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Introduction - Part 3

Let us now look at the actual content of Passage A, comparing it to the Theological Orations.

Let us consider this passage from Theological Orations 2:

How did I come to be in this state, O friends and initiates and fellow-lovers of the truth? I ran, then, as one who was going to see (katalepsomenos) God and thus I ascended the Mount and penetrated the cloud, going within material and material things and having turned to myself as much as is possible. When I looked on, then, I barely saw the hind parts of God, and this having been covered by the Rock, by the Word which was incarnated for us. And having stooped and peeked a little, I saw not the first and unmixed nature and that known in itself (in the Trinity, I say), and as much as remains within the first veil and is covered by the Cherubim—but as much as at the end arrives even to us. And this is, as far as I know, the grandeur which is in the creatures and in those things which are produced and managed by him, which the divine David calls ‘magnificence’. For these things are the hind parts of God, as many things as are, in the search for him, his identifying marks, just as the shadows and images of the sun on the water show the sun to feeble visions, it not being possible to look on the sun directly, the purity of the light defeating the sense. Thus you will do theology, then, even if you should be Moses and ‘the God of Pharaoh’, even if you should reach the Third Heaven in the manner of Paul and hear ‘unspeakable words’, even if you should come to be above Paul, of some angelic or archangelic order and place. For even if something is any celestial or supracelestial thing and by nature higher than us and closer to God, it is further from God and perfect intuitive comprehension (teleias katalepseos) than as much as it exceeds our composite and lowly and weighed-down mixture.[1]

First of all, let us note the critical editor’s remark that in this passage, St Gregory the Theologian is very close to St Gregory of Nyssa in the Life of Moses.[2]

Let us consider the structure of the mystical ascent as presented here by St Gregory the Theologian. The seeker ascends Mount Sinai and penetrates the cloud which covers the mountain. He goes beyond material and material things, turning into himself as much as is possible. He then looks on and sees the hind parts of God, having been covered by the Rock which is the Incarnate Word. But in this he sees not the actual nature of God (the Trinity) but the little that arrives even to Man. This little that arrives even to Man is the magnificence that is present in God’s creatures. This little is the identifying marks of the God who cannot directly be seen, just as we who have weak vision must be content with the reflections of the sun on the water since we cannot look directly on the sun. And this is the way we must do theology, of whatever spiritual height or attainment we might be—for every celestial or supracelestial being is further from the true knowledge of God than it is above us

Let us now see how the author of Passage A handles the same theme. Let us bear in mind that these two passages, if Passage A is genuinely of Evagrius in Constantinople, were written within a year or so of each other, the first passage by the teacher and the second by his student.

7 [21] The holy disciples of our Saviour, coming beyond contemplation[3] as it is possible to men, and having been purified by the word, seek the end, and desire to know the final blessedness, of which very thing our Lord declared both the angels and himself to be ignorant. On the one hand, he called ‘day’ the exact apprehension of the conceptions (epinoiai) of God; on the other hand, ‘hour’ the contemplation of the Monad and Unity, the notification of which things he granted only to the Father. [22] If, therefore, whatever God is, is said to be known by God of himself and that which he is not, not to be known—then our Lord, according to the notion (kat’ epinoian) of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, is not the final object of desire; and therefore our Saviour did not know the end and the final blessedness. ‘But neither the angels know,’ he said—that is, neither the contemplation which is in them nor the reasons (logoi) of their ministries are the final object of desire. For the knowledge (gnosis) of these things is gross in comparison with the ‘person to person’. The Father alone knows, he says, because he [i.e. the Father] is indeed the end and the final blessedness. For when we know God no longer in mirrors, neither by means of alien things, but we come forth to him as to ‘only’ and ‘one’, then we will see the final end. For they say that the Kingdom of Christ is all the knowledge (gnosis) that is implicated in material [objects] and that the Kingdom of the God and Father is the immaterial contemplation, and, as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity.

Let us briefly mention the similarities. There is first of all the notion that the person must turn away from material things. That is a very strong feature of this school of mysticism.

The most obvious difference is the treatment of the nature of God who is the goal by St Gregory the Theologian as the Trinity. The author of Passage A, on the other hand, has a somewhat more Neoplatonic view that treats the Monad and Unity, identified with the Father, as the goal. The words we have translated ‘Monad’ and ‘Unity’ are technical terms in Neoplatonic philosophy used by Proclus for the highest aspect of the Godhead, here identified with the Father. A little later the author of Passage A uses related words which we have translated ‘only’ and ‘one’.

In Passage A, the Kingdom of Christ is the contemplation implicated in material things. It is to be surpassed so as to attain to the Kingdom of the Father, which is the final goal and blessedness. The Kingdom of the Father is the contemplation of the very Divinity, the contemplation of the ‘Monad’ and ‘Unity’.

St Gregory makes no such distinction in the passage quoted here or anywhere else in the Theological Orations. However, such distinctions are to be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica and in Evagrius’ other late works.

Moreover, St Gregory speaks of seeing the hind parts of God, that which the divine David calls the ‘magnificence’ which is to be found in the creatures, just as we see the reflections of the sun upon the waters. The author of Passage A on the other hand is explicit that when we proceed beyond seeing God in mirrors, or by means of alien things, but we come forth to him as to ‘only’ and ‘one’, then we will see the final end.

St Gregory is very diffident about the possibility of Man’s knowing the nature of God, whereas the author of Passage A is quite explicit that the contemplation of the very Divinity is the goal, a goal which is attainable.

It is as if the author of Passage A is relegating St Gregory the Theologian to the rank of beginner. That is hardly consistent with his being a student of St Gregory writing a year before St Gregory spoke the Theological Orations and expecting St Gregory to review his letter before he sends it to the brethren back home.

To continue, St Gregory teaches that he saw the hind parts of God while covered by the Rock which is the Incarnate Word.

The author of Passage A states that seen from the point of view of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, ‘our Lord’—Jesus Christ—is not the end and the goal of the mystical ascent, but seen from the point of view of the Word, he is.

What could Passage A mean here? It might be thought that what the author means is that the human nature of the Christ is not our goal but his divine nature is. Even if we ignore the Kephalaia Gnostica which explicitly states that the Christ was not God in the beginning but is called so on account of his union with the Word,[4] still, the formulation of the author of Passage A is quite unusual from an Orthodox point of view. For from an Orthodox point of view, the person who is Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh: there was never a time when the human nature of Christ was a person apart from the person of the Word. Hence, there would be no reason for the mystic to seek in the mystical ascent the humanity of Christ apart from his Divinity: we want to meet Jesus Christ the person, and that person was always and only the Word of God.

So we have a situation in Passage A in which the humanity of Christ is not our goal but his Divinity is; and in which the Kingdom of Christ is the contemplation implicated in material things, to be surpassed so as to attain to the Kingdom of the Father, which is the contemplation of the Divinity, the contemplation of the ‘Monad’ and ‘Unity’.

If we identify the Kingdom of Christ, the contemplation implicated in material things, with the humanity of Christ, then it is distinguished from the Kingdom of the Father, the contemplation of the bare Divinity, identified with the Father, yes, but also with the Word, the Divinity of Christ. This is odd. Why would the Kingdom of Christ, the contemplation of the material creation, be identified with the humanity of Christ in contradistinction to the Kingdom of the Father, the contemplation of the Divinity, identified with the Father but also with the Word, the Divinity of Christ?

St Gregory makes no such elaborate distinctions.

The question then arises: well, if Evagrius wrote this a year before St Gregory wrote the Theological Orations, then how is it that he is making these distinctions? How is it that St Gregory accepted these distinctions as being genuinely Orthodox without adopting them in his own Orations?

The more natural explanation is that the author of Passage A is advancing a different Christology here, one developed at great length in Evagrius’ late works, especially the Kephalaia Gnostica.

In other words, a detailed reflection on the Theological Orations of St Gregory in comparison with Passage A indicates that Passage A was not written under the watchful eye of St Gregory: if the passage is by Evagrius it was written much later, when he was working on works such as the Kephalaia Gnostica.

And here we have a modest theory what happened. Evagrius learned the mysticism of St Gregory from St Gregory and then went to Egypt. There he was initiated into a ‘higher mystical doctrine’, validated by experience, which surpassed the mysticism of St Gregory: he realized that St Gregory had only reached a lower level and not the direct contemplation of the ‘Monad’ and ‘Unity’, as he himself had. So he surpassed St Gregory’s doctrine with his own additions. This seems to have entailed a re-interpretation of the Christ. Our personal view, for what it is worth, is that in this his teacher was Didymus the Blind. The result? Evagrius was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. St Gregory is the Theologian.

Let us look again at these two passages in Passage A concerning points of view of the Christ:

If, therefore, whatever God is, is said to be known by God of himself and that which he is not, not to be known—then our Lord, according to the notion (kata ten … epinoian) of the Incarnation and the grosser teaching, is not the final object of desire; and therefore our Saviour did not know the end and the final blessedness.

For they say that the Kingdom of Christ is all the knowledge (gnosis) that is implicated in material [objects] and that the Kingdom of the God and Father is the immaterial contemplation, and, as one might say, the contemplation of the very Divinity. [23] Our Lord, however, is himself the end and final blessedness according to the notion (kata ten epinoian) of the Word.

Just what does the author of Passage A mean from a Christological point of view? If we take into consideration KG IV, 18, quoted earlier, then one interpretation is that the author is saying the same thing here: the Christ as seen from the point of view of the created mind (nous) which, united to the Word of God, took on human flesh for the salvation of men is not the final object of desire; but the Word to which that mind (nous) called the Christ is united is the final object of desire. Consider the following passages of the Kephalaia Gnostica:

III, 72 The heritage of Christ is the gnosis of the Unity; and, if all should become coheirs of Christ, all will know the Holy Unity. But it is not possible that they should become his coheirs if they have not previously become his heirs.[5]

IV, 21 The unction either indicates the gnosis of the Unity or designates the contemplation of beings. And if more than the others Christ is anointed, it is evident that he is anointed with the gnosis of the Unity. On account of that, he alone is said ‘to be seated at the right’ [Mark 16, 19] of his Father, the right which here, according to the rule of the gnostics, indicates the Monad and the Unity.[6]

These passages create a serious caution for the student of the To the Caesareans…. Although the letter is adamant that the Word of God, the Son, is God, it does not automatically follow that the author believes that the Christ is that Word of God incarnated into human flesh. That is a different doctrine, one which the author might or might not hold.

Fr Gabriel Bunge takes the position that since To the Caesareans… was written under the eye of St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, all the concepts expressed in it are orthodox.[7] In his view, we cannot use an interpretation of the Kephalaia Gnostica which yields a heterodox Evagrius to interpret this letter: on the contrary we must use the fact that To the Caesareans… is orthodox to interpret the Kephalaia Gnostica in an orthodox way. This is what Dr Casiday calls ‘the presumption of Evagrius’ orthodoxy’.[8]

However, what we are saying is that since we have no documentary evidence that St Gregory approved of the letter in the form we now have it, we can use the doctrines found in the Kephalaia Gnostica—much more clearly than either Fr Gabriel or Dr Casiday care to admit—to shed light on the meaning of passages in the letter, and even to raise the possibility that some passages of the letter, expressive of mature Evagrian doctrine as found in the Kephalaia Gnostica, are in fact late interpolations into the letter, perhaps by Evagrius, perhaps by one of his circle. In any event, it cannot blithely be asserted that the author’s reasoning is inherently orthodox both in the letter and throughout his life, and must be presumed to be orthodox, because of Evagrius’ early association with St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian. At the very least the matter has to be thoroughly revealed through research.

Let us continue to look at the content of Passage A.

The passage contains a succinct description of first natural contemplation, the contemplation of the angels themselves and of their reasons (logoi):

‘But neither the angels know,’ [Jesus] said—that is, neither the contemplation which is in them nor the reasons (logoi) of their ministries are the final object of desire.

In the Evagrian system, first natural contemplation is a very advanced stage of contemplation, just prior to the mystic’s entry into the contemplation of the Divinity.[9] The two parts of first natural contemplation are the intuitive sight of the actual angels themselves[10] and the intuitive apprehension of the reasons (logoi) of the angels’ ministry,[11] what the angels are all about.

This brief reference in Passage A to first natural contemplation is far more than an immature foreshadowing of a later mystical system; it is a very sophisticated, concise description of a major part of that system. Moreover, there is no such doctrine of first natural contemplation in the Theological Orations. Hence, the assertion that Evagrius wrote the whole text of To the Caesareans… in Constantinople at the age of 35 before he went to Egypt is problematical.

Next is this part of Passage A:

But because our mind (nous), having being made gross, has been joined to the dust and is mixed up with the clay and is unable to gaze in bare contemplation, therefore being guided by means of the adornments which are related to the body[12] it understands the operations (energeies) of the Creator, and in the beginning it understands these from the results (apotelesmata), so that, thus having increased little by little, it might have the strength at some time to advance even to the naked Divinity itself. (¶7 [23].)

Consider the first part of this sentence: ‘our mind (nous), having been made gross’. The text has the aorist participle pachyntheis. The author of the text is introducing a temporal sequence of events in a very concise way. Given this temporal sequence, we can see this passage as an allusion to the doctrine of the pre-existence of the minds (noes) and their descent into bodies. This doctrine was condemned in Anathema 1 of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.[13]

In other respects, this excerpt from Passage A is a very concise presentation of the Evagrian doctrine of the mystical ascent to God through second natural contemplation, apart from our reservations about terminology that we discussed earlier.

These concepts are not to be found in the Theological Orations of Evagrius’ teacher.

The preceding discussion of passages of To the Caesareans raises the issue of the status of the Kephalaia Gnostica in the interpretation of To the Caesareans, or more generally put, the issue of what works are most representative of Evagrius the thinker. Some scholars emphasize both the orthodoxy of To the Caesareans…, as written under the watchful eye of St Gregory the Theologian in Constantinople, and its normative role in the orthodox interpretation of Evagrius’ later works, especially the Kephalaia Gnostica. However, once we view To the Caesareans… as a more heterogeneous work which may contain much later elements of Evagrius’ thought than what he would have espoused in Constantinople as a student of the author of the Theological Orations, then we can raise the question of whether we should not be using the Kephalaia Gnostica to interpret To the Caesareans….

For it is from a familiarity with Evagrius’ later works that the reader can spot elements of Layer 3 of the letter that might reflect Evagrius’ later heterodox views on cosmology—or indeed even his later orthodox views on contemplation.

Let us give another example:

For it is necessary that that prayer of our Master be brought to its end. For Jesus is he who prays: ‘Give them that they may be one in us just as you and I are one, Father.’ For being one, God, coming to be in each, makes all one and number is destroyed in the sojourn in the Monad.[14] (¶7 [25].)

The last sentence of this excerpt is a clear allusion to the doctrine of the Restoration (apokatastasis), when all the minds (noes) will become one in such a way that there will a loss of number—i.e. a loss of individual characteristics—among the individual minds. Now one might suppose that the sentence should be taken as a statement that when a person has a mystical experience, then he subjectively feels the unity of all Creation and all men. However, such a subjectivism would be completely foreign to the philosophical and spiritual tradition of which Evagrius was a part, from Plato through Aristotle through the Cappadocians. Admittedly, the author’s construction ‘epidemia tes monados’, which we have rendered ‘sojourn in the Monad’, is grammatically difficult to render, but a familiarity with the Kephalaia Gnostica immediately raises the question whether the author is not alluding to the Restoration (apokatastasis).

The issue here is this: Should we assume, on the basis of his association with St Gregory and St Basil, that Evagrius is orthodox and give him the benefit of the doubt in interpreting such passages as these of To the Caesareans…, and then continue with that orthodox interpretation into the Kephalaia Gnostica, denying the a posteriori template that the Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod supposedly put on the Kephalaia Gnostica?

We ourselves think that when one has a familiarity with the Kephalaia Gnostica, even in the French of Guillaumont, then when he is reading To the Caesareans…, he can easily spot allusions to the system of the Kephalaia Gnostica. It does not seem to us methodologically sound to impose on Evagrius the a priori template of orthodoxy. We must confront the issue that the Kephalaia Gnostica, taken on its own terms, can tell us something about what Evagrius thought, even in To the Caesareans….

Let us illustrate what we are saying with another passage from To the Caesareans…, this time not from Passage A but from another part of the letter:

He bore with these things on account of his great love for mankind concerning his creature, so that he recover the lost sheep, and so that he combine that which was saved; and so that he lead healthy again to his familiar homeland him who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho and for that reason fell into the hands of robbers. (¶5 [18].)

The author of this passage uses an unusual word in context, katamixei (καταμίξ), for what he expects Jesus to do with the lost sheep that Jesus has recovered. We have rendered that word ‘combine’. A person familiar with the Kephalaia Gnostica can immediately detect an allusion here to the Restoration (apokatastasis), when all the minds will enter without individual characteristics into the henad of naked minds, just as we have discussed above.

Moreover, the author immediately goes on to use another Gospel image, that of the traveller who descended from Jerusalem to Jericho. In the Kephalaia Gnostica we find this:

VI, 49 Egypt signifies vice; the desert, praktiki; the land of Judah, the contemplation of bodies; Jerusalem, [the contemplation] of incorporeals; and Zion is the symbol of the Trinity[15].

V, 88 Zion is the sign of the first gnosis[16], and Egypt is the indication of all vice; but the symbol of the [first] natural contemplation is Jerusalem, where is the Mount of Zion, the summit of the city.

V, 6 The contemplation of angels is named the celestial Jerusalem and the Mount of Zion, for if those who have believed in Christ draw near to the Mount of Zion and to the City of the Living God, then it is in the contemplation of angels that those who have believed in Christ have been and will be, that contemplation from which their fathers have gone out and descended into Egypt.

As can be seen, the image of the descent from Jerusalem to Jericho is pregnant with meaning in Evagrius’ mature system.



[1] SC 250 Oration 28 (= Theological Oration 2) 3, 1 – 26, pp. 104 – 106.

[2] Ibid. fn. 2, pp. 106 – 107.

[3] In context, the author seems to mean natural contemplation.

[4] IV 18 The intelligible unction is the spiritual gnosis of the Holy Unity, and the Christ is he who is united to this gnosis. And if that is so, the Christ is not the Word in the beginning, so that he who has been anointed is not God in the beginning, but that one on account of this one is the Christ, and this one on account of that one is God.

[5] Constantine Volume II, p. 387.

[6] Ibid. p. 392.

[7] Personal Communication. We are summarizing our understanding of what Fr Gabriel wrote to us. But this point of view is also to be found in Casiday, which is dedicated to Fr Gabriel. See Casiday p. 30: ‘In the light of how trenchantly orthodox Evagrius is shown to have been by his letter On the Faith [= To the Caesareans…] … it seems far more sensible to begin our attempts to understand his admittedly obscure writings from the presumption of his Cappadocian orthodoxy than to work backward from the presumption of Origenist heresy.’

[8] Loc. cit.

[9] For a discussion of the cognitive psychology of these stages of contemplation, see Peri Logismon 41. Discussions of this stage of contemplation can be found in the Kephalaia Gnostica. For a discussion of specific chapters of the Kephalaia Gnostica which pertain to the stages of contemplation, see our ‘Digression’ in the Evagrian Ascetical System (Constantine Vol. II).

[10] This is the intelligible intuitive apprehension of a created intelligible being with mind. Intuitive is meant in the philosophical sense, precisely in the way the conclusion of the letter asserts that the mind (nous) has been created by God to grasp its own materials without being taught. This is not a matter of discursive meditation on the angels or of seeing them in fantasy.

[11] The intuitive apprehension of the reasons (logoi) of the ministry of the angels is by analogy with the intuitive apprehension of the reason (logos) of a material object in second natural contemplation. For a full discussion, see Peri Logismon 41.

[12] Evidently, these ‘adornments which are related to the body’ are the beauties of the material world which manifest the operations (energeies) of the Creator.

[13] See Constantine Vol. I, Chap. 3, Section 11, ‘Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod’, p. 243 ff.

[14] Literally, ‘of the Monad’.

[15] I.e. the contemplation of the Trinity.

[16] I.e. Theology, mystical union with God.

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