Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Commentary on Diadochos 56 - 62

Update March 1, 2012: Please see this post.

That sight and taste and the remaining senses disperse the remembrance of the heart when we make use of them beyond measure—Eve first speaks to us of such a thing. For as long she did not look with pleasure on the tree of the commandment, she kept in careful remembrance the commandment of God. For which very reason she was as it were still covered by the wings of divine Eros[1] and, because of this, ignorant of her own nakedness. But because she looked at the tree with pleasure and touched it with great desire and, further, tasted the fruit of it with a certain active pleasure, she was immediately allured to bodily intertwining, since, naked, she had been joined to the passion. She then gave her whole desire over to the enjoyment of present things and through the sweet-appearing fruit mixed Adam with her own transgression, for which very reason thenceforward the human mind is only with difficulty able to keep God and his commandments in remembrance. Therefore let us who ever look into the depths of our heart with the ceaseless remembrance of God pass this deceitful life with eyes that are as it were blind.[2] For it really is the property of spiritual philosophy ever to keep unwinged the Eros for things seen.[3]
To understand this chapter, which is really aimed at the advanced Hesychast, the reader has to understand the problem that St Diadochos is addressing. Let us suppose that we are praying the Jesus Prayer continually, as the author has already indicated he foresees. Our mind, our consciousness, is, let us suppose, in our heart and focussed on the recitation of the words of the formula. Although, as the Saint has pointed out, we do not have images and visions of God, the angels and the saints to keep us company—for these are clearly deceptions of the Devil—we do have to some degree a consciousness of the presence of the Holy Spirit through the spiritual sense. Now the beginner might think that all is well. However, things are not so simple. We are going to get tired because this is an activity that we must exercise our will to continue. That is, we must make an effort to keep this practice up over the course of the day, over the course of the several hours each night that we practice the Jesus Prayer in this intensive way, all depending on our level of spiritual development and our actual program.
Now it can be understood what the author is driving at. Since keeping consciously focussed on the automatic repetition of the formula requires an act of will, it is quite possible that we will allow our mind, which is ceaselessly active, to move on to other things. Those things include the data of sense. So what we might do is give ourselves over to the pleasure of sense experience. Rather than keeping our mind in our heart focussed on the words of the formula, we might turn to looking at the trees in the forest outside our cave—or worse. The rest of the chapter should now make sense.
He who ever sojourns in his own heart is in every way abroad from the fine things of life. For walking in the Spirit he is unable to know the desires of the flesh. Since such a person henceforward takes his walks in the fortress of the virtues, having those very virtues as sorts of door-keepers of the city of his purity, then henceforward the war-machines of the demons become unable to accomplish anything even should the arrows of vulgar Eros to a certain extent reach right up to the windows of nature.[4]
This chapter continues the thought of the previous chapter. The ascetic, by focussing his mind in his heart on the recitation of the formula, is walking in the Spirit: this is the communion with the Holy Spirit by means of the spiritual sense that the author has discussed. Moreover, the author now introduces the concept of walking in the fortress of the virtues. Recall that contrary to the virtues are our passions, our emotional tendencies to sin, of which there are eight. The virtues, while we must make an act of the will to practise them, are infused into us by the Holy Spirit. Hence, these virtues, as energies of the Holy Spirit, protect the ascetic, acting as door-keepers of his purity. To understand the imagery, one must consider that the ascetic has his mind in his heart, so that he is consciously centred in his heart, and that the material world outside him can be understood by him to be the world outside the fortress or city of his purity. Moreover, the demons themselves, the author insists, are outside the person and therefore outside this city. He sees their demonic energies of temptation as arrows shot from outside the city—i.e. from outside the body—toward the centre of the city, the heart. It is the infused virtue of the Holy Spirit, which the ascetic senses with his spiritual sense, that preserves the ascetic from the arrows of the demons. This infused virtue acts as a watchman or door-keeper of the inner spiritual world of the ascetic. As we have already pointed out, this inner world is centred on the recitation of the Jesus Prayer in the heart of the ascetic, the citadel of the inner city of the ascetic’s being.
When our soul begins no longer to desire the fine things of the earth then a certain mind of accidie[5] usually enters into it, neither allowing it to minister willingly in the service of the word nor leaving to it the intense desire of future things; but even devaluing exceedingly this temporal life as not having a work worthy of virtue; and despising this very gnosis, either as having already been granted to many others or as promising to signify to us nothing perfect. We will escape from this tepid passion which makes us sluggish if we set up very narrow limits to our intellect, gazing only towards the remembrance of God. For only thus would the mind, running back to its own warmth, be able to depart from that irrational dispersion.[6]
The author now turns to another temptation of the Hesychast who is practising the Jesus Prayer at the level discussed in the commentary on the previous chapter. Here, he says, when the ascetic has begun to break away from his attachment to the material things of this earth, then he is subject to the accidie or sloth described in this chapter. The solution that the author presents is important for an intellectual understanding of Hesychasm: we must focus ever more restrictedly on the words of the formula as they are automatically repeated in our heart. Needless to say this is difficult in the face of a serious accidie. It takes a real man to do this.
When we have blocked all its exits with the memory of God, our mind at all events demands of us a work that must give assurance to its aptitude. It is therefore necessary to give it the ‘Lord Jesus’ in complete occupation towards the goal.[7] For he says: ‘No one says Lord Jesus except in the Holy Spirit.’ But let this saying always be considered narrowly in the treasure-rooms of the self so that one not be turned aside into certain fantasies. For those who meditate unceasingly in the depth of their heart on this holy and glorious name are able to see at some time the light of their own mind. For when this name is kept with narrow care by the intellect it burns up with sufficient [spiritual] perception all the filth that floats in the soul, for also: ‘Our God is a consuming fire.’ Whence, henceforward the Lord calls the soul to much love of his own glory. For when that glorious and much-longed-for name becomes chronic[8] through remembrance by the mind in the warmth of the heart, it at all events creates in us the habit of loving his goodness, henceforward there being nothing which impedes this. For this is the valuable pearl which, selling all his property, one can acquire so as to have unspeakable joy over his find.
The author here discusses the relation between the Jesus Prayer and what he has just been saying about the very intense and narrow focus of the Hesychast on the ‘memory of God’ in the heart. The most important point is that the mind must be doing something worthy of its nature. It cannot be idle. That something is the repetition of the words of the formula. But, the author says, when one refers to giving one’s mind the ‘Lord Jesus’ as an occupation, this is to be construed narrowly: there is the danger that we will engage in fantasies about the Lord Jesus, which will be destructive. No, he says, what we must do is narrowly focus on the repetition of the formula in our heart. It is this practise which will lead to an experience of the light of one’s own mind through the spiritual sense. Moreover, this narrow, focussed repetition of the formula in our heart will burn up all the garbage in our soul. Then the Lord will call us to much love of his glory: we will begin to love the Lord. Is this light of the mind and call to a love of the glory of the Lord a foreshadowing of the Uncreated Light of St Gregory Palamas? We think not. The light of one’s mind is found in Evagrius and it is clear that there it is not the same as the light of the Holy Trinity. Moreover, the present author, St Diadochos, develops later in this treatise the theme of the light of God which completes the illumination of the Hesychast.
It should be obvious that this is not for beginners, but for advanced monks and nuns. A beginner will get into big trouble through presumption proceeding along this road without a guide.
One thing is introductory joy and another thing perfecting joy. For the former is not free of fantasy while the second has the power of humility; between these is god-loving sorrow and painless tears. For: ‘In an abundance of wisdom is really an abundance of gnosis;’ and: ‘He who has added gnosis will add pain.’ On account of this, therefore, one must with the introductory joy first call the soul to the struggles, then the soul must be cross-examined and tested thenceforth by the light of the Holy Spirit concerning the evils that it has done or even concerning the vain imaginings that it still does. For he says: ‘In rebukes concerning lawlessness you have instructed a man and you have caused his soul to melt like a spider’s web;’ so that once the divine cross-examination has tried the soul, in the warm remembrance of God the soul receive the joy which is free of fantasy.
This is an interesting discussion of the stages of joy of the Hesychast. The beginner has an introductory joy. It is not free of fantasy. That means that it is not a pure spiritual joy but has elements of the flesh mixed into it. Despite that, it is something that must occur. It is this introductory joy that will motivate the soul to commence and continue the struggle of purification.
Then there is the cross-examination and testing by the light of the Holy Spirit ‘concerning the evils that [the soul] has done or even concerning the vain imaginings that it still does’. This is a little unclear to us. Is this a single intense experience, or a stage of spiritual growth that can last for some time, even for several years? We are not sure how the author intends what he is saying. However, it is true that there is an intense experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit that is after a fashion intensely ‘unpleasant’ in a holy sort of way because the person is made to realize just how impure he or she is. Indeed, the soul tends ‘to melt like a spider’s web’ in this experience. Of course, there is also the lengthy process of purification during which the ascetic experiences the presence of God as fire. In some respects, this is something like what St Seraphim of Sarov went through praying 1000 days for mercy on the rock in the wilderness during the day and on the rock in the hut during the night. He remarked later that such a practice was impossible without the direct help of God.
However the author wants us to take what he is saying, though, after this purification of the soul, which might include an intense experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit showing to the soul its impurity in a global way, the ascetic attains to a joy which is free of fantasy. This means both that it is a joy unmixed with images related to the passions, which images are sown by the demons, and that it is more generally unmixed with elements of the flesh. It is a pure Christian joy.
When the soul is agitated by anger or made turbid by drunkenness or troubled by severe despondency, then as much as one might press the mind, the mind is unable to become master of the remembrance of the Lord Jesus. For having become wholly darkened by the terribleness of the passions, the mind becomes completely estranged from its native [spiritual] sense; and for that very reason it does not have anywhere for its desire to imprint the seal so that it bear unforgettably the form of the meditation, the memory of the intellect having become hard from the rawness of the passions.[9] If, however, the mind should be beyond these things, then even if the desired one[10] be stolen for a little by forgetfulness, immediately the mind, making use of its natural aptitude, lays hold again of that highly desired and salvific prey. For in itself the soul has Grace itself meditating together with it and crying the ‘Lord Jesus’ together with it, just as a mother might teach her own infant the father’s name, and, again, meditate on that name together with the infant right up to the time that she guide her infant into the habit of calling on the father even in sleep, to the exclusion of any other infantile speech at all.[11] For this reason the Apostle says: ‘Similarly, then, the Spirit helps our weakness; for we do not know what to pray as it should be; but the Spirit intercedes for us with unutterable sighs.’ For since we are infants with regard to the perfection of the virtue of prayer, we have at all events need of the assistance of the Spirit so that, all our thoughts having been recollected and completely sweetened by the Spirit’s unspeakable sweetness, we be set into motion from our whole disposition towards the memory and love of God the Father. For when we are regulated by the Spirit unceasingly to call on God the Father, we cry in the Spirit, as again the divine Paul says: ‘Daddy, Father.’[12]
The author now discusses problems in the continuous repetition of the Jesus Prayer in the heart. In other words, having discussed why we pray the Jesus Prayer in the heart, and how we are to do it, and how we are to avoid being distracted from the prayer to the beauties of the physical creation, he turns to issues of how the practice can be disturbed. He lists three reasons why we might find it difficult to continue the practice: anger, drunkenness and sorrow. The underlying meaning of the chapter is quite clear although the language that the author uses is a little difficult to construe. He is saying that when we have any of the three conditions he has listed, then our consciousness—our inner world; the world that is at the centre of the spiritual city centred on our heart—is made hard by the rawness of the passions, so that we cannot focus our mind on the repetition of the formula. While it is hard to explain logically what the author means, the condition he is describing is very easy to understand for someone who has had their mind in their heart and who has found that he or she cannot continue with the prayer because of one of the three conditions the author has listed.
The author contrasts this unfortunate condition of an inability to pray the Jesus Prayer on account of one of these three passions, with the condition of the person praying the Prayer properly but who has been distracted. In that case, the person finds it relatively easy to return to the proper practice of the Jesus Prayer, just as the hunter finds it easy to capture the prey. Note that the description of the prey as ‘highly desired and salvific’ means that what we are really capturing is not a practice of yoga. We are capturing God himself. The prey is God.
The next part of the chapter is very important. It is well to recall here that this work was written in the middle of the 5th Century. The practice of the Jesus Prayer is very ancient.
The author commences to make some very important points. First of all, when the person is praying the Jesus Prayer properly, then he has the Grace of the Holy Spirit assisting him. This is important for a number of reasons. First, this emphasis on the Grace of the Holy Spirit declares the Jesus Prayer to be a Christian practice, not a universal form of yoga that the Orthodox monks happened to pick up in the 14th Century.
Next, this emphasis on the Grace of the Holy Spirit says that the reason that a text written in the middle of the 5th Century can be relevant to the practice of the Jesus Prayer in the 21st Century is that the Holy Spirit was helping in the 1st Century, in the 5th Century, in the 14th Century and today too. What the author is describing in this treatise is something that happens in the cooperation of the ascetic with the Holy Spirit. But that means that if you do not have the Holy Spirit, you are going to have a problem praying the Jesus Prayer properly. The author presupposes that you have the Holy Spirit—through Baptism, as he later discusses.
Next, the continuousness of the repetition of the Jesus Prayer is considered to be due to the assistance of the Holy Spirit. It is not something that happens naturally or because of something like auto-hypnosis.
This leads to an interesting question for our readers to consider. If all this is so, why is it that the Jesus Prayer is found only in the Orthodox Church? Why has the Jesus Prayer historically never been found in other Christian denominations? It is true that in recent times there has been an interest in the Jesus Prayer among Roman Catholics and Protestants. However, it is not part of their own tradition. Why might this be so?
Anger has the custom to agitate and confuse the soul more than the other passions; however, there are occasions when it is of the greatest benefit to the soul. For whenever we make use of anger without agitation against those who are acting impiously or in any way immorally we provide an addition of meekness to the soul. For in every way we thus concur with the goal of the righteousness and the goodness of God, and when we are heavily angered against sin we also often make manly the womanishness of the soul. It must also not be doubted that when we rebuke the demon of corruption even though we are in great despondency we are minded above the boast of death. So that he teach us this very thing, the Lord, twice rebuking Hades in the Spirit and agitating himself—although doing everything that he wanted without agitation, by an act of the will only—, thus restored the soul of Lazarus to the body, so that prudent anger[13], it seems to me, has been given to our nature rather as a weapon by God who created us. If Eve had made use of this very anger against the serpent she would not have been set into activity by that impassioned pleasure. It therefore seems to me that he who on account of a zeal for piety prudently[14] makes use of anger will in every respect be found in the scale of recompenses[15] to be more tried and tested than he who is never moved at all to anger on account of an inertia of mind. For the latter seems to have the rein of the human wits[16] unexercised whereas the former is ever brought for battle on the horses of virtue into the midst of the battle-line of the demons, fully exercising the four-horse chariot of temperance[17] in the fear of God. We find this very thing spoken of by Scripture in the ascension of the divine Elias as ‘the chariot of Israel’, for first to the Jews God seems to speak in various ways concerning the four virtues. For indeed this one who was nourished so much in virtue was wholly taken up on a chariot of fire, the prudent one[18] making use, it seems to me, of the virtues as horses, in the Spirit which ravished him in a breeze[19] of fire.
The author’s position in this chapter is not shared by all writers on Orthodox Christian asceticism. Generally the writers try to avoid anger completely, following Evagrius’ emphasis on the destructive effects of anger on the condition of the ascetic’s mind whatever the reason for the anger. The one exception in the Evagrian tradition is anger against the demons. Indeed, if one were to read ‘whenever we make use of anger without agitation against those who are acting impiously or in any way immorally’ as referring to anger against the demons and the temptations sown by them, and only against the demons and their temptations, then this chapter would be completely within the tradition of Orthodox asceticism. It is only when we construe the author to be referring also to men and women who are acting wickedly, in addition to the demons and their works, that we have a position that is not shared by all Orthodox writers. Let us first read the text as referring only to anger against the demons and their works.
First of all, let us note that the anger is to be without agitation. It’s a bit like the martial arts: the ascetic uses his mind and not his fist, but in the same way that the martial artist punches with a controlled force without losing his temper, the ascetic punches the demon with his mind without losing his temper and without getting agitated. The ascetic does this by using a natural force of his soul, the temper. He is able to make use of his temper as a weapon, guiding it and controlling it, just as the karate master guides and controls his punch.
Next, the author asserts that it is much better for the ascetic to make use of this anger against sin than not to. Here the author writes that it is more manly and less womanish to do this. Women ascetics should be doing this too; the author certainly believes that in the scale of things, men and women should all be manly rather than womanish. This is an important point about how the author—and other authors like him—understand the psychology of the Jesus Prayer. It is not a sentimental activity. It is an activity that requires certain dispositions of the soul that the author finds convenient to call manly and not womanish. We are sure that our readers will understand intuitively what the author is driving at. This attitude of manliness is very important: the Christian is not to be wishy-washy, and certainly in regard to temptation. He is to have a robust attitude to defeating sin and keeping the commandments.
The author next makes the observation that using this anger against the demon of sorrow that brings us to despondency will show us to be above the boast of death—above the temptation that makes us forget our Christian vocation and instead despair of what we are doing in the Hesychast cave. Note that he considers it quite possible that the Hesychast will be tempted in this way. No one should think that the Hesychast has it easy in his cave in the forest. It is hard work full of temptations.
The author next uses a rather forced reading of the Gospel episode of the raising of Lazarus to assert that Jesus rebuked his own spirit so as to show us how by rebuking ourselves we must become more manly and less womanish in the face of ‘the boast of death’.
The author then returns to the theme of a ‘prudent anger’ given to man as a weapon against sin. In this he is following Evagrius. He suggests that Eve should have used this anger against the temptation proffered by the Devil through the serpent to disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This is clearly offered as a model of how we should act in the face of temptation. Normally, however, the ascetic on the one hand avoids agitation and rage and on the other hand avoids damaging the humans who are the agents of temptation—normally we do not pull out a pistol and kill the fellow human being who is tempting us. This is what it means for the ascetic to use anger as a weapon in a prudent way. It is very important for the ascetic who would like to implement this doctrine of the prudent use of anger to have a guide who will teach him the proper way to use anger in a way that is not impassioned. Not only might the ascetic sin against his fellow human being if he uses an uncontrolled anger but he also might do serious spiritual and psychological damage to himself using this anger only against the demons but in the wrong way.
The author now returns to the argument that it is far more spiritually mature to use anger in this way than it is to exercise indifference to the temptations that come. Of course, there is the issue of the spiritual maturity of the ascetic, since the beginner will never be in a position to apply this doctrine of the use of anger against temptations. But the author wants to insist that it is far more manly and spiritually mature to fight sin in this way. He then proceeds to use a rather laboured metaphor of the warrior on the chariot to illustrate his point. The main point to understand is that temperance is considered here to be a general virtue that integrates the four basic virtues into a psychological and spiritual wholeness. (Justice plays this role in Evagrius, who is following, he says, St Gregory the Theologian.) St Diadochos is arguing that one aspect of achieving this emotional integration is to fight against sin using anger in the dispassionate manner that he is suggesting. This is not quite the model of psychological integration that psychologists have, especially in the United States. Those of our readers who are involved in psychology might wish to consider this difference and its implications for their model of psychological health and integration.
It does not seem necessary to us to explain the allusion to Elias’ ascension to Heaven. It seems clear enough on the basis of the foregoing.
So what are we to make of the possibility that the author also considers that we might use anger against humans who are sinning? We are reserved about this use but we leave the reader to think about it. The greatest danger is going against the Gospel and spending more time taking the mote out of our brother’s eye than the beam out of our eye, not to mention falling into the serious sin of judging others: we might spend more time thinking we know what’s good for our neighbour than in cultivating humble repentance. And that is the topic of the next chapter.

[1] I.e. Eve’s ardent love for God hid her nakedness from her own eyes.
[2] I.e. to material beauty.
[3] This chapter is easier to understand if one considers that it is speaking to someone accustomed to practising the Jesus Prayer in the depths of his heart. The tension that it describes is between continuing to recite the prayer in the depths of the heart versus the temptation to look out at the things of physical beauty around one. This is continued in the next chapter.
[4] The basis of this chapter is the ascetic who maintains his mind within his heart. Doing so, he has the virtues as the custodians of the citadel of his chastity—that is, of his inner world where he has his mind. In such a case the arrows of the demons can do him no harm, even if they should to a certain extent reach right up to the windows of nature—that is, even should the demons, which, as the author will develop, are outside the city trying to get in (i.e. outside the person tempting him), arrive at exciting the ascetic’s very flesh.
[5] I.e. sloth.
[6] This is an instruction for an advanced Hesychast.
[7] This very important passage establishes that because it is the nature of the mind to be occupied with something, then when we have withdrawn our mind within ourselves in the remembrance of God, we must nonetheless give the mind something to do. This something is precisely the Jesus Prayer—and only the Jesus Prayer: we must not allow the mind to wander to other thoughts and fantasies. These are instructions mainly for advanced Hesychasts.
[8] Not in a negative sense but in the sense of something that continues over a long time.
[9] What the author means is that because of the harshness of the passions that he lists, the mind in such a condition is unable, even if it wants, to imprint the words of the Jesus Prayer its consciousness so that the words become a conscious mental habit imprinted on the ascetic’s consciousness to which the ascetic attends.
[10] I.e. Jesus Christ.
[11] This is a very important, if succinct, description of how through the action of Grace the mind is led to the automatic repetition of the formula of the Jesus Prayer even in sleep.
[12] Greek: Abba o pater. Of course, Abba is the Aramaic familiar term for one’s own father that Jesus himself is recorded in the Gospel as having used for his Heavenly Father.
[13] ‘Prudent anger’: Greek: sophrona thumo. It is hard to convey the nuance of this phrase in context. The author wishes to refer to an anger that is of sound mind, in its senses, prudent, chaste; not an anger that is extreme, uncontrolled or impassioned. There are many repetitions of sophron in its various cognate forms in this chapter.
[14] ‘In a prudent way’. Greek: sophronos.
[15] I.e. at the Last Judgement.
[16] ‘Wits’: Greek: phrenes. This word is a cognate of sophron, which is derived etymologically from ‘having the wits whole or sound’.
[17] Recall that the author has already established that ‘temperance’ is the common name of all the four virtues. Hence, he is now drawing an extended metaphor between the four virtues and the four-horse chariot on which the Prophet Elias ascended.
[18] ‘The prudent one’. Greek: o sophron.
[19] Greek: aura. This is the word used in the Septuagint not for Elias’ ascension but for the theophany on Horeb: God appeared to him there not in the earthquake or storm but in the fine breeze (lepte aura). Whether this is to be taken as an inadvertence on the part of the author or as a subtle allusion would depend on each reader’s judgement.

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