We skip back in history a little bit to talk about Origen, before we go to Evagrius, because he is going to be foundational for Evagrius, as well as John Cassian.
• (c. 185-c. 254) born in Alexandria, Egypt;
• his father was martyred during persecutions in 202, and he was only prevented from running after martyrdom himself by some kind of ruse by his mother
• received a great Greek education and became the head of Catechetical school in Alexandria
• even though he wasn’t a monk he lived a strict ascetical life of fasting, vigils and voluntary poverty––according to history even mutilated himself at one point: “If your eye causes you to sin…”
• he was imprisoned and subjected to prolonged torture under the persecution of Decius and eventually died in prison.
The charge has been made that Christian mystical theology is nothing but baptized Platonism, but it is with Origen that we begin to discuss specifically Christian mystical theology.
• He is definitely a student of Plato himself––he had the same teacher as the great neo-Platonist Plotinus––but what’s important is that Origen studies Plato as a Christian.
• Other great thinkers of the era such as Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria converted from philosophy to Christianity, but Origen comes at Platonism as a Christian.
• For most of the writers of this era, what we call the Patristic era, the mystical life is nothing other than “the ultimate flowering of the life of baptism,” the ultimate fruition of our sharing in Jesus’ death and risen life by virtue of having been baptized in water and the Holy Spirit.
• The same holds true for Origen: the mystical life is simply the working out of Christ’s union with the soul that has already happened with Baptism, the realizing of the communion between God and the soul that is already there, a dialogue between Christ and the soul. And Origen expresses this in language drawn from the great philosopher Plato.
But let’s state right up front: though highly influential Origen is condemned for a few things, and this is why, even in spite of being martyred, he has never been declared a saint:
• He believed in the pre-existence of souls and so was accused of metempsychosis––transmigration of souls, or re-incarnation!
• Denial of identity between the mortal body and the resurrected body
• Accused of interpreting Scripture only allegorically
• He also has a theory that was picked up later by Hans Ur van Balthasar called Apocatastasis: that death does not decide the ultimate fate of the soul (again similar to re-incarnation) but in the end all creatures, even the Devil, will be saved. This of course is what Holy Saturday and Jesus’ descent into hell is all about.
• This condemnation and suspicion will have a lasting effect. Evagrius is a student of his thought, and so was held in suspicion; and John Cassian is a follower of Evagrius and the desert tradition, and he too will never be canonized, though all three of them will have great impact on Christian mystical theology, and none so much as Origen himself.
the three stages
This is a favorite model of mine when speaking of the spiritual life. It will receive its most eloquent aritculation many centuries later from St John of the Cross. But here is Origen's version of it:
In the prologue of his commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen had written about how the philosophers (that is, the Greeks, Stoics and Middle Platonists) had taught of a three-fold ascent of the soul to union with the Divine.
• The first stage is ethike, as in the word “ethics,” which deals with the manner of life and the habits of virtue;
• then comes the stage of physike, like the word “physics,” which deals with the inner nature of things, their essential form;
• and finally comes enoptike, a very strange word to us, translated sometimes as “inspective” but roughly meaning the same as metaphysics.
o As Origen writes enoptike is “that by which we go beyond things seen and contemplate somewhat of the things divine and heavenly, beholding them with the mind alone, for they are beyond the range of bodily sight.”
o I hope that last bit sounds familiar because we are again in the area of the apophatic––those things which are beyond the range of bodily sight.
Origen is deeply rooted in the Scriptures; for him the encounter with the Divine comes through an encounter with the Word.
• He is concerned with the soul being one with the Word, who we know to have been made flesh in Jesus.
• Origen first proposes the three levels of meaning of Scripture: literal, moral and allegorical (of which he preferred the last which got him in trouble); later in the tradition of lectio divina this developes into the four levels of meaning of Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral (tropological) and unitive (anagogical)
• Origen finds this same pathway, the three stages of the soul’s ascent, in the Scriptures. He uses three Wisdom books as examples: the Book of Proverbs, he says, deals with ethics; physics is dealt with in Ecclesiastes, and finally, of course, enoptics, the contemplation of God, is what the Song of Songs is all about. In his Commentary on the Song of Songs he writes
"The soul is not made one with the Word of God and joined with Him until such a time as all the winter of her personal disorders and the storm of her vices has passed so that she no longer vacillates and is carried about with every kind of doctrine … Then also she will hear ‘the voice of the turtle dove’, which surely denotes that wisdom which the steward of the Word speaks among the perfect, the deep wisdom of God which is hidden in mystery. "
Origen also insists on the idea of a progression through these stages, that they are successive, and even writes about Jesus going through them. Let’s talk a little about each of stage.
The first stage of the soul’s ascent, ethics, is the formation of virtues, which is actually pretty obvious, but we will deal with it more a little later.
• By the time it reaches St John of the Cross, this stage will be known as the purgative stage. (release!, yamas)
• The second, physics, is the stage of “natural contemplation,” a seeing into the true nature of things. We know it best as the illuminative stage (receive). This is two-fold, negative and positive.
o On the positive side, Origen teaches that the only way we can know anything of divine reality is through some image, some hint found in created things. God has placed in all creatures some teaching and some knowledge of invisible and heavenly things through which the soul can climb to spiritual understanding. We will see this come to full fruition in Francis of Assisi for whom everything in creation is a sign of the wonder and love of God. This is natural contemplation, in which the wisdom of earth leads us to seek the source of those things.
o On the negative side, at some point in life we also realize the transience and futility of all created things. Perhaps this is why Origen chose Ecclesiastes as emblematic of this second stage, because it begins:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!
All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Like Plato, Origen thinks that the aim of these first two ways is to subdue the body to the soul, to order the body through the mind. So far, there is no problem, but as we move on we run into trouble area.
• After the body is subdued to the soul, we are then to “free the soul from the body.” And so the final stage, enoptike, what St John of the Cross will call the unitive stage, is mainly something the soul looks forward to after death, when the soul becomes nous and is free to contemplate invisible reality.
• Now perhaps you can see the impetus behind him mutilating himself, and the trouble with his thinking that the mortal body and the resurrected body have nothing to do with each other. Christianity is about the redemption of the body, the flesh and all creation!
• We have to be very careful with this language about “freeing the soul from the body”! This is Platonic language, not biblical language! In here is hidden an easy tendency to see the body as a “tomb for the soul” as Plato did instead of a temple of the Holy Spirit as Jesus did. It is easy to see the body as an anchor weighing down the soul instead of an instrument of salvation.
• Here is where we really need to Christianize our language, and to root everything in the Incarnation of Jesus: the flesh is not bad! Otherwise the Word never would have paid it the great compliment of taking it! Let’s remember that Christianity is based on the fact that Jesus came back from the dead with a glorified body––it was the body that was raised from the dead, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.
• In our efforts to de-mythologize these events in the life of Jesus in our modern era––just like Origen’s tendency to prefer only the allegorical meaning of Scripture––we might be at risk of throwing out the whole point of the Incarnation!
Let’s balance this out and maybe apply a corrective to the imbalance of Origen.
I have been very struck lately by the language that my confrere Bruno Barnhart has been using especially in his book, The Future of Wisdom. He suggest that the language of “ascent,” which we are using here in the soul’s ascent to God, must be complemented by the language of “descent.
• This is also the move from Baptism to Eucharist: perhaps the experience non-duality with the Divine being a good descriptor of the baptismal experience, but then we move to be broken up for and passed out to the world in world and service, and incarnating that union with the divine in our lives.
• To balance this teaching let’s remember that the ascent is only the first part of it, the foundation, the beginning and not the end.
• The movement then gets set up in the spiritual life of Baptism–Eucharist, breathing in-breathing out, knowledge of our identity becomes power in us, power to co-create and to participate.
• There is a common tendency in all spiritual traditions to become removed from the body, from matter, from the earth, but this is a salient feature of the Judeo-Christian tradition (in spite of the early monks’ neo-Platonist tendencies): that we are concerned with incarnating the incarnation.
Some notes from Bruno to end:
The working out of the Christ event takes place at an incarnation depth beyond the level of our consciousness and thought.
• The marriage of East and West ultimately is to be found in the event of the Incarnation through which the human person awakens to the non-dual divine light as one’s own identity
• and consequently to the divine power within oneself as one’s own generative freedom, the capability of creating a human world. (FW, p. 143)
• In the course of history this wisdom (participatory consciousness) has been eclipsed by human rationality.
What comes from this is a certain marvelous freedom or autonomy and with it the related sense of a distinct identity, of a personal self based on these two things––the non-dual divine light as my own identity and the generative freedom that divine power gives me.
• That freedom-autonomy, that sense of distinct identity, with its concomitant energy, become the pivotal transitional point on the way from Christianity to the modern secular West (FW, p. 122)
• of course that is what disappears in the reditus of the eastern contemplative enstasy, samadhi, absorption, in the soul’s interior ascent to God of the Greeks, of the rishis, of the Buddhists, of the Taoist hermits.
• But if instead of seeing it as the peak of the mountain we see it as the fountain of life-giving water, the summit becoming the source, then our exitus, our going out of ourselves in participation the eucharistic movement can truly lead to ecstasy, and the summit becomes again the source.
• This could be specifically Christianity’s contribution to the conversation, because Christ’s basic gift to humanity is this autonomy and freedom based on the knowledge of Being.