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Digression -- 3

Let us now turn to the first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the bodiless powers or angels.

Among the objects of material gnosis, some are first and others second. The first are corruptible in potentiality, and the second are corruptible in potentiality and in act (II, 33). We do not know what this means. We take the first objects, however, to be the angelic powers and, possibly, the second objects to be the demons. If so, the import would be that whoever could contemplate the angels could also discern the demons when they approached him. We do not take this chapter to refer to the second natural contemplation for the reason that in the Evagrian system objects without mind (nous) are not capable of moral vice, and indeed are not capable of moral acts.

If the ‘crown of justice’ (2 Tim. 4, 8) is the holy gnosis and if, much more, the gold that the stones contain indicates[1] the worlds which have been or will be, then the contemplation of the corporeal and incorporeal nature is the crown which is placed by ‘the just judge’ on the head of the wrestlers (I, 75). This is merely a statement that the crown of the ascetical effort is the reception, by grace, of Theology (‘the holy gnosis’) and natural contemplation (the contemplation of the corporeal and incorporeal nature’). It is possible that Evagrius here wants to restrict the notion of the ‘holy gnosis’ to the first natural contemplation, but that is not a matter of great import.

The mind (nous) which has divested itself of the passions becomes wholly like the light, because it is illumined by the contemplation of beings (V, 15). We take ‘beings’ here to refer to the angels. This is an interesting chapter. We have already seen that in the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian,[2] it is the transition from the second to the first natural contemplation that is characterized by the divestiture of the senses. However, it seems to us that the proper approach to this passage is to treat it as equivalent in meaning to TPL 61 and 56 taken together: after the ascetic attains to dispassion (apatheia), he eventually enters into the contemplation of the angels, wherein he is completely illumined, although not as much as when he will enter into contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

Zion is the sign of the first gnosis, and Egypt is the indication of all vice; but the symbol of the natural contemplation is Jerusalem, where is the Mount of Zion, the summit of the city (V, 88). This passage is important, for in On Sobriety 117 St Hesychios will use the same imagery.[3] The ‘first gnosis’ is unitive prayer to God, Theology. This is ‘Zion’. Elsewhere in the Kephalaia Gnostica,[4] we learn that ‘Jerusalem’ symbolizes the first natural contemplation, that of the angelic powers.

The contemplation of the bodiless powers which we knew in the beginning without matter, we now know bound to matter; but the contemplation which concerns bodies we have never seen without matter (II, 61). Evagrius intends to say that before the Movement, we knew the contemplation of the bodiless powers in the form of the contemplation of the other minds (noes) and their reasons (logoi). That that contemplation should now be bound to matter has to do with the Movement, the judgement and so on.[5] The matter being referred to, for the passage to have coherence, is the matter associated with the angelic bodies and with the worlds in which the angels now find themselves. The contemplation which we have never known without matter is the second natural contemplation. We have never known it without matter since it is the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of material objects, and before the Movement there were no material objects. Of course, we cannot as members of the Orthodox Church accept these positions.

Just as now we draw near to sensible objects by the senses and just as in the end when we will have been purified we will also know their mental representations, so at the beginning we see the objects and when we will be purified more we will also know the contemplation which concerns them, after which it is possible thenceforth also to know the Holy Trinity (V, 57). We think that the version commune (S1) has the better reading for this chapter: it changes ‘objects’ in the second clause to ‘bodiless powers’, something that seems to us to be the more logical reading. We would think that there must be some error in the version intégrale (S2) here. Of course, it is possible that the version intégrale (S2) has the correct reading and that the translator into Syriac of the version commune (S1) made the change arbitrarily. In any event, with the reading of the version commune (S1), the passage is a reiteration that we begin by perceiving objects of sense by means of the organs of sense. Afterwards, when we are purified, we enter into the second natural contemplation and intuitively apprehend the reasons (logoi) of objects of sense. Similarly, we begin in the first natural contemplation with a simple encounter with the angels. When we are yet more purified, we enter into the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of the angelic powers, after which we can enter into the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. The reading of the version intégrale (S2) which has ‘objects’ where we read ‘angelic powers’ does not make much sense. It is worthwhile to recall here that there is a progression in contemplation even within a stage and that the ascetic apprehends the object of natural contemplation in proportion to his spiritual measure.[6]

The contemplation of this organon of the soul, the body, is varied; very varied, the contemplation of the organa of the heavenly beings, the bodies of the angels; and more varied than these contemplations is the contemplation which concerns the reasonable beings (logikoi), because the organa, the bodies, are the habitations of those who know, while the reasonable beings (logikoi) are susceptible of the gnosis of the Holy Trinity (II, 80). These are special types of the first natural contemplation. Moreover, this passage demonstrates the complexity in Evagrius of the first natural contemplation: once the ascetic has accomplished the second natural contemplation and has entered into the first natural contemplation, then he can begin to contemplate a variety of things in addition to the angels themselves, including their bodies and their reasons (logoi). Evagrius gives as reason for the height to which the contemplation of the bodies of the angels reaches, and the height to which the contemplation of their reasons (logoi)[7] reaches, the fact that the reasonable beings (logikoi)—the angels, but also men and demons—are capable of gnosis of the Holy Trinity. Note the treatment here by Evagrius of the contemplation of the body of man as the lowest of this sort of contemplation: we learned from St John of Damascus’ description of the comportment of Adam and Eve in Paradise that the contemplation of the constitution of man was the highest natural contemplation;[8] here we can see that St John’s doctrine is certainly not based on Evagrius.

Just as it is more difficult for us to see the mental representations of incorporeals than to draw near to objects by means of the senses, so it is more difficult for us to know the mental representations of bodies than to see the bodies themselves (V, 54). We think that underlying this chapter is the doctrine that it is more difficult to contemplate the reasons (logoi) of objects of sense than it is to perceive with the bodily sense organs those objects of sense; that it is still more difficult to apprehend an angel than it is to apprehend the reason (logos) of an object of sense; and that it is still more difficult to apprehend the reason (logos) of an angel than it is simply to apprehend the angel itself. This is the basis of the hierarchy of natural contemplations.

That which is knowable is revealed to him who knows, in part in him who knows and in part in that which does not know (IV, 5). We have already seen a chapter with the same meaning.[9] He who knows, in this case, is the ascetic, who possesses mind (nous). Only beings with mind (nous) can know. Concerning that which is knowable by the ascetic, the first part refers to the contemplation of the angelic powers, who also have mind (nous) and who therefore also know; the second part refers to the contemplation of objects of sense, which, being as we have seen devoid of mind (nous), are themselves incapable of knowledge. However, the wisdom with which they were made is knowable. We understand the sense of the next chapter to be the same:

The gnosis of the seconds is contained in the first, and that of the first in it; but the second is not knowing (V, 87).

Men who have seen something of that which is in the natures have grasped only their common life; only the righteous have received their spiritual gnosis. And he who disputes about this resembles him who says ‘I have been in the company of Abraham, when he was advancing on the road with his two wives.’ The former has said the truth, but he has not seen ‘the two covenants’ and he has not understood who they are who are born of them (I, 32). This is an explanation of the nature of the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of something. We would like to say, of objects of sense, but the example adduced by Evagrius places the contemplation at a much higher level. Note that these contemplations have a dogmatic character and involve the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

The mind (nous), when it considers the intelligibles sometimes receives their vision separately and sometimes also becomes a seer of objects (II, 27). The sense of this chapter is that when one contemplates either the reasons (logoi) of the angels or other intelligibles, sometimes one receives the contemplation of the reason (logos) of the angel or of the other intelligible by itself and sometimes one also directly apprehends the angel or other intelligible to which the reason (logos) pertains.

A part of that which is knowable is produced in those who are pure, and a part in those who are not pure. That which occurs in the first is called spiritual gnosis; and that which happens in the second is called natural contemplation (IV, 6). Those who are pure are the minds (noes) who have attained to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Those who are not pure are those who are at a lower stage of contemplation, here natural contemplation, evidently first natural contemplation. We are not sure why Evagrius says that that which is knowable is produced in part in those who are pure and in part in those who are not pure, unless the passage is to be construed in this sense: the gnosis of those who are pure is the gnosis of the Holy Trinity; the gnosis of those who are not pure is natural contemplation; and the gnosis of the Holy Trinity and natural contemplation together comprise what is spiritually knowable by the minds (noes).

The mind (nous) which has divested itself of the passions and which sees the mental representations of beings does not truly receive any more the likenesses which arrive by means of the senses; but it is as if another world has been created by his gnosis, attracted to it his thought, and cast far from him the sensible world (V, 12). This is an important, although somewhat ambiguous, statement of a psychological transformation that Evagrius has elsewhere referred to, for example in TPL 66: When the ascetic has attained to first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angelic powers,[10] then he is completely freed from attachment to the sensible world. Elsewhere, we have remarked that Evagrius often uses this statement in a form contrasting the spiritual pleasures of first natural contemplation with the sensible pleasures of the moral passions. Here, however, we have a very important statement concerning the psychology of contemplation.

We have already discussed the spiritual sense or senses and the difference between them and the bodily senses. We asserted, moreover, that the physical presence of the object of sense was necessary in second natural contemplation on account of the imperfection of the mind (nous), although the actual object of contemplation, the reason (logos) of the object of sense, was itself intelligible. Here, we see how the psychological state of the ascetic changes as he progresses into first natural contemplation. He is completely freed from the sensible world, from the use of the bodily organs of sense. This is not to suggest that the ascetic does not use his bodily sense organs in going about his daily routine; we have seen just the opposite in OTT 17. However, the ascetic does not ‘truly’ receive the sense-perceptions anymore; ‘it is as if another world has been created by his gnosis, attracted to it his thought, and cast far from him the sensible world.’ This accords with the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian that the passage from the second to the first natural contemplation involves the divestiture of the senses.[11] This will be important when we return to the commentary on OTT and discuss the various types of mental representations. Here, Evagrius is clear that the higher mental representations are as it were a world unto themselves.

The sense is naturally made so as to sense sensible things by means of itself, but the mind (nous) is at all times alert and waits to see what contemplation will give itself to it in vision (I, 34). This chapter is also quite important for the psychology of first natural contemplation, both for what it says about the difference between sense-perception and the intuitive apprehension of spiritual things by the mind (nous) in contemplation, and for what it says about the psychological condition of the ascetic who has reached the level of attainment indicated in the immediately preceding chapter.[12]

Other is the power of the mind (nous) which sees the spiritual natures and other is that which knows the contemplation which concerns them. But one is the power which sees and comprehends and Holy Trinity (V, 60). This is quite similar to OTT 42, which we will discuss when we return to that work. What the present chapter is saying is that it is with one faculty of the mind (nous) that the ascetic intuitively apprehends the angel and with another faculty of the mind (nous) that he intuitively apprehends the reason (logos) of the angel—the purpose of the angel in the Mind of God. However, Evagrius says, to see and to comprehend the Holy Trinity is one and the same thing: this is how we take Evagrius’ statement that the faculty which sees and comprehends the Holy Trinity is one.

The spiritual gnosis is the wings of the mind (nous); he who knows is the mind (nous) of the wings. And if that is so, the objects bear the sign of ‘trees’ (Gen. 2, 9) upon which the mind (nous) sojourns, of which trees it is charmed by the leaves and of which trees it savours the fruits, in pressing itself on hence at each moment for the ‘tree of life’ (Gen. 2, 9) (III, 56). This is a statement of the nature of the ‘soaring mystical ascent’. This soaring mystical ascent occurs to the ascetic who has already passed into the stage of first natural contemplation; it is the stage of the last part of first natural contemplation and of the journey towards mystical union with the Holy Trinity. First, Evagrius asserts that the mind (nous), the agent which knows, is given wings by its spiritual gnosis. Here we must understand, from other passages of Evagrius and from Orthodox theology, the grace of the Holy Spirit. With these wings, the mind ascends towards God. However, just as a bird sojourns on various trees, so the mind (nous) sojourns briefly in its soaring ascent in various natural contemplations, all the while pressing on to the tree of life. This tree of life must be the Holy Trinity. However, the next passage indicates that Evagrius may consider the tree of life to be the Christ:

The Holy Trinity is the sign of the holy water and the ‘tree of life’ (Gen. 2, 9) is the Christ who is watered there (V, 69). Literally interpreted, this chapter depends on the Evagrian Christology, condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod: the Christ is a mind (nous) which is united to the gnosis of the Unity (or, to the Word of God); that is the significance of his being the ‘tree of life’ which is watered by the holy water of (i.e. the gnosis of) the Holy Trinity.[13] We can ignore this. To continue, if the metaphor of the present chapter is not to be considered a variant of the metaphor of the preceding chapter, then the preceding chapter must be construed to be a statement of the mystical ascent up to the limits of natural contemplation. For in Evagrius’ heterodox Christology, the ascetic would contemplate the Holy Trinity together with Christ, as his coheir. In terms of the actual psychology of contemplation, the difference is unimportant, for it does not concern the psychological structure of contemplation, but only the expression by Evagrius in written form of certain metaphors. Of course, that is not to minimize the dogmatic issue of Evagrius’ Christology.

If the Gihon is the Egyptian river which encircles all the land of Cush (cf. Gen. 2, 13) and of which Israel has received the commandment by one of the prophets not to drink at all (cf. Jer. 2, 18), we have also known those three other arms, and the river from which the four arms separate themselves (cf. Gen. 2, 10–14) (I, 83). This is much the same as the previously quoted chapter, KG III, 56, but it presents the idea in terms of yet another metaphor. The Gihon, of course, is the river of vice and the demons. The other three rivers must be the three rivers of contemplation—second natural contemplation, first natural contemplation and Theology—which have their source in the one river, God. This is a metaphor which agrees with the metaphor in KG V, 69, just presented.

If the reasonable natures bear the sign of trees and if the latter grow in water, it is just that gnosis is called spiritual water which flows from ‘the source of life’ (Ps. 35, 10) (V, 67). This is a variation on the metaphor of the preceding chapter. Here, gnosis is called the spiritual water which flows from the source of life, and which waters the reasonable beings. This sort of language is usually used by more Orthodox writers for the grace of the Holy Spirit. This, in fact, enables us to grasp more clearly just what Evagrian gnosis is in Orthodox language: it is the grace of the Holy Spirit, the illumination by the Holy Spirit. One could reflect on the correspondence between this notion of gnosis and the more usual Orthodox notion of the Uncreated Light, or even the notion of illumination (photismos) in St Diadochos of Photike.[14]

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[1] Or, ‘the stones which are contained in the gold of the crown indicate’: see in Appendix 2 the note to this chapter of the Kephalaia Gnostica.

[2] Loc. cit.

[3] See Volume III.

[4] E.g. KG VI, 49.

[5] See Chapter III of Volume I.

[6] See Gnostic 40.

[7] This is how we understand ‘the contemplation which concerns the reasonable beings (logikoi)’.

[8] See Chapter V of Volume I.

[9] KG I, 76.

[10] This is how we understand ‘sees the mental representations of beings’ here; we think that the passage is referring to a spiritual level higher than that of second natural contemplation.

[11] Loc. cit.

[12] I.e. KG V, 12.

[13] See Section 3, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[14] See Chapter V of Volume I.


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