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OTT (Commentary) -- 8

22 All the unclean thoughts which persist in us on account of the passions lead the mind down to ‘ruin and destruction’ [1 Tim. 6, 9]. For just as the mental representation of bread persists in him who is hungry because of the hunger and the mental representation of water in him who is thirsty because of the thirst, thus the mental representations of money and possessions persist because of avarice, and the mental representations of foods and of the shameful thoughts which are begotten from those foods persist because of the passions. But also in regard to the thoughts of vainglory and in regard to the other mental representations this similarly will become manifest. It is not possible for a mind strangled by such thoughts to appear before God and to be crowned with the ‘crown of justice’ [2 Tim. 4, 8]. For also in the Gospels that thrice-wretched mind, dragged down by these very thoughts, excused itself from the meal of the gnosis of God [cf. Matt. 22, 2–7]. And, again, he who is bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness had his garment completely woven out of these very thoughts, which very thing he who called declared not to be worthy of such a wedding, since the wedding garment is the dispassion of the rational soul which has denied worldly desires [cf. Matt. 22, 11–13]. What, then, the cause is of the fact that the mental representations of sensible objects, when they persist, destroy gnosis utterly will be said in the chapters on prayer.

Since Fr Hausherr wrote Leçons d’un contemplatif[1] it has been generally accepted that this sentence refers explicitly to the 153 Chapters on Prayer,[2] which, according to Fr Hausherr, is a work by Evagrius although previously ascribed to the hand of St Neilos the Ascetic. We have read Fr Hausherr’s arguments and we have reservations. As we remarked in our commentary on TPL 15, when Fr Hausherr wrote his commentary on the 153 Chapters, the complete text of OTT had not yet been established. We think that, just as in OTT 24 Evagrius will refer back to OTT 17, it may very well be that Fr Hausherr did not know that Evagrius was in this chapter, OTT 22, referring ahead to OTT 39–42, not to the 153 Chapters. In our estimation, those chapters of OTT give a better answer to the question that Evagrius here poses than anything in the 153 Chapters. Moreover, Fr Hausherr, in arguing that the reference to the ‘chapters on prayer’ was to the 153 Chapters,[3] uses the completed tense of the verb ‘say’ of his text (‘is said in the chapters on prayer’) to buttress his point, since, in Fr Hausherr’s view, this indicates that the work being referred to, namely the 153 Chapters, had already been written by the author of OTT. But as we learn in OTT G:

Almost all the manuscripts have a future [for this instance of the verb ‘say’]. The reading elechthe [was said], which is that of the Philokalia, is not attested except in a secondary ‘Neilian corpus’… The reading eiretai [is said] which the Patrologia [Migne] has, is a correction by Suarès, from whom Migne took his edition.[4]

Fr Hausherr took his text from Migne.[5]

While Evagrius evidently invented the literary form of the chapter, in his hands, it is not just a hodge-podge of thoughts but a very well thought out and architecturally crafted and coherent essay. This is true even of the Kephalaia Gnostica. OTT, despite the possible problem of the real identity of OTT 17 as OTT 2, is a superb example of very careful planning and execution. In OTT, the chapters, like stones, are built into an intellectually sturdy and satisfying building.

Moreover, Evagrius’ analysis in the later chapters of OTT, especially OTT 41, of the question posed in the last sentence of the above chapter, is a superb piece of analysis in philosophical psychology. Evagrius’ thought is very tight in OTT; the work shows every indication of being carefully planned and executed.

When we had finished translating OTT, we turned to the 153 Chapters, thinking that it would be necessary to translate that work and to place its commentary between that of OTT and St Hesychios’ On Sobriety. We had already read the 153 Chapters, but we were astonished, when we turned to it in the Greek version of the Philokalia, by its being perceptibly intellectually inferior to OTT. So we excluded the 153 Chapters from this study, and we doubt whether in its present form it is a work by Evagrius. That it is Evagrian in content we do not doubt. However, it seems to lack that exquisite architectural craftsmanship that we associate with Evagrius’ highly focused and clear thought. Moreover, even the style and diction seem to lack the finesse of Evagrius. Fr Hausherr himself seems to recognize the work’s deficiencies, remarking:

It therefore seems certain that this treatise is substantially of Evagrius Pontikos.… I say ‘substantially’ because it would be difficult to demonstrate that nothing has been changed in it since the Fourth Century.[6]

The third argument that Fr Hausherr uses for the Evagrian authorship of the 153 Chapters is his own commentary.[7] We have reservations about that commentary. As we pointed out in discussing OTT 2, Fr Hausherr’s commentary presents a version of Evagrius’ system that has deficiencies: First, it has a very weak treatment of the stages of natural contemplation, especially with regard to their role in the purification of the mind (nous) of the ascetic for Theology, the contemplation of God; and with regard to the relation between natural contemplation and dispassion (apatheia). Second, it has a much greater emphasis on feeling than we see in the version intégrale (S2) of the Kephalaia Gnostica, that emphasis being buttressed by Fr Hausherr’s somewhat arbitrary interpretations of such terms as ‘aisthesis’ as ‘sentiment’, and ‘pothos’ or ‘eros’ as ‘agape’. Third, since Fr Hausherr depends as he does on the version commune (S1) of the Kephalaia Gnostica, his commentary is based on a faulty version of the Evagrian system. While it would be out of place to dwell on this matter here, an example will make this clear.

Chapter 51 of the 153 Chapters on Prayer[8] refers to the ‘ousiosanta logon (word which gives substance)’, which Fr Hausherr with reason takes to refer to the Word of God, the Christ,[9] also construing the text to mean that the Word of God appears often to the ascetic in contemplation.[10] Fr Hausherr is evidently warranted in this interpretation by the Christology of the version commune (S1). But this interpretation flies in the face of the Christology of the version intégrale (S2) and of its doctrine of contemplation. For in the version intégrale (S2), the Word of God is not the Christ but the gnosis of the Unity to which the mind (nous) that is the Christ is united; and it is the Christ who by means of the second natural contemplation gives substance to the bodies and the worlds, not the Word of God.[11] Moreover, in the system of the version intégrale (S2), having become an heir of the Christ in natural contemplation, the ascetic becomes a coheir of the Christ in Theology, contemplating with him as an equal, in an anticipation of the Restoration, the Unity or Father.[12] There is no sense in the version intégrale (S2) that the ascetic would encounter the Word of God at all in contemplation as a person of the Trinity, much less that he would encounter it frequently. For in Evagrius, the Word of God is the gnosis of the Unity. The ascetic encounters the Unity, the Father, in Theology by participating in the gnosis of the Unity. The fact that Chapter 51 of the 153 Chapters seems to provide a more orthodox Christology and doctrine of the vision of Christ than is warranted by the version intégrale (S2) of the Kephalaia Gnostica creates a doubt in our own mind about the Evagrian authorship of at least that chapter of the 153 Chapters on Prayer. But since Fr Hausherr relies on the version commune (S1) of the Kephalaia Gnostica, he can argue that that chapter, and indeed the whole 153 Chapters, is quite Evagrian. Many of the chapters of the 153 Chapters do contain quite Evagrian material (ignoring here our comments above concerning the work’s architecture, style and diction, deficient from an Evagrian point of view). However, the existence in Chapter 51 of such a phrase as ‘ousiosanta logon’ and of such a Christology renders the Evagrian authorship of the 153 Chapters on Prayer moot. It is most likely a work by one of Evagrius’ admirers.[13]

That is why we are sceptical of Fr Hausherr’s attribution to Evagrius of the work, 153 Chapters on Prayer. Certainly, nothing we have said refutes Fr Hausherr’s first argument, that from the attribution of the work to Evagrius in the Syriac manuscript tradition.[14]

Let the reader judge.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 22 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

Let us now continue with Evagrius’ discussion of the results of taking up the eremitic life when motivated by anger, pride or sorrow. In this, the following, chapter, Evagrius demonstrates true nobility of soul, genuine compassion for his fellow man. The last lines of the following chapter attain to true eloquence, not an eloquence arising from conventional rhetoric but an eloquence arising from pity.

23 Let no one of those who live the life of solitude take up the life of solitude with anger, pride or sorrow; neither let him flee the brothers when he is troubled by thoughts such as these.

We gloss the first clause to mean, when anger, pride or sorrow are serious elements in the decision to become a hermit. The second clause clearly means that, having such thoughts in any serious degree, the hermit—or even the cœnobite or even the semi-eremitic skete dweller—should not avoid the brothers, but should rather impose on himself the task of maintaining social intercourse with them. This is very sound and wise psychology.

For ecstasies

This word, ecstasy, which is the same in English as in the Greek, has a completely negative meaning in Evagrius. It means ‘a standing out’, that is, a being out of one’s mind.

occur from passions such as these,

Anger, pride and sorrow.

the heart from mental representation to mental representation, and from this one to another, and from that to another, bit by bit falling into a pit of lethe.

The mind (nous) of persons seriously affected by these passions—if we were to wait until we were completely free of them no one would become a hermit—has an utter instability. The person cannot focus; he cannot concentrate. Full of mental representations, the mind passes—aimlessly, one would like to say—from one mental representation to the next, and from that to another. Note that although Evagrius does not say it, it is not merely a matter of instability—an interior phenomenon of the ascetic who is troubled—but also a matter of continuous demonic assault. The ascetic finds himself in a war—the immaterial war—that is beyond his ability to win.

We have been unable to find an adequate translation here of the Greek work, lethe. Literally it means ‘forgetfulness’, and we have used it in that sense previously in the translations. Evagrius’ text will make it clear that, here, lethe is akin to a stone-like lethargy, which English word is from the same Greek root. Lethe is here a collapse of the mental ability of the ascetic to be a functioning human person, a collapse which is unaccompanied by mania or dementia, where we take mania to be frenzy, and dementia to be a loss of normal functioning of the person due to organic damage to the brain. We have therefore left lethe untranslated here.

We have known many of the brothers to fall into this very shipwreck, whom the remaining brothers with tears and prayer brought back again to a human life. Certain ones, having caught an irreversible lethe, no longer had the strength to find their first condition and, until today, we humble men see the shipwrecks of our brothers.

Gehin et al.’s notes on this chapter include historical details.

This very passion

This lethe, sometimes irreversible, but also the whole episode which Evagrius is about to describe.

occurs for the most part from the thoughts of pride.

Interestingly, Evagrius qualifies his description. Pride is not always the only cause.

When someone takes up the life of solitude having a condition of this sort,

We think Evagrius means ‘having thoughts of pride’, and also thoughts of anger or sorrow, which thoughts confer on the monk the great instability of intellect leading to the catastrophe about to be described, whose final outcome is lethe. If a man were already subject to lethe, he would be unable to function enough to move to the desert.

he first sees the air in the cell to be fiery, and certain lightning bolts to be shining out by night around the walls; then voices of persons giving chase and being chased; and chariots with horses figured in the air; and all the house filled with Ethiopians

Demons. This is a standard ascetical metaphor for the demon.

and tumult.

The Lord spare us.

And from the exceeding cowardice, further, he falls into ecstasy and becomes exalted

The mind (nous) of the ascetic is raised up by the Devil, whose demonic energy is necessarily destructive. ‘Exalted’ here is quite negative.

and from fear he forgets his human condition.

This forgetting of one’s human condition is the loss of one’s personhood.

It is clear that Evagrius is as it were speaking on the basis of clinical observation and on the basis of discussion with those who were brought back to a human condition.

This exaltation seems to be a spiritual encounter with the Devil, so that the ascetic sees the Devil with the eye of his soul.[15] All the accounts we have ever seen indicate that such an experience is both extremely destructive of the mental faculties and extremely frightening.

For this reason, it is a necessity to take up the life of solitude with much humility and meekness, and with spiritual words to console the soul of this one

The one who has suffered the above catastrophe, so as to bring him back to a human state, to a recovery of his personhood.

and to speak the words of the holy David to it: ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all those things he has given in turn, he who has forgiven all your transgressions, who has healed all your illnesses, who redeems your life from corruption, who crowns you with mercy and compassion.’ [Ps. 102, 2–4.] These things and the such-like speak to the soul just as a mother searching more sorely for her own child in a festal assembly lest one of the criminals

One of the demons.

snatch it up and depart; and certainly, through intense prayer, ever call the soul

Of him who has suffered the lethe.

towards the Lord.

The festal assembly is this life. The mother is our own soul. Her own child is our very own self. This admonition directed in the first instance to the recovery back to a human life of him who has suffered spiritual catastrophe can also be taken as an admonition to each and every one of us who wishes to be saved to attend to his salvation just as a mother would watch over her own child in the festal assembly lest one of the criminals snatch it up.

Truly, sobering advice from a compassionate man, whatever his other problems.

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

The next two chapters are a return to the psychological analysis of the formation and dissolution of mental representations, and now of thoughts, in the intellect. They are very important chapters.

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[1] Hausherr.

[2] Philokalia D, E, F, and G Volume I.

[3] Ibid. p. 5.

[4] OTT G Chapter 22, fn. 5, p. 232; our translation.

[5] In fairness, it should be pointed out that Gehin et al. accept Fr Hausherr’s ascription.

[6] Ibid. p. 6.

[7] Ibid. p. 6.

[8] In the Philokalia, Chapter 52.

[9] See also Hausherr’s commentary on Chapter 50, ibid. pp. 72–5.

[10] Ibid. pp. 75–6.

[11] See Sections 3 and 4, Chapter III, of Volume I. Cf. Anathema 6 of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod (Section 11, Chapter III, of Volume I).

[12] See Section 3, Chapter III, of Volume I, also the Digression, below.

[13] We ignore here, as being irrelevant to our purpose, the issue whether that might be St Neilos the Ascetic.

[14] Ibid. p. 6.

[15] See OTT 42, below.


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