Dispassion and stillness (apatheia and hesychia)

I have been reading Evagrius, and about Evagrius, lately, either with the purpose of understanding his approach to Scripture (hence his inclusion in my post, Early Ascetics Talking About the Bible) or his demonology. Along the way I encountered Luke Dysinger’s Evagrius website, about which I recently blogged, and there I was able to read his text and translation of select scholia on Proverbs by Evagrius.

These scholia, like most of Evagrius’ works, are little nuggets to ponder over — in this case, to help you understand Scripture. Proverbs 1:33 reads, “He who hears me reposes in hope and lives in tranquility, fearless of any evil.” Evagrius writes:

Ὁ ἀπαθὴς ἡσυχάζει ἀφόβως ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ λογισμοῦ

The person who has dispassion (apatheia) lives in stillness (hesychia) with no fear from any evil thought. (My trans.)

The [one who possesses] apatheia [dispassion] lives in tranquillity without any fear of evil [tempting-thoughts] (Dysinger trans.)

This is a scholion you could read over and over and ponder anew in different ways. We see very clearly Evagrius’ concision with language — he has a single Greek noun to that I render with three English words, and a single verb that likewise takes three English words. It’s not just ‘Greek has such precision’ here — Evagrius uses great concision, as well. These two words, apathés which derives from apatheia and hésychiazo which derives from hésychia are the subject of this post. These two words are key to grasping Eastern Christian spirituality.

Apatheia

I have mentioned apatheia on this blog before, with reference to Clement of Alexandria — passionlessness, dispassion, freedom from the passions: these are normal ways of Englishing it. It became controversial around the turn of the fifth century, so John Cassian avoided it in his Conferences, using the phrase puritas cordi, purity of heart, instead. (I’ve also written about that.)

Apatheia doesn’t sound very fun to us these days. It sounds like being grim and maintaining a stiff upper lip — stoic in a bad sense. We like to laugh, to cry — all these emotions. However, I do not think this is what the ancient ascetics mean by it. Evagrius himself says:

“Whether all of these [thoughts] trouble the soul or do not trouble it does not depend on us. But whether they linger or do not linger or whether the passions move or are not moved, that depends on us” (Praktikos 6, trans. Jeremy Driscoll in the introduction to Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 13). 

The passions are those movements within our hearts, minds, souls, that affect us. We do not necessarily control them. A life lived at the mercy of the passions is not necessarily happy. To consider an extreme case, I have a friend with bipolar who, when he was undiagnosed, purchased a very expensive set of Civil War figurines online because he was sure they would be collectibles and multiply in value over the years. They have not. He wasted that money in a manic moment precisely because he was being ruled by his passions — his enthusiasm for these figurines and how cool they were.

That is the sort of life apatheia wants to set us free from.

My son, approaching three years old in a few months, currently asks endlessly, “Why?” Sometimes the answer is, “Because I/you/he/she/the bird felt like it.” In Evagrius’s world, the person possessing apatheia — the apathés — might “feel like” doing something, but whether or not he or she did it would be based upon discretion/discernment, wisdom, love, and knowledge.

A life thus lived is, as a result, calm, peaceful, tranquil — it possesses hesychia, peace, stillnness, quietude.

Hesychia

The result of attaining apatheia is to live in hesychia. I first met the term hesychia in John Michael Talbot’s book The Music of Creation. Talbot provided the image of a pool of water that is stirred up so that you cannot see the bottom. Hesychia is the peacefulness and stillness of the so that it becomes clear and limpid, so that you can see the bottom and pull out any garbage you might see.

In the English translation of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, the translators give the following definition in their glossary:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepend by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him. (p. 365)

Much of The Philokalia is about watchfulness, as with Evagrius. The watchful Christian attains heyschia, calmness and stillness. It is, perhaps, paradoxical,that pure prayer leads to hesychia, given that one of the Desert Fathers (I forget which), said that prayer is a struggle until your last breath. But this state of peacefulness is always under attack from the thoughts arising from within our own fallen minds as well as those provoked by the demons. 

Hesychia comes up at various points in Evagrius. In Ad Monachos he writes:

The double-tongued monk agitates the brethren,
but the faithful one brings stillness. -ch. 95

In the one singing psalms, irascibility is quiet (hésychiazei);
and the long-suffering one, fearless shall he be. -ch. 98 (trans. Jeremy Driscoll)

Not that seeking hesychia is easy:

As it is impossible to purify water once troubled unless it remain undisturbed, so too is it impossible to purify the state of a monk unless he practise stillness with all rigour and perseverance. -Exhortation 1 to Monks, ch. 7 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz)

This is the quest of Evagrian and Philokalic spirituality — hence why its later exponents, such as Gregory Palamas, were called hesychasts.

As you sit in your house today, maybe working from home, maybe taking care of children, maybe alone with your spouse, maybe truly alone, perhaps now is a good time to attempt to quiet those many thoughts that come through all of us. Take a few moments to cultivate hesychia, seeking apatheia and purity of heart, after all:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

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The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus

John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent (The Classics of Western Spirituality)John Climacus: The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book in Eastertide 2015. I’ve been meaning to write about it for about a year, now! Sorry about that. I felt today would be a good day since yesterday was his commemoration in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Anyway, The Ladder of Divine Ascent is one of the most popular works of spiritual writing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Its popularity in the Christian East is similar to St Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ — this latter being the most copied, printed, and translated book of western Christendom next to the Bible. It is read in every Eastern Orthodox monastery in Lent as well as by many of the laity.

St John ‘of the Ladder’ (translating klimakos) was the late sixth-century abbot of the monastery at Sinai, now known as St Catherine’s. In this book, he distills the wisdom he has acquired through his own long years as a monk, a solitary, and a spiritual guide.

It is hard when reviewing such a classic as this to find the right words (I used this same cop-out in my review of City of God, I know). I found much of value in it, but it was hard-going. It is not an easy book. Books by monks for monks rarely are. Nonetheless, there is much here even for the lay Anglican. That may not be the strongest recommendation. Nonetheless, I do recommend this book for the determined inquirer in the spiritual reality of the Triune God.

A friend on Facebook asked me if this was a good guide to the via negativa. The answer is that this book is not a work of mystical theology. It is mainly a guide to praktike, the external practices that one must couple to theoria (or contemplation) in order to ascent the ladder to God. A great number of the steps are about how to do battle against the passions, using a slightly different schema of their division from the more famous Evagrian one that made its way into the 7 deadly sins via St Gregory the Great.

This is not to say that theoria is completely ignored by any means. Theoria is the point of the ascent. This text lies historically near the beginning of the Jesus Prayer tradition, as we see in this quotation:

“Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.”

St John’s Ladder is about the heart of monastic spirituality. It is about the quest for apatheia — dispassion, that elusive state of being where the unclean logismoi of our flesh or of the demons, stirred up in our fallen hearts, break against our armour, as we storm the gates of Hell armed with prayer and the Holy Name of Jesus on our lips. In this, St John stands with Evagrian apatheia and St John Cassian’s purity of heart.

As the topics of discussion listed below show us, the ascetic practices of the Ladder are not restricted to those of prayer or those of daily life. They embrace the whole of our situation. This is in accord with Archimandrite Sophrony’s warnings in His Life Is Mine against engaging in spiritual practices without the rest of the virtuous life and the doctrine of the Church to uphold us. It resonates also with the introductory remarks to The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text, where the translators remind us of so many people who get caught up in the externals of Christian life, forgetting the better part of Mary of Bethany.

The 30 steps of the Ladder are:

1. On renunciation of the world
2. On detachment
3. On exile or pilgrimage
4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience
5. On painstaking and true repentance which constitute the life of the holy convicts; and about the prison (this is about a monastery he visited in Alexandria where monks guilty of certain offences were sent to a “prison”)
6. On remembrance of death
7. On mourning which causes joy
8. On freedom from anger and on meekness
9. On remembrance of wrongs
10. On slander or calumny
11. On talkativeness and silence
12. On lying
13. On despondency (akkedia
14. On the clamorous, yet wicked master—the stomach
15. On incorruptible purity and chastity to which the corruptible attain by toil and sweat
16. On love of money or avarice
17. On poverty (that hastens heavenwards)
18. On insensibility, that is, deadening of the soul and the death of the mind before the death of the body
19. On sleep, prayer, and psalm-singing in chapel
20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to attain spiritual vigil and how to practise it
21. On unmanly and puerile cowardice
22. On the many forms of vainglory
23. On mad pride, and, in the same Step, on unclean blasphemous thoughts
24. On meekness, simplicity, guilelessness which come not from nature but from habit, and about malice
25. On the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual feeling
26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues
27. On holy solitude of body and soul
28. On holy and blessed prayer, mother of virtues, and on the attitude of mind and body in prayer
29. Concerning heaven on earth, or godlike dispassion and perfection, and the resurrection of the soul before the general resurrection
30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues

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Dispassion: Jesus & Superman (also John Climacus)

Dispassion (Gk apatheia) is one of the harder aspects of traditional Christian spirituality to sell today. I know that I have a hard time with it, and when I first heard John Michael Talbot sing, ‘Prayer is the state of dispassion’, I was greatly concerned.

At first glance, this term, whether applied to humans striving for perfection or to the already perfect Jesus/God, seems to be promoting not feeling anything, living life with a lack of emotion. And, certainly, there are times when spiritual writers sound like that’s just what they want — no laughter, no tears, no swellings of emotional feeling of any type at any point.

This past Sunday morning, my friend Cory was preaching about Matthew 8:23-27, where Jesus calms the storm:

Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (NIV)

Having just finished John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent, whose second-last step is ‘Dispassion’, I couldn’t help but be struck that Jesus here is, in fact, an example of dispassion. The wind stirs, the waves rise, the rain batters from above. ‘But Jesus was sleeping.’

Jesus knows where true power lies. He can command the wind and waves to stop at any time. Therefore, he can sleep through a storm because he is not afraid of its power. One greater than the storm is here.

Jesus is chill. In it’s earliest meaning, this is what is meant to be ‘cool’ — that bad stuff doesn’t faze you, that you can handle it and be level. When great stuff comes, you don’t get too wound up, either, because you know that the great things in this temporal existence are fleeting, anyway.

A similar point was recently made about Superman, in this article by Joshua Rivera for Business Insider article a friend posted on Facebook, ‘Why Is It So Hard to Get Superman Right in Movies?‘ The quotation that sprang to mind as I mulled on Jesus in the boat this past Sunday is this one:

There’s a great anecdote that legendary comics writer Grant Morrison — the man responsible for one of the best Superman stories in recent memory, 2005’s “All-Star Superman” — tells about Superman in his memoir “Supergods.” In the memoir, he mentions the inspiration for his story — he was at a convention, and he saw a handsome man in a Superman costume just sitting down and relaxing on a stoop.

That was Morrison’s epiphany: The most powerful man alive wouldn’t be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw.

Now, Superman is fictional, and none of us is ever going to be as big as Jesus. Superman can fly, shoot lasers out of his eyes, use X-ray vision, lift really heavy stuff, and is impervious to bullets. Jesus is God in the flesh; in His time on earth, He walked on water, turned water into wine, rose people from the dead, healed the sick, cast out demons, calms storms with a word, and then rose from the dead Himself.

None of us is likely ever to do the sorts of things Superman does in Action Comics, although by the grace of God I think some may do the sorts of things Jesus does in the Gospels. Either way, we are not as likely to be as chill as either Jesus or Morrison’s Superman.

John Climacus’ descriptions of dispassion and how we attain it are not exactly encouraging — unless you want to spend your whole life seeking to purified of all sin and become immersed in virtues. He writes:

If complete enslavement to passion is indicated by the fact that one quickly submits to whatever the demons have sown in us, I take it then that a mark of holy dispassion is to be able to say unambiguously: “I did not recognize the evil one as he slipped away from me” (Ps. 100:4), nor did I know the time of his coming, the reasons for it, nor how he went. I am completely unaware of such matters because I am and will ever be wholly united with God. (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 29, trans. Luibheid & Russell, p. 284)

I’ve blogged about the passions before, so I won’t detain us long on them. But it is freedom from the disordered desires of human life that dispassion refers to. The dispassionate person is not a soulless shell with no emotion. Rather, freed (by the grace of God) from being battered all day by his or her passions, the dispassionate can see clearly, can know truly what truth and good are, what falsehood and evil are. And can live accordingly.

All of this, as the best of the spiritual guides remind us (Climacus, Cassian, Theophan the Recluse among others), is by God’s grace alone. But, typically, God brings us to such a place only through the experiences and activities of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘One cannot grow a beard in a fit of passion.’ I’ve a feeling that dispassion — or, as Cassian circumlocutes is, purity of heart — is the same way.

A story about Elder St Porphyrios

I decided to hold off sharing this story yesterday. It is another of my favourites from Elder Porphyrios (saint of the week here) in his memoirs, Wounded by Love. It is a reminder to meet people where they are when we encounter them and bring them softly to the light of the Gospel:

One Sunday afternoon I was passing the Archaeological Museum [in Athens] and since I had some free time I decided to go in. I walked through the rooms looking at the statues. In one of the rooms there was a group of people with a guide who was explaining things to them. There was complete silence. I went towards them. When the guide saw me, however, she whispered to them:

‘A priest’s just come in. I can’t stand priests, but this one doesn’t seem to be like the others.’

I came up closer and said:

‘Good afternoon.’

‘Good afternoon,’ replied the guide.

‘May I listen to what you are saying?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said.

We went from one statue to another. At one point we stood before a statue of Zeus. Zeus was on his throne and was in the act of hurling a thunderbolt at mankind. Once the guide had finished telling them what she knew, she turned to me and said:

‘What do you have to say about this, Pappouli? How do you see the statue?’

Not the Zeus you're looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Not the Zeus you’re looking for (my pic; National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

‘I don’t know about these things,’ I said. ‘But as I see it, I marvel at the work of the artist and also at the human form, such a perfect divine creation. And I see that the artist who made it had a great sense of the divine. Look at Zeus. Although he his hurling his thunderbolt at mankind, yet his face is serene. He is not angry. He’s impassionate.’

The guide, and indeed the whole group, was very pleased with my explanation. What does that tell us? It tells us that God is without passion, even when he punished. –Wounded by Love, p. 59

Now is not the time for a discussion on divine dispassion, but I like the way Elder Porphyrios used the art and the situation he was in to say something meaningful about the divine.

What is passionlessness (apatheia), Clement?

This Thursday, my students are reading some excerpts from Clement of Alexandria (saint of the week here) and Origen in Stevenson’s A New Eusebius as we discuss the rise of intellectual Christianity. These are very interesting documents that give us a bit of a view into the intellectual climate of third-century Christianity.

While the rise of Christian asceticism and mysticism are often popularly portrayed as having their roots solely in the so-called ‘Desert Tradition’ (ie. Antony and the Desert Fathers and Mothers), it is clear to me as I read Clement of Alexandria that his thoughtworld is the same, and he no doubts has precedents himself.*

The word that hit me in this regard as I was reading the assigned selections from his Stromateis was passionlessness — a rendering of apatheia, also sometimes rendered dispassion. Clement writes:

Such an one is no longer continent, but has reached a state of passionlessness, waiting to put on the divine image. (IV.22.138.1; Stevenson p. 185)

What is apatheia, though? It is a word with an unhappy future after Clement, getting caught up in the First Origenist Controversy of the late 300s and early 400s, and no doubt in the sixth-century Second Origenist Controversy. It figures large in the work of Evagrius Ponticus, the learned spiritual master of the Egyptian desert who has left a mark on Eastern Christian spirituality directly, on Western through our old friend John Cassian. Cassian renders apatheia into Latin as puritas cordis — purity of heart.

Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Mt 5:8), after all.

Here is one of Clement’s descriptions of his gnostic as he progresses:

He, then, who has first moderated his passions and trained himself for impassibility, and developed to the beneficence of gnostic perfection, is here equal to the angels. Luminous already, and like the sun shining in the exercise of beneficence, he speeds by righteous knowledge through the love of God to the sacred abode, like as the apostles. (VI.13.105.1; Stevenson p. 185)

Apatheia is the moderation of the passions, then. And what are the passions? The selections I see before me do not tell, but I’ve blogged about my own perspective thereon before. They are the unreasoning movements within and without that assail us and can lead us down different paths, at times bad ones. Evagrius and Cassian give us eight deadly thoughts, or logismoi, to watch out for as we go about our lives. Avoiding these thoughts and exerting our intellect in a good way will help us navigate the world of the passions.

… the perpetual exertion of the intellect is the essence of an intelligent being, which results from an uninterrupted process of admixture, and remains eternal contemplation, a living substance. (IV.22.135.4)

The goal of passionlessness is contemplation, is, as in Cassian, is the vision of Heaven:

At any rate, after he has reached the final ascent in the flesh, he still continues to advance, as it fit, and presses on through the holy Hebdomad into the Father’s house, to that which is indeed the Lord’s abode, being destined there to be, as it were, a light standing and abiding for ever, absolutely secure from all vicissitude. (VII.10.57.5; Stevenson p. 187)

I have not read the entirety of Clement’s Stromateis, but I do know the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) provide a good place to start for thinking on these things, as does Evagrius’ Praktikos and the Chapters on Prayer.

*If we believe Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, these are Platonic. Given Clement’s use of the terms gnosis and gnostic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is not appropriating Gnostic ideas for (proto-)orthodox ends.