#profile-container h2.sidebar-title {display:none;}

OS (Commentary) -- 9

35 ‘Upon
Israel is his splendour,’ [Ps. 67, 35]:

upon a mind (nous) seeing, as possible,

the beauty of the glory of God himself.

‘And his power is in the clouds.’ [Ps. 67, 35.]:

In souls in the form of light,

gazing in the mornings,

him who sits at the paternal right hand [cf. Acts 7, 55–6],

casting light upon them,

as the sun casting its rays

among clouds that are pure,

he shows lovely.

We have translated this chapter literally without changing the word order, just as we would translate poetry. We have done this to capture that aspect of St Hesychios’ text, the juxtaposition of images, that would otherwise have been lost.

St Hesychios’ poem depicts a mystical experience.

Let us now render this chapter in prose:

‘His [i.e. the Father’s] splendour is upon Israel,’: upon a mind (nous) seeing, insofar as this is possible, the beauty of the glory of God himself.

‘And his [i.e. the Father’s] power is in the clouds.’: In souls which are in the form of light and which gaze in the mornings, he [i.e. the Father] shows to be lovely him [i.e. the Son] who sits at the Paternal right hand and who [i.e. the Son] casts light upon them [i.e. the souls] as the sun casts its light upon clouds that are pure.

This theophany is basic to Hesychian spiritual doctrine.

The basis of this poem is the closing doxology of Psalm 67: ‘Give glory to God, his magnificence is upon Israel and his power is in the clouds.’ (Ps. 67, 35.)

In the Hesychian poem, we have used ‘splendour’ as a synonym for ‘magnificence’.

The poem is in two parts. The first part is based on ‘His splendour is upon Israel.’ St Hesychios in this part compares the mind (nous) of the ascetic to Israel. The splendour of God is upon Israel, and thus upon the mind (nous) of the ascetic who contemplates the beauty of the glory of God himself.

Note that, as St Hesychios puts it, the ascetic’s mind (nous) does not see the glory of God, but ‘the beauty of the glory of God’, and that ‘as possible’. What can we say about this? The ascetic sees the glory of God, and that insofar as possible. This is classic Hesychast mysticism. Much is made in later Hesychast theology of the Transfiguration of Christ on Tabor, although there is no reference to that event in OS.[1] In the dismissal hymn (apolutikion) of the Feast of the Transfiguration, the three apostles who were present with Christ on Tabor are said to have had revealed to them by Christ, Christ’s divine glory ‘as they were able’. There is the same sense of the partialness of the vision in St Hesychios’ text.

The partialness arises in several ways. We discussed the limitations of the mind (nous) conjoined to a body in cognizing intelligible and spiritual mental representations in the commentary on OS 23, above. Since, according to OTT 41, the mental representation of God is a particular type of spiritual mental representation, the mind (nous) is subject to the limitations discussed in the commentary on OS 23, when in Theology it receives the mental representation of God, what we have here called a theophany or mystical experience.

Another, related, limitation is the limitation of the created mind (nous). The mind (nous) is created to know but it is limited by its being created. This is St Macrina’s anthropology that we studied in Volume I. Recall that St Macrina described the mind (nous) as a small piece of glass that reflected a perfect image of the sun, but in small. Of course, St Macrina was referring to virtue generally, to the reflection of the attributes of God in the virtues that a man has, but the point is the same. So this is the second limitation: the created cannot encompass the Uncreated.

The third limitation concerns the essence of God.

We earlier quoted 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].

KG V, 51 identifies the gnosis of the wisdom of God with natural contemplation:

V, 51 It is not that which is his nature that he knows who sees the Creator after the harmony of beings, but he knows his wisdom, with which he has made everything; and I wish to say not the essential wisdom, but that which appears in the beings, that which those who are experts in these things are wont to call natural contemplation. And if that is so, what folly is it that those have who say that they know the nature of God!

We have already discussed in Volume I the dogmatic issues that arise from Evagrius’ assertion that ‘the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis,’[2] and we will not repeat ourselves here. It is clear, however, that Theology must in some way be knowledge of God himself. Our problem, then, is this: What is the gnosis of the nature of God? Is it gnosis of his essence? For us Orthodox, no. It is gnosis—the sight—of his glory. One interpretation of Evagrius—one which would be charitably disposed towards him—tries to see in him this same understanding. It considers that that is why in OTT 39 he uses an apophatic expression, ‘the place of God’: because the essence of God cannot be known, only his ‘hindparts’.[3] In other words, a charitable interpretation of Evagrius sees Evagrius as speaking of the gnosis of the wisdom of God (natural contemplation) and the gnosis of the nature of God (Theology) in a distinction between the contemplation of the wisdom of God manifested in his works and the contemplation of God’s own light or uncreated operations, and not in a distinction between the contemplation of the wisdom of God manifested in his works and a vision of the essence of God. We are not persuaded that that is precisely how Evagrius saw things, but we refer the reader to Volume I for a discussion of Evagrius’ own views.

However, the Orthodox doctrine is much as the charitable interpretation of Evagrius would have it. That is, in Orthodox theology, one certainly could contemplate the energies of God, such as his wisdom in his creation, or even the reasons (logoi) of created things, or even the operation (energeia) of the holiness of God in the angelic powers. And in Orthodox theology one certainly can contemplate the glory of God, the uncreated operations or Uncreated Light of God’s glory, without for all that being able to contemplate God’s essence at any time either in this life or in the next.

This seems to be how St Hesychios views the matter. He is clear: the mind (nous) sees ‘as possible, the beauty of the glory of God himself’. This is knowledge, gnosis, of God. Of course, today, we Orthodox would never say that this is knowledge of God’s nature, but knowledge of God it nonetheless is—mystical, not propositional, knowledge, gnosis, which is conferred on us by God’s uncreated operations (aktistes energeies).

‘This then is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and him whom thou sent, Jesus Christ.’ (John 17, 3.)

We will see in OS 131, below, explicit reference to this soteriological aspect of Theology, this soteriological aspect of the mystical contemplation of God. This aspect of the mystical experience should be borne in mind when we ponder the definition of St John of Sinai of dispassion, that it is the resurrection of the soul prior to the resurrection of the body and knowledge of God second only to that of the angels.[4] In other words, in St John of Sinai, dispassion is seen to be the actualization in this life of the words of our Saviour in John 17, 3 just quoted, just as the theophany in OS 131 is seen by St Hesychios to convey salvation.

The point of Christian mysticism is that the mystic enters into the beginnings of eternal life here on earth. This is not to suggest that before death he can no longer sin, but it is to suggest that he has tasted eternal life while he is still on earth. Otherwise, the mystic merely has had an interesting psychological experience.

The next thing to emphasize is that the glory of God—or, to use St Hesychios’ expression, the beauty of the glory of God—is light.

‘And this is the proclamation which we heard from him and report to you, that God is Light and [that] in him there is no darkness whatever.’ (1 John 1, 5.)

This doctrine of the Light cannot be construed to be apophatic, but the road which the monk travels in order to render himself receptive to this Light is apophatic. For St Hesychios explicitly adopts the Evagrian apparatus of thoughts and mental representations,[5] and he goes so far as to say in OS 104, below, quoting Evagrius, that if the ascetic divests himself by means of Hesychian sobriety of all the thoughts in his heart, then the Light of God cannot fail to shine on him.

God reveals himself in the Holy Spirit. As we discussed in the commentary on OS 29, which speaks of the advent of the Holy Spirit to the ascetic, the advent of the Holy Spirit is a matter of the judgements of God, into which man is forbidden to pry: of what sort, when, where, of what intensity, with what charisms, of what import for the man’s further life. Here, in this chapter of OS, St Hesychios speaks both of the Father and of the Son, and, indeed, gives a primary place to the Father; but he does not speak of the Holy Spirit.[6] Let us simply say that St Hesychios is silent on the Holy Spirit in this poem: the Holy Spirit is hidden. We will see where below.

Finally, let us remark that St Hesychios’ doctrine of light is quite similar to that of St Symeon the New Theologian. Despite that, St Hesychios, well aware of his sources and quite willing to quote them, says nothing about or from St Symeon. Once can only conclude that he had a commonality of mystical experience with St Symeon without having read him. As we have already remarked, it is significant in this regard that we know both that St Hesychios had read GC and that GC was the text that St Symeon’s Elder gave him to read when he has a novice.

The next topic is the genuineness or not of such a vision in any particular case. Evagrius, the condemned heretic, had a vision. St Hesychios, the Neptic[7] Father of the Church, had a vision. You or I have a vision. How do we know if Evagrius’ vision, or St Hesychios’ vision, or your vision or my vision is true? Certainly if the vision is true it confers an ontological taste of eternal life: the ascetic’s mind (nous) has been renewed. If it is false, however, and the ascetic accepts the vision, he is in serious danger.

There is a charism called the discernment of spirits. It belongs to the Church. Of course, in some cases, the discernment is difficult. Origenism was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod in the face of much opposition on the part of the adherents of Origenism.[8] St Gregory Palamas is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on the Second Sunday of Lent as a Father of the Church, although those outside the Orthodox Church find him difficult. The Church is One. She protects her children; and the charisms are permanent gifts to the Church which have never lost their efficacy in the Church: God is the Spirit and protects his children now and unto the Age.

We hesitated to pronounce, in discussing in Volume I the structural similarity we remarked between Evagrius’ contemplative psychology and his explicitly condemned eschatological doctrines, whether Evagrius’ mystical doctrine was therefore also by itself condemnable. The Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod refrained from pronouncing on that topic. As is clear, many of Evagrius’ ascetical writings and doctrines entered into the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church. Let us also therefore withhold our condemnation of Evagrius’ ascetical doctrines, using whatever in Evagrius’ ascetical psychology and doctrine is useful to an Orthodox doctrine of mystical contemplation, without for all that accepting Evagrius’ condemned dogmatic positions.[9]

Why does St Hesychios say ‘the beauty of the glory of God’ and not ‘the glory of God’? First, as we have already said, this indicates the partial nature of what is seen. Next, St Hesychios, more than many, is a poet of Eros (eros), of aspiration, towards God. This is the functioning of the desiring part according to nature, and St Hesychios emphasizes this functioning of the desiring part according to nature. Hence, in saying ‘beauty’, St Hesychios is pointing to the aspiration, the love, the desire, the Eros (eros), which he feels towards God: he loves God, and loves to be close to his Beloved, to contemplate the beauty of his Beloved. St Hesychios uses such language explicitly in later chapters of OS.

Finally, this is the ‘flavour’ or ‘hue’ of Hesychian spirituality: although there are a number of Classical and even Homeric allusions in St Hesychios, one can see that he is not an austere philosopher on the order of an Evagrius Pontikos—even though Evagrius himself was by no means a Western mediæval Scholastic. It is the sort of person St Hesychios is that he would speak of the beauty of the glory of God.

We have covered the first part of the poem.

The second part of the poem is quite complex. St Hesychios continues with the doxology of Psalm 67: ‘And his power is in the clouds.’ St Hesychios is now going to make an identification between the clouds and the souls that contemplate God, and to say how the Father’s power is in those souls. The souls are in the form of light and gaze in the mornings—during their night vigil of prayer; we discussed this notion of the ‘morning’ in the commentary on OS 9, above. The Father’s power is manifest in those souls in this way: in them, the Father shows his Son Jesus Christ, who sits at the Paternal right hand, to be lovely. This is truly a theophany. The Holy Spirit is present in the Light. Then the poem continues with this additional image: the Son is casting light on those souls (which have already been identified with the clouds of the doxology) as the sun casts its light among clouds that are pure.

Let us now go through this second part of the poem piece by piece.

First, it should now be evident why we consider that the ‘he’ in the doxology of Psalm 67 is taken by St Hesychios to refer to the Father: it is the introduction of the Son in this second part of the poem as a person distinct from the psalmic ‘he’. Of course, the syntax of the poem might accept that the ‘he’ of the psalmic doxology is the Holy Spirit, and that the Father is silently with Jesus, who sits at the Paternal right hand, but this seems unlikely: the ‘glory of God himself’ can only refer to the glory of the Father, the source of the glory of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The next point is ‘souls in the form of light’. In the commentary on OS 23, above, we spoke of gnosis, and we remarked on the conformation of the mind (nous) by the contemplation in which the mind (nous) is engaged. The mind (nous) is an intelligible knower. It is not sensible. This means that it does not have the characteristics of a living body: when an animal, a tiger, say, senses an object of prey, there are accidental[10] changes to the animal’s nervous system, including its sense organs; there may be changes to the animal’s endocrine and other very complex biochemical control systems.

The mind (nous) is not that.

In the case of sense-perception in the human, the mind (nous) participates in the animal procedures just sketched, since man, we have learned in Volume I from St Macrina, participates fully in the animal nature. A man, perceiving as a hunter an object of prey or an object of fear, will have much the same bodily reactions as those just described for the animal—we assumed a mammal, a tiger. However, in man, as opposed to the tiger, something more, the mind (nous), participates in the biochemical reactions. The mind (nous), being intelligible and not sensible or bodily, is not itself part and parcel of the biochemical reactions; it participates, however, in the biochemical reactions in the sense that it is conformed by the sense impression or likeness or mental representation that the bodily sense organs transmit to it of the prey or object of fear.[11]

Similarly, when a man takes a certain medicine, or even drinks wine, his mood may change. The mood of a man, and other subjective phenomena of that sort, have correlates, poorly understood, in the physiology of the brain, and the mind (nous) is conformed by these changes in the physiology of the brain in the way that it is conformed by the sense impressions relayed to it by the bodily sense organs. It is as if the brain were in these cases acting like an internal sense organ.[12] However, the mind (nous) is not affected per se by the medicine or wine, just as it is not affected per se by the sense impression of the prey or object of fear, for the mind (nous) is an intelligible and not a sensible substance, and it obeys different laws from the laws of chemistry and biochemistry. For all that, however, the mind (nous) participates in the sense-perceptions and changes of mood, and is conformed to them, because they are its sense-perceptions and its changes of mood.

Now the mind (nous) is intelligible. It is also a knower. As Evagrius comments, the mind (nous) must be about its business of knowing, either sensible objects by means of sense-perception, or intelligible (non-sensible) objects by means of contemplation. That is its work.[13]

The goal of the mystic is to free his mind (nous) from the mental representations of sensible objects—those that arise on account of the bodily sense organs and on account of the recollection of such objects—and to raise it gradually to God himself (OTT 40). This is the structure of the Evagrian mystical ascent, which St Hesychios explicitly adopts in OS 89, below. Apart from the moral issues in the keeping of the commandments, the mystic cleanses his soul of the passions in order to free his mind (nous) from sensible objects: OTT 40 presents a summary, quite dense and terse, of this Evagrian doctrine, a doctrine that St Hesychios adopts in OS 89.

This freeing of the mind (nous) from the mental representations of sensible objects in order for it to ascend to God in contemplation is not the same thing as inducing biochemical changes to the brain and nervous system so that the mind (nous) might experience an alteration of mood or something akin to an alteration of mood. That is, the ascetical program is not to be construed, on the model of the humanistic psychological analyses of religious experience that we discussed in Volume I, as an empirically derived method to alter the biochemistry of the brain.[14] The goal of the mystic is to free himself from the mental representations that are introduced into his mind (nous) by sense-perception—and on the cognitive level this entails freeing the passionate part of the soul from the passions, for the reason given by Evagrius in OTT 40—so that he be receptive to the spiritual and intelligible mental representations related to contemplation: in the beginning, natural contemplation and, later, Theology. These spiritual and intelligible mental representations related to natural contemplation and to Theology are not to be understood as arbitrary descriptions of biochemical states in the brain that have been induced by the fasting and other bodily ascetical practices of the Hesychast, but as ontologically real: when the mystic experiences the light of the Divinity in such an experience as St Hesychios is describing in this chapter, it is not a matter of his having fasted much, done without sleep for many days and so on, so that the biochemical state of his brain is altered in such a way that his sensory faculties are flooded with light by the firing in a peculiar fashion of his brain neurons: it is a matter of God’s self-revelation to the man. The higher mental representations, those related to natural contemplation and Theology, are not artefacts of the effects on his brain of the mystic’s bodily ascetical practices; they are genuine cognitions by an intelligible substance, the mind (nous), of non-sensible—and, hence, non-biochemical—realities.

Now what must now be understood is what happens to the mind (nous) as the soul is cleansed of the passions, and, the soul having acquired, following Evagrius, dispassion—or, following St Hesychios, purity of heart—the mind (nous) begins its contemplative ascent.

First, gnosis is the food of the mind (nous). Sensible foods do not feed the mind (nous); they feed the nervous system. The mind (nous) and the nervous system are different.[15] The one is sensible—the nervous system—and the other is intelligible—the mind (nous).

Next, because the mind (nous) is intelligible and its job is to know, and to be fed by gnosis, it has a property distinct from that of the nervous system: the mind (nous) is conformed by the gnosis or contemplation in which it participates. This is more than an accidental[16] change to the disposition of the knower that would arise, say, from the hunter’s perceiving the prey, and less than a change to the substance of the mind (nous) that would make it into something other than what it is, a human mind (nous). In contemplating an angel—an angel of God, truly, without deception, in honourable contemplation—the mind (nous) becomes angelic. That is why the purification is laborious. The mind (nous) must ascend step by step to God, going slowly through all the transformations. Otherwise it will be damaged. Certainly there are cases—St Silouan is one—of a young novice receiving a vision of God, but these are rare. God knows his children, who can receive such a vision.

So this brings us back to St Hesychios. We can now understand why the souls are ‘in the form of light’: although we see the word ‘souls’, we understand St Hesychios to be speaking of the transformation of the mind (nous) that we have just analysed: the souls or minds (noes) are participating in the contemplation or gnosis of Christ’s and of the Father’s glory—light—and they have been transformed in a basic way to be conformed by that contemplation or gnosis—they too are light, without for all that having lost their ontological identity as created human minds (noes). Note that the souls or minds (noes) are spiritual or intelligible substances and that they have been conformed by a spiritual or intelligible reality: the light of God is not sensible but spiritual and intelligible.

We have already explained ‘gazing in the mornings’: this is the night vigil of prayer.

The sentence which follows the second part of the doxology (‘And his power is in the clouds.’) runs parallel syntactically to that second part of the doxology. Instead of ‘And his power is’ the sentence has ‘He shows lovely him who sits at the Paternal right hand’. Instead of ‘in the clouds’, the sentence has ‘in souls in the form of light, gazing in the mornings’.

Hence, instead of ‘And his power is in the clouds,’ the poem has ‘He shows lovely him who sits at the Paternal right hand, in souls in the form of light gazing in the mornings.’

So the basic structure of the second part of the poem is this: ‘He shows lovely him who sits at the Paternal right hand, in souls in the form of light.’

This is the power of the Father in this theophany: he shows the Son to be lovely.

Now St Hesychios add a complex phrase which modifies ‘him’, the Son: ‘casting light upon them as the sun casting its light among clouds that are pure.’

What does this mean? Jesus it is who, sitting at the Paternal right hand, casts his light upon the souls that are gazing in the mornings, just as the sun in the morning casts its light on clouds that are pure.

What can we infer from this? That what the ascetic sees is Jesus Christ sitting at the Paternal right hand, made lovely in his mind’s eye by the Father. Moreover it is Jesus himself who is casting his light upon the souls that are gazing, as the sun casting its light on clouds in the morning.

This is a vision of the risen Christ in glory.

The only thing that remains to be explained is the phrase ‘clouds that are pure’. We explained that, apart from questions of morality, the soul must be cleansed of the passions so that the mind (nous) not be attached to mental representations of objects of sense, since, as Evagrius explains in OTT 40, it is the passions that bind the mind (nous) to such mental representations. Here, purity of heart must be understood both in that sense—the clouds as it were are translucent—and in the moral sense. Jesus himself in his earthly ministry was quite insistent that only the morally pure can see God. The sinner is far from God. The basic message of the Gospel was, and is, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’[17] There is nothing in Christian mysticism of antinomian practices; these are deceits of the Devil to prevent people from repenting, being saved, going to Heaven, and receiving, even in this life, an experience such as St Hesychios has just described, or will describe in OS 171, below. Hence the clouds that are pure are souls that are pure both noetically—in the mind (nous)—and morally—in the passionate part of the soul.

Can one sin after having had such an experience? Here is what St Hesychios himself says:

36 One who sins, says Holy Scripture, will lose great justice [cf. Eccles. 9, 18]—and a sinning mind (nous) will lose the ambrosial drink and food which are in the chapter that has been written.

That is, in the last chapter of OS. The sense is that after such a vision, the monk is still able to sin; and, sinning, he can lose the ambrosial drink and food which are constituted by the vision, or more precisely, by the gnosis which is transmitted to the ascetic’s mind (nous) by the vision. We do not think that the reference is properly to Chapter 9 of Ecclesiastes, where, in Verse 9, 7 the Ecclesiast refers to rather more worldly food and drink than the adjective ‘ambrosial’ would imply. Hence, we do not follow the interpretation of Philokalia D and E, nor, for that matter, of Philokalia F. Our interpretation has the advantage of making clear the thematic continuity within the present series of chapters. For St Hesychios will go on in the following chapters to continue his thought, namely that we must be careful not to be puffed up with conceit after we have had such a vision. As we have already remarked, after each theophany, such as the one just given in OS 35, St Hesychios immediately presents a chapter or series of chapters on the dangers of pride, vainglory, conceit, negligence and such-like: these are precisely the dangers attending on the monk who has attained to a vision such as St Hesychios is describing in each of his theophanies.

In commenting on the previous chapter, we remarked that contemplation, or gnosis, is the food of the mind (nous). Here, St Hesychios, the classicist, compares the contemplation of Christ, the risen Lord, in the glory of the Father, to ambrosia, the food of the gods. He does not imply that one sees the risen Christ continually and continuously. That is impossible in this life. However, as we pointed out, the soul or mind (nous) is renewed or resurrected by the vision and retains the ‘memory’ of the vision not simply as the mere memory of a passing event but as a transforming operation of the Holy Spirit. This transforming operation of the Holy Spirit, which persists and which constitutes the spiritual condition of the ascetic, we might consider, apart from the actual vision itself while it lasts, to be the ambrosial drink and food that St Hesychios is referring to in this chapter. It is the gnosis that the ascetic has received. It is the spiritual condition conferred on the ascetic by the vision—that is to say, using the language of Evagrius, the spiritual mental representation which is conferred on the mind (ascetic) by the vision and which conforms the mind (nous) of the ascetic to itself.

So St Hesychios cautions us here that a sinning mind (nous) will lose this transforming operation of the Holy Spirit—this grace. How? Does not a vision of God make you perfect? Are you not ready to teach the nations after such a vision? Are you not a great Elder? How can St Hesychios, otherwise a fine mystical writer, say such a thing?

We have free will; that is never taken from us. Only in the next life and, especially, after the General Resurrection will we be given the grace of never falling.

Hence, even after such a vision I might fall. How? Recall the eight passions. Six of them were of the soul and, Evagrius asserted in TPL 36, ‘Those (demons) which rule over the passions of the soul persist until death; those which rule over the passions of the body retire more quickly.’ The six passions of the soul: avarice, sorrow, anger, accidie, vainglory and pride. The two of the body: gluttony and fornication. Moreover, in TPL 84, Evagrius provides an important clarification:

And as many of the demons as assault the passionate part of the soul [i.e. the demons related to the eight passions we just listed], these are said to be opposed to the practical life. As many again as trouble the rational part [the mind (nous)], these are called enemies of all truth and adversaries to contemplation.

So, apart from the demons which rule over the eight moral passions, there is another set which trouble the rational part, the mind (nous). These are the demons involved in false prophecy, false visions, false revelations, disturbances during contemplation and so on.[18]

Now St Hesychios says ‘a sinning mind’. This can be taken in either of two ways: either as the acceptance of a demonically sown thought related to the eight most general moral passions, or, more specifically, as the acceptance of a false prophecy, revelation or contemplation.

In the first case, the mind might accept a thought of pride, of vainglory, of avarice, of accidie, of sorrow, or of anger—or even, perhaps, of gluttony or of fornication. The ascetic might have grown negligent after the vision and might not have kept sobriety—which includes humility!—thinking that it was thenceforth a thing of the past. Fr Sophrony (Sakharov) writes in his introduction to the writings of St Silouan that St Silouan had a long and great battle with vainglory—after his vision of the risen Christ.

In the second case, the ascetic might accept a new vision which is false. This happened twice, by his own written confession, to St Silouan—after his vision of the risen Christ.[19]

Both things are possible. And the consequence is the loss of the ambrosial drink and food, the gnosis, here taken to be the habitual renewed spiritual condition of the ascetic. Afterwards, it is a matter of tears and wailing—sometimes for years—until God forgive the ascetic and restore him to his proper grace, his previous spiritual condition. It is in this regard that the ‘Prison’ of St John of Sinai in Step 5 of the Ladder is to be understood. For what the ascetic has lost is the subjective feeling of grace, the plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance). St John of Sinai reports a case where the ascetic made a condemnatory face when he heard that someone had sinned yet again: the ascetic thereupon had a dream that he had lost his outer garment—he said it symbolized the protection of God over him—and he literally wandered in the desert for years until he was forgiven.

The next chapter will now make sense—why it is placed in continuation with the vision and its sequel:

37 We are not stronger than Sampson, nor wiser than Solomon, nor more imbued with gnosis of the Divine than David, nor loving God more than Peter, the leader. Therefore let us not take courage

Or, ‘let us not have confidence’.

in ourselves. For Scripture says: ‘He who takes courage in himself will fall an extraordinary fall.’ [Cf. Job 18, 12.]

First, let us remark that Sampson, Solomon, David and Peter, the possessors of the most remarkable charisms—Sampson, strength; Solomon, wisdom; David, gnosis (this is a good explanation of what the gnosis of God is: what David the Psalmist and friend of God and Prophet had); Peter, faith and the revelation from God the Father that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God—these men all sinned the most grievous sins.

Sampson got mixed up with Delilah. He lost his hair.

Solomon committed idolatry.

David committed adultery, wife-stealing and murder.

Peter denied Christ.

St Hesychios’ point is that even after such a vision as he has described in OS 35, we can sin and lose grace;[20] he is in this chapter providing concrete examples from the sacred histories of Scripture, of men who fell the most extraordinary falls on account of their having had confidence in themselves. In ordinary language, we might say that the danger after such a vision is to think: ‘I’ve got it made! From now on, I’m on spiritual Easy Street!’

In the context of the theophany of OS 35, above, the strength of Sampson is greater than the newly found spiritual strength of the Hesychast who has had the vision; the wisdom of Solomon is greater than the newly found wisdom of the Hesychast who has had the vision; the gnosis of God that David had is greater than the gnosis of God conferred on the ascetic by the vision; and the faith of Peter is greater than the faith that the Hesychast now has. Yet those men all fell.

In the next chapter, St Hesychios turns to the therapy of this passion of conceit.

38 Let us learn from Christ humility [cf. Matt. 11, 29] and from David humbleness [cf. 2 Kgs. 16, 5–14; etc.] and from Peter to weep for those things which occur [cf. Matt. 26, 69–75; etc.]. But let us not despair after the fashion of Sampson and of Judas and of Solomon, the most wisest of men.

‘Humility is the spiritual teaching of Christ intelligibly enshrined, in those who have been found worthy, in the treasury of the soul and being inexpressible in sensible words.’[21]

Humility is given by God, being an insufflation.

Humbleness is self-abasement, practical humility, meekness in act, forgiveness in practice. It is not the heights, but the human effort to keep the commandment to love one’s enemies. It is God-given but imperfect, being perfected on the Cross.

Peter, then, said, ‘Man, I do not know him whom you say.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And, having turned, the Lord looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the word of the Lord that he said to him, that before the cock crows, you will deny me thrice. And going outside, Peter wept bitterly.[22]

St Hesychios adds ‘for those things which occur’ to his reference to Peter’s tears. He expects that we will fall in some small things, or even in large things, and he is showing us the road of repentance. He continues, indeed, ‘but let us not despair’. The fall may be serious: St Hesychios is an honest, realistic man who knows human nature. He is trying to help the sinner: ‘Weep, but do not despair. Seek mercy in self-abasement and humility.’

St Hesychios then provides three examples of despair: Sampson, Judas and Solomon.

Sampson was blinded by the Philistines and brought down to Gaza, where, bound by brass fetters, he ground grain in the prison-house mill. On the day of a great sacrifice to Dagon, the god of the Philistines, he was brought out of the prison to entertain the men of the Philistines in the great hall of assembly of the Philistine people. Then Sampson prayed to the Lord for strength, and, saying ‘Let my soul [life] perish with the Philistines,’ he brought down the two pillars of the assembly hall, killing more Philistines in his death than in his life.[23]

Then Judas, he who betrayed him, seeing that he [i.e. Christ] was condemned, returned the thirty pieces of silver to the High Priests and the Elders, having repented, saying: ‘I sinned, betraying innocent blood. They, however, said: ‘What is it to us? You will see [to it].’ And throwing the silver in the temple, he departed, and, going out, he hanged himself.[24]

According to tradition, Solomon, ‘the most wisest of men’—this pleonasm is found in St Hesychios’ own text—, died in the arms of one of his idolatrous wives in an idolatrous temple.

We remarked on despair in discussing generally the demon of sorrow when we were commenting on Evagrius’ two works, TPL and OTT. In connection with an advanced ascetic who sins a sin of the flesh contrary to nature,[25] Evagrius writes in OTT 36:

For it is easier to purify an unclean soul than it is to recall a soul once again to health which has been purified and then wounded once more, since the demon of sorrow does not permit it, but is ever jumping into the pupils of the eyes and bringing forward, during the time of prayer, the image of the sin.

This of course is true in the case of an advanced ascetic who commits a serious sin of any kind, but it is especially true for the type of sin that Evagrius is considering in OTT 36.

As Evagrius himself discusses in OTT 12, if the demon of sorrow persists obstinately, it can give birth to thoughts of suicide.

This is precisely what St Hesychios fears.

The next chapter continues the theme.

39 ‘For the Devil, walking about as a roaring lion, seeks him whom he may devour,’ [1 Pet. 5, 8] together with his forces themselves.

‘Together with his forces themselves’ applies to the Devil, not to his prey. This sentence is as it were the conclusion of the previous chapter; and it is also the premise of the present chapter, motivating the remainder of it. As the conclusion to the previous chapter, it indicates that despair is one means for the Devil to devour an unhappy soul. As the premise of the present chapter, it indicates that the unceasing search by the Devil and his forces for a soul to devour obliges us to have unceasing attention:

Let not ever be idle, therefore, utter attention in the heart and sobriety and rebuttal and prayer (euche) to Jesus Christ our God.

Recall that after presenting the vision of the risen Christ in glory in OS 35, St Hesychios then discussed how a sinning mind might lose the fruits of the vision. He then turned to humility as a guard against sin, and repentance as a cure for sin. Now he is returning to a basic outline of his method and saying: ‘If you are not negligent in practising this method even after such an exalted vision as the vision of the risen Christ that I just described, then you will be safe from the Devil and his forces.’ For we are not immune to the temptations of the Devil even after such a vision, and, indeed, the temptations may be stronger and more serious after such a vision, not weaker and more trivial.

Emphasizing the role of prayer to Jesus Christ our God, St Hesychios continues:

For a better help beside Jesus you will not find in your whole life. For he alone, the Lord, knows, as God, the villainies of the demons and their crafts and stratagems.

The Jesus Prayer is clearly much more than a mantra. Clearly, there is a very important element of invocation in St Hesychios’ doctrine of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer.

We mentioned ‘mantra’. We are not Buddhists or Hindus, but ‘mantra’ is now a well-known word. To us, ‘mantra’ conveys the repetition of a formula which introduces certain mental representations into the intellect. The mantra’s effect is considered to depend on the constant repetitive play of those mental representations on the intellect and, indeed, on the whole soul. Being the repetition of a specific formula which conveys specific mental representations into the intellect, the Jesus Prayer does not lack this aspect. However, in making use of the word ‘mantra’, we are doing so for ease of communication. We do not wish to introduce syncretistic thoughts into the minds of any of our beloved Orthodox readers. But we doubt that they will not have heard the word ‘mantra’ and it behoves us to explain the similarities and differences between a Buddhist or Hindu mantra—or even the Sufi zikr—and the Jesus Prayer. They are not the same. But they have this in common, that each method causes the play of mental representations in the intellect and soul. We put Christian mental representations to work in the soul; they, Buddhist, Hindu, or even—in the zikr of Sufism—Muslim mental representations. Our use is inserted into an Orthodox faith and way of life that strongly emphasizes that other aspect of our Orthodox use of the Jesus Prayer: the invocation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh, who was crucified, suffered and was buried, who rose again on the third day in fulfilment of the Scriptures, and who ascended into the Heavens, whence he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of whose kingdom there shall be no end.

In the next two chapters, St Hesychios continues with this new theme, emphasizing in the next chapter the invocation of Jesus, and in the other chapter the effect on the heart of the mental representation of the name of Jesus.

40 Let the soul therefore take courage in Christ and let it call upon him and let it in no way at all be cowardly. For it does not war alone, but with the dread King, Jesus Christ, Creator of all beings, bodiless and bodily, that is to say visible and invisible.

This is the invocation. The bodiless beings are the angels, including the fallen angels, the demons; the bodily beings, both men and the whole material creation.

41 For as the rain, by as much more as it is brought down upon the earth, that much also softens the earth, thus the holy name of Christ, called to our aid by us in a loud voice

This ‘in a loud voice’ is not to be understood literally but metaphorically, except perhaps in the oppressed beginner. It refers to the intensity with which Jesus is invoked by the person silently praying with or from the heart.

and more densely invoked, makes joyous and gladdens the earth of our heart.

This has two aspects: First, the invocation attracts mercy ‘as the rain from Heaven’. It attracts mercy from Christ our Lord, and the more we pray, the more we attract this mercy. ‘Densely invoked’ conveys both intensity and frequency, but above all frequency. St Hesychios appears to be of the school that encourages rapid repetition of the formula. There is another school that encourages very slow repetition and attention to each word, aiming at compunction. St Hesychios does not spend any time on tears—unless, as in the previous chapters, there is a ground for repentance. He does, however, acknowledge that tears are a fruit of sobriety (not of the Jesus Prayer per se). His is the road of attention, stillness and the guard of the mind.

The second aspect is precisely that of the repetitive play of the mental representation of the name of Jesus in the heart. We might compare this repetitive play to a verbal icon which renders charismatically present him who is portrayed (we are adapting to the Jesus Prayer the teaching of St Theodore Studite concerning the charismatic presence of the person portrayed by an icon; we do not know what St Theodore Studite himself would make of such a comparison). This is the mental representation explained in the language of the theology of icons. Just as demonic mental representations pollute and disorient the person, so the mental representation of the name of Jesus together with all the mental representations which are introduced by the formula being used make joyous and gladden the heart. This has much to do with the person of Jesus. His name is his icon in the intellect (dianoia) of the person praying the Jesus Prayer. His name warms the soul by making Jesus himself present in the soul of the person praying, in the same way that an icon makes him present in that person’s home.

A monk who finds difficulty with this notion of the mental representation might possibly benefit from (re)reading in Volume II our commentary on Evagrius’ On the Thoughts.

St Hesychios now takes up another topic: OS 42–7 develop St Hesychios’ presentation of the immaterial war. We have encountered much of this material already in Evagrius; there are only a few things which are new.

previous | Table of Contents | next

[1] This is an argument against dating OS to the Fourteenth Century.

[2] KG II, 47; etc.

[3] Cf. Exod. 33, 23.

[4] Ladder G Step 29, 2; = Ladder E Step 29, 4.

[5] Without naming Evagrius, surely.

[6] We take the ‘his’ in the lines quoted from Psalm 67 to refer to the Father on the basis of the second part of the poem, to which we will immediately turn.

[7]Neptic’ literally means ‘sober’; it refers to the spirituality of the Philokalia.

[8] Even today there is opposition to the condemnations of Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.

[9] See Chapter III of Volume I, especially the judgement on the matter of St John the Prophet, the disciple of St Barsanuphios, in Question 602.

[10] In the Aristotelian sense of ‘not essential’.

[11] Cf. Skemmata 17 and 47.

[12] Again, cf. Skemmata 17.

[13] KG IV, 67; IV, 62.

[14] See Chapter I of Volume I.

[15] See Chapter I of Volume I.

[16] Aristotelian sense.

[17] Cf. Mark 1, 15.

[18] In KG I, 10, Evagrius distinguishes among the demons which trouble the rational part of the soul, depending on whether they attack natural contemplation or Theology. See also Section 8, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[19] For both Fr Sophrony’s introduction and the writings themselves of St Silouan, see Silouan.

[20] OS 36.

[21] St John of Sinai: Ladder G Step 25, 37; = Ladder E Step 25, 41.

[22] Luke 22, 59–62.

[23] Cf. Judg. 16, 21–30.

[24] Matt. 27, 3–5.

[25] Homosexual behaviour is to be understood, although other sins of the flesh contrary to nature are not to be excluded.


Post a Comment

<< Home