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)

Early ascetics talking about the Bible

I have been looking briefly into the teachings of some early ascetic writers about sacred Scripture. Here are some juicy quotes for you:

Toil at reading the Scriptures more than at anything else: for in prayer the mind frequently wanders, but in reading even a wandering mind is recollected. -John the Solitary early 400s, Letter to Hesychius, ch. 44 (trans. Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 92)

Let us open up our hearts so as to understand the Scriptures which are filled with spiritual life and wisdom. In them there speaks the Spirit of God who gives life and knowledge. …

For all the wisdom of Life is hidden in the Scriptures. In them we are able to gain knowledge of God and of his creative activity, of his wonderful governance and providence; likewise of his goodness and, at the same time, of his righteousness, and, in sum, of his great and mighty power. …

Again, it is from the Scriptures that we learn how to travel on the road of virtuous conduct, for in them all the fine deeds of the just life are delineated. Just as one cannot see anything without light … similarly, without the light of the Scriptures we are unable to see God, who is Light, or his Justice, which is filled with light. -Martyrius (Sahdona) in the 600s, The Book of Perfection, chh. 48, 49, 50 (trans. Brock, Syriac Fathers, pp. 221-223)

Out of fear become conversant with the divine scriptures on a daily basis, for by association with these you will drive away converse with thoughts. He who by meditation treasures the divine scriptures in his heart easily expels thoughts from it. In listening to the divine scriptures in the night-time reading at vigils, let us not render our hearing moribund by means of sleep, nor hand over our soul to the captivity of thoughts; rather, with the goad of the scriptures let us prod the heart, so that with the goading of diligence we may pierce through the opposing negligence. -Evagrius of Pontus, To Eulogius 20 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 46).