OTT (Commentary) -- 14
38 Christ raises the rational nature put to death by vice through the contemplation of all the Ages.
In KG V, 25, Evagrius says this: ‘The resurrection of the mind (nous) is the passage from ignorance to true gnosis.’ The ‘contemplation of all the Ages’ is the contemplation of all the worlds that we have seen in the preceding Digression to be an advanced stage of the first natural contemplation. This places, then, this and the following chapters of OTT at the stage of the fourth transformation, the passage from the first natural contemplation to the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.
The Father of Christ raises the soul which dies the death of Christ through the gnosis of himself, and this is what is said by the Apostle, the ‘If we die together with Christ, we believe we will also live with him.’ [
This passage depends on Evagrius’ heterodox Christology and as such is unacceptable. That the gnosis of God might enliven is quite sound, and, indeed, this whole chapter has come down to us in the Philokalia under Evagrius’ own name without there being raised any questions about it: it requires a knowledge of the version intégrale (S2) of the Kephalaia Gnostica and of the relation of the Kephalaia Gnostica to the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod to fathom the Christology. This chapter is also bound up with Evagrius’ heterodox cosmology. Let us explain.
In Evagrius’ system, the Christ is a mind (nous) like all the other minds (noes) but with the distinguishing features that he was united to the Word of God, the gnosis of the Unity, from his genesis, and that he did not participate in the negligence of the Movement. The consequence of this is that the Evagrian Christ is distinctly subordinate to the Father. The Evagrian Christ received from the Father, ‘the generator of essential gnosis’, the judgement of all the other minds (noes) after the Movement, and the charge of creating their bodies and worlds. In the Restoration, however, when all the minds (noes) will return to the contemplation of the Unity, the Christ will simply be one more mind (nous) among the many, all united in an henad which contemplates the Unity: the Christ will have surrendered to the Father the rule that he received after the Movement. Hence, in the Evagrian system, the dominion of the Christ is all the worlds created after the Movement only. Now, by the homology in the Evagrian system between the mystical ascent and eschatology or cosmology, in Evagrius’ view much the same thing transpires when the mind (nous) reascends to God in the mystical ascent.
The first sentence of this chapter refers precisely to this mystical ascent, positioning the mind (nous) in the higher stages of the first natural contemplation. The ascetic being addressed in this chapter is certainly a gnostic, certainly a gnostic who is experienced in the second natural contemplation, certainly a gnostic who is experienced in the first natural contemplation. He has reached the stage of soaring mystical ascent through all the worlds to the Holy Trinity.
Now, Evagrius is saying, for this ascent through all the worlds, the ascetic has as his guide, as it were, the Christ, for the ascetic is still within the dominion of the Christ. Moreover, says Evagrius, this ascent is not merely a subjective experience but it ‘raises the rational nature put to death by vice’. In the Evagrian system, gnosis enlivens the mind (nous) which participates in it. Here, it is a matter of the final stages of natural contemplation before Theology.
It should be understood that for Evagrius the ascetic will already have passed through the second transformation, that from dispassion (apatheia) to the second natural contemplation; and even through the third transformation, that from the second natural contemplation to the first natural contemplation, during which transformation, according to the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian, the ascetic will have divested himself of the senses. Hence, this raising of the rational nature is much more than the acquisition of dispassion (apatheia), much more than the contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of created objects, much more than the entry into contemplation of the angelic powers with its divestiture of the senses, but much less than that reception of the gnosis of the Unity that will make the ascetic’s mind (nous) a living mind (nous): the ascetic will experience that in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.
Wickedness is a moral concept. Evagrius speaks of ‘negligence’ in the Movement, not of wickedness. In the Evagrian system, wickedness is spoken of after the Movement. Even so, Evagrius is here referring to the human condition that is renewed by the higher stages of natural contemplation.
Now after the ascetic has ascended through the ‘contemplation of all the Ages’ under the guidance and enlivening operation of the Christ, then, according to Evagrius, ‘The Father of Christ raises the soul which dies the death of Christ through the gnosis of himself…’ This ‘gnosis of himself’ is the gnosis of the Unity, Theology, contemplation of the Holy Trinity, mystical contemplation of God, pure prayer. Here, however, we see an indication of the subordinationism of Evagrius’ Trinitarian theology: the Christ has ceased to operate and it is the Father, the Unity, and neither the Christ nor the Holy Trinity, nor even the Word of God, that effects the resurrection of the soul of the ascetic.
This is the last of the four transformations in the Evagrian schema of contemplation. This transformation is ‘the death of Christ’ that the soul dies in proceeding from first natural contemplation to Theology. As far as we know, Evagrius nowhere explains what he means by this ‘death of Christ’, with the possible exception of Monks 21:
21 If you imitate Christ, you will be blessed and your soul will experience his death (cf. 2 Cor. –11; 2 Tim. ) and it will not attract evil to itself from its flesh; but your going out will be like the going forth of a star and your resurrection will shine like the sun.
But Monks is pitched at a fairly low spiritual level, and the passage, while it alludes to Theology, does not shed much light on how we are to understand the imitation of Christ in the transformation from first natural contemplation to Theology.
Is this a dark night of the soul, a complete self-abnegation such as Christ experienced on the Cross, similar to the dark night of the soul in the system of St John of the Cross in the West? Since Evagrius does not explain himself, we can never know for sure. Note, however, that he has spoken of the three renunciations. He might be saying that the last transformation involves a renunciation comparable to the ‘death of Christ’: a complete renunciation of self.
Although we have here pointed out the heterodox elements in Evagrius’ formulation of the mystical ascent, it is well to remember that in both St John of Sinai and St Hesychios we find such a mystical ascent through the ranks of angels and that in St John of Sinai we also find a sense of the complete renewal of the man, the complete restoration of the kath’ homoiosin, the complete restoration of the likeness to God that Adam had in Paradise, as indeed we find in St Diadochos of Photike. As we pointed out in our commentary on TPL 2 and elsewhere, St John of Sinai calls the restoration of the kath' homoiosin dispassion (apatheia), and he describes it as the resurrection of the soul before the General Resurrection and as knowledge of God second only to that of the angels. Hence, while this chapter of OTT cannot be accepted by an Orthodox monk without reinterpretation, in its broad outlines it is a portrait of the mystical ascent such as even Orthodox mystical writers accept and describe.
This chapter corresponds to Chapter 17 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.
We need only make several remarks before we continue on to the next chapter. We discussed the ontological characterization of gnosis by Evagrius as substance. It is important to understand that mental representation—which was defined for sensible objects in OTT 2—also has the following sense: ‘vehicle by which gnosis at whatever level of contemplation is introduced into the mind (nous) of the contemplator’. In this series of chapters, each gnosis is described by Evagrius in terms of its mental representation, in terms of what imprints the mind (nous) of the ascetic during the course of the relevant contemplation.
In OTT 2, Evagrius remarks that the ‘splendour’ of God ‘discloses itself to the ruling part of the soul in the time of prayer in accordance with the deprivation of all mental representations in respect of objects’. In OTT 6, he says much the same thing. It should be clear, however, that each state of contemplation entails the divestiture by the mind (nous) not only of mental representations in respect of objects, but also of the mental representations of all lower states of contemplation, where each lower state is experienced by the mind (nous) of the ascetic as the mental representation of that lower state. This in our view is what motivates Evagrius’ discussion of mental representations in OTT 40 and 41, below.
In OTT 41, Evagrius will discuss the various types of mental representation from the point of view of how each type imprints the mind (nous) of the ascetic. Here we are using the terms ‘mental representation’ and ‘imprints’ loosely by analogy with the imprint on the mind (nous) that an object of sense makes when it is perceived by means of the bodily sense organs, as discussed by Evagrius in OTT 2.
The reader might here like to review KG V, 39–42. These chapters speak of ‘a sky splendid to see and a spacious region’ which are ‘imprinted’ ‘in the pure thought’ and ‘in which it appears how the mental representations of beings and the holy angels draw near to those who are worthy’. This is the stage of the ascetic who experiences the vision to which the next chapter, OTT 39, will refer.
Finally, in OTT 22 Evagrius says that he will explain ‘in the chapters on prayer’ why ‘the mental representations of sensible objects, when they persist, destroy gnosis utterly’. We take this series of chapters, OTT 38–43, to be that promised explanation.
39 When the mind, having unclothed itself of the old man, should put over itself the clothing which is the man from grace [cf. Col. 3, 9–10], then it will see its own condition during the time of prayer similar to the sapphire or to the colour of the sky, which very thing Scripture also calls ‘the place of God’ seen by the Elders on Mount Sinai [cf. Exod. 24, 10].
We take the unclothing of the old man and the clothing which is the man from grace to refer not only to the fourth transformation, that from first natural contemplation to Theology, but also to the three prior transformations: the transformation of the practical life for the acquisition of the virtues—this is the unclothing of the old man and the clothing with the man from grace as seen from the point of view of the moral vices and virtues—; the transformation to the second natural contemplation; the transformation to the first natural contemplation—these transformations of natural contemplation are the unclothing of the old man and the clothing with the man from grace as seen from the point of view of the intellectual vices and virtues.
We take the ‘condition during the time of prayer similar to the sapphire or to the colour of the sky, which very thing Scripture calls the “place of God” seen by the Elders on
This chapter is a succinct portrayal of the experience of the gnosis of the Unity, and it is in immediate thematic continuity with the preceding chapter, since, in Evagrius’ thought, the Unity is a synonym for the Father, the last subject of the previous chapter. Moreover, judging from various chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica, Evagrius appears to view the highest contemplation of the Holy Trinity to be the contemplation of the Unity. That is not an Orthodox doctrine. It possibly betrays a Plotinian influence on Evagrius.
The unclothing of the old man and the clothing with the man from grace is also in immediate thematic continuity with the preceding chapter. For the unclothing of the old man and the clothing with the new is what it means both for the rational nature put to death by vice to be raised by the Christ through the contemplation of all the Ages—in accordance with Scholia on Ecclesiastes 15, this might be taken to be all of natural contemplation, not just its higher stages—, and for the Father to raise the soul which dies the death of Christ.
Moreover, this unclothing of the old man and clothing with the new corresponds also, we think, to KG VI, 39: ‘The generation of Christ is the regeneration of our inner man, which, in building it, Christ, like a good builder, has founded on the principal stone of the edifice of his body.’
The reference to ‘the generation of Christ’ in KG VI, 39 makes that passage of uncertain orthodoxy, and we have seen in the commentary on the previous chapter, OTT 38, that Evagrius’ understanding of these matters is bound up with his heterodox Christology and cosmology. However, the whole of OTT 39, this chapter, is capable of an Orthodox interpretation; it merely requires that we have an Orthodox Christology and cosmology. Moreover, clearly, St Gregory Palamas’ use of OTT 39 as a proof text for the existence of the Uncreated Light which can be experienced in prayer indicates that the passage can without difficulty be given an Orthodox interpretation.
In regard to the condition of the mind (nous) when it has attained to Theology as the ‘place of God’, or even the ‘throne of God’ as stated in OTT 41, we need only say this: Evagrius’ principle that the mind (nous) is conformed by the gnosis to which it attains; his ontological principle that makes of gnosis a substance, and of the gnosis of the Holy Trinity the substance of the Holy Trinity—for how else can we understand his oft-repeated statement that the Holy Trinity is essential gnosis?—; his principle that it is its receptivity to the gnosis of the Holy Trinity that makes the mind (nous) to be in the image of God—these principles allow Evagrius to treat the spiritual condition of the mind (nous) united to the Holy Trinity as the very ‘place of God’. Recall that in Evagrius’ thought, the condition of the mind (nous) is its habitual state of spiritual gnosis. Here, however, he is more particularly referring to the mind’s (nous’) condition when it is actively engaged in unitive mystical prayer to God.
There is nothing here of pantheism, although we have seen in Chapter III of Volume I that Professor Guillaumont suggests that the Letter to Melania contains such tendencies, and certainly the Letter is susceptible of such an interpretation. Of course, it would be useful to have a clearer understanding of how Evagrius understands the expression ‘[T]he Trinity is essential gnosis;’ how he understands the effect of the gnosis of the Trinity on the mind (nous); and how he understands his remark that a mind (nous) which experiences union with the Holy Trinity will be called God and able to found worlds. For these statements certainly could be given a pantheist interpretation.
In general, the Orthodox dogmatic treatment of these matters was established in the framework of Fourteenth Century Hesychasm by St Gregory Palamas. There, one distinguishes between the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) of God and his substance. The substance of God, contrary to the teaching of St Thomas Aquinas, is considered by the Orthodox to be forever unknowable, even in the next life. Only the uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) of God can be known by man in this life or in the next. Indeed, Hesychasm is treated by St Gregory Palamas as a method of approach to God, so that God, by grace, might manifest himself to the Hesychast by means of his uncreated operations (aktistes energeies) in the form of light—the Uncreated Light.
It is in this context that we should consider the use of the broad outline of the Evagrian contemplative system by St Hesychios in On Sobriety. St Hesychios has a very clear doctrine of light, a very clear doctrine of union with God. He retains the broad outlines of the Evagrian system of contemplation without departing from Orthodoxy, and he certainly makes use of Evagrian contemplative psychology as we have seen it in the Digression and also as it is given in the next chapter.
This chapter corresponds to Chapter 18 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia. It is also quoted by St Gregory Palamas, as a text of St Neilos the Ascetic—a common misattribution for texts of Evagrius in the manuscript tradition—, as a proof text for the existence of the Uncreated Light, in Huper ton Hieros Hesuchazonton (In Defence of Those Keeping Stillness in a Holy Manner).
The next chapter summarizes the Evagrian doctrine of the divestiture of mental representations. Note that for the sake of sense Gehin et al. have emended the text with the words in angle brackets on the basis of parallel passages in Evagrius’ other works. We ourselves have added the words in square brackets for the sake of clarity.
 See Chapter III of Volume I.
 KG VI, 28.
 See the Digression.
 In Homily 3. Loc. cit.
 KG III, 71.
 KG I, 40; I, 51; etc.
 Sinkewicz p.123; Sinkewicz’ translation.
 See Chapter V of Volume I.
 Ekklesiasten p. 82, ll. 18–25.
 See below.
 KG VI, 73. See Section 5, Chapter III, of Volume I.
 This is the experience of mystical union seen as it were subjectively, from the point of view of the ascetic.
 This is the same experience of mystical union seen as it were objectively, from the point of view of God.
 We ignore here the question of the Letter’s authenticity.
 KG II, 47; etc.
 KG V, 81.
 See Chapter IV of Volume I.
 Palamas Triad 1, 3, 6, p. 415.