Monday, 18 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 16C — Passion and Dispassion in the Ladder 3

Let us consider this chapter from ‘On the Thoughts (Peri Logismon)’ of Evagrius Ponticus:

40 The mind would not be able to see the place of God in itself not having become higher than all [mental representations] which are in [sensible] objects. It will not become higher, however, if it does not unclothe itself of the passions, which are what, by means of the mental representations, bind it together with the sensible objects. And the passions it will lay aside by means of the virtues; the mere thoughts, then, by means of spiritual contemplation; and this [i.e. spiritual contemplation], again, when, during the time of prayer, that light shines upon the mind that works in relief the place which is of God.[*]

This is a rather difficult passage. First, what is the mind? This is the spirit of man, the part of his soul with the capacity to see and to know spiritual things, including God. What the passage is saying is that for us ‘to see the place of God’—to come to mystical knowledge of God—we must surpass all ‘mental representations’ of sensible objects. An example of a mental representation is the visual image we have of a cup in front of us on the table; another example is the visual image we have of the cup when we remember it; a third example is the visual image of the same cup that we have in a dream. We might call the mental representation the mental icon of a sensible object that we have in our mind.

The passage goes on to say that in order to surpass these mental icons of sensible objects, the mind must divest itself of the passions. The reason that Evagrius gives is that the passions are what tie the mind down to the sensible world. The passions do this through mental icons of sensible objects. In other words, in order for your mind to know God, it has to surpass all mental icons of sensible objects, including your wife, your dog and your cat. But your passions are what tie you to the sensible world because your passions are what attract you to the sensible objects whose mental icons you have in your mind.

Evagrius goes on to say that the passions are laid aside by means of the virtues. He calls this stage of the spiritual journey praktiki, the practical life. In the West, the term is the purgative stage of the mystical journey.

‘Mere thoughts’ are a special kind of ‘thought’ in Evagrius: they are mental icons of sensible objects which are unencumbered by passionate attachment. That is, having gone through the purgative stage, we no longer have passions but if we open our eyes, we will see the cup in front of us on the table. We will also remember the cup. These are ‘mere thoughts’ of the cup.

Evagrius says that these ‘mere thoughts’ are put aside by means of ‘spiritual contemplation’.

Since we have been discussing centring prayer and its variants, it behoves us to clarify if perhaps centring prayer is such a spiritual contemplation. No. Evagrius quite clearly has something else in mind. This is a very important issue for our Episcopalian reader to grasp in comparing his method of centring prayer to the Jesus Prayer, which is an integral part of the Evagrian method as adopted by St John of Sinai in the Ladder.

What Evagrius means by ‘spiritual contemplation’ is what is called in the West the illuminative stage of the mystical journey.

The next thing that Evagrius says is that during the time of prayer, the light of God shines on the mind and works ‘in relief the place which is of God’. The reason for this circumlocution is that no one has ever seen God (John 1, 18). What Evagrius could just as easily say is that we see the ‘hindparts’ of God, after Exodus. What Evagrius means is the third stage of the mystical journey, called in the West the unitive stage.

The Evagrian system of the three stages of the mystical life was introduced into the West by St John Cassian. It took hold and became forever standard. It is what is at the basis of St John of the Cross’ notions of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul.

In the system of St John of the Cross, the dark night of the senses is the purgation from the senses that precedes, if we remember correctly, the entry from the purgative stage into the illuminative stage. The dark night of the soul is the purgation that precedes entry from the illuminative stage into the unitive stage. The two nights are considered very difficult, especially that of the soul.

Our Episcopalian reader writes: As a movement [the contemporary contemplative prayer movement in the West] is international and has introduced countless priests, monks, and lay persons to a daily discipline of silent and attentive prayer which leads beyond thought and conception to a greater sense of God’s presence in the midst of everyday life.’

The expression ‘beyond thought and conception’ is Evagrian, as can easily be inferred from the quotation we have given. ‘Conception’ is a standard variant translation for the Greek word that Fr Theophanes has rendered ‘mental representation’. We wonder if the expression is not an allusion to the 153 Chapters on Prayer or to another Evagrian work. Perhaps our Episcopalian reader could write to us to clarify. However, what should be clear is that in Evagrius, the possibility of moving ‘beyond thought and conception’ to a spiritual knowledge of ‘the place of God’ is strictly dependent on passing through the purgative and illuminative stages of the mystical journey. In the language of St John of the Cross, we would have to pass through the dark night of the senses and then the dark night of the soul.

Something is wrong. We don’t pass through the dark night of the senses doing 20 minutes of Christian mantra meditation twice a day. Ditto the dark night of the soul. Our Episcopalian reader is not a fool. He does not believe that. But it behoves him to understand that if this is so, then what he is experiencing with his method of Christian mantra meditation is not being mapped properly onto the authentic Christian tradition of mysticism, either East or West.

The key to understanding the problem is to understand the passions. For the structure of the Ladder is essentially a set of steps in the purification from the passions through acquisition of the virtues. There is also material in the Ladder on entering into the unitive stage. St John of Sinai’s term for the unitive stage is dispassion. Things should now be coming into focus. We will continue in the next post.

[*] The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart, Fr Theophanes (Constantine), Vol. II, The Evagrian Ascetical System, p. 178. 2006. Mt Athos, Greece: Timios Prodromos.

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