A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXVI.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XXVI. August 15, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“Intelligence is the servant of the intellect: whatever the intellect wills, the intelligence conceives and expresses.”[1]

The intellect is capable of seeing all things, including things in heaven.[2] “Nothing darkens it except sin. To the pure intellect nothing is incomprehensible, just as for the intelligence nothing is beyond expression.”[3]

We are mortal because we have a body, we are immortal because we have intelligence and an intellect.[4] “Through silence you come to understanding; having understood, you give expression. It is in silence that the intellect gives birth to intelligence; and the thankful intelligence offered to God is man’s salvation.”[5]

One who speaks out of foolishness shows their lack of intellect, for they understand nothing.[6] We must learn what is proper and do it to save our souls.[7] “The intelligence which is wedded to the intellect and which gives help to the soul is a gift of God. But the intelligence which is full of babbling and which investigates the measurements and distances of sky and earth, and the size of the sun and the stars, characterizes a man who labours in vain.”[8] Vainly they pursue questions without being able to find solutions, and of issues which do not help them, “as if wishing to draw water from a sieve.”[9] Only the one who follows a path of holiness, “who knows and glorifies God who created him for salvation and life,” can attain a proper understanding of heavenly things.[10] “For a man who enjoys the love of God is fully aware that nothing exists without God. God, being infinite, is everywhere and in all things.”[11]

The infinite, transcendent nature of God allows God to be intimate with everyone and everything. It makes God’s presence universal. “For Absolute Infinity includes and encompasses all things.”[12] When behind everything, God is there, it becomes difficult to discern the presence of God. Everything will at once cover God and yet reveal God, depending upon our ability to discern him. One can see great things, experience great things, and not discern the presence of God in them. Only when one silences all distractions can one begin to discern the presence of God behind all things. It will first come to us as if in a whisper, just as it did for Elijah:

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave  (1 Kings 19:11b-13a RSV).

Silence is important. We need to be able to still the mind, to still the passions, and to let the presence of God come to us:

Silence is a way of waiting, a way of watching, and a way of listening to what is going on within and around us. It is a way of interiority, of stopping and then of exploring the cellars of the heart and the center of life. It is a way of entering within, so that we do not ultimately go without. Silence is never merely a cessation of words; that would be too restrictive and too negative a definition of silence. Rather, it is the pause that holds together  — indeed, it makes sense of – al the words, both spoken and unspoken. Silence is the glue that connects our attitudes and our actions. Silence is fullness, not emptiness; it is not an absence, but the awareness of a presence.[13]

We must silence our thoughts so that we have nothing which lies between us and God.  In such silence, our intellect can experience God, and from that experience, we develop concepts which properly explain that experience, concepts which are inferior to the experience and yet point to it. God transcends our conceptual notions predicated to him, and yet those notions, if based upon the experience of God, can be considered proper and true. We must, of course, appreciate the limits of such concepts. It is the spirit behind our words which gives them life and makes them true:

God far exceeds all the words that we can here express
In silence He is heard, in silence worshiped best. [14]

Silence helps cleanse us of sins. It purifies the heart and mind, detaching them from all that would hold them back, all that would place themselves before us in place of God. The world in sin is a world of objects, a world of things closed off from each other. We can explore that world, try to understand it, and limit ourselves to it with never-ending pursuits of inquiry. We will never get to the root of the world in this fashion. We will create more distinctions, more questions, more distractions. The soul is restless because it seeks to know but the more it searches the world, the more the world consumes it, preventing the soul from achieving its great heights.

Cleansed of sin, sin which darkens the intellect and prevents it from seeing the real for what it is, the mind is free to see the world in God and God in the world. Everything is seen in a new way. Our senses, once encountering the world in a fallen modality, now experience the world in its reality, and so is able to know the world as it truly is:

Do you not understand that the men who are united to God and deified, who fix their eyes in a divine manner on Him, do not see as we do? Miraculously, they see with a sense that exceeds the senses, with a mind that exceeds mind, for the power of the spirit penetrates their human faculties, and allows them to see things which are beyond us. In speaking of a vision through the senses, then, we must add that this transcends the senses, in order to show clearly that it is not only supernatural, but goes beyond all expression.[15]

It is grace which raises us up, and it is in grace we see and experience reality with a transcendent mind above ordinary mind, with an intellect which knows and understands the world in a way beyond all possible words. We encounter the real in a deafening silence. But this silence must not be seen nihilistically. It transcends all expression and yet can be expressed. Words reveal and point to it, but they do not comprehend it.  The intellect is raised up and is able to come to an understanding, to think and contemplate on what it receives. The grateful soul, receiving such revelation in silence, is led to God. It is unable to falter as long as it is open to God. God will reveal himself, giving all they need for their salvation. The intellect, the nous, will grasp truths which transcend ordinary understanding. It will receive such a revelation that it will not falter; it will move on, closer and closer to God with a loving, thankful heart. “For whenever a spiritual thought is sent down to the nous and the nous is able to harmonize such knowledge through the appropriate actions according to what is necessary, that knowledge cannot be removed.”[16]

We must still the mind. We must learn to overcome the conceptualization we have placed upon the world, the vain opinions based not upon noetic experience but upon the unenlightened senses. We must experience the world in a transcendent fashion. We must free ourselves from the cycle of deliberation which moves around with its ignorance from one vain thought and idea to another, each based upon speculative possibilities but no real solid encounter with the real. The mind which limits itself to the speculative constructs it places over the data it receives from the senses will never know the world, for it will never know the foundation of that world but only the construct it makes of it from mere appearances. Yes, the world of conventions has its value and its reality, but those conventions must be understood as conventions, not as ultimate truths; when we understand the world of conventions and we have an experience of the real, we can then take that real and speak in conventions, knowing they are conventions and not be limited by the letter of those conventions. We will know and live in the realm of conventions knowing that they speak of and deal with the real, but we will see beyond the conventions and see with a pure mind that real behind conventions. The spiritual journey to such a state, however, can be long and difficult, as long and difficult it takes for us to still the mind and then await for the light of truth to shine upon it and reveal itself, first in shadows and then, when the mind is ready and capable of receiving it, in the fullness of its beauty. “And so, in the first appearance of the Logos to the nous, the thoughts hear only echoes and images of knowledge, but they do not see (theorousin) anything that has been made clear. But as the nous advances and ascends by increasing intervals, that is, to the height of contemplation (theoria), the thoughts no longer participate in images but completely in the light of knowledge.”[17] Thus, when our mind is silenced, it will encounter the real, and see and experience it in the light of knowledge. It will be able to produce, through its intelligence, thoughts which express the real, thoughts which can be expressed in conventions, though of course, it will know that such conventions are conventions and will use them for the sake of helping others achieve the transcendent reality they themselves have come to know.

The way St. Anthanasius expresses Anthony’s interactions with philosophers seems to propose a similar point to what we find in this section of text: Anthony was interested in the path of holiness which led to a real encounter with God, with the truth. He found philosophical debates to be pointless as long as the philosophers remain without such experience. His expression of wonder as to why those who came to be learned through philosophy should come to see him who was “ignorant,” belies the fact that he realizes he has come to a transcendent understanding of the truth which philosophers search for through their pursuit of worldly wisdom.[18] Indeed, he tells others who come to him that, “We Christians therefore hold the mystery not in the wisdom of Greek arguments but in the power of faith richly supplied to us by God through Jesus Christ.”[19] The faith is not based upon worldly arguments but on the reality which transcends all conceptual pursuits. “But see! you still do not believe and are seeking for arguments. We however make our proof ‘not in the persuasive words of Greek wisdom’ as our teacher has it, but we persuade by the faith which manifestly precedes argumentative proof.”[20] Of course, Anthony is not at this point talking about the full experience of the truth through the silence he found in the desert. Nonetheless, it is quite clear that his understanding of the truth is one which does not come from worldly arguments but the transcendent power of truth which is only capable of being expressed or pointed to in word and in deed. The vanity of worldly knowledge connects our root text with the life of Anthony, but the way this is presented differs in the two texts. This could, of course, be from Athanasius’ polemic and so it should not detour us from realizing there is more to Anthony and his thought than what Athanasius revealed.

The letters of Anthony provide little which relates to the material here. The interest in the intellect and the intellectual makeup of the human person is similar. Moreover, the importance of the mind and its role in purifying the person is found in the first letter, though with a more thorough examination of how the mind works in relation to the body and how the mind is itself led by and directed by the Spirit in creating such purity. Nonetheless, one can read the letter as indicating what happens to the one who has entered some level of imperfect silence, “Then the Spirit has a loving partnership with the mind, because the mind keeps the commandments which the Spirit has delivered to it.”[21] We are told in the letters the Spirit moves the mind to purity and the mind moves the body to purity, and this then leads one to knowledge of the self and through knowledge of the self, one gains knowledge of God. In the letters, moreover, we see an indication of the need for renunciation, of penance, in order to open oneself up to the mercy of God;  whereas in our text here, the place of God coming to us in our silence as being a thing of merciful love is not explained. [22] Yet, God’s place with the soul, its total dependence upon God, which is what leads it to its salvation at least leaves room for God’s mercy upon the soul. Once again we come to an inconclusive position; the letters and our text can be seen as working together and complementing each other, but there are no signs as if they are or are not from the same source.

In the end, there are some features we might expect from Anthony which we do not find here. For example, when trying to encourage the silence and purity of heart needed to see God, we might expect more discussion of the role of penance and sorrow. But this is not conclusive, because those notions might be presupposed as what one would know and appreciate before reading this text. There are concepts in here which sound like what one would expect from a desert father, including Anthony. But there is nothing which tilts us in favor of it being from Anthony or not, and so, in the end we must leave it at that.

[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#105).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#106).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#106).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 345 (#107).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 344-6 (#107).

[6] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#108).

[7] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#108).

[8] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#109).

[9] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#109).

[10] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#110).

[11] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 346 (#110).

[12] Nicholas of Cusa, The Vision of God. trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: The Arthur J. Banning Press, 1988), 183.

[13] John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert. Revised Edition (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2008), 45-6.

[14] Angelus Silesius, The Cherubinic Wanderer. trans. Maria Shrady (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 49.

[15] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads. Trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 107.

[16] St. Maximus the Confessor, Questions and Doubts. trans. Despinda D. Prassas (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010), 86.

[17] Ibid., 105.

[18] As we have seen from Athanasius, Life of Antony, 215.

[19] ibid., 216.

[20] ibid., 217.

[21] Chitty, The Letters of Saint Antony, 3 [Letter 1].

[22] See ibid., 5 [Letter 1].

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