OTT (Commentary) -- 10
26 If one of the anchorites should wish to receive the gnosis of discernment
‘The gnosis of discernment’: This is an unusual phrase. We have learned what gnosis is: it is the result on the mind (nous) of, or the intuitive knowledge received by the mind (nous) from, the natural contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things; later, the natural contemplation of the bodiless powers, the angels, and their reasons (logoi); and, still later, the contemplation of the Holy Trinity. What the gnosis of discernment that Evagrius here discusses seems to be is the charism of the discernment of spirits and the charismatic understanding of the matters that have been discussed by him since the beginning of OTT 17, but also in the whole of OTT.
TPL 83 appears to contain a sense both of the passage of OTT 25 beginning ‘But it is impossible that these things be seen in the temptations’ and ending ‘upon the land to which he was hastening’, and of the gnosis of discernment of this chapter. In the commentary on TPL 83, we presented an extract from St John of Sinai, his formal definition of discernment in its three degrees. It does seem to us that Evagrius here means the same thing that
Here, in OTT 26, Evagrius wants to address: first, the understanding of the war; second, the gnosis of discernment; and third, gnosis more generally.
from the Lord,
This is a charism of the Holy Spirit.
let him first willingly work those commandments which are in his hands, omitting nothing,
This gnosis of discernment is not for the negligent.
and thus, during the time of prayer, ‘let him ask’ gnosis ‘from the Lord who gives to all generously and without reproach,
This is the charism of discernment taken as wisdom.
and let him ask doubting nothing,’ neither tossed by the waves of faithlessness, ‘and it will be given to him.’ [Jas. 1, 5–6.]
The passage being alluded to from the Epistle of James refers to him who lacks wisdom and who would ask it from the Lord.
For it is not possible to receive gnosis of more things when one neglects what one already knows,
I am an Orthodox Christian, baptized and chrismated. I already have a charismatic grasp of my duties: I have been illumined and my conscience, my innate faculty of discerning the good from the worse, has been enlightened. What point, then, to ask for more if I do not do what I have already been enlightened to do? Moreover, God will not give me more in such a case, Evagrius is saying, and for the reason that he is now about to give:
so that one does not by transgressing much become guilty of more sins.
If we are negligent now concerning the things we know now, then when we are illumined even further we will still be negligent, but we will have the more guilt, having understood the more, and in our continuing negligence having transgressed the more, since the criterion will have become that much higher and more all-embracing: ‘From every one, then, to whom much has been given, much will be asked, and from him to whom they have given the more in charge, much will they require it.’
The next passage, although it continues to speak of the gnosis of discernment, marks the commencement of a broadening of Evagrius’ thought: he is beginning to speak of gnosis in a more general way.
And it is blessed to be a slave of the gnosis of God.
By being obedient to its commandments. It is a charism of the Holy Spirit. Here we might take Evagrius to be saying that the gnosis of discernment, or even gnosis in its more general sense, not only enlightens us about things that are difficult to grasp but also reveals to us our duties. What Evagrius would be saying on this reading is that it is blessed, having received the charism of the gnosis of discernment, or of gnosis more generally, to be obedient to it. To understand what Evagrius is driving at, it is well to recall what a plerophoria is. The gnosis that Evagrius is speaking about here is a degree of plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) that makes us conscious of the concrete will of God in particular situations, one that makes us grasp our duty in particular situations. It corresponds to the second degree of discernment of St John of Sinai. Moreover, as we shall see in St Hesychios, this gnosis also has the sense of a plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) of the living presence in us of the Holy Spirit just as St Symeon the New Theologian speaks of that living presence. It corresponds to St Diadochos of Photike’s ‘spiritual perception (noera aisthesis)’ of the operation of the Holy Spirit in us that we discussed in Chapter V of Volume I.
For it is dangerous, really,
Recall the passage in the Gospel:
When the unclean spirit goes out of a man, it passes through waterless places seeking rest and does not find [it]. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house whence I went out.’ And coming, it finds [it] vacant and swept and adorned. Then it goes and brings with itself seven spirits more wicked than itself, and entering in dwells there, and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first. Thus it is with this evil generation.
not to do these things which are commanded by gnosis,
The reader should bear this passage in mind when reading On Sobriety 86 and 157: it seems that one of St Hesychios’ senses of sobriety—it is a word that is used in many senses by St Hesychios—is precisely this gnosis.
but it is blessed if one should do all that which is taught by gnosis.
Recall that this is a charism, not a matter of book learning. Although, here, ‘gnosis’ can still be taken to be a discerning of what is right, Evagrius is definitely broadening the scope of the word as he writes. In this clause, we seem to have reached ‘gnosis’ as charismatic knowledge in the sense of the third degree of discernment of St John of Sinai. This ‘gnosis’ is an active presence of Grace, of the Holy Spirit, in the ascetic that reveals itself as a plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) that can take on the dimensions of clairvoyance—that is the third degree of discernment in St John of Sinai’s schema—or even of prevoyance. The reader might like to reflect on TPL 70 in this context: as we personally observed, both Fr Paisios and Fr Porphyrios were well aware of the ethical commandments of the Gospel and of the necessity of obeying them, but their behaviour was not ‘rule-bound’ but free, in the sense of being permeated both with the gnosis that is here being discussed and with the freedom of the sons of God.
In the next sentence, Evagrius has clearly returned to what for him is the ordinary sense of the word ‘gnosis’.
The mind, being impassioned, moves round and round
The mind (nous), when the soul is impassioned, moves round and round; and the more the soul is impassioned, the more unstable is the mind (nous).
and becomes difficult to restrain when it looks on the materials which are productive of pleasure.
As we have emphasized, these pleasures are pleasures related to the senses; they are pleasures which relate to any of the eight most general passions in which is contained every passion except the passions of the ruling part of the soul and despite the fact that one of the eight passions, sorrow, really withers all pleasure.
In the first instance this looking on is sense-perception. In the second instance, it is the impassioned recollection of an object of sense, which impassioned recollection is the commencement of a demonically sown thought (logismos). Recall the explanation of Evagrius in the previous chapter, how the demonic thought (logismos) commenced and was composed of a sequence of impassioned mental representations which acted out in the intellect a scene of sin related to one of the eight passions. Recall also that Evagrius asserts there that your mind is going to ‘seize’ the image of its own body once the demon has approached to excite one of the eight passions.
It ceases from its wandering when it has become dispassionate
Recall that the mind is one-pointed in its conscious aspect: it is never thinking two thoughts at the same time. Hence, this wandering is a darting about, like a fish or a tadpole in an aquarium or pond. St John of Sinai will say, and St Hesychios will quote, that Hesychasm is the restraining of the bodiless mind (nous) in the body, something both find astonishing. However, here, Evagrius, who has not before addressed this aspect of dispassion (apatheia)—the stilling of the mind (nous)—, ascribes the cessation of the mind’s wandering to dispassion (apatheia).
This is important, for many today are called to many systems of yoga, including raja yoga, which purport to bring union with God, liberation and what not. Evagrius is addressing the role of dispassion (apatheia) in the stilling of the mind. The acquisition of dispassion (apatheia) is the goal of the practical life, the keeping of the commandments of God both in act and in thought. Here, as in St Hesychios, the primary emphasis is not placed on the repetition of the Prayer of Jesus—let us say, as a mantra—, which practice, as mantra, might, supposedly, automatically cleanse the mind and still it. There is more to it in Evagrius and St Hesychios: one must begin with the commandments, first in action and then in thought.
and when it meets with the bodiless [powers],
The angels. Evagrius has here jumped over the gnosis of the reasons (logoi) of existent things to the higher form of natural contemplation, that of the bodiless powers, which is the end of natural contemplation and the door to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity, Theology. We think that this reflects, in Evagrius’ thought, a difference in his assessment of the role and benefits of the two types of natural contemplation. However, TPL 32 does seem to speak, in the same context as here, more generally of gnosis, not merely of meeting with the bodiless powers. TPL 56 seems more similar to this chapter in its understanding of the connection between dispassion (apatheia) and the meeting with the bodiless powers. However, it would be inconsistent to conclude that in the Evagrian system one is only on the borders of dispassion (apatheia) in the second natural contemplation and that one enters into the first natural contemplation when he has attained to dispassion (apatheia). We have already seen that Evagrius treats dispassion (apatheia) as the end of the practical life and as the door to the second natural contemplation. We will address these matters in the Digression, below, and in the commentary on the final chapters of OTT, especially OTT 40 as concerns why Evagrius here jumps from dispassion (apatheia) directly to first natural contemplation.
those who satisfy its spiritual desires for it.
One might recall
The next part of this chapter of OTT is a presentation of Evagrius’ doctrine of the three renunciations. We have already met with this doctrine in Section 6, Chapter III, of Volume I because the doctrine is repeated almost verbatim by Evagrius in the Kephalaia Gnostica.
This doctrine of the three renunciations is repeated by St John Cassian in his Conferences, in Conference 3, that of Abba Paphnutius, who ascribes it to ‘the tradition of the Fathers’. We do not know—and there seems to be no way of knowing—whether St John Cassian was using a literary device in having Abba Paphnutius ascribe the doctrine to ‘the tradition of the Fathers’, to cover his own Evagrian tracks in an environment suspicious of all things Evagrian, or whether in fact Evagrius was drawing on a tradition common to the Fathers of the Egyptian desert.
Certainly, St John Cassian’s text in Conference 3 agrees very closely with Evagrius’ formulation here. We say this because the matter gets complicated: St John of Sinai, a man who had read both Evagrius and St John Cassian—although we have no way of establishing precisely what in either case—presents his own version of the three renunciations in Step 2 of the Ladder, and St John’s version shows significant adaptation to the cœnobite.
St John Cassian in Conference 3, VI lists the three renunciations, roughly, as: first, the bodily renunciation of all the riches and goods of the world; second, the renunciation of our former manners, vices and passions; and third, the calling out of our mind from all things present and visible to contemplate only those things which are to come, and to desire those things which are invisible.
St John of Sinai lists the renunciations in the Ladder, again roughly, as: first, the renunciation of all things and men and parents; second, the cutting off of one’s own will; and third, the renunciation of the vainglory which follows on obedience.
Was St John of Sinai following another, independent tradition, whether from Sinai or from
We have no way to know. Certainly the formulation of St John of Sinai is for the cœnobite: it throws the weight completely onto obedience, the cutting off of one’s own will, for the sake of the purification of the passions; and it completely avoids the issue of contemplation, which
Let us now return to the topic we just raised: the discrimination of the Orthodox spiritual life from systems of yoga. It seems to us that the three renunciations can assist us to grasp some aspects of the difference between Orthodox spirituality and that of other such systems.
The first renunciation, not as easy as it might appear to the enthused beginner, is the renunciation of worldly things, secular persons, parents and so on. This first renunciation is contained in the ‘Orthodox Service of Tonsure to the Great and Angelic Schema’ as the renunciation of the world and the things in the world, and the catechism of the service of tonsure, which itself is sealed by the postulant’s acceptance of it with a separate, distinct vow, renders precise what is renounced:
Know therefore that from the present day you have been crucified and put to death in regard to the world by means of the most perfect renunciation; for you have renounced parents, brothers, wife, children, fatherland, relatives, associations, friends, customs, the tumults in the world, cares, lands, possessions, empty and vain pleasure and glory; and you are renouncing not only the aforesaid things but even your own life, according to the word of the Lord, the one which says ‘Whoever wishes to come after me, let him renounce himself, let him take up his cross, and let him follow me.’
This is the foundation of the other two renunciations, as Abba Paphnutius makes quite clear in St John Cassian’s Conference 3.
This renunciation is all-encompassing and for its complete fulfilment it requires that one become a sojourner or stranger in a foreign monastic milieu.
The next renunciation, following the more Evagrian formulation of St John Cassian, is the renunciation of our former manners, vices and passions. We have not included two works by Evagrius in this study that deal with the more mundane, physical or practical aspects of this renunciation or of the first renunciation. These are: Bases of the Monastic Life and Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios). These works are recommended.
When this second renunciation passes from physical activity to mental activity (we mean: when it passes from the renunciation of vice in act to the renunciation of vice in thought), then this second renunciation is precisely the practical life as we have been discussing it in TPL and, now, in OTT.
So, for Evagrius, and, following him, St John Cassian, the Christian spiritual life begins with a renunciation of the world and continues with a purification from past manners, vices and passions, first in act, and then in thought.
But each stage depends on more or less perfect achievement of the previous stage, with the caveats that we have already introduced concerning the absoluteness of Evagrius’ definition of dispassion (apatheia) in the light of an authentically Orthodox anthropology. Otherwise the monk is fooling himself, and perhaps others.
So the second renunciation is really tantamount to the practical life, which is the systematic pursuit of dispassion (apatheia).
The significance of the third renunciation should be evident. It is the leaving behind of the world of the senses to enter into the intelligible world of natural contemplation. It is clear that St John Cassian has avoided specifically Evagrian terminology, and, perhaps, also the concept of the second natural contemplation, the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things.
This is the Orthodox—and to the extent that Roman Catholicism retains St John Cassian’s system, also the Roman Catholic—spiritual life.
Although Theology, the third, unitive, stage of contemplation of the Holy Trinity, is not in issue here—it is mentioned elsewhere in both Evagrius and St John Cassian—it should be understood that it is the final stage of the Orthodox spiritual life as formulated in Evagrius’ system.
We now have in the three renunciations a schema of the Orthodox spiritual life. One of the hallmarks of that life that distinguishes it from a system of meditation such as raja yoga is the very great emphasis that it places on the first two renunciations, especially the second. The third renunciation could be compared to a system of meditation (if one wanted to speak in terms of comparative religion; we are not here advocating such an identification) but it is founded integrally on the first two renunciations, especially the second. In other words, that aspect of Orthodox spirituality—gnosis or natural contemplation—which most closely resembles oriental systems of meditation is preceded in Orthodox spirituality by a very serious and comprehensive renunciation of the world and by a very serious and comprehensive purification of the soul from the passions.
Moreover, Evagrius himself goes on to explain in OTT 39–41 why this is so, why without this purification the mind cannot attain to God.
Let us leave further discussion. Here is Evagrius’ own formulation of the three renunciations:
It is not possible to acquire gnosis, not having renounced the first renunciation, and the second and the third. And the first renunciation, then, is the voluntary leaving behind of worldly things for the sake of the gnosis of God.
The second is the putting aside of vice which comes to one by the grace of our Saviour Christ and by the pains of the man.
The third renunciation is the separation from ignorance concerning those things which naturally become manifest to men in proportion to their condition.
This is Evagrius’ formulation of the third renunciation, the one which leads directly to gnosis or natural contemplation, to be followed in due course by Theology, the gnosis of the Holy Trinity.
This chapter does not correspond to any chapter of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.
The next three chapters, on the imaginations which occur during sleep, OTT 27, 28 and 29, must be treated as a unity.
 Cf. 1 Cor. 12, 10.
 Cf. 1 Cor. 12, 8.
 Luke 12, 48.
 Matt. 12, 42–5.
 TPL 6.
 Cassian C.
 Ladder G Step 2, 14; = Ladder E Step 2, 9.
 Euchologion p. 207 (Greek) or Robinson p. 104 (English).
 ‘Orthodox Service of Tonsure to the Great and Angelic Schema’: Euchologion p. 208. A complete English translation of the service can be found in Robinson.
 It might be remarked that the vow of chastity is here taken for granted.
 In the ordinary, non-Evagrian sense of the word.
 We gave bibliographic information on these works at the beginning of the commentary on TPL.
 Chastity tacitly included.
 For example, in TPL 1.
 St John Cassian includes it as an aspect of the third renunciation.