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Digression -- 5

We now turn to some chapters from the Kephalaia Gnostica which deal with the virtues of the gnostic, he who in the Evagrian system has attained to dispassion (apatheia) and entered into natural contemplation.

Just as the star which is hidden by the interposition of another is higher than it, so he who is more humble than another will find himself, in the world to come, more elevated than he (IV, 31). This is one of the few references in Evagrius to humility. He does not ignore that virtue but neither does he emphasize it.

To him it pertains not to fear our adversaries who circle outside our body, him of whom the mind (nous) is at all times before the Lord, of whom the irascible part of the soul (thumike) is full of humility as a consequence of the remembrance of God, and of whom the desiring part of the soul (epithumia) is completely inclined towards the Lord (IV, 73). This is a broad view of the psychology of ascesis, a view that is rare in Evagrius. It is extremely important. Here we have a statement how to comport ourselves spiritually: to have our mind (nous) before God at all times, to have the irascible part (thumike) of our soul full of humility as a consequence of the remembrance of God, and to have the desiring part (epithumia) completely inclined towards God. This is very Orthodox. It is an image that fits well with On Sobriety by St Hesychios, especially its last chapters. This chapter is also very important for the emphasis that it places on the remembrance of God, which we ourselves would like to associate with the ‘guard of the mind’ of the School of Sinai. To be a little more clear, let us explain that the gnostic who would be able to implement this instruction of Evagrius would at a very high state of natural contemplation, a stage which would correspond in St John of Sinai and in St Hesychios to the accomplished practice of the ‘guard of the mind’ that we will discuss in Volume III.

The demons do not cease to slander the gnostic, even when he is not at fault, to the end that they attract to themselves his mind (nous). Indeed, a cloud holds itself over his thought and chases the mind (nous) far from contemplation, at the moment that the gnostic reproves the demons as slanderers (III, 90). Recall the soaring ascent of the gnostic through natural contemplation towards the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. Here Evagrius is remarking on the fact that as the gnostic makes the ascent, the demons try to distract him to themselves from his contemplation by slandering him. If the gnostic allows himself to be distracted by the demons, even to reprove them as slanderers, he loses the contemplation.

Whoever will obtain the spiritual gnosis will assist the angels and will recall the reasonable souls from vice to virtue and from ignorance to gnosis (VI, 90). This is quite clear, and, again, the reader is referred to the Gnostic. The ‘spiritual gnosis’ is Theology.

Among the writers of true doctrines, some are fallen from the first contemplation of nature, some from the second, and others are fallen also from the Holy Trinity (IV, 10). We are not sure precisely what Evagrius wants to say by this; we think he means that among writers of true doctrines, some have experience of the contemplation of the Holy Trinity, some have experience only of the first natural contemplation and some have experience only of the second natural contemplation.

The demon of anger battles day and night with those who draw near to obscure matters and wish to write concerning them, that demon which has the custom to blind the thought and to deprive it of the spiritual contemplation (IV, 47). This is an interesting remark.

Just as the light which shines in the holy temples is the symbol of the spiritual gnosis, so also that light of the house of idols is the sign of lying doctrines and of lying mental representations. The first is fed by the oil of the holy love, and the second by the worldly love which ‘loves the world and that which is in it’ (1 John 2, 15) (IV, 25). This is a simple reflection on the difference between holy and demonic gnosis, and on the connection between the two types of gnosis and the two types of love.

Gnosis grows less and loses strength among those who construct their tower with vice and with false doctrines; ignorance and the confusion of mental representations befall them, just as with those also who were constructing the tower of Babel (cf. Gen. 11, 4–9) (IV, 53). This is clear.

Just as those who offer to God symbolic sacrifices cause the bestial movements of the soul to burn by means of the virtues, so those who sacrifice to demons destroy the operations according to nature of the soul by means of the vices (IV, 22). The sacrifices that Evagrius is referring to seem to be the ascetical accomplishments. It is possible but we think unlikely that he is referring to the sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy. The sacrifices to the demons in the first reading—and even in the second, although there were still pagans in Evagrius’ time—would be actions or thoughts of a vicious or demonically inspired nature.

Many passions are hidden in our souls which, although they escape us, lively temptations reveal to us; and we must ‘guard our hearts in all vigilance’ (Prov. 4, 23), for fear lest when the object for which we have a passion arrives unexpectedly, we suddenly be swept away by the demons and do something of the things which are abominable to God (VI, 52). This appears to be a caution directed not only to the beginning ascetic immersed in the practical life and fighting by night but also to the gnostic: despite his dispassion (apatheia), he may encounter a situation where, the object suddenly being present—recall that the gnostic is an anchorite—then a hidden passion might suddenly be inflamed, to his destruction.

The demons prevail over the soul when the passions are multiplied, and they render the man insensible in extinguishing the powers of his organs of sense for fear that when he meets one of the nearby objects he should make the nous ascend as from a deep well (IV, 85). This passage is mysterious. That the demons should prevail over the soul when, through the negligence of the ascetic, or of the Christian, or even of the pagan citizen, the passions should be increased, is clear. That the demons should then make the man insensible by extinguishing the powers of his organs of sense—we take these to be the bodily organs of sense—is much less clear. That the demons should do this in order to prevent the man from making his mind (nous) ascend as from a deep well when he meets one of the nearby objects is thoroughly mysterious. If these objects being referred to are the angels, then perhaps what is meant is that the demons spiritually blind the man who indulges his passions, to such an extent that should an angel approach the man, then the man will not sense its presence spiritually in any way at all, and so will be insensitive to the ‘urge’ of the angel towards virtue. Perhaps what is being referred to is second natural contemplation: the demons extinguish the power of the passionate man’s organs of sense so that he cannot raise his mind (nous) to the cognition of the reasons (logoi) of nearby objects. But in both of these interpretations, we would want to take the organs of sense that are blinded to be the spiritual organs of sense, which seems somewhat forced.

We now begin a small series of chapters which are cautions to the gnostic not to indulge in anger:

Just as those whose sight is ill and who regard the sun are constrained by their tears and see phantasms in the air, so also the pure mind (nous), when it is troubled by anger, cannot receive the spiritual contemplation, but it sees something like a haze which settles over the objects (VI, 63). This is a statement of the destructive effects of anger: the anger prevents the gnostic from engaging in spiritual contemplation: spiritually, he sees something like a haze settling over the objects of contemplation.

If ‘the anger of dragons is of wine’ (Deut. 32, 33), and if the Nazirites abstain from wine, then the Nazirites have received the order to be without anger (cf. Num. 6, 3) (V, 44). The Nazirite is a type of the monk. The monk has renounced anger.

The mind (nous) is named the head of the soul, and the virtues are the sign of the hair; when he will be deprived of it, the Nazirite will be separated from the gnosis and he will be led away bound by his enemies (cf. Judg. 16, 19–21) (V, 45). The reference, of course, is to Sampson, the Nazirite, here taken as a type of the monk. Here it is not merely a matter of anger but of all the virtues.

The iniquitous ‘steward’ (Luke 16, 3) cannot work on the earth, for he has abandoned the virtues of his soul; and the wretch, for the other part, is ashamed to beg, he who is the teacher of others. And he teaches with anger those who are henceforth below him, he who has retired himself to rest now among the contentious (V, 33). This is a statement that the gnostic must be free from anger. It is similar to Gnostic 10 and 22, although there the sentiment is expressed in a far more positive way.

We next provide the remaining typologies of the Kephalaia Gnostica on the stages of the ascetical and contemplative life:

The first renunciation is the abandonment of objects of the world, which is produced by the will for the gnosis of God (I, 78).

The second renunciation is the abandonment of vice, which is produced by the grace of God and by the effort of man (I, 79).

The third renunciation is the separation from ignorance, which is naturally made to become manifest to men in proportion to those men’s conditions (I, 80).[1]

Among the great number of ways, three are the ways of salvation which possess in common the ability to destroy sins; but two of these possess in their own right the fact of being able to deliver from the passions, and the virtue of the third is that it will be a cause also of glory. Glory accompanies the first; psalmody, the second; and exaltation, the third (I, 28). We frankly admit that we do not understand this passage. These three ways are the ways of Christian perfection. We are not sure what they are. We think that one is monasticism and that another is martyrdom, but the terminology is confusing. Perhaps the text has not arrived to us in a pure form. Possibly the remaining way is the priesthood, but we are speculating. ‘Exaltation’ has a positive sense in this passage.

Let us now summarize the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation. To do so, let us return to KG II, 4, with which we opened this Digression:

II, 4 Although the transformations are numerous, we have received the gnosis of four only: the first, the second, the last and that which precedes it. The first is, as it is said, the passage from vice to virtue; the second is that from dispassion to the second natural contemplation; the third is the passage from the latter to the gnosis that concerns the reasonable beings (logikoi); and the fourth is the passage from all to the gnosis of the Holy Trinity.

The passage from vice to virtue is praktike, the practical life, the subject of TPL. Evagrius there defines eight passions and discusses how they can be combated in thought, for he is addressing himself to hermits. We have not discussed in this study the means that a cœnobite or a monk living in an entourage with several other monks in obedience to an Elder would combat the eight most general passions in the more active way called the war waged through objects. The Ladder of Divine Ascent of St John of Sinai[2] is appropriate for the reader wishing a standard introduction to this more active war of asceticism. Among Evagrius’ works, Bases of the Monastic Life (Hupotuposis Monachike) and Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios) are also appropriate.[3]

As Evagrius has made clear, the flower of the practical life is dispassion (apatheia). The second transformation, then, is the passage from dispassion (apatheia), it having been achieved, to second natural contemplation. We have discussed second natural contemplation, above. It is the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of objects of sense. It is the beginning stage of contemplation, the stage of the imperfect mind (nous). However, it marks the transition from the practical life to the life of contemplation. It is significant that St John of Sinai implies in the Ladder that he does not consider contemplation appropriate for the cœnobite: it is for the Hesychast. The cœnobite, according to St John, aims at humility. St John Cassian has much the same doctrine, but foresees that the cœnobite will, when he is ready, take up the anchoretic life of contemplation. We imagine that St John Cassian would foresee for the cœnobite who took up the anchoretic life a period in the hermitage of the practical life, the immaterial war, the war in thought, that the monk as a cœnobite would not have been waging. Nowadays on Mount Athos, and in monasteries deriving from Mount Athos, there is much effort to combine, by means of the Jesus Prayer, the contemplative life with the cœnobitical life.

The third transformation is the transformation from the second natural contemplation to the first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angelic powers. As Evagrius has made clear in the passages we have seen, he considers that the first natural contemplation is the first stage at which the ascetic ‘forgets’ the material world, the first stage at which he loses ‘interest’ in the pleasures offered by the passions on account of the spiritual pleasure he encounters in the contemplation of the angelic powers. This, at least, is how we read Evagrius on the matter, since the passages in which he speaks of the pleasures of gnosis and their ability to overshadow the pleasures of the passions consistently ignore the second natural contemplation and pass directly to the first natural contemplation. However, this approach of Evagrius becomes quite understandable if we consider St Isaac the Syrian’s interpretation in Homily 3, that in the third transformation the ascetic divests himself of the senses, so that his mind becomes (in an ascetic, not eschatological, sense) a naked mind (nous).[4]

The first natural contemplation has, as we have seen, substages which are very poorly defined by Evagrius. These include the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of the angelic powers, possibly the contemplation of intelligibles, and the contemplation of all the Ages or worlds, through which the mind soars to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

The fourth transformation is the passage from the first contemplation to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. We have seen that this is the perfection of the ascetic, the end of the contemplative endeavour.

Those parts of the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation which depend on Evagrius’ heterodox cosmology, which we discussed in detail in Chapter III of Volume I, cannot be accepted by an Orthodox monk without their being completely freed from their dependence on that Evagrian cosmology. We think, however, that the Orthodox ascetic can use the contemplative psychology of Evagrius, including the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian in Homily 3. It must be remarked, however, that that passage of Homily 3 was not included in the Byzantine translation of St Isaac made at the Monastery of St Savas. We have already indicated, moreover, that, as it seems to us, the Evagrian concept of dispassion (apatheia) has to be modified somewhat so as to be consistent with Orthodox anthropology. We indicated that we would not want to accept the sinlessness of the dispassionate monk or, better to say, the incapacity to sin of the dispassionate monk: that is something to which an Orthodox Christian can attain only in Heaven and at the General Resurrection. Moreover, we would not want to see dispassion (apatheia)—complete freedom from the eight most general moral passions, the complete acquisition of moral virtue—as something that is intrinsically attainable by the Orthodox Christian in this life; we prefer to treat it as an ideal or a goal to which the Orthodox Christian tends. Moreover, this relativization of the concept of Evagrian dispassion (apatheia) causes the relativization both of the concept of the attainment to Evagrian dispassion (apatheia) and of the Evagrian schematic, lock-step ascent from one transformation to the next. Rather, following, we think, St Maximos the Confessor—and perhaps even Evagrius himself—, we treat the stages as matters of the preponderance of one sort of spiritual activity over another, all the while maintaining a certain sense of the simultaneity of the stages. This is not to suggest, however, that some monks are not primarily concerned with the immaterial war; other monks primarily with natural contemplation in its lower stages; and other monks primarily with the higher stages of natural contemplation or even Theology. There is a progression. Moreover, as we shall find in St Hesychios, we view the higher stages of contemplation as being states to which the monk prepared by his ascesis is granted admittance, as it were, by the free grace of the Lord. Even Evagrius recognizes this aspect of the mystical ascent, although he does not much emphasize it. However, all that having been said, as we have seen in Chapter V of Volume I, Orthodox spiritual writers do accept the possibility of union with the Holy Trinity and of the divinization of the ascetic, taken to be the restoration of the kath’ homoiosin. However, these concepts are not to be taken in the sense that the ascetic becomes God, nor in the sense that he can never again sin: they are to be taken as statements of his return to the condition of Adam and Eve in Paradise before the Fall, and of his participation in the Ascension of Christ, who, as man, ascended to and sat at the right hand of the Father, opening the road for all men to ascend spiritually to the Father.

It is also well to remark that, with the modifications suggested by us above, and stripped of its heterodox cosmological Evagrian trappings, the model of the four transformations is an adequate account for an Orthodox monk of the mystical ascent, at least in its broad outlines. The Orthodox monk can often obtain a detailed description of the various states of contemplation from a more Orthodox author; that is what we shall find in On Sobriety in Volume III. The contemplative psychology of Evagrius, which we shall continue to discuss in the commentary on the remainder of OTT, is valuable, however. Moreover, for an understanding of some of the more subtle aspects of Evagrius’ thinking, for example in his commentaries on Scripture, an understanding of the contemplations of the judgement and providence is also necessary.

This completes the Digression on the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation in the Kephalaia Gnostica. We think that it is essential to grasp the broad outline of the mystical ascent in the Evagrian system, since that outline is retained by later authors, and also Evagrius’ psychology of contemplation. However, there are certainly ambiguities in the Kephalaia Gnostica as it has come down to us which make it difficult for us to discern some of the details of the Evagrian doctrine of contemplation. Moreover, as we have already remarked, the monk, the Orthodox monk, must be cautious not to accept either wittingly or unwittingly, the heterodox material of the Kephalaia Gnostica into his understanding of contemplation. That would be an unnecessary catastrophe.

We will now return to the commentary on OTT. The most important thing in the chapters which follow is the psychology of contemplation, which Evagrius outlines in a very dense and laconic style. Having discussed the above material, however, we are now able to clarify easily the details of Evagrius’ contemplative psychology.

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[1] We have already seen the same three renunciations in Section 6, Chapter III, of Volume I and in OTT 26; it is not necessary for us to add anything here.

[2] Ladder E and G.

[3] See bibliographic information at the beginning of the commentary on TPL.

[4] Loc. cit.


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