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Porphyry on the Mystical Experiences and Initiation of Plotinus

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fancy_dc_AS described in the previous post, Porphyry reports that, after Plotinus died, Amelius asked an oracle of Apollo (generally assumed to be that of Delphi) about the fate of Plotinus’ soul.  In section 22 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry supplies the oracular response.  It isn’t fully clear whether this eulogy of Plotinus was actually composed by the oracle.  Another view is that Plotinus’ associates composed it, and then submitted it to the oracle for approval. In either case, it is clearly a work of some interest and importance.

In section 23 of Life of Plotinus, Porphyry goes on to supply an excellent summary of the oracle, and this is also of interest. For one thing, it is here that Porphyry mentions Plotinus’ mystical experiences of Union with the Absolute. First Porphyry’s remarks are supplied below, then we will make several observations concerning his remarks.

The translation of Stephen MacKenna (1917) is used, except that passages which quote verbatim or closely paraphrase the oracle are placed in italics.  (Comments in square brackets are mine.)

23.
[a]
Good and kindly, singularly gentle and engaging: thus the oracle presents him, and so in fact we found him. Sleeplessly alert — Apollo tells — pure of soul, ever striving towards the divine which he loved with all his being, he laboured strenuously to free himself and rise above the bitter waves of this blood-drenched life:

Ἐν δὴ τούτοις εἴρηται μὲν ὅτι ἀγανὸς γέγονε καὶ ἤπιος καὶ πρᾶός γε μάλιστα καὶ μείλιχος, ἅπερ καὶ ἡμεῖς οὕτως ἔχοντι συνῄδειμεν· εἴρηται δ᾽ ὅτι ἄγρυπνος καὶ καθαρὰν τὴν ψυχὴν ἔχων καὶ ἀεὶ σπεύδων πρὸς τὸ θεῖον, οὗ διὰ πάσης τῆς ψυχῆς ἤρα, ὅτι τε πάντ᾽ ἐποίει ἀπαλλαγῆναι, πικρὸν κῦμ᾽ ἐξυπαλύξαι τοῦ αἱμοβότου τῇδε βίου.

[b]
and this is why to Plotinus — God-like and lifting himself often, by the ways of meditation and by the methods Plato teaches in the Banquet [Symposium], to the first and all-transcendent God — that God appeared, the God who has neither shape nor form but sits enthroned above the Intellectual-Principle and all the Intellectual-Sphere.

Οὕτως δὲ μάλιστα τούτῳ τῷ δαιμονίῳ φωτὶ πολλάκις ἐνάγοντι ἑαυτὸν εἰς τὸν πρῶτον καὶ ἐπέκεινα θεὸν ταῖς ἐννοίαις καὶ κατὰ τὰς ἐν τῷ Συμποσίῳ ὑφηγημένας ὁδοὺς τῷ Πλάτωνι ἐφάνη ἐκεῖνος ὁ θεὸς ὁ μήτε μορφὴν μήτε τινὰ ἰδέαν ἔχων, ὑπὲρ δὲ νοῦν καὶ πᾶν τὸ νοητὸν ἱδρυμένος.

[c]
There was shown to Plotinus the Term [i.e., goal] ever near: for the Term, the one end, of his life was to become Uniate [i.e., united with God], to approach to the God over all: and four times, during the period I passed with him, he achieved this Term, by no mere latent fitness but by the ineffable Act.

To this God, I also declare, I Porphyry, that in my sixty-eighth year I too was once admitted and entered into Union.

Ὧι δὴ καὶ ἐγὼ Πορφύριος ἅπαξ λέγω πλησιάσαι καὶ ἑνωθῆναι ἔτος ἄγων ἑξηκοστόν τε καὶ ὄγδοον. Ἐφάνη γοῦν τῷ Πλωτίνῳ σκοπὸς ἐγγύθι ναίων. Τέλος γὰρ αὐτῷ καὶ σκοπὸς ἦν τὸ ἑνωθῆναι καὶ πελάσαι τῷ ἐπὶ πᾶσι θεῷ. Ἔτυχε δὲ τετράκις που, ὅτε αὐτῷ συνήμην, τοῦ σκοποῦ τούτου ἐνεργείᾳ ἀρρήτῳ καὶ οὐ δυνάμει.

[d]
We are told that often when he was leaving the way, the Gods set him on the true path again, pouring down before him a dense shaft of light; here we are to understand that in his writing he was overlooked and guided by the divine powers.

Καὶ ὅτι λοξῶς φερόμενον πολλάκις οἱ θεοὶ κατεύθυναν θαμινὴν φαέων ἀκτῖνα πορόντες, ὡς ἐπισκέψει τῇ παρ᾽ ἐκείνων καὶ ἐπιβλέψει γραφῆναι τὰ γραφέντα, εἴρηται.

[e]
In this sleepless vision within and without, the oracle says, your eyes have beheld sights many and fair not vouchsafed to all that take the philosophic path: contemplation in man may sometimes be more than human, but compare it with the True-Knowing of the Gods and, wonderful though it be, it can never plunge into the depths their divine vision fathoms.

Ἐκ δὲ τῆς ἀγρύπνου ἔσωθέν τε καὶ ἔξωθεν θέας ἔδρακες, φησίν, ὄσσοις πολλά τε καὶ χαρίεντα, τά κεν ῥέα οὔτις ἴδοιτο ἀνθρώπων τῶν φιλοσοφίᾳ προσεχόντων. Ἡ γὰρ δὴ τῶν ἀνθρώπων θεωρία ἀνθρωπίνης μὲν ἂν γένοιτο ἀμείνων· ὡς δὲ πρὸς τὴν θείαν γνῶσιν χαρίεσσα μὲν ἂν εἴη, οὐ μὴν ὥστε τὸ βάθος ἑλεῖν ἂν δυνηθῆναι, ὥσπερ αἱροῦσιν οἱ θεοί.

[f]
Thus far the Oracle recounts what Plotinus accomplished and to what heights he attained while still in the body: emancipated from the body, we are told how he entered the celestial circle where all is friendship, tender delight, happiness, and loving union with God, where Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, the sons of God, are enthroned as judges of souls — not, however, to hold him to judgement but as welcoming him to their consort

Ταῦτα μὲν οὖν ὅ τι ἔτι σῶμα περικείμενος ἐνήργει καὶ τίνων ἐτύγχανε δεδήλωκε. Μετὰ δὲ τὸ λυθῆναι ἐκ τοῦ σώματος ἐλθεῖν μὲν αὐτόν φησιν εἰς τὴν δαιμονίαν ὁμήγυριν, πολιτεύεσθαι δ᾽ ἐκεῖ φιλότητα, ἵμερον, εὐφροσύνην, ἔρωτα ἐξημμένον τοῦ θεοῦ, τετάχθαι δὲ καὶ τοὺς λεγομένους δικαστὰς τῶν ψυχῶν, παῖδας τοῦ θεοῦ, Μίνω καὶ Ῥαδάμανθυν καὶ Αἰακόν, πρὸς οὓς οὐ δικασθησόμενον οἴχεσθαι, συνεσόμενον δὲ τούτοις, οἷς καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι ὅσοι ἄριστοι.

[g]
to which are bidden spirits pleasing to the Gods — Plato, Pythagoras, and all the people of the Choir of Immortal Love, there where the blessed spirits have their birth-home and live in days filled full of joyous festival and made happy by the Gods.

Σύνεισι δὲ τοιοῦτοι Πλάτων, Πυθαγόρας ὁπόσοι τε ἄλλοι χορὸν στήριξαν ἔρωτος ἀθανάτου· ἐκεῖ δὲ τὴν γένεσιν τοὺς ὀλβίστους δαίμονας ἔχειν βίον τε μετιέναι τὸν ἐν θαλείαις καὶ εὐφροσύναις καταπεπυκνωμένον καὶ τοῦτον διατελεῖν καὶ ὑπὸ θεῶν μακαριζόμενον.

Discussion

1. Porphyry tells us that Plotinus had at least four experiences of union with the Absolute, or God — in Platonic terms, the Form of the Good (Republic 6.507–6.509), or in Neoplatonic terms, the One beyond Universal Intellect (Nous) and beyond Being itself. In the literature of Western mysticism, this ultimate mystical experience is considered the fullest form of the beatific vision (literally, vision of the Good) one may have in this life. (We are also told here that Porphyry himself attained this experience).

Some esoteric and theosophical authors claim that Plotinus was one of a series of initiates into the “Greater Mysteries,” by which means he attained membership in the so-called Great White Brotherhood of Ascended Masters (whose other putative members include the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.)  Whether there is such a thing as an Ascended Master is a question beyond our capacity to answer here.  (It would certainly go against Christian doctrine to place Jesus in this category, which would seem to imply status as a highly evolved human being, and not the Second Person of the Holy Trinity).   But in any case Porphyry makes it very clear that the Greater Mysteries into which Plotinus was ‘initiated’ — and by which means he attained the beatific vision, are not some hidden, arcane rituals the existence of which are only revealed to a select group.

Quite the contrary, Porphyry explicitly states that Plotinus reached exalted mystical states using the method presented in Plato’s dialogue, the Banquet (or, the Symposium).  He’s clearly referring to the second speech of the prophetess, Diotima of Mantinea, which Socrates relates, called the Ladder of Love (Symposium 211–212).

This contemplative exercise begins with conscious appreciation of physical beauty in some person or thing, and proceeds by degrees to eventually contemplate Beauty Absolute, and from there the source of Beauty Absolute, which is God.

This contemplative method is not a secret, except insofar as it is hidden in plain sight — for to grasp the significance of this section of the widely read work, Symposium, does indeed require rare earnestness and dedication in a spiritual seeker.

Besides the Symposium, important touchstones for the Ladder of Love as a spiritual exercise are Enneads 1.6 (On Beauty), 5.8 (On Intelligible Beauty), and 1.3 (On Dialectic; chapters 1 and 2).

2. It perhaps reassures us to learn from Porphyry that, despite Plotinus’ remarkable purity of soul, he was in fact human, and, like us, subject to trials and tribulations. We should not, therefore, suppose that Plotinus’ merely sailed through life effortlessly to his goal; he experienced the waves and storms, too.

As noted in the previous post, the oracle draws parallels between Plotinus’ life and the adversities which beset Odysseus on the raft before he reached the happy land of the Phaeacians (Odyssey, Book 5).

3. But we also learn how Plotinus overcame these difficulties. The oracle explains that, when Plotinus seemed in danger of taking a wrong direction, benevolent gods sent to him “shafts of dense light,” by which means his course was made true again. What precisely this means — how literally or how metaphorically we take this description — is not revealed.  Porphyry understands it as referring to inspired guidance Plotinus received when writing.  But perhaps something more is meant: that, in times of doubt or discouragement, Plotinus was sent those sorts of experiences which we call epiphanies.  We have all had such experiences, and know how beneficial they are. Sometimes they are manifest as physical light — the breaking of a sunbeam through a cloud to illumine the landscape; or an object, bathed in sunlight, suddenly taking on new meaning or significance.  Then there are epiphanies that take the form of insights or moments of mental clarity, revelations or unveilings.

Such epiphanies play a triple role:

  • They often have specific content — a definite  new insight or revelation.
  • They may serve to alter the nature of our mental state generally — for example, taking our attention away from unimportant and distracting thoughts, to remember again (anamnesis) that whole transcendent domain, that of Truth, Beauty, and Moral Goodness; and so redirecting our attention and intentions to these domains, upon which meaning and true success in life so intimately depend.
  • We often experience these events as, literally, God-sends; we feel attended to and loved by God; we feel reassured, grateful, thankful, our faith renewed.

4. But if such experiences are what the oracle meant, we should note that Plotinus did not simply wait passively for them. Instead he is characterized as heroically vigilant — ever careful lest his attention, inner or outer, fall asleep.  So too should we, when we feel ourselves, like Odysseus toss about and at the mercy of life’s storms, strive to remain alert to those graces, epiphanies, and “beams of light” which God does send!

First draft (14 Apr 2015)

References

Armstrong, Arthur Hilary (tr.), Porphyry On the Life of Plotinus and the Order of His Works.  In: Arthur Hilary Armstrong, Plotinus: Enneads. 7 vols. Loeb Edition. Vol. 1. Cambridge, MA, 1966. (pp. 2–90)

MacKenna, Stephen (tr.), Porphyry: On the Life of Plotinus and the Arrangement of his Work. In: Stephen MacKenna (tr.), Plotinus: The Enneads. 1st edition.  London, 1917.  Accessed from Internet Sacred Text Archive, April 10, 2015. <sacred-texts.com/cla/plotenn/index.htm>

Porphyry (author); Adolf Kirchoff? (ed.). Περι Του Πλωτινου Βιου Και Τησ Ταξεωσ Των Βιβλιων Αυτου. Accessed from remacle.org, April 10, 2015. <remacle.org/bloodwolf/philosophes/plotin/vieplotin.htm>

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Written by John Uebersax

April 14, 2015 at 9:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The ‘Our Father’ Explained by the Church Fathers

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Pater_Noster_illuminated

Patristic Commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer

The following is a list of Patristic commentaries on the Lord’s Prayer, with links to original-language versions and English translations.

The Lord’s Prayer is a pearl of great price, a treasure of Christianity, the value of which is often obscured by its very familiarity. Tertullian rightly called it “truly the summary of the whole Gospel.” (De oratione 1; Migne PL 1,1155). More than a simple prayer, the Our Father constitute a spiritual exercise, a form of meditation and contemplation, and a complete philosophy of life, all contained in a few lines.

It is vital that Christians learn to pray it reflectively, with understanding. For this we have numerous commentaries of Church Fathers to assist us.

Perhaps no better preface for the following can be found than the following remarks of St. John Cassian, taken from Conferences 9 (full citation supplied below).

[3] … and the soul kept free from all conversation and from roving thoughts that thus it may little by little begin to rise to the contemplation of God and to spiritual insight. …

[4] For the nature of the soul is not inaptly compared to a very fine feather or very light wing, which, if it has not been damaged or affected by being spoilt by any moisture falling on it from without, is borne aloft almost naturally to the heights of heaven by the lightness of its nature, and the aid of the slightest breath: but if it is weighted by any moisture falling upon it and penetrating into it, it will not only not be carried away by its natural lightness into any aerial flights but will actually be borne down to the depths of earth by the weight of the moisture it has received. So also our soul, if it is not weighted with faults that touch it, and the cares of this world, or damaged by the moisture of injurious lusts, will be raised as it were by the natural blessing of its own purity and borne aloft to the heights by the light breath of spiritual meditation; and leaving things low and earthly will be transported to those that are heavenly and invisible. …

[25] This prayer then though it seems to contain all the fullness of perfection, as being what was originated and appointed by the Lord’s own authority, yet lifts those to whom it belongs to that still higher condition of which we spoke above, and carries them on by a loftier stage to that ardent prayer which is known and tried by but very few, and which to speak more truly is ineffable; which transcends all human thoughts, and is distinguished, I will not say by any sound of the voice, but by no movement of the tongue, or utterance of words, but which the mind enlightened by the infusion of that heavenly light describes in no human and confined language, but pours forth richly as from copious fountain in an accumulation of thoughts, and ineffably utters to God, expressing in the shortest possible space of time such great things that the mind when it returns to its usual condition cannot easily utter or relate.

Compilation of the list was considerably facilitated by: Petiot, Henri (alias M. Daniel-Rops; editor); Hamman, Adalbert (translator). Le Pater expliqué par les Pères. (2nd ed.) Paris: Éditions Franciscaines, 1962.

Authors are listed chronologically, in order of year of birth.

Notation: Migne PL = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Latina; Migne PG = J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologia Graeca.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160–c. 225)

On Prayer (De oratione) 1–10

  • Latin: Migne PL 1, 1149–1166
  • English: Thelwall, Sydney. (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. (ANF-03), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887. (pp. 681–684). (Text)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 184–c. 253)

On Prayer (De Oratione) 18–30

St. Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200–258)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; Treatises 4)

  • Latin: Migne PL 4, 519–544
  • English: Wallis, Robert Ernest (translator). In: Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (editors), Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (ANF-05), Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886. (Cyprian: Treatises, 4, pp. 447–457). (Text)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313–386)

Catecheses mystagogicae 5.11–5.18

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–c. 395)

On the Lord’s Prayer (De oratione dominica; 5 Sermons)

St. Ambrose of Milan (c. 337–397)

On the Sacraments (De sacramentis) 5.4.18–5.4.30

Evagrius Ponticus (345–399)

Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer (Expositio in orationem dominicam); Clavis patrum graecorum (CPG) no. 2461

St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Homilies on Matthew (In Mattheum) 19

Explanation of the Lord’s Prayer (Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio)

  • Greek, Latin: Oratio dominica ejusque explanatio; Migne PG 51, 44–48
  • English: ?

Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428)

Catechetical Lectures

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

On the Sermon on the Mount 2.4.15–2.11.39

Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament 6–9 (= Benedictine edition 56–59 )

St. John Cassian (c. 360–435)

Conferences 9.18–9.25 (On the Lord’s Prayer, De oratione Dominica)

St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 380–c. 450)

Sermons 67–72

St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662)

A Brief Explanation of the Prayer Our Father to a Certain Friend of Christ (Orationis Dominicae expositio)

Bibliography

Ayo, Nicholas. The Lord’s Prayer: A Survey Theological and Literary. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 (Orig. 1992, Notre Dame University)

Hammerling, Roy. The Lord’s Prayer in the Early Church: The Pearl of Great Price. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Simonetti, Manlio (ed.). Matthew 1-13. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). InterVarsity Press, 2001. (pp. 130–139).

Principles of Psychological Exegesis of the Bible

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sacred readingFor a few years I’ve been working on a psychologically-based approach to biblical interpretation. It has both traditional and new elements. It draws heavily on the philosophical-allegorical method of biblical interpretation developed by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC–c. 50 AD), and subsequently refined by later Christian writers like Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, whence it became a staple (if little-known today) of Christian exegesis. It adds features drawn from modern personality theory and depth psychology. Readers leery of modern ‘psychologizing’ of religion may be relieved to know that it is orthodox in all respects.

I almost feel I should apologize for summarizing the method so briefly below – as though nothing useful could be so easily described. However inasmuch as I am a mathematician as well as a psychologist it is natural for me to try to reduce a theory to essential elements. In other words, please do not misjudge the usefulness of the approach from its condensed explanation. In the final analysis, the method is only as valuable as you yourself find it to be. The less I say, in fact, the better, so that you have greater opportunity to explore it for yourself.

The method can be understood as involving five principles, explained below.

1. Psychological salvation

The aim of the Bible is to promote our salvation, understood in an all-embracing sense that includes both spiritual and psychological aspects. These two aspects are inseparable, one necessary for the other. Our direct interest here, however, is psychological salvation. This is understood as an overall transformation that affects moral life, intellect, will, desire, emotion, social life, and orientation to the physical environment. It is epitomized by the statement, “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) The result of this transformation is attainment of a new psychological condition referred to in the Gospels as the Kingdom of Heaven.

(a) This condition is characterized by many features which the psychologist Abraham Maslow associated with Being perception and Being cognition and plateau experience. Sensory perceptions are clearer, more vivid, more beautiful, unified, sacred. The world may be experienced as transfigured. Experience and activity are ends in themselves, not means to ends (Being rather than Becoming);

(b) Inwardly the state is characterized by greater mental clarity (insight, serenity, recollection, peace, joy, happiness, creativity, inspiration) and by absence of negative emotions and thoughts (anxiety, cynicism, pessimism, anger, depression, etc.);

(c) In this condition a person may experience a union of the individual will and God’s will; egoism and those characteristic problems that attend it are reduced. One experiences a sense of flow, spontaneity, effortlessness, enjoyment, and delight.

(d) It corresponds to what various writers have termed unitive, transcendental, and integrated mental states. At a physiological level, it is potentially associated with better-than-usual integration of left- and right-brain activity.

(e) One does not so much attain this as an immediate and permanent psychological condition, as experience it temporarily with greater frequency and duration.

(f) This form of psychological salvation does not replace the concept of spiritual salvation, understood as attainment of eternal life in the traditional religious sense; but the former promotes and is possibly a stage in the attainment of the latter.

2. Scriptural consistency

All parts of the Bible aim to promote spiritual and psychological salvation. Each passage should be understood in relation to this greater purpose; one should not interpret a verse or passage out of context or without reference to this overarching meaning.

3. Psychological correspondence

This is the key interpretative principle: that every character, situation, and event portrayed in Scripture has a counterpart in the psychic life of the individual.

(a) This principle dovetails with the large (but largely unappreciated) psychological literature concerning ego plurality (e.g., Rowan, 1990; Schwartz, 1995). This body of work sees human personality in terms of not a single ego, but many (dozens, perhaps hundreds) of part-egos or subpersonalities, each associated with a different interest, appetite, and social role.  The ‘ordinary’ state of affairs is that these personalities conflict.  A major task of psychological salvation is to harmonize them, producing an integrated and self-realized person.

(b) The principle of psychological correspondence is a routine feature in the modern interpretation of dreams (i.e. each character in a dream reflects some aspect of the dreamer’s personality or psyche).

(c) This principle is also found in modern psychological interpretation of myths and literature (e.g., the Odyssey, Plato’s Republic).

(d) It is also the basis of Philo’s system of biblical interpretation (i.e., each character in the Bible corresponds to some mental ‘disposition’).

(e) This does not preclude there also being other levels of meaning in a verse or passage of Scripture, i.e., literal, historical, moral, etc.

4. Agreement with doctrine and tradition

The Christian Church was founded by Jesus Christ with the aim of promoting human salvation, and the Holy Spirit has guided the Church throughout its history. Psychological meanings ‘discovered’ in the Bible must be tested against sound Christian doctrine and tradition; what is at variance with these is likely an idiosyncratic interpretation, untrue.

5. Grace

To adequately understand the psychological meaning of Scripture requires inspiration and grace, and in order that these may be obtained, prayer.

Bibliography

Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. 2nd ed. Van Nostrand, 1968. (1st ed., Van Nostrand, 1962; 3rd ed., Foreword and Preface by Richard Lowry, Wiley, 1999).

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971 (republished: Arkana, 1993).

Rowan, John. Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us. Routledge, 1990 (repr. 2013).

Schwartz, Richard C. Internal Family Systems Therapy. New York: Guilford, 1995 (repr. 2013).

Uebersax, John S. On the Psychological Meaning of Psalm 1. 2008.

Uebersax, John S. The ‘Strange Woman’ of Proverbs. 2009.

Uebersax, John S. Psychological Allegorical Interpretation of the Bible. El Camino Real. 2012.

Uebersax, John S. Noetic, Sapiential, and Spiritual Exegesis. <catholicgnosis.wordpress.com>. November, 2013.

Uebersax, John S. Why do the Heathen Rage?: A Psychological Investigation of Psalm 2.’ (article in preparation).

First version: March 2014 (rev. September 2014)

Written by John Uebersax

March 27, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

First and Second Movements in Medieval Philosophy

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Written by John Uebersax

March 18, 2010 at 5:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Gesthemane and the Archetypal Existential Temptation

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“Christ’s temptation in the garden of Gesthemane constitutes the archetypal temptation of human existence. The The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470temptation in that case was impending death by crucifixion and the fear produced as a result. However, Christ does not allow his gnomic will to overpower his natural will and thus prevents through free will the penetration of temptation into the heart where it inflames the passions which eventually lead to sin.  [See Maximus Confessor, Opuscule 3.]”

Source: Ilias Bantekas, “The Metaphysics of Temptation in Eastern Orthodox Monasticism“, Theandros, 4(2), 2006/2007.

The terms gnomic will and natural will require clarification:

  • Gnomic will:  false, egoistic will
  • Natural will:  our will when set into motion, guided, and energized by God

Despite its unfamiliarity as a term, ‘gnomic will’ is the perhaps the more experientially familiar.  This is our ordinary will in the fallen state.  Thus, in a sense, what St. Maximus calls “‘natural will” might be thought of as a supernatural will or divinely inspired will, and what he calls “‘gnomic will” might actually be considered the ‘natural’ (i.e., more associated with our usual, fallen nature) will.

The WikiPedia has two paragraphs on gnomic will, the more important one being:

“The notion of gnomic will belongs to Eastern Orthodox ascetical theology, being developed particularly within the theology of St Maximus the Confessor. The term ‘gnomic’ derives from the Greek gnome, meaning ‘inclination’ or ‘intention’. Within Orthodox theology, gnomic willing is contrasted with natural willing. Natural willing designates the free movement of a creature in accordance with the principle (logos) of its nature towards the fulfilment (telos, stasis) of its being. Gnomic willing, on the other hand, designates that form of willing in which a person engages in a process of deliberation culminating in a free choice.”

The main point is that Jesus Christ’s temptation in Gesthemane corresponds to a continuing existential struggle and choice of ours: to follow either false reasonings and false will, or to exercise the true (natural), God-led will, and thereby to act in the way God wishes, the former producing unhappiness and the latter leading to the Kingdom of Heaven — in our souls and in the world.

A fine point invites further attention:  may it properly be said that we exercise our natural will, or is it exclusively God who exercises it?  That is, are we merely passive bystanders when our natural will operates?  This seems like a very relevant question, even at first it might seem like something that smacks of excessive scholasticism.  At stake here are fundamental ideas about personal individuality.  There is no need to pursue this topic here — it’s enough simply to mention it.  Let it suffice to suggest that we should not make any limiting assumptions in this regard.  It is entirely possible — if not experientially self-evident — that natural will may be a joint activity of personal and Divine action.  Although the power of natural will — and certainly it’s direction, may come ultimately from God, nevertheless there seems a definite sense in which it is our will: our doing, making, intending, or effort. It does appear that we are contributing or committing something of ourselves.

Having gone this far into the subject of Gethsemane we may add a little more.  The struggle associated with the choice between following gnomic will and natural will is so basic to the human condition that we would expect to find it repeatedly, and perhaps centrally, addressed in the Bible.  And, indeed, the entire story of the fall of Adam and Eve  may be understand precisely in these terms.  The Fall itself corresponds to Adam and Eve choosing gnomic will over natural will.  The events of Gethsemane, and the subsequent passion, crucifixion and death (and resurrection) correspond to a reversal of Adam’s primal sin, and, in a sense, a restoration of what was lost.   What was lost in a garden is corrected in a garden.

In case it has not been mentioned before in so many words (most likely it has, but in any case it bears repeating), the process of reversing the primal psychological sin of egoism corresponds not just to the events of Gethsemane, but through the point of John 19:30:

When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.

The Greek word for ghost here is pneuma, or spirit, so one might understand this as corresponding to the relinquishing of control (“giving up”) of the spirit, letting thereby the spirit guide and energize our will and actions.

The Garden of Gethsemane, Andrea Mantegna c. 1470

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Rev 5:13
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, [be] unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.

New American Bible

“Amen.  Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might
be to our God forever and ever.  Amen.”

12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”


Written by John Uebersax

November 1, 2009 at 9:38 pm

Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp

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From a letter on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp by the Church of Smyrna

A rich and pleasing sacrifice

When the pyre was ready, Polycarp took off all his clothes and loosened his under-garment. He made an effort also to remove his shoes, though he had been unaccustomed to this, for the faithful always vied with each other in their haste to touch his body. Even before his martyrdom he had received every mark of honour in tribute to his holiness of life.

There and then he was surrounded by the material for the pyre. When they tried to fasten him also with nails, he said: “Leave me as I am. The one who gives me strength to endure the fire will also give me strength to stay quite still on the pyre, even without the precaution of your nails.” So they did not fix him to the pyre with nails but only fastened him instead. Bound as he was, with hands behind his back, he stood like a mighty ram, chosen out for sacrifice from a great flock, a worthy victim made ready to be offered to God.

Looking up to heaven, he said: “Lord, almighty God, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to the knowledge of yourself, God of angels, of powers, of all creation, of all the race of saints who live in your sight, I bless you for judging me worthy of this day, this hour, so that in the company

via Universalis: Office of Readings.

Written by John Uebersax

February 23, 2009 at 6:53 pm

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