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OTT (Commentary) -- 5

14 Alone of the thoughts, the thought of vainglory has much material and encompasses almost the whole inhabited world and it secretly opens the door to all the demons, just as someone who has become the wicked betrayer of a city. For that reason, it greatly abases the mind of him who is living the life of solitude, filling him

Although the syntax seems to suggest that this ‘him’ refers to the mind (nous) of the anchorite, and not to the anchorite taken as a person, once we introduce that reading, we have to continue it for all the other pronominal adjectives in the clause, which seems forced. Hence, although the mind (nous) is the innermost person, not only in Evagrius, but also, as we have seen, in the two works of St Gregory of Nyssa that we discussed in Volume I, we leave the reading this way, as referring to the anchorite.

with many words and objects

In his intellect, with the impassioned recollection of objects of sense. Vainglory, Evagrius is saying, uses a greater diversity of objects in impassioned recollection than first pride, say, or fornication, even the whole world and all it contains. It is in this sense that Skemmata 44 is to be taken:

44 Of the thoughts, some are without material, others are of little material, while others are of much material. And without material, then, are those which are from the first pride; of little material, those which are from fornication; while of much material are those which are from vainglory.

and causing the ruin of his prayers, through which he is zealous to heal all the wounds of his soul.

We have already seen this central Evagrian point, that the thoughts destroy pure prayer.

All the demons, when they are defeated, join in increasing this thought;

This should be clear by now.

and, again, by means of it, all the demons receive entrance into the souls,

This is a concept that Evagrius introduces for the first time in this chapter, that vainglory, if not cut off by the anchorite, opens the door to all the other demons.

making, really, ‘the last worse than the first’ [Matt. 12, 45]. From this very thought is engendered the thought of pride,

St John of Sinai in the Ladder will say that perhaps the thoughts are seven, since vainglory is just the beginning of pride and pride just the consummation of vainglory.

the thought which threw down from the Heavens to the earth the seal of similarity and the crown of beauty.

The Devil, who before he fell through pride was the greatest of the angels but not God (hence, ‘seal of similarity’) and on account of his virtue the most beautiful angel (hence, ‘crown of beauty’).

‘But leap away from this place and do not persist,’ [Prov. 9, 18a]

That is, cut off the thoughts of vainglory; do not allow them to persist in your intellect; rebut them immediately without dwelling on them and their fantasies of glory.

so that we do not betray our life to others

The demons.

and our way of life to the merciless.

Again, the demons.

These things banish this demon: intense prayer and to say or do nothing voluntarily of those things which contribute to accursed glory.

The second therapy that Evagrius suggests is active humility, the making of an active effort against vainglory.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 13 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

In their notes on the next chapter, Gehin et al. enunciate a general rule as following from what Evagrius is saying, namely that vainglory is the last passion to persist as the ascetic approaches dispassion (apatheia). We think otherwise. Evagrius is speaking disparagingly in the next chapter in a series dedicated to vainglory, of a certain type of monk who, having attained a little dispassion (apatheia), succumbs to vainglory. We think it depends on the monk what will be the last passion to be conquered, although pride is certainly the most deep-rooted of all the passions, based as it is on self-love and self-preservation.[1] That having been said, we could easily envisage a monk who, having acquired a bit of dispassion (apatheia) without gnosis, would succumb to the passions of ruling over others, of avarice, or even of anger.[2] Evagrius is not, we believe, here enunciating the general rule that vainglory is the final struggle of the monk as he approaches dispassion (apatheia). He is enunciating, in a chapter in a series dedicated to vainglory, the rule that a little dispassion (apatheia) can beguile the monk with a sense of his own accomplishment, with the amusing—to us, not to the monk—results that follow.

15 When the mind of those who are living the life of solitude gets hold of a little dispassion, then, having acquired the horse of vainglory, it rides through the cities taking its fill of the unmixedpraise

In the sense of unmixed wine. The praise goes to the ascetic’s head.

from the glory [of men].

We think that, here, Evagrius actually has in mind the case of a hermit he knows who has left the hermitage and made a fool of himself in the towns and villages and even in Alexandria itself.

This mind, the spirit of fornication

The whole point to this story is that a little bit of dispassion is enough in the hermitage, but not in the village.

meets providentially,

This clearly means: ‘by the dispensation of the Lord’. The Lord withdraws his protecting shield to teach the hermit a lesson. This is the abandonment that Evagrius has already referred to in OTT 10.

and, closing it up in a pigsty,

A brothel.

teaches it no longer to abandon its bed

The hermitage.

before complete health

Dispassion (apatheia).[3]

nor to imitate the unruly of those who are sick, those who while they still bear in themselves the relics of the illness,

The passions as yet incompletely purified.

give themselves over to journeys and untimely baths and fall into the illnesses which come from relapse.

Evagrius is clearly fitting his medical metaphor to the case at hand of incompletely purified passions—hence, ‘relapse’. KG VI 52 clarifies what Evagrius means:

VI, 52 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.

Here, the problem is that an incompletely purified passion may not be a problem in the hermitage, there being no object present to stimulate it, but a sojourn out of the hermitage in the city may suddenly present to the soul the object of such a hidden or dormant passion, to the destruction of the ascetic taken unawares.

For that reason, remaining [in our hermitage], let us rather pay attention to ourselves, so that, advancing in virtue, we become difficult to move towards vice;

This is fundamental to the Evagrian system.

so that being renewed, then, in gnosis, we receive in addition a multitude of various contemplations;

This should be clear by now.

and so that being raised up again during prayer,

This quite interestingly and importantly suggests that Evagrius views natural contemplation as a voluntary activity of the monk which is not itself prayer. This would be consistent both with TPL 92 (the vignette of St Anthony and the philosophers that we have already referred to) and with what Evagrius will come to remark in OTT 17, below. Indeed, this is also an instance where for Evagrius ‘prayer’ is a synonym for ‘Theology’, mystical union with God.

we see more clearly the light of our Saviour.

Here it is clear that Evagrius sees this as the proper road and, indeed, the proper vocation of the hermit.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 14 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

While the next chapter is ostensibly about the temptation to fornication, it very clearly summarizes the main features of the Evagrian system, especially as it will be taken up by later authors.

16 I am not able to write all the villainies of the demons and I am ashamed to recount at length their evil arts, having feared for the simpler of those who will meet with this writing.

Evagrius is speaking simply and sincerely, we believe, not rhetorically.

However, hear the villainy of the spirit of fornication. When one acquires dispassion of the desiring part,

St John of Sinai will call this ‘dispassion of the desiring part’, agnoteta or purity. This is a dispassion (apatheia) which is partial, a stage on the way in the Ladder. We need not view the matter so schematically, however.

and the shameful thoughts, therefore, grow somewhat cold,

The libido diminishes, at least in terms of thoughts.

then this thought introduces men and women playing with each other and makes the anchorite the spectator of shameful deeds and gestures.

Evagrius does not specify: during sleep—he will discuss dreams later—in fantasy or in waking vision or apparition? He clearly does not see the phenomenon as arising from the hermit’s own passion, which has cooled somewhat, but from an external source, the demons which are tempting the monk. Dissolute, worldly writers are wont to portray these temptations.

But this temptation is not one of those that persist for a long time. For intense prayer and a very scanty diet with vigils and the exercise of spiritual contemplations expel this demon like a waterless cloud [cf. Jude 12].

Evagrius views the temptation as something that suddenly commences and which is expelled by the means given. It might of course return.

There is also the case where this demon lays hold on the flesh, prising it out towards irrational excitement.

This is a sudden excitation of the organ without human intervention, and humanly inexplicable. We will mention a modern case just below.

And this rogue contrives countless other things for his purposes, which very things it is not necessary to publish and to commit to writing. The seething of the temper set in motion against this demon is very useful against such thoughts, which very temper the demon has certainly feared when it [the temper] is agitated on account of these thoughts and is destroying utterly its [the demon’s] mental representations.

This is the use of anger according to nature to destroy the mental representations sown by the demon, a matter that we have already discussed.

And this is the ‘Be angry and do not sin’ [Ps. 4, 5], useful medicine brought forth to the soul in temptations.

We have already mentioned the saintly Joseph the Hesychast of Mount Athos. It happens that for a long period of time he battled in hand-to-hand combat with demon of fornication. Details can be found both in his life[4] and among his collected letters,[5] both of which have been translated into English.[6] Joseph refers to all the aspects that Evagrius refers to, including the physical excitation of the flesh. Moreover, he applied the counsel of anger against the demon by keeping a stick close by with which he beat himself when oppressed by this demon. This might conjure up images of crazed mediæval flagellants or of mad Russian sectarians in the mind’s eye of the reader, but, in fact, it is an application of what Evagrius is saying. St Hesychios will himself make discreet references to the use of the whip.[7]

Joseph himself remarked that the demons could not endure the humility of him who beat himself thus, and that they fled in terror. Moreover, Joseph himself describes the final temptation wherein the demon, finally defeated, departs in the form of a wild pig—leaving a few hairs in Joseph’s hand when Joseph tries to seize it—and thenceforth Joseph to his dying day is no longer troubled by the passion, being like a newborn babe. Note that there is nothing here of the pathological excitation of the passion with violence such as is found in sado-masochism. St John Cassian has a similar discreet discussion of the conquest of this passion in his Cœnobitical Institutions, and of the state of the monk after its conquest, as does the life of St Methodios, and even a letter of St John Chrysostom written while St John was in exile, in which he refers to allegations of his own unchastity.

This is dispassion (apatheia), certainly, of the passion of fornication, but also perhaps complete dispassion (apatheia): often the ascetic battles against one specific passion for a long time, but, in conquering that passion, attains to complete dispassion (apatheia): the other passions were also tacitly being battled against. Moreover, the notion that one passion is being battled against conveys this fundamental truth: we each of us have our ruling passion, and this is the passion we must work on above all. This is where God himself sets the struggle, placing one monk here and one monk there, so that each monk’s battle corresponds both to his strength of character (how much he can fight) and to his ruling passion (what his problem really is). St John of Sinai addresses this. That is why the discernment of vocations—whether to monk, priest or layman, but also, for the monk, to large cœnobium or small entourage or hermitage, and, for the priest, to the married or to the celibate priesthood—is so important. Fighting by night, we ourselves do not always know what we can and should accomplish. In cases like this it is very useful to consult an Elder who has the charism of discernment. Many monks on Mount Athos today owe their vocation to the discernment of the great Starets, Fr Paisios, whom we have already mentioned, and many men who did not become monks on Mount Athos also owe their vocation, whether to the married or celibate priesthood, or to the lay state, to the discernment of Fr Paisios.

The demon of anger also imitates this demon and himself invents certain close relatives or friends or kinsmen outraged by unworthy persons, and sets the temper of him who is living the life of solitude in motion to say or to do something wicked towards those who have appeared in the intellect,

This should be clear. Even to accept to speak angrily in the intellect to someone absent is to be defeated by the demon of anger.

which images it is necessary to take a care for, and quickly to snatch the mind away from such images,

This should also be clear, both as to what the images are, and why and how we must snatch the mind away from them.

so that the mind not, by persisting in these images, become a smoking firebrand [cf. Isa. 7, 4] during the time of prayer.

This also should be clear by now. The smoking firebrand is an image of the opposite of pure prayer.

Those who are irascible fall into such temptations, especially since they are easily incited to violent movements.

Violent movements of the passions. These persons are impetuous.

These very persons are far from pure prayer

A central dogma of Evagrian asceticism is that pure prayer is precluded by the use of anger, even in the intellect, except against the demons, and then only with the intensity necessary to destroy the mental representation sown by the demon.

and the gnosis of our Saviour Christ.

Let us take ‘pure prayer and the gnosis of our Saviour Christ’ to refer to Theology, the contemplation of God himself.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 15 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

Looking over the Evagrian material in OTT, we see that, despite the inevitable repetition of material from TPL, we are in fact being provided with a richly textured and nuanced system of psychological ascesis. We will find that, having a good command of this Evagrian system, we will be able to grasp Evagrius’ own ascetical thought, but, more importantly, we will be able the more easily to grasp the difficult text of On Sobriety by St Hesychios.

The next chapter, OTT 17, is an allegorical presentation of Evagrius’ own doctrine of sobriety, insofar as he explicitly enunciated such a doctrine.

Since the concept of sobriety is central to our endeavours, we will take the time to analyse this allegory. However, the very detailed and refined aspects of the allegory we might lose, not having a full command of Evagrian allegory as concerns the Psalms of David. Moreover, we will provide an essentially Orthodox interpretation.

In OTT 17, the concept of sobriety depends on the image of the mind (nous) as a shepherd which tends the sheep of the mental representations in the intellect. The more refined aspects of the concept of sobriety will be found in St Hesychios’ On Sobriety.

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[1] Cf. Skemmata 53.

[2] See our commentary on the previous chapter.

[3] Cf. TPL 56.

[4] Joseph G.

[5] Letters G.

[6] Joseph E and Letters E, respectively.

[7] In On Sobriety 33 and 172. See Volume III.


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