The translation is mine (Fr. Gregory) and has been an ongoing process. If you have any suggestions in correcting my English (I am not a native writer/speaker) pls do comment!
Created and Renewed after the Image of God
Concerning the Biblical-theological and Sacramental Foundations of Evagrian Mysticism
By Fr. Gabriel Bunge osb
Evagrios Pontikos (ca. 345 – 399) has from time to time been referred to as a “Philosopher in the Desert”. This is certainly correct if we understand philosophy to be the “highest philosophy” as the Church historian Socrates thought of it. This is also how the early Church understood it, and how Evagrios himself – from before he became a monk – understood philosophy as “the highest philosophy.” For him it is the “doctrine of Christ our Saviour” which consists of praktike, physike and theologike, which is synonymous with “Christianity.” The very “wisdom” which is here said to be “loved” above all is not the “external wisdom”, the “wisdom of the world”, from which Evagrios expects nothing, but the Logos of God the “essential wisdom.” To allege that Evagrian Mysticism is, despite its theology (which is admitted to be its “highest goal”) philosophical rather than theological at least in a Trinitarian sense and that it is neoplatonic, is to fundamentally misunderstand the monk from Pontos. This does nothing to change the fact that such a destructive verdict on this monk who understands himself as a Christian, has been passed on him from a competent side.
To convince oneself how ungrounded this verdict is, it is prudent to inquire into the specific theological foundations of Evagrian mysticism. According to biblical teaching human beings are “created after the Image of God” and in Christ are also renewed after the Image of the Creator. This “renewal”, by which the human being becomes “a new creation in Christ” and is also renewed to the “knowledge of God”, is received in holy Baptism. Therefore any mysticism which understands itself as Christian mysticism must ultimately have a sacramental foundation. Do we see this in Evagrios?
Some biographical points will first be provided here. Evagrios, when he left Constantinople was a deacon, and he remained a deacon for the remainder of his life. It is unlikely that he ever functioned as such in the Nitrian desert, where only the oldest of the eight priests celebrated. Evagrios spent the last sixteen years of his life as a monk, not as a cleric. This explains why there is so little mention of the Church, whose teaching, and above all Sacraments, practice and administration lie solely in the competence of the Priests (Bishop or Presbyter). When the Church is mentioned, it is only mentioned in a “spiritual meaning,” like one would expect of a “spiritual father.” In other words, Evagrios takes the “Catholic and Apostolic Church” for granted; he explains and defends her doctrine and Sacraments only when they are attacked and where their neglect automatically endangers the “spiritual life.” Such is certainly the case when the “consubstantiality” of the Holy Spirit is denied.
The way Evagrios read the Holy Scriptures of the Old Covenant in unison with the Fathers, teaches that human beings are created “after the Image of God”. Evagrios specifically applies this to man’s “intellect,” in so far as this is a bodiless nature, is like God Himself who in essence is a “Spirit,” and that therefore He is bodiless.
Your hands have made me and built me: Made (pepoietai) was the soul, built (peplastai) was the body. Like it is said: Let us make men after our Image, and also taking dust from the earth he built him.
The Intellect, by which Evagrios means the “inner man,” is simply referred to as the Image of God. In principle this holds true even for the sinner, despite the fact that Evagrios, reflecting on the “fallen image”, at one point said that man now has an “animal image” – in accordance with Ps 48, 13.
What we have here is of course the first of three creations known to Evagrios: creatio ex nihilo, also called the “transition from non-existence to existence” (ousiosis). This is a foundational act of the Creator, who makes man to be unchangeably what he is in accordance with his innermost being. The whole economy of salvation in behalf of the “fallen image” is constructed upon this original created being, while this “fallen image” is “renewed” in Christ and only in the eschaton will it be perfected in the “likeness.” But let us first once more return to creation.
From Holy Scripture and the New Covenant we know that only the Son is the “Image of God” the Father in an absolute sense. The biblical statement that man is created after the image of God hereby gains a precise Trinitarian sense: he is after the Image of the Father, that is to say, he is an Image of the Son. In other words man is not “Image of God” in the absolute sense. To make this fundamental distinction clear Evagrios sometimes uses Hebrews 1, 3 in this context to refer to both the Son and the Spirit. They are the “exact image and true radiance of the Father’s essence” literally the “hypostasis of the Father.” The intellect however is “true image and likeness of the Son and the Spirit.” The conclusions Evagrios draws from this twofold Archetype – Copy relationship (Father – Son and Spirit, Son and Spirit – Intellect), we will examine below. It is sufficient here to state that the intellect is as it were a created image of the Image, namely an image of a prototypos or archetypos.
To understand this we must take a look at Evagrian “Christology,” even though at this point we can only establish the very basic outline of this fundamental theme in Evagrian thought. In his “Epistula ad Melaniam” Evagrios posits that the intellect is without mediation the image of the Son and Spirit. In the following “Kephalaion” it is said that:
In the Aeons God will change the body of our humiliation into the resemblance of the glorious body of the Lord; and after all the Aeons he will also bring us to the resemblance of the image of His Son, if the image of the Son is essential knowledge of God the Father.
Evagrios, then, distinguishes between two phases of salvation. The first phase is that of the change (metas xematizei) and bringing to resemblance (summorphon) with the “glorious Body of the Lord” which will take place within time. For indeed, the aion is the spatial dimension of the kosmos that is commensurate with the temporal dimension of the material creation. The second phase is that of the “bringing to the resemblance (summorphous) of His Son” which lies beyond this creation (meta ton panton ton aionon) when aion and cosmos have passed away. As we will see, Evagrios develops the same thought while utilizing other biblical texts.
The implications (and problematic) of the above mentioned two phases, which are decisive for Evagrian eschatology, we cannot further discuss here. Important for our purpose here is the unambiguous distinction which Evagrios makes in the second phase between “Son” and “Image of the Son.” The “Image of the Son” is, as it were, hypostatic. But who or what is meant by this? This “Image of the Son” is “Christ.”
Let Your face shine upon us, and we shall be saved:
Christ is named face here because he is ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of creation.’
“Here” (entautha) and on several other occasions Evagrios understands Christ in a fashion derived and further developed from Origen, as ‘a certain rational and holy soul which came into the life of man together with the God-Logos” when He became incarnate. He is called Christos – anointed one – because He – as the only one – was anointed with the knowledge of the monas. This knowledge of “oneness” is the fruit of his original, essential and inseparable unity with the God-Logos. Thanks to this unity “Christ” (which here refers to a certain holy soul) is “God,” and the Logos is rightly called “Christ.” When Evagrios thinks about the Son in this unity with “a certain rational and holy soul” he often adds: Christon de phemi ton meta Theou Logou epidemisanta Kyrion.
The unity between the God-Logos and a “certain holy soul” does not exist, according to Evagrios, until the humanization of the Son of God because the genesis of the asomata is timeless. The humanization of the Son of God is an unrepeatable event and is of decisive soteriological significance. Whenever God manifests himself in history – namely in the Old Covenant – He does so en Christo: the Old Testament theophanies are as a matter of fact christophanies. The same holds true in case of the kosmopoiia and the creation of the material world. Consequently Evagrios identifies the “whole of material (enhylos) knowledge” with the “Kingdom of Christ”, because in Him the God-Logos is not beheld in his Divine Essence (hos pros auton) but in his actions for us (hos pros hemas). In all this it is of course clear that the above mentioned distinction is strictly a matter of viewpoint (kat’ epinoian): The Lord is always one and the same!
Because it is a given that the soul of Jesus is of the same nature as ours the question needs to be asked what the relation of this “certain rational and holy soul” is with the other souls. Christ as the Firstborn [of all Creation] (protokos pases ktiseos), “before whom no others came to be and after whom others came into being”, “before any rational nature” (pro pases logikes physeos) was created. But not in a chronological sense since what is bodiless is also timeless, which means that one intellect is not older than another intellect. The genesis of the logika is, as we have seen, a timeless act. The pro should much rather be understood in an ontological sense of before. A “certain rational and holy soul” is as it were the prototypos or archetype for every rational nature. To put it differently: “Christ” is the hypostatic “Image of God” in which all the other souls participate. This “rational and holy soul” is in an eternal and ideal purity which cannot be lost in which all souls were intended to be as well and for this reason potentially are. Consequently Evagrios defines the Image of God as “receptivity for the monas”, which is a state of unity between the triune God and his rational creation – to put it a little less cryptically – as “receptivity for God.”
To be “receptive” (dektikos) means that one is also, in principle, receptive of the opposite, that means – at least practically speaking – to loose the received good and to fail one’s goal. In reality – for reasons we cannot elaborate here – the entire physis logike exists as “fallen image” with the only exception of “a certain holy soul.” This is where the Evagrian soteriology starts; after all, the Creator is also the Redeemer!
As he killed them, they sought him:
When God kills the old man, which is being destroyed by treacherous desires, they will seek the new man which is renewed after the Image of the Creator.
“Renewed after the Image of the Creator”, which according to what was said earlier can only mean – and Evagrios confirms it explicitly –, that God has “recreated him in Christ” and that he now “by grace” once again resembles the Image of the Creator. Only in this man who is “renewed after the Image of God” is there no more “male or female,” neither “Greek nor Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian nor Scythian, neither slave nor free: but Christ is all in all.” This is the fruit of the incarnation of the Son, which the believers receive in the second of three creations known to Evagrios, “the change from evil to good !”
By baptism is man recreated. He is a new creature in Christ.
Holy Baptism and its “spiritual seal” are a sacramental act of the “catholic and apostolic Church,” in whom we are granted “the forgiveness of sins” like the eagle sheds its old age and “ in Christ” is radically “renewed according to the Image!” Whoever denies the true divinity of the Holy Spirit empties out Baptism from its soteriological content because Baptism is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. Whoever says the Holy Trinity is a creature, insofar as he says the Holy Spirit was created at a later time “blasphemes God” and immediately involves his own salvation. At the same time he also denies the spiritual life any ontological foundation.
As is clear from the above quoted kephalaion (KG VI 34) Evagrios sees the conformation to the Image of the Son of God as a process which – as has now become apparent – is founded in holy Baptism. Its eschatological completion is not attained “until all the aeons have passed.” This process unfolds gradually, as the following will show.
You have shortened his time:
We must first become like the “days of Heaven,” that is similar (homoious) to the holy Powers, and then also similar (parempherein) to the “Sun of Righteousness” since the prayer of our Lord must be wholly and completely fulfilled. It is after all Jesus who prays “Father that they may be one in us, as You and I are one.” This is how it will be with us: From then on neither increasing nor decreasing but rather living in the fullness of the Lord.
Evagrios considers the being after the Image of God to be a natural good which has been given to us at the creation of our nature. The fulfilment of this being after the Image of God into the being in the likeness of God as they are indicated in Gen. 1, 26 (kat’ eikona hemeteran kai kath’ homoiosin) and in 1 John 3, 2 (homoi auto esometha) lies beyond our creaturely nature and is, as custom has it, supernatural. Insofar as this, in itself eschatological fulfilment, has been graciously founded in the “new creature” by Baptism, our “spiritual life” in a real sense is already a supernatural event as will now become clear.
From Kol 3, 10 Evagrios takes it that the “renewal after the Image of the Creator” takes place eis epignosin in view of the knowledge of God. He is thinking of an unmediated knowledge of God which all physis logike originally possessed but is at present unique to Christ. This is where the Evagrian doctrine of the soul as after the Image of God is fully unfolded.
Evagrian mysticism is – despite all prejudices – deeply trinitarian. In KG VI 34 it is said that in the eschaton we will become similar to “the Image of the Son” and that this “Image of the Son” in fact means the “essential knowledge of God the Father.” Because the Primal Cause and the Final Goal is strictly speaking the Person of the Father and for this reason Evagrios indicates Him to be the Producer of “essential knowledge.” For creatures the Father is known only – which is completely biblical – by means of the Son and the Spirit, in fact – so says Evagrios – because of the double relation Archetype – Copy relationship in which as the Son and the Spirit stand to the Father so stands the Intellect to the Son and the Holy Spirit. Due to its creaturely ‘being after the Image of God,’ the intellect is a “receiver of the knowledge of the Father,” and as Evagrios will specify more precisely, it is exclusively the intellect which has been renewed to the knowledge of the Image who also created it!”
As we have seen we are dealing with an eschatological event. “For ever,” “without end,” “unchangeably,” creatures will delight in the “bottomless depth of the Father’s love,” without creaturely mediation, but (only) through the mediation of His Son and Spirit, once the “beloved end” has become full reality. Yet the faith teaches us that, because of holy Baptism, we have a foretaste of the future glory. This is where mysticism begins with the personal experience of “final blessedness” while yet here on earth during the time of prayer.
Because in a “true” prayer or “spiritual prayer” the prayer which is “in Spirit and in Truth” which is “the worship of the Father in His Holy Spirit and His Only-Begotten Son,” does the intellect “dialogue with the Father” “without any mediation” of a creature or even the thought of a creature. Because now “it no longer honours the Creator from His creatures, but it praises Him in hymns from itself” (ex autou auton anhymnei). Such a praying person has in the true sense of the word become a theologian, since he does not merely know something about God but he has seen Him. And of course, this must not be forgotten; such a person is in Christ!
Let us sum things up. As we have remarked previously, Evagrios has been called a “philosopher in the desert,” and this is certainly correct insofar as one understands “philosophy” in an Evagrian sense. It would be more appropriate to call him “the great theologian of the desert,” and to use it in a very precise sense in which Evagrios himself uses this term. Theology is the pinnacle of a supra-rational, personal realization of unity with the triune God. Theology is ultimately reserved to the eschaton but a “pure heart” can tap into it already while yet here on earth by means of grace “at the time of prayer.”
Yet Evagrios also proves himself an excellent theologian in the modern sense of that word. His mysticism, after all, has a solid biblical and theological foundation: the doctrine that the intellect is after the Image of God, which alone makes it capax Dei. Perhaps most surprising to many is the fact that for Evagrios the “theologos” is not man in general, but only the man renewed after the Image of the “Creator” in Christ by means of holy Baptism, and who therefore is the “new man.” Put differently: Evagrian mysticism, despite its scarce references to Church and Sacraments, has an undeniable sacramental character; as one ought to expect from any mysticism which understands itself to be a Christian mysticism.
Evagrian Christology which fell into disrepute rather quickly – I think because it has been completely misunderstood – finds its true raison d’ être in this mysticism of the being after the Image of God. It is here that Evagrios attempts to understand the essence of the Intellect “being created after the Image of God” and the “renewal” after this Image of the intellect by “a certain and holy soul” (the latter was from the moment of its creation essentially and indivisibly united with the God-Logos, and together with the Son also has become man). This “certain and holy soul” serves as an example to what the soul essentially is, and what the soul despite its fall will potentially always remain to be, and what the soul will eternally be in the end by virtue of the saving economy of the Son and the Spirit. Evagrian Christology is therefore not merely the at the heart of soteriology, but it is also the central theme which connects protology, cosmology, soteriology, and eschatology.
We have designated “a certain and holy soul” as the hypostatized “Image of God,” as the “prototype” (or archetype), after the example of which all other souls are created and renewed. This justifies the question how Evagrios thinks of “our Saviour Jesus Christ”, the Son of God who became flesh in the human Person of Jesus. It is now clear that Evagrios develops his Christology using the Incarnate One as his basis, because without the Incarnation we know nothing about “the soul of Christ”! But how does he conceive of the Incarnate One Himself?
The answer to this question will not be found in the writings dedicated to physike, such as the “Kephalaia Gnostica,” but rather in writings of a more personal nature, such as the “Letters” or the “Exhortation to a Virgin.” Here we encounter a very intimate Christ-mysticism which – it is important to notice that the “Exhortation to a Virgin” is directed to a nun – rises to a true bridal mysticism. When Evagrios speaks of “imitation of Christ” it is precisely the human Person Jesus Christ he has in mind, despite the present metaphysical context. By means of Jesus Christ, and His Old Testament prefigurations Moses and David, Evagrios makes clear what this “imitation” which alone makes us well-pleasing to God is: “Meekness” which for him is the concrete manifestation of Christian agape. It alone makes a human being receptive of the knowledge of God and His personal Presence. Love is the quintessential point of praktike, the practical-ascetical life which without having been completed there can be no mysticism and also no “theologia”.
Translated by Fr. Gregory Wassen