Evagrius’ mystical communion

In light of my post on Sunday about virtual communion, the following proverbs from the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus are worth some attention:

118. Flesh of Christ: virtues of praktiké;
he who eats it, passionless shall he be.

119. Blood of Christ: contemplation of created things;
he who drinks it, by it becomes wise.

120. Breast of the Lord: knowledge of God;
he who rests against it, a theologian (theologos) shall he be.

-Trans. Jeremy Driscoll, Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 62

Here, Evagrius has completely allegorised and spiritualised Holy Communion, it would seem. The Eucharistic imagery is used to direct the reader/listener to the three stages of Evagrian ascent to God — praktikephysike, and theologike. The first is ascetic labour — battling the eight wicked thoughts, pursuing the virtues, engaging in the lifestyle of the hesychast. The second is the first level of theoretike, of contemplation, where we contemplate created things. The created order, at this stage, is not viewed for its own sake, but rather for the sake of what it can show us of God. It is, essentially, a sacramental worldview, one similar to Coleridge’s idea of symbols being gateways to God, passages to the numinous (not sure he used the word numinous, though). The third level is moving upward to direct contemplation of God.

These three stages are referenced throughout the Evagrian corpus. A single example should suffice, I hope. Evagrius sees these three levels of the spiritual life in Scripture, writing in the Scholia on Proverbs:

The one who has widened his heart through purity will understand the logoi of God – those connected with praktike, physike, and theologike. For all matters which concern the Scriptures, are divided into three parts: ethics, physics, and theology. And to the first correspond the Proverbs, to the second Ecclesiastes, and to the third the Song of Songs. (Scholion 247) –Trans. Luke Dysinger

In Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27, Evagrius says that contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity is the highest level and goal of the contemplative life. We also read in Ad Monachos:

Better is knowledge of the Trinity than knowledge of the incorporeals;
and the contemplation of it beyond reasons for all the aeons. -ch. 110, trans. Driscoll

This tripartite scheme of spiritual ascent has been applied by Evagrius here in Ad Monachos to the Eucharist. My immediate inclination is to see this as allegorising, as I say. However, through comparison with other Evagrian texts (interpret Evagrius with Evagrius, the right way forward), Jeremy Driscoll warns us against such an interpretation, saying:

These three proverbs would be badly misunderstood if the reader were to see in them merely a spiritualizing or allegorizing tendency such that the flesh of Christ is thought to be no more than a scriptural code word for virtue or his blood no more than something of the same for contemplation. The point is rather quite the opposite. The proverbs mean to express that the very possibility of progress within praktiké and from this to contemplation and from this to the knowledge of God is grounded in the mystery of the Incarnation. But here Evagrius says more. What the Incarnation makes possible is communicated through the action of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood and the intimacy that this implies. Further, it should be noted that the expressions “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” are generally so closely associated with the Eucharist that it seems unlikely that Evagrius would not have wished the same connection to be made here. (Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, 321)

Indeed (I need not display the evidence here), Evagrius makes reference to the Eucharist and its effect on us elsewhere in his writings. This, I think, is important, because I think we sometimes develop an image of the Desert solitary of Egypt sitting alone in his cell, eschewing all human contact and meeting God directly through the uncreated light. However, Evagrius, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and the various stories about them in a number of historical sources all point to the weekly celebration of Holy Communion in the Desert communities of the fourth and fifth centuries.

And yet.

As we sit here now, 1600 years or more later, it can be a comfort, I think, to meditate on mystical communion with Christ, communion of a sort that does not mean gathering within six feet of a large group of people and drinking wine out of the same silver chalice. He comes to us alone in our cells (apartments, houses). Let us open our hearts to Him as we practise the virtues, seek knowledge of Him in creation, and hope one day to ascend to contemplation of God Himself directly, a sort of mystical holy communion with its own grace abounding in our hearts.

Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

A Prayer Before Communion

One thing I have enjoyed in my devotional life is carrying about a wee book of prayers which I have compiled. I use this little book especially before and after Holy Communion. It helps me focus my thoughts and heart, especially if I communicate in a setting that does not use the Book of Common Prayer.

Here’s one I found today in Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, Selected from Various Rituals by W. Bright:

Lord our God, the Bread of Heaven, the Life of the world, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am not worthy to partake of Thine immaculate Mysteries; — but in Thy divine tenderness do Thou vouchsafe me by Thy grace to partake of Thy holy Body and precious Blood, without condemnation, unto remission of sins and eternal life. –Liturgy of St. James

The ancient prayers are very good at keeping in mind our unworthiness and God’s grace at the Communion Table.

Consider also Charles Wesley, Hymn 28 from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:

Author of our salvation thee
With lowly thankful hearts we praise
Author of this great mystery,
Figure and means of saving grace.

The sacred true effectual sign
Thy body and thy blood it shows,
The glorious instrument divine
Thy mercy and thy strength bestows.

We see the blood that seals our peace,
Thy pard’ning mercy we receive:
The bread doth visibly express
The strength through which our spirits live.

Our spirits drink a fresh supply,
And eat the bread so freely given,
Till borne on eagles’ wings we fly,
And banquet with our Lord in heaven.

George Herbert, The Holy Communion

Since I’ve quoted Hooker on the Eucharist at length, here’s a poem I often read in preparation for receiving the Blessed Sacrament. George Herbert’s 1633 poem ‘The Holy Communion’. Classic Anglicanism is rich and beautiful, as you can tell. He also expresses something of eucharistic soteriology, as you can see. For Herbert’s indentations done properly, go to the online edition at the CCEL.

The H. Communion.

NOt in rich furniture, or fine aray,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sinne:

But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sinnes force and art.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
Affright both sinne and shame.

Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take
My bodie also thither.
Another lift like this will make
Them both to be together.

Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,
And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
Our innocent earth to heaven.

For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.

Thou hast restor’d us to this ease
By this thy heav’nly bloud;
Which I can go to, when I please,
And leave th’earth to their food.

A little Richard Hooker on the Eucharist

I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.

Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉

Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12

This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..

The Agony by George Herbert

I first met this poem in Malcolm Guite’s book Faith, Hope and Poetry (my review here), and I encountered it again last week in his lecture ‘Christ and the Poetic Imagination’ at Regent College’s Laing Lectures. A blessed Good Friday to you.

The Agony

Philosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of the seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach, then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

The Divine Liturgy of St James, this Tuesday!

This coming Tuesday is the feast of St James, the brother of our Lord, and first bishop of Jerusalem. To celebrate this feast, my church has decided to worship using the Liturgy of St James! How cool is that? This is precisely the sort of way I would like to celebrate a saint as well — worship God in a way (descended from how) he did!

For example, reading St Anselm’s Meditations on the feast of St Anselm. Using a 1552 BCP to commemorate Cranmer? Using the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes on his commemoration. Praying the Jesus Prayer to commemorate St Gregory Palamas. Or maybe reading The Triads. I like reading their works — read Ambrose on his feast, Augustine on his own, likewise Basil, the Gregories, Chrysostom. Read about Augustine of Canterbury for his. That sort of thing.

And what is the Divine Liturgy of St James?

It is one of the oldest liturgies of the church, especially when we reduce the body of liturgies examined to those in continual use. Some suspect it is the oldest, but that’s a difficult thing to prove definitively. It is a traditional eucharistic liturgy from the church in Jerusalem, hence its association with St James. The traditional liturgy of a city is often associated with its first bishop, or, at least, a famous one — so, St Mark in Alexandria, but St Ambrose in Milan and St Gregory the Great in Rome.

It is unlikely to have been the actual divine liturgy used by St James, just as the entirety of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom is not John Chrysostom’s (the anaphora is, though, as demonstrated by Robert Taft some years ago). From what I gather over at the OrthodoxWiki, the liturgy as we have it is probably a fourth-century version of the traditional Jerusalem liturgy, maybe from the time of St Cyril.

That said, there is definitely a pre-Cyril, indeed Ante-Nicene, substratum to this text. Some claim that you can see elements of Aramaic idiom in some parts of the liturgy. This I cannot say, but I can say that to this day it is the divine liturgy of many Syriac-speaking churches. It includes the ‘lift up your hearts’ (sursum corda) section at the beginning of the anaphora, in common, then, with the third-century Apostolic Tradition (attributed by scholars to Hippolytus), the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Roman Mass, and the Book of Common Prayer.

It is a beautiful liturgy, full of deep theology — read it here.

What do we gain if, this Tuesday, we celebrate Holy Communion with this liturgy, like the Eastern Orthodox churches (and my church)?

Well, regardless of which liturgy one uses, the mystic union of the sacrament of Holy Communion is always a moment of grace. In less important ways, using this liturgy is a way to connect through time and space with other Christians and honour one of the leading apostles. Praying these prayers joins with many centuries of Christian worship. It joins us with Jerusalem, the Holy City. It cuts through time and space.

That’s pretty cool. It thus serves as a reminder of the ongoing reality of our holy, wholly powerful, God.