12 March 2010

Evagrius & St Cassian on Natural Contemplation

I am working on a long post about Evagrius Ponticus, and another about his pupil, St John Cassian, ‘the chief foundation of the authentic monasticism of the West’. [1] But in the meantime, I thought I would share a happy example of the connections between their teaching.

William Harmless points out that the typical ‘contrast between the literate Evagrius and illiterate Coptic monks should not be overdrawn. It is ironic, for instance, that the learned Evagrius passes on two of the apophthegms most critical of book learning and book collecting.’ [2] I shall relate and follow up one of these stories. In the Praktikos, Evagrius writes:

92. A certain member of what was then considered the circle of the wise approached the just Anthony and asked him: ‘How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?’ His reply: ‘My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God.’ [3]

Concerning this story, Harmless notes, ‘This seems to fit nicely with Athanasius’s portrait of the unlearned Antony lecturing learned philosophers on the proper pursuit of wisdom. But it also exemplifies one of Evagrius’s favorite ideas: creation as the handwriting of God.’ [4] It is an idea developed beautifully by St Cassian in the Conferences. In the First Conference, Abba Moses tells us:

XV.1. ‘But the contemplation of God is arrived at in numerous ways. For God is not known only through wondering at his incomprehensible substance, because that is still concealed in the hope of the promise, but he is also clearly perceived in the grandeur of the things that he has created, in reflecting upon his justice and in the assistance provided by his daily providence—namely, when we consider with most pure minds the things that he has accomplished with his holy ones over the course of generations; when with trembling heart we admire that power of his by which he governs, directs, and rules all things, as well as the vastness of his knowledge and the eye from which the secrets of hearts cannot be hidden; when we think that he knows the sands of the sea and that he has measured the number of the waves; when we contemplate with amazement the raindrops, the days and hours of the ages, how all things past and future are present to his knowledge; 2. when we look with a kind of overwhelming wonder at his ineffable gentleness, by which he tolerates with unwearying patience the numberless crimes committed in his sight at each and every moment, and at the call through which he has received us, thanks to his mercy and not to our own already existing deserts, and finally at the many occasions of salvation that he has bestowed on those who are to be adopted—because he commanded that we should be born in such a way that grace and the knowledge of his law might be given us from our very cradles, and because he himself, conquering the adversary in us, bestows on us eternal blessedness and everlasting rewards for the sole pleasure of his good will; and when, lastly, he accepted the dispensation of his incarnation for our salvation and extended the marvels of his mysteries to all peoples. [5]

I originally intended to post these excerpts alone, leaving their eloquent admiration of the cosmos to speak for itself. But I cannot resist adding a few observations, knowing full well it leads me into an area of theology which is soon beyond my understanding even at the intellectual/conceptual level.

Such passages naturally remind us of the classic Scriptural texts of Psalm 18:2 (LXX), ‘The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His hand-work’, [6] and Romans 1:20, ‘For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead’. Like such verses, the passages from Evagrius and St Cassian can be read as merely a kind of statement of the ‘cosmological argument’, since the Fathers suggest that it is possible ‘perhaps for the wise “by the standards of this age”, too, to gain some knowledge of the transcendent wisdom and power from the beautiful harmony of the cosmos.’ [7] Thus, St Maximus the Confessor speaks of ‘the principle of that wisdom which is revealed to all: that we should know and praise God through His creation and that by means of the visible world we should understand whence we came, what we are, and for what purpose we were made and where we are going.’ [8]

But on the other hand and at the same time, most of the patristic references to these verses seem to treat the knowledge of God gained through creation as a lofty spiritual experience, referred to by Origen’s term physike, often translated ‘natural contemplation’. This is true not only of such ‘monastic’, ‘mystical’ writers as Evagrius and St Cassian, but also of those patristic writers more engaged in the affairs of the world. St Basil the Great for instance, in his Hexaemeron, writes:

You will find that the world was not devised at random or to no purpose, but to contribute to some useful end and to the advantage of all beings. It is truly a training place for rational souls and a school for attaining the knowledge of God. Through visible and perceptible objects it provides guidance to the mind for the contemplation of the invisible. [9]

To look at creation and realise there must be a good, wise, and loving Creator is not to go much farther than Aristotle’s Metaphysics, however. To progress to a genuine ‘contemplation’, i.e., a ‘theoria’ or ‘vision of the invisible’, requires the grace of God, the life of the Church, and tremendous ascesis—what many of the later Fathers, following Evagrius, call praktike. Thus, St Maximus the Confessor, having affirmed in one place that the knowledge of God is ‘revealed to all’ through creation, in another place warns us:

85. We should abstain from natural contemplation until we are fully prepared, lest in trying to perceive the spiritual essences of visible creatures we reap passions by mistake. For the outward forms of visible things have greater power over the senses of those who are immature than the essences hidden in the forms of things have over their souls. [10]

I take this to be a warning that applies with full force to the ‘New Agers’ and hippies of our day, who are led by their attempts at what could be called ‘natural contemplation’ into pantheism. Let Orthodox Christians take greater care than they.

[1] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), ‘A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West’, Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, tr. Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 18.

[2] William Harmless, SJ, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 315.

[3] Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), p. 39.

[4] Harmless, p. 315. Oddly, Harmless’s note at this point refers to Evagrius’s ‘On Prayer’ (attributed to St Nilus in the Greek Philokalia), ’60. He who prays in spirit and in truth is no longer dependent on created things when honouring the Creator, but praises Him for and in Himself.’ [62] To me this line, while it assumes the importance of natural contemplation, doesn’t help much to illustrate that this was one of Evagrius’s ‘favorite ideas’.

[5] St John Cassian, The Conferences, tr. Boniface Ramsey, OP (NY: Newman, 1997), pp. 55-6. It is interesting that, similar to Harmless’s note on Evagrius’s use of the St Anthony story, Jean Leclerq refers to this passage from the Conferences to make a point that I don’t think it makes: that St Cassian teaches that ‘a man can unite himself directly to the Trinity without the mediation of the Incarnate Word’ (‘Preface’, Evagrius, p. xviii)!

[6] David James, ed., The Russian Orthodox Psalter (Rye, NH: Paradise, 2009), p. 59.

[7] St Gregory of Nyssa, qtd. in Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity & Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993), p. 66

[8] The Philokalia, Vol. 2, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1990), p. 147.

[9] Qtd. in The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 2: Acts, Epistles, & Revelation, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 119, n. 14.

[10] Philokalia 2, p. 205.


Joseph Zheng said...

"We must also add here, as necessary, that those who are spiritually immature and passionate and have not yet attained perfection and dispassion should guard themselves from being preoccupied with the reasons in nature and especially with small animals and man. When the mind is still passionate it cannot see the immaterial and spiritual reasons hidden in the shapes and beauty of physical nature and the passionate and irrational imagination takes precedence to formulate these reasons passionately according to its own standards. Thus instead of selecting from this physical experience knowledge and reasons that are spiritual, such persons select only mere shapes and passions and passionate idols. And instead of rising through nature to the spiritual and incorruptible nature of the Creator so as to marvel at this and to love God and be immersed in him, they remain on the physical level of admiring and being filled by the corruptible beauty of nature only, so as to virtually worship the creation and not the Creator- a condition which many naturalists of the past and of today are suffering." St. Nicodemus, "A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel."

Aaron Taylor said...

Thanks, Ryan. I forgot all about this passage in the Handbook!

Joseph Zheng said...

I think all of these quotes are really, really important today. Too often Christians assume that the modern materialistic scientific narrative is simply an objective, dispassionate way of understanding God's creation. Have you read Philip Sherrard's books "Human Image: World Image" or "Rape of Man and Nature"? They are not perfect, but I think they provide a really useful starting point for a Christian critique of modern natural philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I heard that the 7 DEADLY SINS were told by Evagrius.

What I want to know is what is the book that this is in?

The name of the book.

Can u please e-mail me to mprop70@yahoo.com or answer the question here


Aaron Taylor said...

I answered that question in this post: http://logismoitouaaron.blogspot.com/2009/09/defining-logismoifrom-evagrius-to-brad.html

Basically, Evagrius spoke of 8 sinful 'thoughts' or temptations in his Praktikos. It was St Gregory the Great, in his Moralia in Job, who took over the list, revised it, and turned it into 7 principle vices, later called the 7 Deadly Sins.

Arkadi said...

You last citation is not exactly by Maximus (see p. 392 of your source).

And how are we, in your opinion, to understand it, anyway?
Are we supposed to live with eyes closed, lest the outward forms of God's creation overpower our vision?

Aaron Taylor said...

Arkadi> P. 392 informs me that the chapter is partly by St Maximus & partly by a scholiast, though not which parts are which. Of course, this scarcely matters, since the text as a whole has been handed on as part of the tradition, & under the name of St Maximus in particular.

In my opinion, this is one of those teachings of the Church which call for a great deal of discretion & guidance in its application. Obviously, it would be essentially impossible literally to live with one's eyes closed. But on the other hand, it's true that we must continually struggle, in a spiritual sense, to turn our gaze from physical & toward spiritual things. In the case of the more dangerous 'outward forms', say for instance the bodies of beautiful women, this turning away really must be done in a very literal, physical way. We have not all attained the dispassion of St Nonnus of Heliopolis, who was able to look at the prostitute Pelagia & think only of how little we beautify our souls for Christ.