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OTT (Commentary) -- 11

27 Thus those who live the life of solitude during the day are tempted by demons and fall into various thoughts; at night, again, in their sleep they battle with winged asps, are encircled by carnivorous beasts, are engirdled by serpents and are thrown headlong from high mountains.

The reader should reread TPL 54–6, with our own commentary, before beginning.

In the commentary on TPL 54–6, we advanced the timid hypothesis that Evagrius was not discussing ordinary dreams, but demonic apparitions which for the most part take place while the ascetic is asleep. As the sequel below will indicate, however, the apparition, if that is what it is—we do not dogmatize—, can sometimes continue into the waking state.

In the present three-chapter cycle, Evagrius passes from the most impassioned cases, the ones he has just described, through the less impassioned cases in the next chapter, to the quite dispassionate cases in the third chapter. It is necessary for the reader to grasp that Evagrius is providing a survey of these apparitions from the most impassioned to the most dispassionate ones, in order for him or her correctly to grasp Evagrius’ thought. The ascetic will find himself positioned, according to his personal degree of passionateness or dispassion (apatheia), somewhere in one of these three chapters; OTT 4, above, indicated, we think, that a quite dispassionate monk will cease to have such dreams at all, but Evagrius is ambiguous on this point.

We have an acquaintance, a monk, who prays the Prayer of Jesus and who has such ‘dreams’, more dispassionate than the ones just portrayed. We will present some of his comments as we proceed.

As TPL 54 indicates, the dreams—apparitions—described just above are associated with disturbances of the irascible part of the soul. As TPL 91 recounts, a brother troubled by such apparitions was cured of them, being ordered to fast and to minister to the sick, since practising acts of mercy is a treatment for disturbances of the irascible part of the soul.

It also occurs that, having been awoken, they are again encircled by the very same beasts and they see the cell fiery and smoking.

The apparition continues into the waking state.

And when they do not give themselves up to these imaginations

This is an important aspect of how the monk might confront the experience: he might succumb.

nor fall into cowardice,

This is serious, for these ‘dreams’ can be very disturbing.

immediately again they see the demons transformed into women indecorously playing the coquette and wishing to play shamefully.

This particular sentence of Evagrius seems to echo his description in Pros Eulogion (Towards Eulogios) of a case in which the ascetic experienced such apparitions both with the outward eye of the senses and with the inward eye of the mind (nous).[1]

Our acquaintance comments: ‘Evagrius is speaking quite precisely and with virtually clinical accuracy. In general, these dreams are different from ordinary dreams; they have an odd atmosphere about them not at all to be found in our usual dreams. I remember a case in which the ‘woman’ was acting quite as Evagrius has just described. She was clothed but being shamefully and vulgarly provocative. Her eyes, while not fiery, had the peculiar feature of having the mobility of flame or of running water in a stream. Often these women are masked, as Jung refers to in his system. Often they occur in choruses, as Evagrius remarks in TPL 54. An indication of just how odd these apparitions are is this: Once I became conscious during the course of such a dream while I was engaged in some tableau with a clothed male figure; I don’t know what had transpired until then. But for some reason, I spit in the figure’s face. I saw whatever I spit land on his face, and being a good monk, I immediately said, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,” and immediately wiped the spit from his face with my right hand. My hand came away from the demon’s face black—not a black of soot but a black of demonic energy.’

Let us ourselves make this comment: These dreams contain Jungian motifs. However it is problematical whether they should be interpreted in a Jungian fashion. A man we know, a former Jesuit who spent much time with the nuns of a certain Roman Catholic monastery in the United States where the nuns busied themselves in a very serious fashion with Jungian psychology, made the following comment to us: ‘They [i.e. the nuns] are very good people. But I do not know how comfortable they would be with the concept of the Trinity.’ We do not wish to suggest that all Jesuits are former, nor that all American Roman Catholic nuns have difficulty with the concept of the Holy Trinity. However, this anecdote points out the problem: Jung was a philosopher who interpreted religions from within the framework of his own religious system based on alchemy, a universal collective unconscious, Buddhist notions of transformations, gnosticism and such-like. Insofar as that system accepts Orthodoxy, it does so on the basis of a reinterpretation. That is the significance of the former Jesuit’s comment about the nuns’ difficulties with the concept of the Holy Trinity: the nuns had become immersed in a Jungian reinterpretation of Roman Catholicism. The Jungian system, such as we ourselves understand it, is most comfortable with Taoism,[2] and Mahayana or Tibetan Buddhism. We ourselves fear that a monk who entered into a Jungian interpretation of dreams of the kind that Evagrius is describing, and such as our acquaintance has amplified on, would be in serious danger of undermining doctrinally and existentially—these dreams are very strong and not to be fooled with—his Christian faith.

Let us continue with Evagrius:

The demons invent all of these things wishing greatly to trouble the temper or the desiring part, so that there occurs the war that is wont to be fought against the anchorites.

As we have already remarked, decadent authors delight in portraying the temptations of an Anthony or a Jerome.

For extremely quickly during the next day is the temper tempted when it has been previously disturbed during the night; and the desiring part easily takes up obscene thoughts having been set in motion during the imaginations of sleep.

This seems straightforward enough. However, here, Evagrius sees these dreams as a cause—the dreams themselves being produced by the external agency of the demons—of disturbances in the thoughts during the next day, and not as an effect of previous disturbances of the thoughts during the previous day. This is a different causal direction from what we would expect in a modern depth-psychological interpretation.

The demons bring on these imaginations, opening a road for themselves, as I said, for the next day, or, having previously disturbed the anchorites during the previous day, wishing to humiliate them even further at night.

Actually, Evagrius says, the causal arrow goes in both directions: from the dreams at night to the daytime thoughts; and from the daytime thoughts of the previous day to the dreams at night.

And the irascible and hot-tempered of the brothers fall more into the fearsome apparitions

The first dreams mentioned, the frightening ones.

whereas those who have taken their fill of an excess of bread and water fall into the shameful imaginations.

St John of Sinai will repeat this, that if we succumb to the demon of gluttony and eat an excess of food, then the demon of gluttony will hand us over ‘with a smile’ to the demon of fornication while we sleep. In modern times, Fr Paisios, the great Starets, refers to this phenomenon especially in regard to an excess of wine.

But it is necessary that those who live the life of solitude keep vigil and pray not to enter into temptation,

Note that keeping vigil and praying to God not to enter into temptation are necessary means of confronting these apparitions even before they occur.

and that they keep their heart with every guard,

This is sobriety, as we shall encounter it in St Hesychios.[3]

putting an end to temper with meekness and psalms and withering the desiring part with hunger and thirst.

See TPL 15.

Beneficence and acts of mercy are extremely helpful in the case of imaginations of this sort. And this the wise Solomon teaches clearly in Proverbs. He says: ‘If you sit, you will be fearless; if you sleep, you will slumber pleasantly, and you will not fear an alarm coming upon you nor the approaching attacks of the impious. For the Lord shall be over all your ways and will support your foot that you not be shaken. Do not forbear to do good to the poor man when your hand shall be able to help; do not say, go and come back, and tomorrow I will give you; for you do not know to what the next day will give birth.’ [Prov. 3, 24–8.]

Here, by ‘acts of mercy’, Evagrius clearly does mean the giving of sums of money.

This chapter does not correspond to any chapter of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

28 When the demons are unable greatly to disturb the temper or the desiring part at night,

The monk has attained ‘a bit of dispassion (apatheia)’ and remains for the greater part undisturbed by the assaults. It is extremely important for the reader to grasp that in this progression, it is not that the dreams cease entirely. Rather the demon is unable by means of the apparition greatly to shake the equanamity of the soul of the sleeper.

Let us recall Evagrius’ definition of the demonic thought in OTT 25. There, he remarks that when the demon approaches to cause the excitation of a passion,[4] then ‘the mind is going to seize the figure of its own body, as soon as the demon stands near to it, and, within, to engage in battle with the brother or to touch a woman.’

This is the case where the monk is passionate—this seizing. Let us suppose that I, who am very passionate, have been sorely wounded by a fellow hermit. Then when the demon of rancour approaches, my mind (nous) is readily—with great, passionate impulse—going to seize the figure of my own body and, within, to engage in battle with the hermit who has wounded me. If I am more dispassionate, my mind’s (nous’) seizure of the figure of my own body will be less impetuous, and so on until, when I am quite dispassionate, I can reject without any trouble the demonic provocation without my mind’s (nous’) seizing the figure of my own body to battle with my brother in my mind’s eye. And so on for all the eight passions. The degree of my impetuousness in the seizing by my mind (nous) of the figure of my own body is a measure of the degree of dispassion (apatheia) I have at that time relative to that demonic provocation to excite that passion. For in OTT 20, Evagrius has already discussed possible reasons why it might be easy to rebut a demonic provocation. Although we would all like to think that we are making progress towards dispassion (apatheia), there are day-to-day fluctuations that have to do with the relative strength of the felt presence of Grace, our health, whether we are rested and have done our nightly vigil, the actual nature of the temptation and so forth.

It is exactly the same, mutatis mutandis, with the dreams that are the subject of these three chapters. In accordance with the degree of passionateness or dispassion (apatheia) that we have, in sleep our mind is going to respond in an impassioned way or not to the tableau in which it finds itself. This must be understood especially in regard to the next chapter, where the monk has a dispassionate response to the tableau. The monk finds himself responding in a passionate way, or not responding, or even responding in ways that Evagrius will detail in the next chapter. It is not a matter of the monk’s watching a movie where an actor—the monk—is seen to respond in one way or another: the monk himself is actually responding in the dream. These dreams have a much higher degree of involvement than ordinary dreams. Our acquaintance remarks: ‘I am sometimes astonished by my foolishness when I gain consciousness and see what I have been doing during the course of the demonic tableau.’

then they fabricate dreams of vainglory and bring the soul down into a pit of thoughts. The dreams of these demons

Of vainglory. While this seems to support Professor Guillaumont’s assertion, made in his doctrinal introduction to the critical edition of OTT, that in the Evagrian system, vainglory is one of the last passions to be conquered,[5] we again view this as dependent on the particular monk. But, certainly, these dreams reflect the same spiritual condition of the monk that his thoughts do during the day. Evagrius made that quite clear in TPL 56.

are, as to say in outline, of this sort: Many times a certain person saw himself rebuking demons and healing certain bodily passions, or wearing a pastoral form of dress and grazing a flock. And having been roused, immediately he receives the imagination of the priesthood, and, during the whole day, besides, he takes a full account of the things that are in the priesthood.

Or, as though the charism of healing is going to be given to him, and, further, he sees beforehand the signs which occur and he imagines those who will be healed, the honours which come from the brothers and the giftbearings of those who are outside [the monastic calling], as many from Egypt and as many from beyond its borders as arrive driven towards him by his fame.

Evidently, Evagrius himself had these particular dreams. Hence, since he was in Egypt, he says: as many locals and as many foreigners…. We take ‘those who are outside’ not to refer merely to foreigners, or even to pagans, but, by contrast with ‘brothers’ in the preceding parallel clause, to those Christians who are outside the monastic calling.

Many times the demons cast those who are living the life of solitude into an inconsolable sorrow, showing certain of their own people to them to be ill and to be in danger by land or by sea.

Evagrius, having discussed imaginations during sleep related to vainglory, now passes on to another sort of imagination, that of sorrow. Evagrius then proceeds through other types of imaginations, finishing, at the end of this chapter, with the dreams given by angels. Note that in the case of sorrow, and also further on, there enter in aspects of what are called ‘demonic false prophecies given in dreams’. St John of Sinai remarks that the demons make guesses about the future and provide their answers in dreams, hoping to snare the gullible monk with the idea that he has arrived at prevoyance, when, on occasion, the dream comes true.

It happens also that the demons foretell to these same brothers through dreams shipwrecks of the monastic life,

Their own monastic life, as the rest of the sentence indicates.

throwing them down from high ladders which they are ascending

Evagrius lived several hundred years before St John of Sinai wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent, but the image is the same.

and, again, making them blind

In the dream.

and to be groping about the walls.

And the demons make countless other marvels of such sorts, making use of the sound of the wind to suggest the advent of demons or of savage beasts or narrating certain narratives so that the anchorite neglects the hours of the services.

Our acquaintance remarks: ‘They really do tell long tales.’

It is necessary not to pay attention to these [demons], but, being sober in the thought, to refute them utterly

This is the rebuttal with anger. Note the necessity of not dallying with these dreams, or even ruminating on them during the day.

which do these things for the sake of the deceit and the error of souls.

For the dreams which are given by angels are not of such sorts but they have much serenity of soul, unspeakable joy, absence during the day of impassioned thoughts, pure prayer and—certain of the angels—also reasons (logoi) of things which have come to be, gently coming forth from the Lord and revealing the wisdom of the Lord.

Gehin et al., in their note on this passage,[6] see an oddity in the placement of ‘pure prayer’ before the revelatory dreams, since in their view ‘pure prayer’ refers to Theology, the highest spiritual stage, whereas the revelatory dreams refer to the second stage of the mystical ascent, that of natural contemplation. We think that ‘pure prayer’ is here to be taken in an imperfect sense in a manner analogous to the imperfect sense of ‘dispassion (apatheia)’ that Evagrius himself introduces in TPL 60—that is, as ‘prayer undistracted by thoughts during the next day or two’. As for the oddities of syntax and diction that Gehin et al. refer to in the same note, we have translated the passage as best we can.

In general, the Fathers are reserved about dreams. Angelic dreams exist, but there also exists the danger of Satan transforming himself into an angel of light. Generally, all such revelations must be tested against the charism of discernment, which belongs to the Church, in the form of an experienced Elder before being accepted or acted upon.

Although Evagrius does not here speak of the phenomenon (he does in OTT 4, above), the saints also visit us occasionally when we sleep. Such experiences, of course, are just as subject to the charism of discernment of the Church before being accepted and acted upon as the dreams of angels just mentioned by Evagrius.

This chapter does not correspond to any chapter of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

The next chapter is quite important, for it discuses what the monk can expect concerning the imaginations of sleep as he progresses towards dispassion (apatheia). Note that the monk cannot expect the dreams to stop entirely, at least not until he has become quite dispassionate.

In general, the monk who is beginning a serious spiritual endeavour, such as intensive use of the Prayer of Jesus, solitude or other such things, must expect to have such dreams. Our acquaintance remarks that although to an extent he had such dreams before his tonsure to the Great Schema, they started in earnest the first week after his tonsure.

29 If one of those who are living the life of solitude should not be given to be disturbed

Evagrius is now discussing the third stage, where the ascetic is approaching the frontiers of dispassion.

during the imaginations which occur in sleep on account of the frightful or obscene apparitions, but should also be accustomed to grow angry with the female figures which approach him shamelessly, and to strike these, and if, again, touching female bodies for the sake of healing—for the demons also set such things before one—he should not be accustomed to be excited, and should admonish, rather, certain of the figures concerning chastity,

St John of Sinai repeats this last image in the Ladder.

then he is blessed, really, on account of such a dispassion.

Our acquaintance remarks: ‘Evagrius is speaking with great precision. It is actually exactly as he says. It is rather an unusual thing for someone who has not experienced these dreams to understand. They are not ordinary dreams. It is necessary for your readers to understand that I strike such a figure in such a dream knowing that I am striking a demon; I wouldn’t strike a woman ever. Moreover, I am not enraged in such a situation; that would be an indication not of dispassion (apatheia) but of a serious disorder of the temper or desiring part. Just as the demon, having adopted the female figure—sometimes partly clothed to be more provocative—approaches to excite my desire and I remain impassive, so it is with the temper. It must also remain undisturbed. This is not something that during the day I decide and impose on myself with a resolution. I am praying the Jesus Prayer and experience these dreams when, praying the Jesus Prayer continually even when I sleep, I am asleep. One day I might be more susceptible than another; humanly speaking, I cannot foresee my behaviour in these dreams. They are not at all pleasant, but they are a fact of life, just as logismoi are a fact of life when I am awake. It is necessary that your reader have the right attitude towards both these dreams and the logismoi, since if he commences a serious spiritual endeavour, he will certainly have to confront both the one and the other.’

We ourselves might also remark that Evagrius’ description of the dream behaviour of the ascetic might in this day and age conjure up images of an unhealthy misogyny. We think our acquaintance’s remarks make it clear that such a charge of misogyny would miss the point.

For a soul which has accomplished the practical life with God’s help and which has been loosed from the body

See TPL 61 and TPL 52. This loosing is not the death of the ascetic, whether natural or, God forbid, by suicide. It is the spiritual transformation of the soul of the ascetic who has attained to dispassion (apatheia) into a condition of being autonomous of the body. It is later the spiritual transformation of the mind (nous) of the ascetic into the spiritual condition of the angels: the ascetic becomes, even while he is still in the body, an angel. Of course, from the Orthodox point of view, this cannot be taken strictly and literally. It is in this sense, however, that the many troparia (hymns) of the Orthodox Church which refer to one or another ascetic as an ‘incarnate angel (ensarkos aggelos)’ must be understood: the hymnographer, inserted in the spiritual tradition being analysed through the medium of Evagrius’ two works, sees the ascetic as having passed through these two spiritual transformations. There are cases of rapture of the mind (nous) wherein the soul of the ascetic leaves the body and enters into the realms of the bodiless powers (the Kingdom of the Heavens) but they are relatively rare and for a brief time only,[7] and they are not discussed by Evagrius at all anywhere that we know of—unless it is in the ascent of the ascetic, discussed below, to the contemplation of the Trinity through the contemplation of all the Ages.

enters into those very places of gnosis in which the wing of dispassion might grant it rest.

Among other psalms, Psalm 90, 4 contains this idea: ‘He shall overshadow you with his back and you will hope under his wings; his Truth will encircle you with a weapon.’ It is worth remarking that Evagrius here emphasizes gnosis, the spiritual transformation of the mind (nous), not rapture.

From those places, further, it will also receive the wings of that Holy Dove

This emphasis on the necessity of Grace to make the contemplative ascent is quite important. While, as we have understood Evagrius, entry into the lower stage of natural contemplation, that of the reasons (logoi) of existent things, is largely within the discretion of the ascetic, entry into the higher stage of natural contemplation, that of the bodiless powers and their reasons (logoi), and into the yet higher stage of Theology, the gnosis or contemplation of the Holy Trinity, is seen by Evagrius to require the grace of the Holy Spirit.[8]

and will fly through the contemplation of all the Ages

The expression ‘contemplation of all the Ages’ seems to refer to the various ranks of angels, and as such is completely Orthodox—even if somewhat dangerous to pursue on account of the danger of delusion. To the extent, however, that Evagrius is referring to the multiplicity of worlds that is foreseen by his cosmology,[9] then this phrase is to be discarded. The basic sense, quite Orthodox, is of the soaring mystical ascent under the grace of the Holy Spirit through the higher stages of natural contemplation to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

and come to rest in the gnosis of the Worshipful Trinity.

Here it is clear that Evagrius, taking his starting-point from a discussion of dreams that ends with the dispassionate response to those dreams, has given a thumb-nail sketch of the two stages after the practical life, natural contemplation and Theology, here emphasizing the role of Grace in the higher stages of natural contemplation.

This chapter does not correspond to any chapter of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

The next chapter, 30, commences a series on the unclean thought. It is itself quite simple. The basis is a distinction, repeated with some elaborations by St John of Sinai in the Ladder of Divine Ascent, between demonic thoughts (logismoi) which seek to prevent the fulfilment of the commandments, and demonic thoughts (logismoi) which seek to cause us to fulfil the commandments in the wrong way—in an impassioned way. One of these passions is vainglory; it is not the only one. The final sentence in the chapter refers to a Greek word in the Septuagint version of the psalm that Evagrius is quoting. Evagrius’ interpretation of echomena is the same as that found in a standard translation of the Septuagint[10] and thus presents us with no problem whatsoever.

This next chapter is important for its reiteration of the need to be free from thoughts (logismoi) during the time of prayer.

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[1] Sinkewicz p. 329–30 (Greek); = Migne 79, col. 1132A–D. See On Sobriety 98 (Volume III) for the complete excerpt.

[2] Witness C. G. Jung’s introduction to the Wilhelm translation of the I Ching, published by Bollingen, the publishers of Jung’s collected works.

[3] See Volume III.

[4] We have discussed how this works in TPL 39 and elsewhere.

[5] OTT G pp. 12–13.

[6] OTT G p. 255, fn. 11.

[7] As we have heard from a modern Athonite Elder with personal experience of such raptures, without its soul, the body will after a very short time begin to decompose.

[8] We ignore the subordinationist tendency of Evagrius’ own doctrine of the Trinity that we have discussed in Section 1, Chapter III of Volume I, and give this passage a completely Orthodox interpretation.

[9] We discussed that in Chapter III of Volume I.

[10] Brenton.


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