Friday, 22 June 2007

Orthodox Monasticism 22 — Evagrius on the Logismos

Let’s get back to something serious. We have dawdled on writing more in this series on the history of monasticism for fear that our readers would find the series too heavy. But let us continue.

One of the most basic concepts in Evagrius, and in the Philokalia, is the logismos (plural: logismoi). You hear Greek monks, especially on Mt Athos, talking all the time about logismoi. This Greek word usually is translated ‘thought’, and that is a good translation, but the concept involved is really that of the ‘tempting thought’.

The ‘tempting thought’ or logismos happens to a person in the first, purgative, stage of the mystical journey that we described in previous posts. At this stage, the person still has passions. These passions are, we said, the person’s emotional tendencies to sin based on a pleasure of the senses.

What happens in Evagrius’ explanation of things is that a demon (a fallen mind) approaches the person—monk or layman—and excites one of his passions (not necessarily the passion of fornication, one of the eight that we have discussed). The result is that the person suddenly discovers an image in his mind related to the passion that the demon has excited.

This image is of a sensible object. It is connected to the passion that the demon has excited. Evagrius tells us that from the object we can tell the passion that has been aroused. If we have an image of money, that is not the passion of gluttony; it is the passion of avarice, and so on.

The person then entertains the image and begins to converse with it—in reality with the demon—until such a time as the demon persuades him that what he should do is put the image into practice: commit the sin suggested by the image. And this for any one of the eight passions.

If we have been completely purified, the demon does not find any passions to excite and we do not have such images of sensible objects and we can ascend to God in pure prayer. This is part of Evagrius’ teaching on the nature of prayer: the images of sensible objects that we have in our mind block our ascent to God. The only way we can get rid of these images is to get rid of our logismoi.

How is this done? This is what the purificatory stage is all about: purification from our passions so that we no longer have logismoi. To put it in a nutshell, to ascend to God we have to purify our emotional tendencies to sin so as to transform them into tendencies to virtue, with the grace of the Holy Spirit.

As we have pointed out, Evagrius has two main techniques for purifying the person of his emotional tendencies to sin based on a pleasure of the senses.

The first technique is temperance. This is moderation in food and drink. Evagrius teaches us that only in this way can we restrain our tendency to sexual pleasure. Conversely by eating much food and drinking much water, we stimulate our tendency to sexual pleasure.

The second technique is meekness. Sometimes this is given as Christian love or humility. That is, we must make an effort to be humble, meek or loving. If we consider our last post, On Ad Hominem Attacks, what we should have been doing is responding meekly to Miss McMillan’s provocation.

Why? Because the exercise of meekness, humility and love purifies the passions of the soul. These are the other six passions that we discussed in other posts—anger, avarice, sorrow, sloth, vainglory and pride. Conversely, indulging these passions, especially anger, increases them.

Evagrius remarks that a hermit who is full of anger is like a boat on the high seas with a demon for pilot: in his view, the main characteristic of the demons is their anger. This should give us food for reflection. Conversely, a person who has purified himself through temperance and humility has all of his emotions directed to virtue and is full of Christian love. He can then enter into the next stage of the mystical journey, the illuminative stage.

The Jesus Prayer is integrated into this model of the logismos. That is what Hesychasm is all about: it is an advanced way of proceeding on this journey towards complete purification of the emotions using the Jesus Prayer, so that the person no longer has logismoi.

Of course, we beginners must set a lower standard for our ascetical endeavours, including those of us who are married.

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