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OTT (Commentary) -- 6

17 The Lord bestowed on man the mental representations of this Age

There is a hint here of Evagrius’ cosmological system; we will provide an Orthodox interpretation. In creating man as a being with a material body and an intelligible soul, and in placing him on the face of the earth, the Lord God placed man in an ontological context: the earth with its plants, birds, animals, sky, sun and stars; the spiritual context of man as a being before God with freedom of choice, as a microcosm linking the material and spiritual creations; and the presence ultimately of others, first Eve, and later all men. This context is the context in which a man lives out his earthly life until he die and his soul depart for the next world there to await the General Resurrection. When Evagrius says, then, in our Orthodox reading of his text, that the Lord bestowed on man the mental representations of this Age, he has the following in mind: We recall in the first place that a mental representation is what we have in our intellect, in our field of consciousness, when we have the sense-perception of an object that can be perceived by means of the bodily senses. This is important to grasp, for Evagrius will later, in OTT 41, refer to mental representations which arise from intelligible sources—from the reasons (logoi) of material objects, from angels, from the Divinity. These latter mental representations we take not to be mental representations of this Age, but let us say, without dogmatizing—Evagrius is extremely terse—that they are mental representations of the Age to come. Hence, what Evagrius is referring to in this chapter is the mental representations arising in the first instance from sense-perceptions received through the bodily senses. These are precisely the sense-perceptions on which Hume and even St Thomas Aquinas will each base his theory of cognition. Evagrius then goes on to include mental representations which enter the intellect, the field of consciousness, through the operation of the memory. The reader will recall that in the Evagrian system, the mental representation of an object that in the first place is received by means of the bodily senses and then brought back into the intellect by means of the operation of the memory can be the commencement of a demonic temptation. Much has been made of this. In OTT 8, however, Evagrius spoke of human thoughts, thoughts in which the mental representation brought into the intellect by the memory was ‘mere’ or dispassionate; we might say, ‘uncharged by passionate involvement’. In OTT 8, there were also angelic thoughts, but in the present chapter of OTT these play a secondary role.

Hence, what Evagrius is discussing in this chapter is the mental representations of objects of sense which arise in the first place by means of sense-perception and in the second place by means of the operation of the memory, and which might or might not be charged with passionate involvement on the part of the ascetic.

We have discussed these concepts before. Now, however, Evagrius is looking at the matter from the point of view of the daily routine of the hermit—as lived out in the intellect. This is very important to grasp.

In discussing this chapter it would be useful to know Evagrius’ own daily routine in his hermitage in the Cells. We know that he was a solitary,[1] that he had a house, that he made his money, as much as he would need to buy bread and oil and supplies, by copying the Psalter as a calligrapher. He had visitors. He also had periods of prayer; he conducted daily liturgical services, in the form, of course, that they would be found in his day in Egypt in the Cells. He read the Scriptures, and, perhaps, philosophical works. He wrote. He kept vigil at night. That was his daily routine. (On weekends, of course, he met with the other monks of the Cells at the central church for an all-night vigil and Divine Liturgy.)[2]

Now, the point is this: Evagrius does not seem to suppose that twenty-four hours a day he or another ascetic would be in a state of contemplation, whether natural contemplation of the reasons (logoi) of existent things or natural contemplation of the angels or unitive contemplation of the Holy Trinity. At some point, Evagrius was copying the Psalter; at another point he was reading; at a third point, he was performing the service; at other points, he was sleeping, eating and so on. These are activities of a more mundane nature than contemplation.

Now, as we understand it, what Evagrius wants to discuss is where the ascetic’s mind is during the day while he is doing all these mundane tasks of being a man on the face of the earth and a hermit of the Cells.

The concept of sobriety deals with this question: how do I as a hermit live out my day as regards the custody of my intellect? That is, while Evagrius was doing all the things we have described, where was his mind?

This is what this chapter is about, and it is the concept of sobriety that is being approached.

as sheep of a sort to the good shepherd.

This is the primary model. The ascetic tends the mental representations of this Age—we have defined them above—as a shepherd tends his sheep. This image of the shepherd is basic, for it describes the very attitude and relation of the ascetic to the mental representations—whether from sense-perceptions or from the operation of his memory—which occur in his intellect, and that, as we have discussed, in the context of his daily routine.

Although Evagrius has insisted, and will again insist, on the necessity during the time of prayer of having the mind, the intellect, completely free of mental representations for the sake of pure prayer, here he is advocating the attitude of a good shepherd to the mental representations taken as ‘sheep of a sort’.

Moreover, we would like to emphasize, for Evagrius, the mental representation is prior logically and temporally to the thought (logismos), whether human, angelic or demonic. Moreover, for Evagrius, the thought (logismos) is not a logical proposition such as a modern logical positivist or even St Thomas Aquinas might assert; we are unaware of any great concern on the part of Evagrius for the concepts of logic such as substance, property, accident and so on. Certainly, he uses the concepts and he occasionally uses the syllogism, but he is not a logician: he is a psychologist and mystic.

So let us suppose that we are hermits and have during our day a stream of mental representations which pass through our mind. Sometimes, as for Evagrius, during prayer, we will want to be completely free of these mental representations. These mental representations are of objects of which we originally had a sense-perception, but they might have been brought into our intellect, our field of consciousness, through the agency of the memory.

Let us recall that Evagrius was a hermit in a monastic centre in the Egyptian desert who died in 399. He maintained a very meagre diet and drank very little water. He did not drink coffee. His whole life was centred round prayer. He did not have a television, a camcorder or video-player, a regular or mobile telephone, a computer with an Internet connection, a fax machine, a tape or disk recorder to record the services on weekends, a CB, newspapers, magazines, automobile, electricity. He had some books, among them Scripture, which he read. He calligraphed Scripture for a living. His stream of mental representations might have been somewhat different from yours or mine. That stream was certainly slower—much slower—and much more focused than yours or mine.

Hence, when Evagrius speaks about the ascetic’s having the attitude of a good shepherd to his mental representations, after a fashion he, Evagrius, could count his mental representations. They occurred slowly, so slowly, that Evagrius will later assert that we can have only one mental representation at a time, and that it must leave before another one can come. The good shepherd knows his sheep.

So here we have a hermit in his cell in the Cells in Egypt who is tending his sheep: the mental representations that pass through his mind. This is quite a positive image. Moreover, at the moment, there is nothing here about the continuous remembrance of God, compunction, tears, ecstasies,[3] contemplation, the Uncreated Light and what not. The ascetic is tending the mental representations of objects, which arise in the first instance from sense-perception and in the second instance from recollections of such objects. He is doing this while he is going through the day.

This is our first image of mental sobriety.

For he says: ‘He likewise gave the Age into his heart,’ [Eccl. 3, 11] yoking temper and the desiring part to him to help him so that, on the one hand, through temper he drive away the mental representations of the wolves, and, on the other hand, through the desiring part, he cherish the sheep even when he many times is smitten by the rains and the winds.

We have already discussed the tripartite soul, especially in Volume I, Chapter II, but also to an extent in our commentary on TPL. Here, there is a hint of Evagrius’ own cosmology in Evagrius’ way of presenting the yoking of the mind (nous) to the temper and to the desiring part,[4] but we can interpret this passage in a completely Orthodox sense by referring to St Macrina’s psychology, which we discussed in Volume I.

Hence, we here have the use of the temper and the desiring part according to nature—why they were given to man in his creation by our Lord.

The use of the temper is to drive away the mental representations of the wolves. This does not mean that the ascetic has images of wolves that he expels from his mind. Nor does it mean that he has images of demons (these are the wolves) that he expels. It means that he drives away the mental representations sown by the demons: these are the impassioned recollections of objects of sense. St Hesychios will adopt this orientation wholeheartedly in his own system, which he calls ‘sobriety’.

It is as if I have a stream of good mental representations—I am a hermit going through my daily routine—and I sense (let us here leave ambiguous how) that a wolf is among the sheep. This is a mental representation sown by a demon. I drive it away. We spent much time in TPL discussing the use of anger in rebuttal to drive the demon away and to dissolve at the same time the mental representation sown by the demon.

As we said, I am a hermit going through my daily routine—calligraphy, housekeeping and what not. I am tending—watching, monitoring—the stream of mental representations in my intellect: my mind is not fractured and disintegrated, but I am serene and focusing on my thoughts (in our colloquial sense of today). I detect a mental representation sown by a demon. I expel it, by the use of the temper according to nature.

This is our second image of sobriety.

However, Evagrius has also spoken about the desiring part, and its use according to nature. That use is for the ascetic to cherish the mental representations (the ones not sown by the demons) even when he is many times smitten by the rains and the winds.

We frankly do not know what Evagrius symbolizes with the rains and the winds. It would be useful to have such details, but they are not essential.

We now have the use of the desiring part according to nature. This is a very positive image. While the ascetic is to drive away with the temper (‘the dog’)[5] the mental representations sown by the demons, he is to cherish, by means of the desiring part operating according to nature, the good mental representations, so much so as willingly to persevere in tending them even when conditions are difficult: when the demons are attacking with great severity: this might be an approximation to the rains and the winds, especially if we take the one to refer to the ‘subjective’ attack of the demons through the thoughts—the immaterial war—and the other to refer to the ‘objective’ attack of the demons through objects and other men[6]—the war waged through objects.

So the ascetic does not act with a fierceness or harshness towards his own flock of mental representations. He positively cherishes his own mental representations. This is an important element of Evagrius’ psychology of ascesis.

So now we have a third image of sobriety.

In addition to these things, he also gave a pasture

This we ourselves take to be the intellect (dianoia), which we have already called the field of consciousness and which is an operation (energeia) of the mind (nous). A more knowledgeable interpreter might demonstrate the pasture to symbolize something different; we have interpreted it as it seems best to us.

It is here that the mental representations ‘gambol and play’ as it were: in the intellect.

so that he might pasture the sheep, and a place of freshness and a water of repose,

These symbolize spiritual greenery and the waters of Baptism. Let us arbitrarily say that the spiritual greenery is the Church.

and a harp and a lyre,

In the Kephalaia Gnostica, we find two chapters which explain Evagrius’ meaning: ‘The harp is the mind (nous) which is plucked by the spiritual gnosis.’[7] ‘The lyre is the praktike soul which is plucked by the commandments of Christ.’[8] The plucking by the commandments of Christ clearly refers to the practical life, whereas the plucking by spiritual gnosis clearly refers to natural contemplation and to Theology. We will deal with these concepts below.

and a rod

Christ is the rod; the rod symbolizes the authority to chastise and to discipline.

and a staff,

The staff symbolizes the support offered to the ascetic by Grace.

so that from this very flock

Of mental representations flowing through the intellect of the hermit.

he both be fed and clothed

This is the spiritual nourishment of the mind (nous) by gnosis—we have already encountered the Evagrian notion that the second natural contemplation, the contemplation of created things, is the spiritual nourishment of men and of angels—and the spiritual clothing of the soul by the virtues.

and collect alpine fodder.

We interpret this as the gnosis of God proper to the angels.

For he says: ‘Who tends a flock and does not drink from its milk?’ [1 Cor. 9, 7.]

This is again a reference to and a defence of the Evagrian doctrine of the spiritual nourishment which is obtained from natural contemplation.

What are we to make of all this?

Let us proceed in pieces. We have said that the pasture symbolizes the intellect. Let us exclude the harp and the lyre for the moment and take the symbols up to and including the rod and staff as referring to the ecclesiastical identity of the hermit: the place of freshness and the water of repose and the rod and staff. As is our approach in this chapter, let us ignore the strictly Evagrian cosmology and give these symbols an Orthodox interpretation.

What we have, then, is a presentation of the role of the Church in the hermit’s ascetical life. The hermit has been given a place of freshness, the Church. He has been baptized and chrismated: he has received the Holy Spirit.[9] He is inserted into ‘the choir of those who live alone’;[10] hence, he has the rod of Christ in the ecclesiastical discipline. He has the staff of Christ through his membership in the Church, since he has received the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, through Baptism; since the Church corporately prays for all its members both living and dead; since many ascetics pray for all other ascetics both corporately and, when they know, by name; and since the angels are our helpers and the saints our friends, teachers, intercessors and protectors, especially Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. The ascetic also has the mysteries, or sacraments, and the other means of grace of the Church. We know that the hermits of the Cells in Evagrius’ day gathered every weekend to celebrate the Divine Liturgy together.[11] It would be inconceivable that they did not receive communion at each Divine Liturgy they attended. In our day, a hermit would go to confession when necessary, and he would most likely select a confessor able to discern spiritually the quality and strength of his spiritual experiences by a charism of the Holy Spirit and not by human judgement. We have already discussed discernment. In our day, if the hermit is a priest and not alone in his cell or else has made prior arrangements with nearby hermits, he might celebrate the Divine Liturgy on some or all of Monday through Friday.[12] Certainly, in Evagrius’ day, arrangements were made for hermits to have the consecrated Gifts in their cell for private communion when they could not attend the Divine Liturgy.

In our day, if the hermit is connected to a monastery which follows the Greek or Russian Typikon, on Wednesday of Holy Week he could receive the Mystery, or sacrament, of Unction in a general group service. On Mount Athos, in the Greek monasteries, the Mystery of Unction is repeated in another group service two days before Christmas. The Mystery of Unction (the anointing of the sick) is not a mean mystery, being always efficacious for the healing of the mind (nous) and for the forgiveness of sins, and, if Christ wills, even for the healing of the flesh. Of course, the hermit could request the Mystery privately.

We will not dwell on the Great Holy Water and the Lesser Holy Water, the antidoron, the participation by the hermit on great feasts in the monastic celebration of Vespers, Orthros, Hours and the Divine Liturgy, especially during Holy Week, the week up to and including Easter. Nor will we mention that the charisms that St Paul writes about in his epistles are charisms that belong to the Church and that they are available to the Orthodox ascetic: the charisms of discernment, healing, counsel, instruction and wisdom of the other hermit become Elder (Starets); the prayers of such an Elder for the ascetic when he is afflicted.

These are the rod and staff of the Orthodox hermit. While a non-Orthodox hermit might attend to the flow of his mental representations and perhaps even make some effort—if his religion saw things in the same light; not all religions do—to make use of the temper and the desiring part of the soul according to their purpose when they were given to man in man’s creation, he would lack Orthodox Baptism and membership in the Orthodox Church of Jesus Christ. Hence, his sobriety would necessarily have a different air about it.

So this is our fourth image of sobriety, of a sobriety inserted into the Orthodox Church.

Above, we excluded the harp and the lyre. Here, Evagrius is emphasizing that the mind (nous) is ‘plucked’ by gnosis, and the practical soul, by the keeping of the commandments. As we have discussed,[13] the distinction between mind (nous) and soul (psuche) that underlies Evagrius’ two metaphors is an aspect of Evagrius’ anthropology that we as Orthodox cannot accept. However, the distinction between the practical life, aimed at the restoration of the passionate part of the soul to health through the acquisition of the moral virtues, and the life of contemplation or gnosis, aimed at the consummation of the mystical journey through the restoration, if we can put it that way, of the mind (nous) to health in mystical union with God, we can accept.

Let us now turn to Evagrius’ idea that the ascetic is nourished from his flock of mental representations. As that idea is presented here, it is clear that Evagrius intends that the spiritual nourishment of the soul of the ascetic is from the mental representations that pass through his mind during the day. We have already mentioned that Evagrius expresses the doctrine in the Kephalaia Gnostica that the angels are nourished from the second natural contemplation of things on the earth of men, and that men are so nourished who have entered into the second natural contemplation. Ordinarily, the Orthodox Church believes, a man is nourished spiritually by Grace: that is why we receive Holy Communion; that is why we pray; that is why we attend Church services. Evagrius’ doctrine is unusual. It is possible to view the second natural contemplation as a means of grace. But it would be odd to divorce the second natural contemplation from Grace and to treat it as a separate or singular means of spiritual nourishment.

In second natural contemplation the ascetic has the actual object of sense before him: the second natural contemplation is the contemplation of an imperfect mind (nous) and while the ascetic cognizes intuitively with a spiritual sense the reason (logos) of the object, his contemplation of the reason (logos) is envisaged by Evagrius to be supported by the sensible presence of the object: only later does the mind (nous) of the ascetic gain enough strength to enter into intelligible contemplations without the support of a sensible object of contemplation.[14] Here, let us further simply remark that the Evagrian program of ascent to God in prayer is for the mind (nous) to be divested of the mental representations of sensible objects, the mental representations of their recollections, and ultimately, the mental representations of their reasons (logoi), since all these mental representations will impede the mind (nous) from its intuitive apprehension of God.

It should also be further noted that Evagrius’ emphasis on the nourishment that the ascetic receives from the second natural contemplation creates a problem in interpretation: does Evagrius intend that the ascetic is going through his day in a state of second natural contemplation, so that the mental representations in his mind are the reasons (logoi) of the created objects he perceives and not only the sense-perceptions of the objects themselves? We do not think that Evagrius is enunciating a general rule that this is or should be so. We think that as the ascetic would progress, he would progress from a stage of being primarily concerned in his daily routine with rescuing the sheep from the wolves (this is the practical life, praktike) to a stage of mere sense-perceptions to a stage of second natural contemplation—to the extent that this last did not interfere with his routine. When he entered into prayer or natural contemplation as a discrete activity, then he would turn fully to contemplation at the stage he was. Much would depend on the spiritual attainment that the ascetic actually had.

Let us continue.

It is therefore necessary that he who is living the life of solitude guard this very flock night and day

We now enter into sobriety as the guard of the thoughts. We have already said what this means, but it is worth repeating. The work of the hermit is to guard his flow of mental representations night and day while he is going through his routine. St Hesychios will introduce gradations into this practice, as will St John of Sinai, and both envisage a much more physically restricted daily routine than Evagrius, but let us be sufficed here with what Evagrius is saying. If anyone ever wondered how hermits spend their time—when they are at the level of gnosis and are not still fighting by night—here is the answer: they guard their flock of mental representations. Why?

lest one of the mental representations

One of the sheep.

become the food of beasts or fall into the hands of robbers, and, if therefore such a thing should happen in the wooded vale,

In the intellect.

then that he snatch it out of the mouth of the lion and the bear.

We think that the use of these pairs (‘beasts’ – ‘robbers’; ‘lion’ – ‘bear’) is both stylistic and based on Evagrius’ distinctions between the types of demons—of the desiring part or of the irascible part of the soul, or even of man as man and man as irrational animal.[15] We need not be detained by decoding these fine distinctions. The sense is clear, and in Gnostic 34, Evagrius himself cautions against over-scrupulous allegorical interpretation. The ascetic spends his day in the guard of his flock of mental representations, and, should one of them fall into the hands of the demons, then he retrieves it. The basic means is rebuttal with anger, but Evagrius has already introduced, in TPL 58, two other methods (weaving in supposition the thought of an opposed passion; praying for the grace to rebut the thought with the opposed virtue). Moreover, in OTT, he has already introduced a specific therapy for the demon called the ‘wanderer’ and given instructions for attacks by the demon of fornication; and in OTT 19, below, he will go on to discuss two other methods for freeing the intellect from a demonically inspired mental representation.

After Evagrius, and certainly in St Hesychios and, following him, the Philokalic tradition, the main and only real method will be rebuttal with anger, followed by invocation of Jesus Christ.

(The reader should be beginning to grasp that the Evagrian program of the guard of the mental representations throughout the whole day, combined with the Prayer of Jesus, and that prayed in the heart, is St Hesychios’ whole program. In fact, it is the basis of the whole Philokalic tradition. The present chapter of Evagrius is quite important as an introduction to the concept of sobriety in the Hesychast tradition.)

This is our fifth image of sobriety, of a sobriety that endeavours to guard the mental representations passing through the mind during the day so as to preserve them from the influences of demons.

Evagrius now goes on to clarify what he has just said, using concrete examples. The material is now familiar to us, but Evagrius presents it in a manner consistent with the metaphor, or allegory, that he has adopted in this chapter.

The mental representation concerning the brother

This phrase ‘concerning the brother’ rather than ‘of the brother’ is due to Evagrius, not to our style of translation. We would have expected ‘of the brother’.

becomes the prey of wild beasts if with hatred it is pastured in us

This should be clear: it is the use of the temper against the brother, contrary to nature. Here it is a matter of the mental representation of rancour sown by the demon of anger.

and concerning the woman if with shameful desire it is nourished in us, and the mental representation of silver and gold if with avarice it lies in the courtyard, and the mental representations of the holy charisms if with vainglory they are tended in the intellect—

This would seem to agree with our interpretation that the pasture is the intellect.

and in regard to all the other mental representations, it happens in the same way when they have been stolen by the passions.

This is clear. Note, however, that all the examples of mental representations given are those of objects of sense, which supports our understanding that the mental representations being tended are those of objects of sense, whether perceived or remembered, and not the higher sorts of mental representations that Evagrius will come to discuss in OTT 40 and 41.

It is also important to note that Evagrius speaks in this chapter of the mental representations being ‘stolen’ by the demons. We think that this is a literary device. We have seen in TPL 39 that the passions are excited by the approach of a demon whose spiritual ‘bad odour’ arouses the passion for which the demon has its work or function (ergon). Moreover, both Evagrius when he is speaking more directly and St Hesychios, take the position that the approach of the demon and the excitation of the passion leads to the formation of the mental representation of the object of sense in the intellect: it is not so much a matter of the demon’s stealing an already existing mental representation as of the demon’s bringing about the inception of a mental representation which from the beginning is charged with passion. Indeed, this is the basis of the Evagrian method of discerning the type of thought from the object recollected, and the type of demon from the type of thought. Hence, we here take Evagrius merely to be using a literary device to maintain his initial metaphor.

Evagrius continues to analyse the daily program:

It is necessary not only to keep the mental representations by day, but also to guard them at night in keeping vigil.

We have already discussed in TPL 15 the nightly vigil as a part of the daily program of the hermit.

For it occurs that one loses one’s proper possession

In general, his spiritual condition; more specifically, his guard over the mental representations; and, most specifically, the actual mental representations, taken symbolically as sheep.

imagining shamefully and wickedly, and this is what is said by the holy Jacob:

When he was tending the sheep of his uncle, Laban, in Haran.

‘I did not bring to you sheep that had become the prey of wild beasts; I restored that which had been stolen by day and that which had been stolen by night and I became burned together with the heat of the day and the frost of the night, and sleep departed from my eyes.’ [Gen. 31, 39–40.]

This is indeed the ascetical program of the Hesychast, hermit or ascetic. The guard of the mental representations is a twenty-four hour a day affair, continuing even while the hermit ‘snatches some small part of sleep’.[16]

The next passage explains why in this chapter we have treated gnosis not as a continuous state—elsewhere Evagrius does treat gnosis as an habitual state—but as an exceptional condition: the continuous state is the guard of the mental representations as described above.

We can clarify this as follows. Gnosis, in Evagrius’ texts, is a state of the mind (nous), the attainment of which alters the mind (nous).[17] However, contemplation as an intense, exalted state of the mind—let us say, to make things clear, the contemplation of angels, first natural contemplation—does not seem to be envisaged as an habitual state. The habitual state is the guard of the flock, the stream of mental representations, in the pasture of the intellect. This is a very important to grasp before we commence the study of On Sobriety, for there the concepts are presented very densely. The task of the hermit, of the Hesychast, is to guard the flock of mental representations in his intellect, and to rebut the demon which arouses an impassioned mental representation. His task is not per se to engage in contemplation. However, Evagrius now introduces a very important proviso concerning contemplation:

If, then, something happens to us on account of the toil and the accidie, running back for a bit to the rock of gnosis, let us hold intercourse with the harp, striking with the virtues the harpstrings of gnosis. Let us then again graze the sheep

Evagrius is here introducing an extremely important concept, one which led us originally to posit that he considers natural contemplation to be something under the voluntary discretion of the ascetic, and not the same thing as prayer. What he is saying is this: The hermit is tending his flock of mental representations while he is going through his daily routine. (We have already remarked that it is far sounder for the hermit to have a regular routine than not.) He is rebutting the mental representations in his intellect that he recognizes to be impassioned on the basis of the analysis that Evagrius has given. This goes on day and night. So far, nothing is said about the Prayer of Jesus. The hermit gets tired—this is a tiring task, to monitor the mental representations flowing through your intellect day and night, rebutting the impassioned ones. When he gets tired—this is the sense of ‘on account of the toil and the accidie’—the ascetic voluntarily engages in natural contemplation: this is the sense of ‘running back for a bit to the rock of gnosis’. Evagrius plainly is referring to the rock from which the Israelites drank in the desert, the one that St Paul associates with Christ himself.[18] We have already seen that the harp is the mind (nous), the harpstrings of which are plucked by spiritual gnosis; here, in a minor variant, Evagrius says that the harpstrings of gnosis are plucked with the plectrum of the virtues. What he means is that the ascetic voluntarily enters into natural contemplation, at the level that he habitually is. When he has been rested and refreshed, then he returns to tend the sheep: to guard the stream of mental representations flowing through his intellect.

The importance of this indication by Evagrius can be seen as follows: St John of Sinai, in a passage of the Ladder,[19] comments that when the Hesychast becomes tired sitting and keeping watch over his mental representations, then he stands up and prays.

St Hesychios himself is more circumspect: he emphasizes the guard and suggests that one enter into contemplation, when the immaterial war has relaxed, with circumspection and with a plerophoria (inner spiritual assurance) that his entering into the contemplation would be pleasing to the Lord.

In the Fourteenth Century, St Gregory of Sinai will counsel the Hesychast praying the Jesus Prayer continually in the heart—this is a method related to what Evagrius is discussing—when his mind (nous) gets tired, to bring his mind (nous) out of his heart for a while to rest it, and to say the Church service, or, even better, to have his disciple say the service while he follows it with his mind (nous).

In all these cases what is in question is a practice which is continued twenty-four hours a day in the midst of a regular routine, a practice which tires the ascetic, and a method to rest the mind (nous) of the ascetic so that he might continue with the task. This is our sixth image of sobriety.

In any case, it is clear that entering into contemplation would be not advisable in the midst of open battle with the demons in the thoughts. Evagrius clearly is speaking to ascetics who in the immaterial war have largely conquered, although we would like to avoid saying schematically that OTT is addressed solely to gnostics who have attained to Evagrian dispassion (apatheia).

below Mount Sinai so that the God of Our Fathers also call to us out of the Bush [cf. Exod. 3, 1–6] and also grant to us the reasons (logoi) of the signs and wonders.

The concept being introduced in this passage is, in Orthodox language, the self-revelation of the Holy Trinity to the hermit, not when the hermit wants, as with natural contemplation, but when and if God wants. In Palamite language, this is the advent on the hermit of the Uncreated Light.

Here, we have sobriety taken as the guard of the mental representations in the intellect with recovery of the mental representations from the hands of the demons; as refuge in natural contemplation according to the discretion of the hermit and according to his need for spiritual refreshment; and as the self-revelation, when God wants, of the Holy Trinity. In our series of images in this chapter, this is the seventh image of sobriety.

We can consider this to be our first exposition of the concept of sobriety.

At what spiritual level is the hermit who is the subject of this chapter? He is by no means a beginner. There is some ambiguity in TPL as to the connections among dispassion (apatheia), gnosis and the continuing temptation of the ascetic until death by the demons which rule over the passions of the soul; this makes positioning this chapter along the three stages of the spiritual journey difficult. On the one hand, in TPL, Evagrius wants to say that dispassion (apatheia) precedes the ascetic’s entry into natural contemplation, the second, illuminative stage of the mystical ascent. On the other hand, he admits to temptation of the ascetic until death by the demons of the passions of the soul. The context of this chapter as immediately following OTT 16, which speaks of the temptation by the demon of fornication of those who have acquired ‘a bit of dispassion’, suggests that the ascetic has not yet acquired complete dispassion (apatheia) and so is in the practical life. However, the ease with which the ascetic is here assumed by Evagrius to be able to enter into natural contemplation when he chooses, strongly suggests that the ascetic is a gnostic, one who has attained to dispassion (apatheia) and entered into second natural contemplation. Are the stages given by Evagrius in TPL perhaps schematic? Is Evagrius perhaps here speaking more realistically of a certain simultaneity and overlap of the stages of spiritual development? As a philosopher attempting to render precise his meaning, Evagrius does have a tendency to write schematically—without, for all that either becoming a Scholastic logician or losing his remarkable astuteness as a student of the psychology of the spiritual life.

In this chapter, we have provided an Orthodox interpretation. However, for the sake of accuracy and completeness, let us now decode Evagrius’ allegory somewhat more strictly. The ‘mental representations of this Age’ present something of an ambiguity. For in Scholia on Ecclesiastes 15, Evagrius writes:

He says: “He also gave to them the Age,” [cf. Eccl. 3, 2] that is, the reasons (logoi) of the Age. For this is the Kingdom of the Heavens which the Lord said that we have within us [cf. Luke 17, 21],…’[20]

This implies that the ‘mental representations of this Age’ are the mental representations of natural contemplation, and that in OTT 17 the ascetic is going through his day in a state of natural contemplation. This would seem a forced interpretation of OTT 17. Moreover, Scholia on Proverbs 344 has a very negative interpretation of the shepherd and the sheep:

He calls the mind (nous) the shepherd, the sheep, then, the impassioned mental representations in it, nourishing which very things in himself, “He dishonours God by means of the transgression of the Law.” [Rom. 3,23.]’[21]

This seems inconsistent with the thrust of OTT 17. In the case of Scholia on Proverbs 344, it appears that Evagrius adapted the concept of the mind (nous) as the shepherd and the sheep as the mental representations, to the exigencies of the scriptural passage there being interpreted. This leads us to the conclusion that Evagrius was not so fixed in his allegorical symbolism that we are here obliged rigidly to follow the interpretations of his commentaries on Scripture.

We find from Gehin et al.’s references[22] as elaborated by R. E. Sinkewicz[23] that the grass and the water are symbols of the practical life and the gnostic life, that ‘the rod and staff are symbols for the chastisements that guide the sinner back to goodness’[24]—we would prefer to see the rod as a symbol of Christ’s judgement and the staff as a symbol of his providence[25]—and that the alpine fodder is ‘gnosis of the holy powers setting in order the more irrational condition of the souls’.[26] In the above symbols, the important difference with our own interpretation is that of the grass and water as symbols of the practical life and the gnostic life: Evagrius does tend to reduce the whole of spiritual life to these two dimensions. We have preferred a somewhat more open interpretation in treating them as the Church and the waters of Baptism. In the case of the alpine fodder, we have preferred what Evagrius writes in lines 3–4 of the passage of Proverbs cited, that ‘alpine fodder’ is ‘the gnosis of God’, and we have treated the remainder of that passage as an explanation that this gnosis of God is a gnosis proper to the holy powers and that it sets in order the more irrational condition of the souls, as Evagrius also remarks in TPL 66 and 32.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 16 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

The next chapter, OTT 18, marks a return to the subject of demons, but in a general, theoretical fashion, discussing the typology of demons. OTT 19 is a discussion of two more methods to combat a demon. OTT 20 discusses the reasons why it might be easy for the ascetic to rebut a demonic thought. OTT 21 is a somewhat amusing portrayal of the psychology of the thought of avarice. OTT 22 is a discussion of the consequences for the mind (nous) of the persistence of a demonic thought especially at the time of prayer. OTT 23 is a very sober—and sobering—discussion of the consequences of taking up the eremitic life when motives of anger, pride or sorrow are a serious element in the decision. OTT 24 marks a return to the psychological analysis of this chapter, OTT 17.

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[1] The Coptic Life of Evagrius indicates that he had a servant.

[2] Fr Luke Dysinger in his study of psalmody in the Evagrian system (Dysinger) makes much of the 100 prayers that Evagrius and others of the Desert Fathers who were his contemporaries said daily, asserting that the sources indicate that these were periods of psalmody followed by a brief prayer. Such a practice would have filled Evagrius’ day. We do not find the sources to be so clear on the nature of the 100 prayers. Moreover we think that the thrust of the Evagrian system is such, the content of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers is such and the witness of St John Cassian is such, that it is highly unlikely that the Desert Fathers would have spent their time, when they were advanced, in such extensive psalmody: they were oriented not to continuous psalmody but to silent contemplation, most likely in connection with the ‘monologistos’ repetition of a short passage from the Psalms, the forerunner of the Jesus Prayer.

[3] In the modern sense of ‘great spiritual experiences’, not in Evagrius’ own negative sense.

[4] See Section 13, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[5] See Skemmata 9 and 10.

[6] TPL 5; Gnostic 32.

[7] KG VI, 48.

[8] KG VI, 46.

[9] See Chapter V of Volume I.

[10] ‘Orthodox Service of Tonsure to the Great and Angelic Schema’: Euchologion p. 207 (Greek) or Robinson p. 103 (English).

[11] It is unclear in the sources whether that took place on both Saturday and Sunday or just on Sunday.

[12] In the Orthodox Church permission is very rarely given to a priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy alone, since the Divine Liturgy is not a private devotion but an act of the Body of the Church.

[13] See Sections 6 and 13, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[14] We will discuss this in more detail in the Digression on Evagrius’ theory of contemplation, before OTT 38, below. However, this interpretation agrees with the interpretation of St Isaac the Syrian in Homily 3 which we presented in Section 5, Chapter III, of Volume I.

[15] See OTT 18.

[16] St Makarios the Alexandrian, quoted by Evagrius in TPL 94.

[17] We have discussed this in Section 5, Chapter III, of Volume I, and we will encounter it again in the Digression, below.

[18] Cf. 1 Cor. 10, 4.

[19] Ladder G Step 27, 21; = Ladder E Step 27, 22–3. We quote this passage in Volume III in the commentary on On Sobriety 100.

[20] Ekklesiasten p. 82, ll. 18–20.

[21] Proverbs p. 434, ll. 1–3.

[22] OTT G p. 211.

[23] Sinkewicz p. 269, fn. 24.

[24] Sinkewicz, loc. cit.

[25] See Chapter III of Volume I.

[26] Proverbs p. 430, ll. 4–6; cf. TPL 66 and 32.


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