OS (Commentary) -- 8
31 For we who live in cœnobia
St Hesychios seems to foresee a pattern that was common in
As we have remarked, St Theodore Studite makes no provision that we ourselves are aware of for this way of life. Moreover, St Athanasios the Athonite, in his charters for the Great Laura of Athos, foresees that the Great Laura will be a strict cœnobium on the Studite model, but that up to five Hesychasts or hermits might be supported by the Great Laura in cells separate from the monastery proper, in some cases together with a single disciple. St Athanasios was himself living as a hermit and Hesychast in the area where he built the Great Laura when the agents of Nikephoros Phokas found him.
Since then, in Athonite monasticism the pattern has been that the cœnobia do not customarily house ascetics in their main building complex. Such ascetics as the monastery supports are ordinarily housed in separate dwellings at a distance from the monastery proper. Of course, in the idiorrhythmic monastery, much would have depended on the disposition of the senior monk to whom the ascetic was attached as by obedience to an Elder. But on
This point about the customary physical separation of the ascetic from the mother house is significant for the understanding of OS 31 and 32. For the situation that St Hesychios seems to foresee entails more potential for interaction between the ascetic and the other monks, and, indeed, the Abbot, than the custom today on
(Customary law on
ought to cut off our every will
‘Will’ translates ‘thelema’, which means ‘thing willed’ not ‘faculty of the will’. Hence, the sense is that the ascetic should cut off his every intention, his every plan, his every preference.
with a voluntary deliberate choice
‘Deliberate choice’ translates ‘proairesis’, the word that Aristotle uses for the deliberate choice that is the presupposition of ethically significant conduct.
and with a willing heart.
St Hesychios wants to say: be obedient willingly. Do not be like a mule, obstinate. But his counsel is extraordinarily moderate and restrained. He does not talk about the Abbot as the image of Jesus Christ, the Abbot’s rule by divine right and the Abbot’s claim by divine right to the ascetic’s obedience. Moreover, St Hesychios does not even seem to foresee that the ascetic is by nature docile. Let us see what he says:
And, God holding converse,
God helping us.
we ourselves become somewhat tractable
St Hesychios, if the text and our translation be correct, does not have high hopes. It sounds like he is being very, very realistic.
and without a will.
The word translated here ‘without a will’ means ‘lacking in the faculty of will’.
We do what the other wants. We ourselves have seen an ascetic of this sort, greatly beloved because of his humility.
It is seemly, however, that this have art
Prudence and understanding, not naïveté. But let this not be a pretext for an arrogant manipulativeness on the part of the ascetic!
so that we are not agitated in the gall
So that we do not become bilious.
and so that we do not set our temper in motion irrationally and contrary to nature,
So that we do not get actively angry. St Hesychios has experience.
and after that we find ourselves without bold familiarity
This is that good familiarity before God that comes from a clear conscience before God.
in the invisible war.
Evagrius said the same thing many times; it is one of his recurrent themes in TPL and OTT: anger destroys prayer and works for the demons.
St Hesychios now explains himself.
For it is the custom, our will
This again is ‘will’ as ‘thing willed’ or ‘thing intended’.
not being cut off by us voluntarily, [for us] to grow angry with those who are endeavouring to cut it off involuntarily;
This is a very practical and psychologically realistic and experienced observation. St Hesychios knows from experience, and he also knows that there is no point to engaging in great theological defences of his position. He gives the ascetic a very practical—and self-interested—reason to be obedient. As we remarked earlier, he seems to be pitching his treatise to an audience that is somewhat less advanced spiritually than the audience that Evagrius had in mind for his own treatises that we studied in Volume II.
Moreover, St Hesychios, from bitter experience surely, says ‘endeavouring to cut off our will’. He does not see much hope of success for those who attempt to force a monk or ascetic to do their will when the monk or ascetic does not want to. ‘There is no stubbornness like the stubbornness of a stubborn monk.’ That is an Athonite proverb.
The only hope is for the ascetic to cut off his will voluntarily. And to that end, St Hesychios provides the ascetic with a practical reason for doing so:
and from this, then, the temper, set in motion evilly and barking, destroys the gnosis of the battle which barely with much toil [the monk] was able to acquire.
One might compare the parallel passages in TPL (TPL 24 and 25) and OTT (OTT 5, 13, 23, 32).
What St Hesychios has just said, and will go on to say in this and subsequent chapters, about the temper has the mark not of one who is quoting Evagrius (although he shares with Evagrius the metaphor of the temper as a dog) but of one who—perhaps indirectly—has completely assimilated the Evagrian teaching concerning the temper and is expressing it in his own words.
We have already seen ‘the gnosis of the battle’. Here an apt interpretation might be ‘the monk’s spiritual condition’, given that the monk is here assumed to be in praktike. Note the very important phrase: ‘which barely with much toil [the monk] was able to acquire’. The sense is that the monk has sweated to acquire the bold familiarity he has before God, that good familiarity which he has before God in prayer; that he has struggled grievously to acquire the gnosis that he has. There is no sense here that this is an easy road. And, St Hesychios is saying: you can lose everything; all it takes is to lose your temper through a refusal to be obedient.
St Hesychios continues:
For the temper is by nature destructive. If it is set in motion against the demonic thoughts (logismoi), it ruins and destroys them;
Evagrius himself, in TPL 93, Makarios the Egyptian, implies that he, Evagrius, received this teaching from the Egyptian Fathers.
if once more again, then, it should become stirred up against man, it also ruins in us in the same way the good thoughts (logismoi).
This is the use of temper contrary to nature. This is the second half of the teaching of St Makarios the Egyptian in TPL 93.
I see, however, that the temper happens to be destructive of all thoughts (logismoi) whatever, either wicked or, should it chance, even good.
This doctrine is basic. It is very similar to that of TPL 42.
In the Skemmata, Evagrius has three chapters of interest here:
8 The temper (thumos) is a power of the soul destructive of thoughts.
9 Dog-like is the contemplative mind (nous theoretikos) chasing away all the impassioned thoughts by means of the movement of the temper (thumos).
10 Dog-like is the practical mind (nous praktikos) barking at all the unjust thoughts.
The first chapter is merely a reiteration of the principle that anger destroys the thoughts. The next two chapters are important for the distinction they draw between the use of the temper by the advanced ascetic, the gnostic, and by the ascetic still in the practical life. For the barking of the dog in Skemmata 10 is precisely the rebuttal with anger. However, the advanced ascetic need not actually make a formal rebuttal: a mental (noera) movement of his temper—let us say, a mental growl—is sufficient to chase the demon off. We will see such distinctions being drawn by St John of Sinai when in the commentary just before OS 87 we turn to a systematic discussion of the ways of confronting the demons. For the present let us remark that the ascetic must make an honest appraisal, perhaps in conjunction with his guide, of his actual ability to chase off a demon without ‘barking’.
For it is a weapon and a bow provided to us by God
This is a fundamental feature of this school, or anthropology, with regard to the use of the parts of the soul according to or contrary to nature. Here St Hesychios, following Evagrius, is saying that the temper was given to man to be used just as a weapon or a bow might be, for the good. St Diadochos of Photike also teaches that the temper has been provided to us by God as a weapon.
if it is not deployed on both sides.
That is, against both foe and friend, or both according to nature—against the demons and their thoughts—and contrary to nature—against man.
If, then, it also operates differently,
That is, contrary to nature. The text is not very smooth here.
it is destructive.
This is what, in TPL 93, St Makarios the Egyptian’s teaching is purported to be.
For I also know a dog,
spirited to the same degree as the wolves,
The sense here is that the temper in this case is demonically inflamed.
which destroys the sheep.
These are the ascetic’s good mental representations, or even, in the cœnobium, the other brothers, or even one’s fellow ascetics in the district. Compare this passage from OTT 13:
Therefore care must be taken, with as much strength as we have, for our dog, and one must teach it to destroy only the wolves and not to eat up the sheep, showing every meekness to all men [Tit. 3, 2].
St Hesychios now turns, as in continuation, to the second problem of the ascetic in the cœnobium: familiarity.
Before we continue, however, let us make some remarks. Nowhere else in OS does St Hesychios mention the Abbot, nowhere else the cœnobium (he often speaks of the dangers of familiarity and idle talk, which occur especially in the cœnobium, but these could equally well occur in a group of hermitages or in an Athonite skete); nowhere does he discuss the connection between manual labour and sobriety, as does St John Cassian in the Cœnobitical Institutions, referring to the practice of the Fathers of Egypt; nowhere does he mention mundane tasks such as housecleaning and food preparation; nowhere does he mention mysterial (sacramental) confession; in one chapter only, he discusses Holy Communion, and as presupposing the blessing of an unspecified other such as Abbot, Elder or Confessor; nowhere does he mention the proper attitude of the Hesychast while attending services in church. St Hesychios’ Hesychast is a strict Hesychast much on the model of the Hesychast of St John of Sinai in Step 27 of the Ladder: without manual labour; without church services; who receives Holy Communion with an unspecified frequency; who is totally dedicated to prayer, and prayer in the sense that St Hesychios has been defining: Evagrian sobriety in humility, continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer and the memory of death. If the Hesychast is in the cœnobium, he does not participate in the cœnobitical life, but is merely supported by and served by the brothers so as to be free of all worldly cares. But in this, the Hesychast is advised to cut off his will completely and voluntarily to the Abbot, so as not to have his own temper disturbed. A model of this sort of life might be the way of life of those great Hesychasts, St Barsanuphios (fl. 1st half of 6th C.) and
Now let us turn to familiarity.
This familiarity is completely different from bold familiarity before God. It means ‘undue intimacy’ in our relations with others or an ‘[a]bsence of ceremony, free or unrestrained intercourse, especially with inferiors’. It is considered to be a grave fault.
32 Thus it is necessary to flee familiarity as the venom of the asp and to turn aside from an excess of encounters as snakes and ‘the brood of vipers’ [Matt. 3, 7], these things being extremely able to bring the soul quickly into complete insensibility (lethe)
Lethe should literally be translated ‘forgetfulness’ or even ‘oblivion’. No English word, however, does justice to the word as it is used by St Hesychios in OS. The ultimate source of the meaning that St Hesychios assigns to lethe is to be found in the works of St Mark the Ascetic, most notably in the Letter to Nicholas. The concept of ‘lethe’ as used by St Mark and St Hesychios is related to that of ‘accidie’ in the Ladder, and to that of ‘insensibility’ in Evagrius, more than to that of ‘forgetfulness’ (lethe) in Evagrius. We have used ‘insensibility’ as the conventional solution to an insoluble problem.
This lethe is not a mere cognitive forgetting or forgetfulness, the way we might forget a telephone number, but a loss by the mind (nous) of its spiritual condition, of its habitual contemplation or gnosis. Just as spiritual gnosis transforms the mind positively, so the loss of spiritual gnosis leads to a loss of that spiritual transformation, of that spiritual condition of the mind that the ascetic was wont to enjoy. That is why we think that Evagrius’ ‘insensibility’ is closer to St Hesychios’ sense than any other term. This lethe might very well be experienced by the ascetic as insensibility, accidie, depression, lethargy, listlessness—these last two words very much convey St Hesychios’ meaning—lassitude, boredom, excessive sleep, being fed up with monasticism and so on.
of the war within and to draw the soul down from the lofty joy which is from purity of heart.
Following the reading in Alphabetic ‘B’ for this whole sentence. The differences are matters of grammatical detail.
This should be clear. The familiarity and the excess of encounters destroy the monk’s practice of sobriety, the immaterial ‘war within’, and ruin his spiritual condition.
Note the close relation here between sobriety as the method, the immaterial war or praktike, and sobriety as the goal, purity of heart or dispassion. St Hesychios is saying that familiarity and an excess of encounters can very easily make the ascetic lose his spiritual attainments. This is of course consistent with the sojourn of the Hesychast in the cœnobium, or even with the practice by cœnobites, as cœnobites, of Hesychian sobriety; but it is also consistent with the practice of Hesychasm anywhere on
For the accursed insensibility (lethe) lies opposed to attention as water to fire, and it happens to be a mighty adversary to it at every moment.
Note that St Hesychios says ‘attention’ and not ‘the Prayer of Jesus’. There is more to Hesychian spirituality than the mere repetition of the Prayer. Note also that insensibility (lethe) is contrasted with attention: this should give us some clue as to what both lethe and attention are.
Note the very great importance in the Hesychian method of an undeviating attention in the heart. This attention is the bearer of both the lofty joy and the condition of purity of heart, and this attention is what suffers from familiarity and an excess of encounters. To a certain extent, this is a matter of sheer distraction. But this distraction which disperses the attention is only the first step on the downhill road. There are also spiritual and moral issues involved that are not accounted for by mere distraction: familiarity per se is considered to be morally objectionable, and the excess of encounters is treated similarly by St Hesychios and all the ascetical writers. Moreover, the spiritual aspect of the hermit’s condition is sustained by the hermit’s unwavering attention, and this spiritual aspect is damaged directly by the familiarity and the excess of encounters. Hence, the damage that is done by familiarity and an excess of encounters is not due solely to distraction; that is only part of the story.
For from insensibility (lethe) we go downhill to negligence;
This would be violations in act of the cœnobium’s typikon; not keeping our own rule of prayer; being careless in our relations with others (indulging anger, greater familiarity, impudence, unseemly bodily contact, argumentativeness, disobedience, indulging the sins of others (cf. 1 Tim. 5, 22), indulging in sin, condemnation of others, gossip and so on); not keeping the Church’s fasts or our own private rule of fasting; and so on. Irregularities in act.
out of negligence to contempt and indifference and absurd desires.
The monk’s loss of his spiritual condition can amount to spiritual disaster.
‘Contempt and indifference’: This should be clear from our examples of negligence just above. The monk or ascetic progresses to outright contempt for others and for the monastic state and for the monastic milieu. He progresses to indifference towards the typikon (rule), towards the church services, towards his monastic vows, towards the Church, towards the moral laws of God and the Church. In advanced cases he may leave the monastic state and marry.
‘Absurd desires’ might refer either to desires absurd in a monk who has vowed chastity and piety or to frivolous desires such as for a radio, television set, computer, skis, automobile, video camera and so on. St Hesychios is not to be ignored. He knows.
There is a certain similarity between the progression that St Hesychios has defined here and the progression involving lethe that Evagrius defines in Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios).
And thus again we return to the rear in the manner of a dog returning to its own vomit [cf. 2 Pet. 2, 22].
Hesychian sobriety is hard work which must be kept up for one’s whole life. Before commencing the monastic and Hesychast journey, the postulant must grasp this and ‘reckon the cost’ (Luke 14, 28).
Let us therefore flee familiarity as a deadly poison.
As the root of every evil.
St Hesychios now discusses the therapy of lethe and of its consequences.
The evil acquisition of insensibility (lethe), and those things which come from it, are healed by an extremely exact guard of the mind (nous)
By being extremely attentive—not in a general sense but according to St Hesychios’ method—we cut out the roots which have sprouted. St Hesychios will later refer again both to lethe and to its therapy: he greatly emphasizes that the only therapy for lethe is an extremely exact guard of the mind. Having encountered the symptoms of lethe in ourselves, or having been advised of them by our Elder or Confessor, we must apply ourselves with renewed vigour not to exotic therapies such as vacations and pilgrimages but to the method of strict attention that St Hesychios is outlining in OS.
and by continual invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Again, St Hesychios’ insistence that we must invoke Jesus Christ. There is nothing here of the arts and crafts of asceticism of Evagrius; here, all depends on Hesychian sobriety: humility, attention, rebuttal, the continual invocation of Jesus Christ and the memory of death.
Without him we can do nothing [cf. John 15, 5].
This is St Hesychios’ central doctrine of the utter dependence of the ascetic on Jesus Christ. It is well for the would-be Hesychast to reflect on the necessity in the Hesychian system of this utter dependence on Jesus Christ. In the case, say, of lethe, the ascetic must on the one hand redouble his efforts in keeping strict attention; on the other hand, he must utterly depend on and invoke his Lord. This is the Hesychian method in a nutshell.
33 It is not admitted of, nor even possible, moreover, to make friends with a snake
A venomous snake. Those who have tried have been bitten.
and to carry it in one’s breast—
That is how Cleopatra is said to have died, by clasping a bunch of asps to her breast.
neither to flatter the body in all kinds of ways and to take care of it and to show charity to it, except for the needful and the necessary, and to take care also for heavenly virtue.
This is the beginning of St Hesychios’ teaching on the body.
For it is the nature of the first
The venomous snake.
to wound him who comforts it; it is the nature of the second, however, to pollute in pleasure him who serves it.
Recall OTT 1: one must be defeated by the demon of gluttony before he can be assaulted by the demon of fornication. Recall also TPL 55, on the natural movements of the body during sleep. See also Step 14 of the Ladder of St John of Sinai, which treats of the connection between gluttony and pollutions.
In those things in which it fails, let it be tormented unsparingly with whippings and the clenched fist
The reader might wish to take this metaphorically. However, St Hesychios will later explicitly advocate a literal interpretation.
like an escaped slave full of new wine. Let the worthless slave
With a one-letter emendation by us for the grammar. ‘Worthless slave’ might also be translated ‘slave worthy of a whipping’. St Hesychios means the body.
know the Lord.
We take this to refer to God and not to the soul or the inner man. St Hesychios means: let it be punished.
Let it not pass its time in the tavern and let it, the perishable clay both servile and nocturnal,
The body. We are not sure just what St Hesychios wishes to convey with ‘servile and nocturnal’ unless it is simply to disparage the body with adjectives suitable to a disreputable slave.
However, compare the Ladder: ‘Another theologian, then, [called the flesh] impassioned and servile and nocturnal…’ According to the scholiast on the Ladder, as we are informed by Archimandrite Ignatios, the editor of Ladder G, the reference is to St Gregory the Theologian.
not ignore its imperishable mistress.
Until the departure do not take courage
‘Do not take courage’ might well be translated ‘do not have confidence’. We have translated it with the former phrase to maintain consistency in our rendering of the underlying Greek word in other passages.
in your flesh.
Compare the Ladder: ‘Do not have trust in the clay in your life, and do not take courage in it until the time that you meet Christ.’
In this chapter, St Hesychios is referring to the bodily passions of gluttony and fornication, the first bringing on the second.
His basic teaching echoes
The reference to the tavern depends on the well-known stimulatory effect of alcohol on the passion of fornication. It is worth remarking that St Diadochos, in GC 48 and 49, cautions the ascetic against excessive drink, all the while recommending the moderate use of wine.
As Evagrius explains, the connection between ‘body’ (the physical body) and ‘flesh’ (the passions) is precisely that the two passions of gluttony and fornication are passions of the physical body, whereas the other six passions are passions of the soul—with a reserve for anger, here taken to be a passion of the soul, since its treatment in Evagrius, as we have already discussed in Volumes I and II, is somewhat ambiguous.
We will discuss St Hesychios’ identification of the flesh with the body in the commentary on OS 164, below.
‘The will of the flesh is enmity towards God, for it is not obedient to the Law of God.’ [
The actual reading of Scripture is ‘mindedness of the flesh’ instead of ‘will of the flesh’. It is possible that St Hesychios has taken the expression ‘will of the flesh’ from Chapter 21 of Discussion with a Lawyer by St Mark the Ascetic. See the commentary on OS 164.
‘For the flesh desires contrary to the Spirit.’ [Gal. 5, 17.] ‘Those who live in the flesh are not able to please God. We, then, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.’ [
The actual readings of Scripture are ‘Those who are in the flesh’ instead of ‘Those who live in the flesh’ and ‘You, then,’ instead of ‘We, then,’. Nestle-Aland does not show these differences to belong to the manuscript tradition of Scripture. Some of these variations might be due to copyists’ errors; some of them might be due to St Hesychios’ quoting from memory; some of them might be due to his adapting the passages to his own purposes.
The next chapter seems to echo TPL 89. However, TPL 89 is more developed. A close reading and comparison of the two passages suggests that St Hesychios actually had TPL 89 before him, using some of it, rejecting some of it, simplifying much of it and making his own adaptations. We will later encounter direct quotations by St Hesychios from TPL. It would be worthwhile for the reader to look at both chapters in parallel, although TPL 89 is too long for us to quote in full here. We can only point out the most salient points.
34 The work (ergon) of prudence: ever to set the temper in motion towards engagement in the battle within and towards self-condemnation.
Evagrius writes in TPL 89: ‘And the work of prudence is to conduct as general the war against the opposed powers; and to defend the virtues, to stand prepared against the vices and to administer neutral things according to the seasons.’
The emphasis on self-condemnation is due to St Hesychios.
Of wisdom, then: to set the rational part in motion towards strict and perpetual sobriety and towards spiritual contemplation.
Evagrius writes in TPL 89: ‘Of wisdom, to contemplate the reasons of bodies and bodiless [powers].’ This is natural contemplation. With regard to the role of wisdom and the other virtues in contemplation, Evagrius explains himself somewhat more fully in Gnostic 44.
This juxtaposition of the texts of St Hesychios and Evagrius gives us a very interesting insight into how St Hesychios views the concept of sobriety—‘strict and perpetual sobriety’, the guard of the mind—, for he has here put it into the structural position that in Evagrius belongs to natural contemplation. Sobriety, especially in its higher form of the guard of the mind—which seems clearly to be what is meant by ‘strict and perpetual sobriety’—, is in St Hesychios, as in St John of Sinai, closely related to contemplation; that is why we ourselves have said that in the Hesychian system it is the gate to contemplation. This point should be borne in mind.
Of justice: to direct the desiring part towards virtue and God.
This is not Evagrian. For Evagrius, the work of justice is ‘to work a certain agreement and harmony of the parts of the soul’. Evidently, St Hesychios wanted to approach the functioning of the desiring part according to nature in a fuller manner than merely naming chastity would have allowed him to do—that is to say, he wished to show the positive orientation, ‘towards virtue and God’, of the desiring part functioning according to nature—and he found justice convenient to his purpose.
Of manliness: to govern the five senses and utterly to restrain them so that our man within, that is to say, the heart, not be polluted by them, nor our man without, that is to say, the body.
Evagrius in TPL 89: ‘Not to dread the enemies and to persevere zealously in terrible things are of patient endurance and manliness.’ St Hesychios’ adaptation seems infelicitous, although it is quite consistent with his doctrine throughout OS.
St Hesychios now turns to a theophany which he himself surely experienced:
 Or around the time we have placed him; see the commentary on the first title line of OS.
 A ‘cell’ in this sense is a small house containing one or several rooms, perhaps even a chapel. Cf. OED ‘cell’, meanings 2 and 3a.
 BMFD Vol. 1, Chap. 2, Typikon 13, para. 37, p. 260.
 Appendix 3 of Volume II.
 GC 62, quoted in the commentary on OS 141, below.
 OTT 17.
 Cassian I.
 OED ‘familiarity’, meanings 4b and 6.
 This work is contained in Volume I of Philokalia D, E, F and G—in Philokalia E under the title Letter to Nicolas the Solitary. It is found in Volume II of the critical edition of St Mark’s works (Mark).
 Step 13.
 OTT 11.
 OTT 23.
 Sinkewicz p. 320 (Greek), p. 42 (English); = Migne 79, col. 1113C.
 Ladder G Step 15, 29; = Ladder E Step 15, 31.
 Ladder G Step 15, 13; = Ladder E Step 15, 17.
 Palladius Chapter 86, pp. 368–79.
 See Appendix 1 of Volume II.
 TPL 89.