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.

Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I was chatting with a Roman Catholic friend, formerly a very engaged Anglican of evangelical bent, recently. He was talking about the rise of “industry” as a virtue in the early modern period (“industry” is not a virtue in the ancient and medieval worlds) and how its rise is involved in the denigration of the contemplative tradition — I, myself, later thought of Gibbon’s criticism of the ‘idle mouths’ of the Later Roman Empire that included monks.*

Basically, today contemplation must always be subservient to action. If you want to sit around in silence, what you do is supposed to outweigh it. The contemplative person, the mystic, has no place in this worldview. They are idle, potentially lazy, and useless.

I remarked that this is the complete opposite of St John of the Cross (whom we both love, of course), and that everyone today thinks this way.

He said, ‘Not the Carmelites!’

And then he said something that I’ve felt sometimes as well. He said that one of the things he has appreciated about becoming Roman Catholic is the presence of an ongoing contemplative tradition in the Roman Catholic tradition, and that such a tradition is something that is lacking in evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, by and large, devoid of this. It is upbeat and happy. It is also frequently shallow in its approach to suffering — let’s all read our Bibles and sing some happy songs!

This feels like caricature, but much depends on your corner of the evangelical world. (Much depends on your corner of Roman Catholicism, too, of course.) I can think of many times when simply reading the Bible has been presented by evangelicals as a cure-all, and of the discomfort one sometimes has with always singing at a fast tempo in a major key, despite the fundamental brokenness of all people.

I have often felt that Protestantism, and the evangelical world I have spent most of my life in (although that word evangelical is being destroyed and sapped of meaning by American politicising), is not sure of mysticism/contemplation. I think on the many people, including evangelical Anglicans, who say that they have no sympathy with or understanding of monasticism.

I, on the other hand, have had a longstanding interest in monks. The single-minded devotion of the Desert Fathers. The power of St Francis (whose legacy is both active and contemplative). The mystical writings of St John of the Cross. The daily grind of La Grande Chartreuse. Julian of Norwich. Cassian, Benedict, Anselm, Bernard. Cuthbert and Bede. I’ve blogged on all of these.

I have no doubt that there are faithful Roman Catholics who have no use for monks. However, Roman Catholicism has that rich, contemplative spiritual tradition alongside Roman Catholic social teaching and social action.

The mystical path for a Protestant does not usually involve going to your pastor for spiritual direction but, rather, books (and, today, the Internet). It is fraught with danger, but also excitement. And those who set forth are not alone.

There are Protestants who are seeking to plug into the ancient ways of contemplation/mysticism — James Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home both come to mind. But their engagement with the mystical tradition, whether Catholic or Orthodox, is not part of an ongoing living tradition. We Protestants have to go it alone, or make it up with each other as we go along.

I was going to put this forward as a liability, but maybe it is not, which derails anything further I wanted to write when I started this piece.

It forces us to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide us into the darkness, the silence, hesychia.

And that’s a good thing, I’m sure.

*Note: Monks of Late Antiquity not actually idle mouths, since a great many of them were involved in the cottage industry or farming.

Theology and mysticism

St. Gregory of Nyssa

I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.

That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.

His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.

Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.

Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.

These need each other. (They also need community.)

The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.

The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.

These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.

When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.

The richness of St Anselm’s prayers

I am slowly reading The Prayers and Meditations of St Anselm (in Sr Benedicta Ward’s translation), as you may have surmised. I am trying to read them as St Anselm recommends, and not simply blitz through them (as I do so much of what I read). The prayers are a lot longer than what we are used to. This is because they are not meant to be prayed through from start to finish in a single go. And they are not meant for public worship, either.

They are meant to stir up our hearts and draw us to our own prayers, enrichening our own encounter with God and providing us with fuel. St Anselm says you can start anywhere you please and use them to good effect.

St Anselm’s prayers are rich and sometimes ornate. But they help show us an internal world we may miss if we’re not careful. I mentioned this once before here, but we have a tendency to view St Anselm only as a pre-Scholastic, or even a Scholastic, perhaps as a logic-chopper, as the primus inventor of the ontological argument for God and the theory of penal substitutionary atonement. Given how few people are convinced by the former and how many people are currently rejecting the latter, this view of the man and his achievements misses out so much.

Related to this is a mistaken view that ‘western’ Christianity is not mystical or poetic.

Another mistaken view is that systematic theology, the logically-defined articulation of doctrine, the application of reason to matters of the divine is inimical to the true life of the Spirit. This is something that annoys me, given that our ancient theologians who wrote theology in this way were very often ‘mystics’ or ‘contemplatives’ as well — St Augustine (as I’ve blogged), St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory of Nazianzus, and others! And many ‘mystics’ embraced the catholic Church’s articulations of doctrine, such as Richard Rolle, St Bernard, William of St-Thierry, St Hildegard, St Thomas of Kempen, St Catherine of Siena, St Francis of Assisi.

Anyway, these are the prayers of a soul that clearly had a rich love for and encounter with God. St Anselm seems to have to use his whole life for God — thus, the rational part of him writes the logic and theology, the affective part of his soul writes these prayers, and his moral self seeks to live rightly in the midst of the Investiture Controversy.

I encourage you to use these prayers yourself so that your own prayers can be kindled to a greater love for God.

Here’s some St Anselm to close us off:

Most merciful Lord,
turn my lukewarmness into a fervent love of you.
Most gentle Lord,
my prayer tends towards this —
that by remembering and meditating
on the good things you have done
I may be enkindled with your love.

-The Prayer to Christ (trans. Ward, p. 94)

Contemplation and mission

A conversation I was having with a student today reminded me of the importance of that unpopular, old-fashioned idea of ‘evangelism’. The conversation headed in the direction of a belief that people of the far-right, hate-mongers and suchlike, should be stopped from assembling. I expressed my belief that no speech, excite incitement to violence, should be outlawed. I feel this way partly out of a concern that if they stop the racists from speaking and assembling, who will be next? And when will they come knocking on Father Raphael’s door?

I also expressed, in the course of this conversation, my belief that the problem isn’t legislation but the human heart. You can’t legislate evil away.

And so my thoughts about the need for mission arose from this context in two main ways.

First, how can we speak the truth of Gospel into a culture that thinks ‘dangerous speech’ should be banned?

Second, how can we, as Christians, actually see the transformation of the wicked human heart that we all desire?

I no longer know the answer to the first, for I have grown frozen in speaking Gospel.

The second relates to actually making disciples, so is related to the first.

Nonetheless, I was reminded of the need to bring the Gospel to a hurting, broken world.

And all of this ties into the title of this post because I sometimes get a feeling from some corners of the Interwebs that Christians can be drawn into the mystical, contemplative, liturgical traditions of the Church as part of a reaction against some of the spiritual toxicity that is out there in some parts of evangelicalism.

And what I feel like I see sometimes is a retreat not simply from things like politics (which may be a good thing) but from God-talk altogether. Christian spirituality becomes therapy for me, and is spoken of as therapy for a broken world, but without actually engaging in the dreaded discipline of talking to other humans about the Gospel and God of grace, how are we really healing that broken world?

I am guilty of this to some degree, although I resist ‘mysticism as therapy’ as best I can.

My theory has always been that if we engage in spiritual disciplines, we will love God more, look like Him more, and be more comfortable as who we are. As a result, we will be able to speak Gospel to a broken, hurting world, a world that includes both racists and those who want to legislate against dangerous speech.

Question: Can someone give me evidence of this working for them?

Christology in Ps-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

When I mentioned that I was going to read Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, my friend Austin said that there is some Christology around the edges. Here it is:

For thus, as the Word of God has taught us who feast at His Banquet, even Jesus Himself — the supremely Divine and superessential Mind, the Head and Being, and most supremely Divine Power of every Hierarchy and Sanctification and Divine operation — illuminates the blessed Beings who are superior to us, in a manner more clear, and at the same tiem more fresh, and assimilates them to His own Light in proportion to their ability to receive. As for ourselves, by the love of things beautiful, elevated to Himself, and elevating us, He folds together our many diversities, and by making them into an unified and Divine life, suitable to a sacred vocation both as to habit and action, He Himself bequeaths the power of the Divine Priesthood, from which, by approaching to the holy exercise of the priestly office, we become nearer to the Beings above us, by assimilation, according to our power, to the stability and unchangeableness of their steadfastness in holy things. Hence, by looking upwards to the blessed and supremely Divine Glory of Jesus, and reverently gazing upon whatever we are permitted to see, and being illuminated with the knowledge of the visions, we shall be able to become, as regards the science of Divine mysteries, both purified and purifying — images of Light, and workers with God, perfected and perfecting. (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 50)

I quote the whole passage because it is important for our grasp of Dionysian soteriology, I think. One of the early lessons that I learned in studying christology and, indeed, triadology, is that these doctrines are formulated as part of our understanding of salvation. How does God save us? What does He save us from? Where does He save us to?

Dionysius’ vision of salvation is explicitly caught up in theiosis, in the unification of the soul to be saved with God, something that is attained by a clarified vision of the divine, communicated through the oikonomia of God as manifest in the hierarchies. His vision of Christ is always very powerfully divine — that is, we have no Antiochene assumptus homo here. At times, elsewhere in the Dionysian corpus, it feels like Jesus exists solely and only ever as God.

Yet if we are saved from ignorance to knowledge, from disunity to unity with God, then we need a God who communicates His person and knowledge of that person to us in some way. Jesus is that person of the Most Holy Trinity whose role in the oikonomia of God’s revelation is to reveal knowledge of God to the created hierarchies, to each as it is able and designed.

This all sounds highly Neoplatonic, and I’m not arguing it isn’t, but I sometimes wonder if it isn’t more biblical than its detractors would think. Consider two side-by-side passages in Colossians. First, Paul’s prayer for them:

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives,10 so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, 11 being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,12 and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col. 1:9-14 NIV)

Then, starting at verse 15, what is that knowledge the Son gives, what do we learn of Him?

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:15-20 NIV)

This is one of the passages that is most definitely an inspiration for treatises on spiritual hierarchies. Ps-Dionysius, in this spirit, calls Jesus ‘the Head and Perfection of all Hierarchies’ (ch. 1, trans. J. Parker, p. 51). Pseudo-Dionysius certainly believes in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection — consider his discussion of baptism later in the treatise — but he also believes that Jesus is active now in saving us and bringing us into the glorious light of God.

Sometimes our vision of Jesus becomes warped in two related ways. In one way, we become practical Arians, and forget that the same Jesus who was crucified is also Lord and Creator of the cosmos. In the other way, we relegate salvation to something that happened once for all, and forget that, since Jesus is Lord and Creator of the cosmos He is alive here now communicating His salvation to the human race.

Pseudo-Dionysius helps free us from those errors.