjectively is the purification and the gnosis—illumination—that the battle bit by bit provides to us. In more ordinary language, it might be said that the very prosecution of the immaterial war, even though it might not seem to us to do so, makes us advance spiritually. It leads to an increase in grace, experienced as an increase in gnosis.

This is what St Hesychios is saying. The demons envy us this benefit and draw back from us so as to deprive us of it.

St Hesychios then goes on to echo, in a more moderate way than Evagrius, Evagrius’ own remark that the demons then wait, looking for a gap in our defences due to our carelessness, an opening at which to make a concerted attack.

The next sentence is important, for it points to the central role given to attention by St Hesychios in his system.

For the unending purpose of the demons is—and the struggle is devised—by no means whatsoever to allow us

Following the reading in Alphabetic H’ since the main text lacks ‘us’, necessary for the grammar and sense.

to lead our heart in attention: they know the wealth that is gathered into the soul.

Here, the spiritual wealth is seen to accrue to the soul from attention. While it is true that to an extent ‘attention’ is here merely a synonym for ‘sobriety’, we do not wish to diminish the emphasis that St Hesychios is here placing on attention per se.

The next sentence is even more important. It gives the Hesychian teaching concerning the role in ascesis of contemplation taken as a voluntary activity as opposed to an involuntary rapture of the mind (arpage tou nou) by the Holy Spirit. First, let us note that St Hesychios here implicitly understands that there is a voluntary aspect to contemplation. Next, let us recall the model of Evagrian sobriety in OTT 17. There also Evagrius treats contemplation (the source of gnosis) as a voluntary activity:

If, then, something happens to us [in tending the sheep; that is, in practising sobriety] on account of the toil and the accidie, running back for a bit to the rock of gnosis, let us hold intercourse with the harp [i.e. the mind (nous)], striking with the virtues the harp strings of gnosis. Let us then again graze the sheep [i.e. keep sobriety]…

Let us see what St Hesychios says:

But, at that time at least,

When the war has relaxed. St Hesychios has just advanced reasons why the demons might have drawn back from us, leaving us without an obvious battle. He is now discussing what we should do in such a case, apart from avoiding negligence.

let us with the memory of our Lord Jesus Christ

St Hesychios is very Christ-centred and he is cautioning that the contemplation remain Christ-centred.

extend ourselves in spiritual contemplations;

It is clear that St Hesychios believes that the monk faced with a relaxation of the war can raise his mind voluntarily to the things of Heaven, in accordance with his level of spiritual attainment surely.

Evagrius said the same thing, giving, however, different reasons.

and the war again comes back to the mind (nous).

This is very important. The ascetic or Hesychast raises his mind for a time to contemplations. But he then finds that the demons again commence the immaterial war; and he, the ascetic or Hesychast, must again commence rebuttal, invocation and the rest. Neither Evagrius, in OTT 17, nor St Hesychios, here, see the main task of the ascetic to be contemplation but sobriety. This is essential to grasp. We are called in the hermitage not to contemplation but to sobriety. Our goal is to maintain the guard of the mind: sobriety in the heart without images or mental representations.

St Hesychios now adds a very prudent admonition.

But only let us do all things with the counsel, if I may put it that way, of the Lord himself

First of all, this admonition indicates that St Hesychios sees this chapter as a logical continuation of the preceding chapter. For to be able to seek the ‘counsel … of the Lord himself’ on the matter of whether or not to ascend to contemplation during a relaxation of the war, and, indeed, to ‘do all things with the counsel … of the Lord’, requires that the ascetic must previously have been handed the torch by the Holy Spirit: he must have the Holy Spirit consciously present in his soul. St Hesychios discusses this idea somewhat more fully in OS 157, below. This is sobriety as the conscious presence of Grace in the soul of the ascetic, sobriety as union with the Holy Spirit. We are not all at that stage.

Moreover, the admonition, even assuming that we do have the Holy Spirit consciously present in us to counsel us what to do, teaches us modesty and decency and prudence: not to leap rashly into matters (contemplations) that are beyond our estate:

Lord, my heart was not raised up, neither did my eyes become exalted; neither did I walk in great things, neither in wonders which were over me. If I were not humble of mind but lifted up my soul; as he who is weaned upon his mother, thus thou wilt recompense my soul. Let Israel hope on the Lord from now unto the Age.[24]

(The use of ‘If’ in the second sentence is a way for the Psalmist to express that he utterly did not do such a thing. The sentence means: ‘I was humble of mind and did not lift up my soul;…’)

Moreover, this admonition by St Hesychios indicates that it might not be prudent to engage in contemplation today: the Holy Spirit, who searches the depths of God, knows why there was a relaxation of the war today, and will counsel the ascetic the best thing to do for this relaxation.

This is certainly for advanced ascetics. A not-so-advanced ascetic might get into trouble seeking after and depending on such private revelations.

St Hesychios then adds:

and with much humility.

St Hesychios sees humility as the foundation of his method. St John Cassian in his Conferences also sees humility as the foundation of the tower of prayer.[25]

St Hesychios now turns to practical counsels: in OS 31, how the Hesychast should live in the cœnobium; in OS 32, that he should avoid the vice of familiarity; in OS 33, the proper attitude of the Christian ascetic to his body. Then, in OS 34, St Hesychios presents a summary of the virtues.

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[1] Ladder G Step 27, 6; = Ladder E Step 27, 7.

[2] Diadochos p. 103, ll. 18–22.

[3] Ibid. p. 144, l. 17–p. 145, l. 13.

[4] Ibid. p. 145, ll. 11–13.

[5] Recall that the heart is the seat of the mind or nous.

[6] See the commentary before OS 87; see also the commentary on OS 174, below, for a discussion of whether this means that the ascetic is permanently free from temptation.

[7] Migne 34.

[8] Philokalia E.

[9] Philokalia F.

[10] Philokalia D.

[11] Philokalia E.

[12] Philokalia D.

[13] Philokalia F.

[14] We take this in the completely Orthodox sense of the creation of the world ex nihilo by the Word of God. See Chapter III of Volume I.

[15] See the Digression in Volume II for this terminology.

[16] Some details can be found in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis).

[17] Anthony. Concerning the Life of Anthony, see OS 179, below.

[18] Symeon Volume III; = Homily 59 in Zagoraios.

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

[20] 2 Cor. 3, 18.

[21] Silouan.

[22] See TPL 36.

[23] See, e.g., KG II, 83, quoted in the commentary on OS 23.

[24] Ps. 130.

[25] Cassian C 9, 2–3.


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