Those medieval mystics!

My own copy of The Cloud of Unknowing

Last Monday, I had the joy and delight of giving a lecture about medieval mysticism, focussing on some foundations (so, Evagrius and Cassian, basically) and then really on the fourteenth-century English mystics — Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, The Cloud of Unknowing, The Abbey of the Holy Ghost. All of my students were required to read a large chunk of Julian of Norwich, and for-credit students will also have read one of the others for an essay assignment.

One student read The Cloud of Unknowing, Rolle’s Fire of Love, and then The Cloud of Unknowing again while working on the essay, and then Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love for class. She declared that she wanted to become a medieval mystic. Another student admitted to being bitter a lot of the time, but that reading The Cloud and Julian filled him with sweetness.

I, too, am fond of reading medieval mystics. Of those covered for this class, I like best Julian of Norwich and The Cloud of Unknowing. I also have a fondness (almost typed fandom!) for early Cistercians, especially St Bernard of Clairvaux and William of St-Thierry. I have to admit, though, that my exposure to St Hildegard is too shallow, and the promising beginning I made in reading St Catherine of Siena was cut short by other affairs.

As you may guess, the contemplative/mystic types I spend more time with are late antique and Byzantine besides modern Orthodox pray-ers — St Theophan the Recluse, St Porphyrios, St Sophrony, Met. Anthony Bloom, and others.

I must confess, however, that I am very poor mystic/contemplative. Reading about high ideals stirs my heart, makes me want to climb those mountains and put in that hard labour. But acedia sets in. Sloth is easier than asceticism, right?

I recently went through a stretch where I had not been reading any Orthodox elders or late antique monks. One night, I decided to push through a portion of St Silouan the Athonite by St Sophrony (a very dense but powerful book). And I felt my spirits lightened and my resolve quickened by this experience. Reading holy literature is not wasted.

I remind myself of a story from the Egyptian desert about a monk complaining to an old man that he listens to the elders and hears the Scriptures but can’t for the life of him remember the teachings. The old man told him to take two clay pots that were dusty and dirty. Leave one alone, and pour oil into the other. Then pour the oil out. Then repeat several times. “Which is cleaner?” the old man asked. “The one I poured the oil into,” was the response.

Let’s bring this back to the mystics, then. I have expressed my misgivings about us unspiritual meatheads reading The Cloud of Unknowing on this blog. Yet perhaps the story from the desert is telling us that if we have the will or desire for these good things, then even advanced books like that are not lost on us.

So go on reading your medieval mystics, gentle reader. May you be made more pure of heart as a result.

A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

Some thoughts about St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

I had the opportunity to teach about St Anselm last night. Much of the lecture was taken up with investiture, and I’m still sorting that out in my mind — hopefully, thoughts to follow. I also had the opportunity to linger on his Prayers and Meditations. I believe that these are very important for us to understand the whole man of this Archbishop of Canterbury. St Anselm is more than the clear, systematised logic of his philosophical and theological treatises. He is also a man of great “religious feeling” (if you will), a man animated by his love of Christ, Christ’s church, as well as awareness of his own smallness and sinfulness.

This positioning of Anselm through the Prayers and Meditations helps us see that true Christian theology is always done in Evagrian mode: “If you truly pray, you are a theologian; if you are a theologian, you will truly pray.” The logical treatises, such as De Casu Diaboli are not detached from the saint’s life and worship. This is also a perspective potentially gained from the Life of St Anselm by Eadmer as well, which is why I chose to assign a portion of that text to my students.

A second approach to St Anselm requires us to grasp foundational truths that St Anselm affirmed. I say this because Anselm is famous today for two things:

  1. The ontological argument for the existence of God (in the Proslogion)
  2. Penal substitutionary atonement (in Cur Deus Homo — check out The Major Works)

The second of these is often misunderstood, most famously and egregiously as “divine child abuse.” To understand why Anselm’s atonement theory of satisfaction is not “divine child abuse”, it is worth knowing both what Anselm believes about God, and second, what penal substitutionary atonement theory actually teaches.

Anselm is a traditional, western Trinitarian. He believes that God is/has one essence/substance in three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The three are co-equal and co-eternal. And one of these three, who is Himself fully God, chose to become human and die. Once you catch a glimpse of the historic doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that penal substitutionary atonement theory is “divine child abuse” is untenable, because it is not a father forcing or sending a son to die for other people because the father is angry. It is God choosing to take his own anger upon Himself in order to save other people.

I’m not saying this is an argument for why you ought to agree with St Anselm — it’s simply an argument that should make you set aside this caricature.

The theory itself is this: In Cur Deus Homo, St Anselm argues that offence against God requires balance, it requires an equitable return, something proportional to the offence. This is a basic principle of law and justice. Since God is infinite, offence against God carries with it infinite weight. No human being can redress the balance of sin against God. In the courtroom of heavenly justice, we will always be found guilty of infinite offence and thus sentenced to infinite punishment, eternal damnation. Therefore, God, in his mercy, chooses to condescend Himself to our weakness, take our flesh upon Himself, and take our place as a substitution by dying on the cross. This substitution of an infinite, perfect, good God in place of finite sinners, redresses the balance and pays the penalty for our sin in our place. By removing the penalty of sin from us, God makes it possible for us to be oned (to use the later language of Julian of Norwich), united, to him and participate in the divine life.

Penal substitutionary atonement theory has fallen out of fashion today. It was first articulated by St Anselm, and it came to dominate western theological discourse about the atonement until Aulen’s book Christus Victor in the 20th century. A quick example of this theory’s dominance is that it is the model of the atonement used by Edmund Spenser in A Hymn of Heavenly Love.

A final point on Cur Deus Homo. I read it and found it convincing. This does not mean that I do not also believe in the classic or Christus Victor model found in fathers like Athanasius and Leo. The two theories are not mutually exclusive but, rather, complement one another. Perhaps western theology lost sight of one for a while and thereby suffered — but this does not mean that rejecting Anselmian atonement theology redresses the balance.

In closing, St Anselm was a deep, profound thinker, steeped in prayer, in scripture, and in the tools of logic and dialectic from the classroom at Bec. He made two original and lasting contributions to theology as well as some important gains in the king-bishop relationship (but that’s perhaps for another post). Read his devotional works, read his theology, read his life.

The grace of God can make you a better Christian thereby.

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.

Hooker as quoted in the video:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions [419] which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)

Theosis, an all-encompassing vision of Christian life

Last night I lectured on St Gregory of Nyssa in my course “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy”. A certain amount of time had to be spent on his Trinitarian theology not least because my own interpretation has changed as a result of Fr John Behr’s detailed analysis in The Nicene Faith, Part 2, contrary to my previous understanding as informed by Met. John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (a book I’ve mentioned here many times).

I wanted, this time, to expand it outwards from triadology to that which we call “mysticism”, partly because mystical questions keep arising in question time, partly because St Gregory of Nyssa is chiefly famous of late for his “mysticism”, partly because one of the first patristic texts I read was The Life of Moses.

And as I thought about mysticism and the Trinity and the Life of Moses, I couldn’t get the little word theosis out of my head. Theosis, the Greek word for “deification”. You’ll meet this word everywhere in Orthodox circles. Its foundational statement is in Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius: God became man so that man might become God. Theosis, however, is more than just a slogan or saying. And it’s more than just the mystical activities of ascetics like the Cappadocian Fathers and the monks of the desert or mediaeval Mt Athos. It is, ultimately, the all-embracing soteriology and endpoint of all Christian theology for the eastern tradition.

For Gregory, it is stated in terms of participation (he rarely actually uses the word theosis), which is how a modern Orthodox will describe its meaning. We are called to participate in the divine life—the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and reigning on high of the God Word whose life now continues in the Church, the Body of Christ, is the central act of the drama of theosis. Not only are our sins washed away through the waters of baptism and by the blood on the cross—which St Gregory and the rest of the Fathers affirm—we are enabled and empowered to be united to God and to know him more and more fully all the time.

St Gregory argues that the pursuit of perfection, the path of sanctification, is itself part of this participation, not just activities we today would call “mystical” or “contemplative”. Sanctification itself, effected by the power of the Holy Spirit, is a participation in the divine life. And, as I’ve stated here before, twice in fact, since perfection and holiness are attributes of God, and God is infinite (St Gregory is one of the first to actually argue for the infinity of God), then the path to perfection is itself infinite. This endless journey of perfection is called in Greek epektasis (acute accent on the second e). Epektasis for Gregory is what other Greek thinkers would call theosis, I would wager.

Whereas contemporary Protestant ideas of salvation tend to parse it into helpful categories such as: justification is God setting us free from the penalty of sin; sanctification is God setting us free from the power of sin; glorification is God setting us free from the presence of sin—theosis sees it as all of these and more. Salvation is entering into and participating in the life of God most high through the intervention of God in the incarnation. God is present and available to us today because Jesus died on the Cross. We meet with him through righteous acts, through prayer, through the Eucharist, through meditating on the words of Scripture. And we will never cease growing in perfection and getting to know Him more because He Himself is infinite, and our perfection itself is merely a participation in His life.

Why do we think The Cloud of Unknowing is for us?

I just finished reading Clifton Wolters’ 1961 translation of The Cloud of Unknowing for Penguin Classics. Since 1961, there has been a new Penguin translation by A. Spearing. I see on Amazon at least six other translations into modern English besides Evelyn Underhill’s popular edition. Reviews of this book are almost all pure adulation and recommendation. People love The Cloud of Unknowing.

Now, I am not anti-Cloud of Unknowing. But I do wonder how many of us are its target audience.

Although the book has some practical advice for contemplative prayer, it is also clear that the person who is urged to beat at the cloud of unknowing is seeking to enter into the higher of two levels of contemplative life, to which few ever ascend. It is also clear that most people live in the active life, and that entering this higher level of the contemplative life is a gift of grace. Not everyone is called or suited, and you can meet God in other ways and be holy in the active life as well as in the lower level of the contemplative life.

Now, the author of The Cloud is right in saying that since this is the result of grace, not of our own doing, it may require only a moment of work. We may, the instant we begin, receive the grace in contemplation that so many of us seek. But the author also describes what sounds like a more common journey — from a life of discipline and charitable works up to the lower level of contemplation — which is also the higher level of the active life — before ascending to this highest level of the ascetic-contemplative life.

I suppose I fear that many of us, many of the writers of glowing reviews, set aside some time for what we call “contemplative prayer” and follow some of the advice given in The Cloud without pursuing fasting, long periods of meditation on Scripture, giving away excess personal goods, wearing a simple wardrobe, eating plain food, following the advice of a spiritual director/father, engaging in acts of mercy and charity, et cetera.

If we are not pursuing the active life, are we ready to try the contemplative life?

Now, maybe more people are doing these things than I suspect. If so, this is great. And maybe more people receive the grace of contemplation without effort than I imagine. If so, this is great. However, if I am right, I hope that we will all start taking seriously the disciplined life as much as the contemplative life. There are no short cuts to holiness most of the time. There’s no such thing as “40 days to mountain top experiences of God.” God lives with us in the valleys and he helps us climb those mountains.

Remember that a likely original audience for this work was a person considering becoming a Carthusian! The guys who take a vow of silence. Remember that most of the great mystical works of the Middle Ages were written by monks and hermits like St Bernard, St Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, and St Thomas of Kempen. Whatever flowering of mysticism they may have encountered, they also lived the disciplined life of asceticism.

So, although there is profit in The Cloud of Unknowing, and I would recommend it to people interested in the western mystical tradition, I think most of us need to read some more ascetic books because, as easy as this one feels sometimes, I think it is beyond us.

Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.

Mysticism and asceticism in the Internet age

Every once in a while, I think that those of us who write about the disciplines or about mysticism/contemplation really have no idea what we are saying, and that the true contemplatives are not bloggers, but more likely people like my friend Father Raphael who doesn’t even have Facebook and spends a lot of time praying the Jesus Prayer, serving his parish, and studying the Scriptures and the Fathers.

Some of us, though — we just can’t help writing or talking about this stuff, even though we fall afoul of St John of the Ladder (‘Klimakos’ being Greek for ‘of the Ladder’) who says that unless you engage in praktiké, you’re not qualified to teach it.

Anyway, here are four types of people interested in these things; you’ll find us all on the web.

  1. Readers. This is my group, so I’ll start with us. We read a lot of spiritual books, and sometimes we talk about them. If we’re in a braggy mood, we might even list some (Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, John Cassian, the Rule of St Benedict, The Philokalia vol. 1, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheos of Gaza, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, a Cistercian anthology, St Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, the Venerable Bede, Cyril of Scythopolis, St Jerome, some Origen, some Evagrius Ponticus, Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Kallistos Ware, William Law, Julian of Norwich, and so forth). Somehow, we think this means that we are spiritual, even if we don’t put into practice a vast amount of what we read. We are deceived.
  2. Mysticism and asceticism lite. This is the group that hasn’t read the primary sources of ancient, medieval, and early modern Christianity but only a few contemporary authors who talk about them. We Readers pridefully show contempt for them. “I read St Ignatius of Loyola,” the Reader will say, “and the prayer of examen is much deeper and more difficult than what these people say.” There is a chance that, if the Readers could peer in the mysticism-lite heart, we would see shallowness that imagines itself to be deep. On the other hand, at least these guys actually engage in some of the disciplines instead of reading about them and then feeling good about themselves. They are probably closer to the Kingdom of the Heavens than we Readers are in our pride.
  3. Mysticism as therapy. This is an interesting group. They rightly grasp hold of the fact that Christ heals our wounds and cures our diseases. They have also had contact with some of the psychological literature that shows how things like “meditation” and practising thankfulness lead to stronger emotional health. So when they read Julian of Norwich or The Cloud of Unknowing, they gravitate towards how contemplative practice is there to help us feel better. They are not wrong — only partly right. The great truth we should all grasp from John Cassian, St Hildegard, Julian of Norwich, or The Cloud is the greatness and majesty of God and how that is the main purpose of ascetic exercise and contemplative pursuits. One again, at least this group seeks to put into practice the tradition.
  4. Social action as asceticism. This group is probably holier than the rest of us, even if I think they are inaccurate in their understanding of the tradition. These are the people whose main concern is the really active life of serving the poor, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoners, etc. For them, this is the true heart of the Christian spiritual tradition, and the rest of us are off-base. They may be right.

These are probably not exactly fair, I admit. And some of us veer between the different groups. All of us need grace to draw near to God wherever he wants to meet us, whether we read too much and practise too little, do too little but think big of our doings, do things for slightly off-base reasons, or spend our time in service of others but not seeking pure prayer.

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.

Father Luke Dysinger and Evagrius Ponticus

Having recently polished off some revisions to my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great, I’m working through an article about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, based on research I did as an MA student in 2009. Besides 11 years of scholarship having transpired, I’m also aware of how much Evagrius I did not read back then. I had read all of The PraktikosChapters on Prayer, and Kephalaia Gnostica, and (in standard MA student fashion) I had used the index to Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus.

But the Gnostikos, the letters, the scholia on Scripture — I did not read these. I did not even know the scholia existed until this past summer!

But where can a person easily get his or her hands on the works of Evagrius? I have access to university libraries, but the quality of their holdings can vary widely. What about people who primarily use public libraries and do not wish to spend $80+?

Father Luke Dysinger, author of Psalmody and Prayer in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus can help. His website, St. Evagrius Ponticus, includes texts and translations of much Evagrian material. Not all, mind you. It is a work in progress. But it is a place to start. Here you can find PraktikosGnostikosKephalaia GnosticaOn the Thoughts (Peri Logismon), On PrayerSkemmataSentencesAntirrhetikosOn PsalmsOn Proverbs, On EcclesiastesOn Job, and Letters.

Father Luke also provides an introduction to Evagrius, and pages on secondary sources, themes, and early monasticism. It looks to be a great resource; I’ve been using it for some of the material. Unfortunately, I’m going to need the full scholia on the Psalms, and we’re all on lock-down from coronavirus right now, so getting to a library is hard …

But why read Evagrius in the first place?

For some of you, I may be putting the cart before the horse. Why even read Evagrius? Wasn’t he some sort of heretic? Well, in the words of an Orthodox monk, he was also a saint!

Evagrius Ponticus was a highly influential spiritual master living in the Egyptian desert in later fourth century. His spiritual theology deeply influenced St John Cassian, one of the fathers of Latin monasticism, and, even after his posthumous condemnation as a heretic over 150 years after his death, he continued to be read throughout the Greek Middle Ages, often under another’s name, usually St Nilus of Ancyra. Beyond the Byzantine world, he was read in Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic, and continued to be an influential father in the eastern Christian tradition.

His teaching is psychologically nuanced and acute. He perceives the roots of our disordered hearts and seeks to give us advice to bind us firmly to the Most Holy Trinity. Many have found both his praktike — practical teaching — and theoretike — contemplative teaching — of enormous value. So, regardless of his influence, regardless of how orthodox (or not) he was, St Evagrius of Pontus is a figure worth getting to know for your own sake.

He can help us become more watchful against the eight evil thoughts, and then ascend through contemplation to the Most Holy Trinity. Sounds good to me.