I. A Little Noticed Controversy with Broader Implications
The monk, John Cassian, the bishop, Palladius of Heliopolis, and the Church historians, Socrates and Sozomen, all agree that the Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria’s pascal letter of late winter, 399, hit a nerve among the monks of Egypt. Theophilus had taken the occasion to condemn at length the teaching that God has a human form, and it was this condemnation which drew an army of angry monks to his doors looking to string him up from the nearest lamppost. Socrates and Sozomen go on tell how the cunning prelate averted death by telling the monks that, in them, "I behold the face of God", and then used their anger to begin a purge of monastic figures he had targeted well before: the disciples of Origen.
Perhaps because Theophilus’ letter is no longer extant, and because the four ancient reporters I just listed were all in theological (though not political) sympathy with his position on the issue, there has been very little scholarly literature devoted to this incident, and none whatever to the possibility that it represented but one example of a much wider, contemporary phenomenon. Most moderns have shared my ancient reporters’ disdain for the protesting monks, who are as a result represented as espousing the sort of "crude forms of folk religion" that the enlightened normally expect from illiterate fellahin. Then, too, there is the habit, nearly universal until recently and even now overcome only with difficulty, of projecting back into an earlier era the conceptual structures — in this case, the theology — of later periods. The theology in question here is that of post-Nicene, trinitarian orthodoxy, specifically as the latter had, on the one hand, just been confirmed by ecclesiastical authority by the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople in 381, and, on the other hand, enforced by the imperial authority of Theodosius I (+395) and his successors. For my purposes in this paper, the salient characteristic of the new, imperial orthodoxy was its implicit commitment to the place and even necessity of philosophical expression in the self-articulation of the Christian faith, a commitment summed up in the Nicene term, "consubstantial" (oJmoouvsio"). While it is generally recognized that this new formulation of the Christian Trinity overthrew the earlier Logos Christology of the Apologists and Alexandrians, the fact that still older currents of tradition — currents which quite possibly the Logos theology itself had been intended to reformulate — were also similarly affected is not so recognized, aside from a very few and mostly unnoticed exceptions.
II. Western and Eastern Christianity on the Visio dei: Some Differences in the Wake of Nicea
I would like to suggest that the angry monks of Egypt, together with Christian ascetics elsewhere in the Eastern Empire at the turn of the fifth century, were adherents of ancient traditions of the divine body and visio gloriae. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan settlement had, however, just made their views a theological anachronism. They were slow to realize this fact, so slow indeed that adjustments to the new doctrinal configuration continue to be reflected in monastic literature for decades to come and, in some places, even for centuries. With the exception of scholars such as Guy Stroumsa and Gilles Quispel, nowhere in scholarly literature is this long process at work in Eastern Christian ascetical literature even noticed, let alone examined in detail. Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism sixty years ago and other studies thereafter have over the past twenty years begun to have an extraordinarily fruitful effect on the study of a number of different areas of inquiry: apocalyptic literature, Qumran studies, Christian origins, and, most obviously, Rabbinic thought, but this revolution — save the exceptions just noted — has not yet begun to penetrate scholarly discussion of the Christian literature of the fourth and later centuries. This may be because of a tendency among patristic scholars to ignore works outside of their specialty, or of their traditional focus on the Greco-Roman background of patristic thought and (aside from a few Syricists) overall ignorance of, or indeed disdain for Semitics in general and Judaica in particular. It might also be ascribed, at least in part, to the fact that Christianity itself as known and practiced in Western Europe and the Americas owes so very much to the legacy of Augustine of Hippo. The opening books of the latter’s De Trinitate, for example, comprise a sustained attack against the teaching of the theophanies of the Penteteuch and prophets as, in any sense, true theophanies. For Augustine, the divine manifestations are instead angelophanies or even mere symbolophanies. He does not allow for any visio dei gloriae on this side of the eschaton, nor for any transfiguration of the human being, however temporary. The Christian lives instead wholly by faith, to whose grammar of knowledge Augustine devotes the remainder of his treatise on the Trinity. For this pro-Nicene theologian, the old traditions which I take him to be attacking in De Trinitate have become simply heretical — he calls them "Arian" — and for his descendents in the Christian West, they are thus a book closed and long forgotten.
East of the Adriatic, however, all that was known of Augustine until the late Middle Ages was his name, nor has he ever had any impact on the still flourishing Eastern monastic tradition which remains in consequence Augustinfrei. True, Eastern pro-Nicenes shared the Bishop of Hippo’s objections to the older understanding of the Second Person of the Trinity as, by nature, the "visibility of the Father", "somehow expanding and contracting" (modo se distendet, modo contrahet), to use Augustine’s words, depending on whether one is speaking of the heavenly throne or of theophany, and as constituting with Father and Spirit a Godhead of — quoting again from Augustine’s polemic — "separable parts". For the Eastern theologians, likewise, the three divine Persons shared a single, transcendent, ineffable and infinite — indeed, "formless" — divinity. This was a common consequence of the Nicene homoousion. On the other hand, it seems never (or, at least, very rarely) to have occurred to Eastern Christian monastic writers to deny the possibility of the visio dei luminis in the present life, or even of momentary transformation as a pledge and foretaste of the world to come. Eastern saints, particularly ascetic saints, have a tendency to "light up" in hagiography to the present day. The brilliant faces and luminous forms familiar from the angels of the old apocalypses are virtually standard fare. It is, in particular, the Synoptic Gospel narratives of the Transfiguration which serve as the model of human transformation, to the degree, indeed, that local Church councils held in Constantinople a thousand years after Nicea upheld the possibility of the vision of the "uncreated light" of Mt. Thabor and declared this the official teaching of the Byzantine Church. Witnesses to this faith, again especially among monks, are a constant feature of the intervening millenium, a continuity which is all the more striking in that it cuts across linguistic and cultural differences to include communities long out of communion with each other due, in particular, to the fifth-century Christological controversies. One finds it alike, in short, among so-called "Nestorians", "Monophysites", and orthodox Byzantines — among Greeks, Copts, Armenians, Georgians, Syrians, Ethiopians, and Slavs. For all these groups, "the blessed light of the Holy Trinity" (to; makavrion fw’" th’" aJgiva" triavdo"), to cite the late fourth-century anchorite, Evagrius of Pontus (+399), is the very stuff of both present and eschatological beatitude. A Constantinopolitan abbot who lived six hundred years after Evagrius makes the same point when he writes of the appearance of Christ to the sanctified believer as occuring
…in a light which is personal and real [lit., "substantial", "essential"]. It is in a shape without shape [sch’ma ajschvmato"] and a form without form [morfh; ajmovrfwto"] that He is seen invisibly and comprehended incomprehensibly.
The oxymorons in my quotation are certainly not uncommon fare in any mystical literature striving to express the inexpressible, but the pair, "shape without shape" and "form without form", bring me back — at last, and with apologies for the long preliminary remarks — to the matter of monastic debate over the form of God and mystical vision which is the announced topic of this paper. My medieval abbot reflects at once the subject of the controversy and — not to pun — the shape of its post-Nicene resolution in the Christian East. Nearly all the literature we possess now reflects the views of the victors, the architects of post-Nicene spirituality, including that Evagrius whom I quoted above, the anonymous author of the Macarian Homilies (whom I shall also touch on below), and others among the monks, together with Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, and the Cappadocians, Basil of Ceasarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. With a few exceptions, we are thus also obliged to infer the views of the other side of the debate from the arguments and polemic of its critics. Still, enough comes through, I think, for us to recognize a number of themes familiar from the work of Scholem and his successors; echoes, I would say, from a background in Second Temple apocalyptic literature which resonates here among Christian ascetics in parallel with the then contemporary Rabbinic lore of the merkavah and shi’ur qomah.
III. The Syriac Liber Graduum and the Coptic Vitae of Pachomius and Aphou: Echoes of pre-Nicene Traditions of the Visio dei with Roots in the Second Temple and Affinities with Rabbinic Thought
Let me begin with three instances where I think we encounter instances of the older, pre-Nicene tradition: the Mesopotamian Liber Graduum, the Bohairic Life of Pachomius, and the likewise Coptic Life of Apa Aphou of Pemdje. The Liber was written, anonymously, in Syriac probably in mid-fourth century. It is a work intended to reconcile wandering ascetics of the type we find in the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles or, earlier, in the Gospel of Thomas, with the episcopally-guided local churches of Sassanid Persia. Particularly of note for us are a few lines from the 28th of its 30 discourses where, mentioned en passant as a kind of given, is precisely the old Christology of theophany that Augustine would later set his face against in North Africa. Citing Ex 33:11, the author remarks that "the Glory of God Almighty [lwk dyja ayrmd ajbwc] was revealed to Moses on the mountain like a man [Jacnrb Kya]", and repeats the statement a few lines below, but with a slight difference: "And our Lord [Nrm] was revealed to all the prophets like a man". I note first of all the parallelism between "the Glory" and "our Lord", and further that in Christian Syriac moran, "our Lord", invariably (to the best of my knowledge) designates the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son. Secondly, the "Glory" of the first passage is distinct from "God Almighty". The latter denotes the Father, since the Syriac moryo ahid kul, like our English phrase, is a rendering of the Greek qeo;" pantokravtwr, and a possible rendering thus of the first article in the Nicene Creed: pisteuvw eji;" eJvna qeo;n patevra pantokravtora. What makes these two passages still more interesting is the fact that the author of the Liber is not fighting with anyone about this point. He takes it thus for granted, thirdly, that it is the Son of God who is the divine Glory and who appeared to Moses and the other saints of Israel in human form, "like a man". Perhaps I should note as well that the Liber elsewhere makes specific allowance for the visio dei gloriae as open to the believer even "in this life", or "in this age" (aml[ Nhb).
Turning to Egypt, we find the same understanding of Christ as Glory, together with accounts of the vision of the Glory. The Life of Pachomius (+345), founder of common-life monasticism, has come down to us in several recensions, of which the Greek Vita Prima and the Bohairic Life are presently considered the most authentic witnesses and of roughly equal antiquity — late fourth, early fifth century. Both versions present Pachomius as a visionary, but where the Vita Prima mentions but does not describe his visions, the Bohairic Life is not so reticent. I have in mind particularly three visions taking place in the monastery church: the first accorded Pachomius alone, the second to him in the company of his favorite disciple, Theodore, and the last to Theodore alone after his master’s death. In the first vision, Pachomius sees the east wall of the monastery sanctuary
…become all golden and on it there was a large icon, like a large picture [of someone] wearing a crown…that crown was glorious in the extreme…[and] Before the icon were two great and very august archangels, motionless and contemplating the Lord’s image.
The saint is at first overcome by "the ray of fear" emanating from the image, then comforted by a "sheen of mercy…like a rich, holy chrism". When he tells certain of the monastery’s elders about the apparition, "the old men were greatly struck with fear, and they said, ‘These holy men are like those of heaven’"24, which I take to mean that they understood Pachomius to have experienced a throne vision like that which the angels enjoy in the heavenly temple or palace. The second vision occurs while Pachomius and Theodore are praying together in the church:
While they were praying, they saw appearing above them, as high as a tower, a great throne on which God was seated under the form in which he chose to appear to them.
The third vision takes place when Theodore is summoned to the church by an angel, who tells him:
"Get up quickly and go to the church, for the Lord is there." He got up as the voice had instructed him, for he always used to walk with great vigilance and with unshakable trust because his thoughts were always in heaven beholding the Glory of the Lord…when he came to the doorway of the church, he went in and saw an apparition. Where the latter’s feet were, there appeared to him something like a sparkling sapphire and he was unable to look at the face because of the great light which unceasingly flashed forth from it…[Theodore] was troubled and overcome with fear…He thought about all Israel long ago in the desert and how such great fear came upon them…when the Lord revealed himself to them…They all saw him on Mt. Sinai…the whole mountain was so filled with fire…
This last is specifically related to the theophany of Ex 24, especially verse 10 with its reference to the sapphire-like stuff beneath the feet of God, presumably enthroned. All three accounts are of throne visions. Another biblical echo may be of Is 66:1, "Heaven is my throne", in the great height of the throne in the second vision. I do not, however, recall the divine crown of the first vision appearing in any of the biblical theophanies, but it does show up in merkavah and related literature, e.g., in Hebrew or 3 Enoch 29:1-2, and, relatedly, in Metatron’s own crown in 3 Enoch 12-13. Reference to Metatron also reminds me of another of Pachomius’ visions, this time in the Paraleipomena (Chronicles) of the saint, where Christ appears to him as a "youth", newvtero"-neanivsko", of "ineffable countenance" whom an accompanying angel then introduces as "the Lord of Glory". Besides the obvious echo of I Cor 2:8, we might also recall the reference to Metatron as a "youth", r[n, in 3 Enoch 2:2. In short, Pachomius’ and Theodore’s visions here are at the least reminiscent not only of the biblical manifestations of the kevod YHWH, but of the throne visions characteristic of later Second Temple era apocalypses and, indeed, of the still later texts — roughly contemporary, in fact, with the Pachomiana — from Rabbinic literature with their ascent to a vision of the glorious form of God enthroned in the highest heaven. The one great difference, of course, is that these Christian texts identify that glorious form with Christ.
While the Pachomian texts share with the Liber Graduum the lack of any particular note of controversy, this is not the case with my third example, The Life of Apa Aphou of Pemdje. The latter is a Coptic text from the fifth century which was published with French translation and accompanying commentary by Edouard Drioton in Revue de l’orient chrétien in 1917, and it centers around a reply, precisely, to Archbishop Theophilus’ paschal epistle of 399. Apa Aphou is a hermit living in extreme asceticism among the beasts — antelopes in this case — of the upper Egyptian desert. An angel comes to him with news of the Archbishop’s distressing new doctrine which, as the saint is informed, seeks "to exalt the Glory [mpeooy] of God" by denying the imago dei in humanity. For reasons we shall see, this must have appeared to Aphou as a flat contradiction. In any case, armed with heavenly encouragement, the old man goes off to Alexandria to instruct the Archbishop in the latter’s error. He, a strange figure in rags and tatters, is naturally kept cooling his heels in the patriarchal antechambers for some days before being allowed into the great man’s presence. Once there, however, he loses no time in humbly pressing his point: has the Archbishop forgotten Gen 1:26? Theophilus replies with the assertion that the imago was lost with Adam’s fall. Aphou counters by citing Gen 9:6, the prohibition against murder addressed to Noah — thus after the Fall — because "in his own image God has made humankind". Theophilus then essays a slightly different tack, contrasting divine splendor with the corruption and filth of the human body. Can the "true and unapproachable light" (recalling I Tim 6:16), he asks, have anything to do with a beggar defecating in the gutter?
Aphou does not reply immediately to the Archbishop’s question, but instead turns in a quite unexpected and apparently unrelated direction. He appeals to the sacrament of the Eucharist. If, he argues, the latter is truly the body of Christ, and if Christ who said "I am the living bread come down from heaven" (Jn 6:51), is the very same one who spoke to Noah forbidding murder because God made us "in his own image", then Theophilus, by acknowledging the sacramental presence, must perforce also recognize the imago even in fallen humanity. The old man then concludes by returning to the question of the unapproachable light in relation to the human body:
As for the Glory of the Greatness [peooy de mpmegethos] of God, which it is impossible for anyone to see because of its incomprehensible light, and as for human weakness and imperfection…we think that it is like a king who orders the making of an image which everyone is to acknowledge as the image of the king. Yet everyone [also] knows perfectly well that it [=the image] is only [made] of wood together with other elements…but…the king has said, "This is my image"… How much the more so, then, with man?
According to the Life of Aphou, as indeed — though for very different motives — in the accounts of Sozomen and Socrates, Theophilus promptly surrenders to the old man’s arguments, and the two part in an atmosphere of happy reconciliation. For the Life at least, the story is one of the triumph of the desert’s traditional wisdom over the philosophical learning of the Greeks.
I should like to pause here a bit in order to "unpack" what I take to be Aphou’s argument, particularly since its density and — I believe — relative complexity have proven effectively impenetrable to the few scholars who have attempted to deal with it: Drioton in 1917, Georges Florovsky in the late 1950’s, together Elizabeth Clark and Graham Gould in the past decade. The key, in my opinion, lies in the relation between Aphou’s appeal to the Eucharist and the other, I daresay more familiar elements which appear in the colloquoy with Theophilus: the imago dei of Gen 1:26 and 9:6, the "unapproachable light" in which God dwells of I Tim 6:16, and these three texts in connection with the likeness or statue of the king in Aphou’s concluding illustration. Apa Aphou, as Drioton pointed out eighty years ago, clearly believed in a divine body "clothed with incomprehensible light". What escaped the French scholar, however, were three interrelated elements in addition to this insight: first, the identification of a divine body of light at once with the human form of the kevod YHWH (and of the "angel of the Lord) in the biblical theophanies and with the image (tselem) and likeness (demut) of God in Gen 1:26; second, the equation of both the kavod and the original divine likeness, demut, with the "Man from Heaven", to cite I Cor 15:47 and 49, i.e., with the Second Person of the Christian Trinity; and 3) both of the above as linked to, or functionally identical with, the "living bread come down from heaven" of Jn 6:51, the food of the Eucharist40.
It is the last which is especially significant in that it forms the real punchline of Aphou’s argument since it touches on the very "stuff", we might say, of salvation as both the desert elder and the archbishop understood the latter, specifically the answer to the question: how do we partake of God? Their answer: by feeding on the divine body of light. Here I think we arrive at the reason for Aphou’s selection of John 6 instead of the more familiar Synoptic narratives of the Last Supper. The "living bread come down from heaven" of Jn 6:51 must first of all be read in parallel with "the Son of Man come down from heaven" of Jn 3:13, the descent thus of the Heavenly Man, and, second, the "living bread" occurs in the Fourth Gospel in the context of a discourse where Christ is comparing himself to the manna of Ex 16. To the latter I would add, third, Ps 78:24-25, which speaks of the manna as "the grain of heaven" and "the bread of angels". Fourth, in connection with both angelic diet and the Exodus theophany, I am reminded of a passage from the Babylonian Talmud which I chanced on while reading Ira Chernus’ study of Rabbinic mysticism, and which I think sheds a certain light on Apa Aphou’s argument. The passage is from bBerakot 17a, quoting from Chernus’ translation:
Rav was in the habit of saying: The coming aeon is not like this aeon. In the coming aeon there is neither eating nor drinking nor procreation…Rather, the righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and feed upon the splendor of the Shekinah [hnykvh wyzm], as it is said, "And they beheld God and ate and drank" (Ex 24,11).
Chernus later cites a functionally identical passage from Abot d’Rabbi Nathan which adds the phrase, "like the ministering angels", to the citation of Ex 24:11. I submit that it is something very like the thinking of these two Rabbinic texts which underlies Apa Aphou’s appeal to the Eucharist, and I think that it fits very well, indeed, into the complex of the imago and body of light which features so essentially in his reply to Theophilus.
Permit me then to paraphrase Aphou’s alarm at the paschal epistle of 399 and his catechism of the archbishop. To exalt the divine Glory by denying the image which is the human form must have been for our desert monk a contradictio in adjecto. Christ, the Son of God, is for him the image, the Heavenly Man. So off the old man goes to instruct the archbishop in the basics which he seems to have forgotten. These include the making of humanity after the model in heaven who is the kavod, the morfh; qeou’ (cf. Phil 2:6), and, when Theophilus tries to bring up the discrepancy between corrupt human flesh and divine light, there is the reminder of the Eucharist as marking the advent of the New Covenant in anticipation of the age to come when the blessed shall be fed by the light of the body of the Glory and where, indeed, believers are fed even now by the same body. In other words, we might say that for Aphou the difference between the two covenants lay in the fact that while the elders of Israel ate from it only once, all Christians are offered it as their "daily bread". Then, topping off the argument, there is the illustration of the king’s image whose point is the following analogy: as the living flesh of the king is to the wood and other inanimate materials of his statue, so is the living and "incomprehensible light" of God’s Glory, Christ, to our flesh. Yes, Aphou says in answer to Theophilus’ objection raising the incommensurability of human flesh with divine splendor, the discrepancy is indeed vast. It is absolute, in fact. But then, his argument goes on to ask in effect, is it not true that Christians have been given that very flesh of light to eat? And, eating it, do not believers become truly "partakers of the divine nature" (to recall II Peter 1:4)? And in what else, the old man adds implicitly, might his Eminence say that the Christian hope of salvation consists? So it is scarcely surprising, at least according to the terms assumed by this document, that Theophilus is left with no other recourse than to capitulate, which, as the Life of Aphou has it, he manages quite graciously.
IV. Evagrius of Pontus (+399): The Shape of the post-Nicene Adjustment in the East
Other monastic writers of the time had different terms of reference, however, and these included that Evagrius Ponticus whom I noted some pages back, and whose influence was also, not accidentally, perhaps the primary target of Theophilus’ purge of the "Origenists" among the monks of Egypt following the Archbishop’s volte face before the angry mob reported by Sozomen and Socrates. As Samuel Rubensen demonstrates in the introduction to his splendid, recent edition of the Letters of St. Anthony the Great, Evagrius was part of a large network of philosophically informed desert dwellers who appear to have included the "father of monks" himself. I single Evagrius out because he was also unquestionably the most important member of this group. His writings comprise perhaps the single most influential body of works in Eastern Christian ascetico-mystical literature, and, in the person and oeuvre of his disciple, John Cassian, they would travel to Latin-speaking monasticism as well. As a disciple of the Cappadocian fathers, Basil the Great (+379), Gregory Nazianzus (+ ca.390) and Gregory of Nyssa (+ ca.394), who were and are to Greek trinitarian orthodoxy as Augustine would be to the Latin, Evagrius was a thoroughly orthodox advocate of the Niceno-Constantinopolitanum. He was not so orthodox in other regards, however, being too much the student of Origen — including advocacy of the latter’s theory of a double creation and consequently dubious anthropology (no place for the body in the world to come) — not to escape sharing in the latter’s posthumous condemnation at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, a fact which led to such of his works as survive in Greek being usually sheltered under the name of a less controversial figure, Nilus of Sinai. Other works, though lost in Greek subsequently to 553, continued to be transmitted in Syriac translation and under Evagrius’ own name. They had, in either case, been around long enough to leave an indelible mark on both Greek and Syriac monastic literature.
Enough certainly survives of Evagrius for us to touch here on his reconfiguration, in accordance with his reading of post-Nicene orthodoxy, of those themes and scriptural loci which we found at work in both the visions of Pachomius and in Aphou’s exchange with Theophilus. His reworking at once affirms these traditional elements via a thorough-going process of interiorization, and denies them through a repeated insistence that the divine being, as transcendent and immaterial, has neither body nor form. Let me begin with the first, the matter of interiorization, while recalling both the monastery church as locus of the Pachomian visions cited above and Aphou’s appeal to the Eucharist, together with the Bohairic Life‘s explicit and Aphou’s implicit invocation of Exodus 24:10-11. All of these reappear in Evagrius, save that in him they become descriptions of the inner life of the sanctified human spirit or intellect, the nous. Thus we find the nous as temple in the following from the Kephalaia Gnostica:
The intelligible temple is the pure intellect which now posseses in itself the "wisdom of God, full of variety", [and] the temple of God is he who beholds the sacred unity, while the altar of God is the contemplation of the Holy Trinity.
In Evagrius’ 39th epistle, the intellect is identified with the holy mountains of Sinai and Zion, and thus as the locus of theophany:
If then, by the grace of God, the intellect both turns away from these [i.e., the passions] and puts off the old man, then it will see its own constitution at the time of prayer like a sapphire or the color of heaven, which recalls as well what the Scripture names "the place of God" seen by the elders on Mt. Sinai [Ex 24:10]. It calls this place and the vision the peace [cf. Ps. 75:3] by which one sees in oneself that peace which surpasses every intellect and which guards our heart. For another heaven [ajvllo" oujranov"] is imprinted on a pure heart, the vision of which is both light and the spiritual "place"…
It is on the "spiritual mountain" of the intellect that the "blessed light of the Holy Trinity" descends "at the time of prayer". Evagrius thus accomplishes, in the words of Nicholas Séd ten years ago, "the first interiorization [of the Sinai theophany] of which we have written attestation", just as his play on Ps 75:3, according to the same scholar, "follows the uninterrupted line of the traditional interpretation: Salem, Jerusalem, vision of peace, place of the Presence [or Shekinah]". Here, too, is the interiorization of the Eucharist itself, since for Evagrius it is the intellect which is now the place of divine manifestation and which, as it were, feeds on the light of the Shekinah, with the latter effectively understood in this re-working as the common radiance of the Three divine Persons. The equation of the nous with the Eucharist, and thus with the "body of God", is made explicit in a passage from the treatise On the Eight Evil Thoughts, where Evagrius takes the Eucharistic words of Christ and applies them to the intellect, adding by way of a reference to the throne vision of Isaiah 6 that the nous is the divine throne: "For it is there", he writes, "that God takes his seat and there that he is known".
In that it is the light of the transcendent Trinity which appears within the sanctified intellect, itself immaterial and bodiless, it is no surprise to find Evagrius insisting time and again on the visio dei gloriae as also bodiless and formless. This insistence is especially marked in his brief but immensely influential treatise, On Prayer. As the foremost contemporary interpreter of Evagrian thought, Dom Gabriel Bunge, remarks, the latter work features "a scarcely-veiled polemic…against the materialist notion of the vision of God to which the anthropomorphite monks at Scete had succombed". I think it safe to say myself that the monks of Scete and elsewhere in Egypt, together with still others throughout the Christian world at the turn of the fifth century (recall Augustine’s polemics in Numidia and compare them with Cyril of Alexandria’s letters to the monks of Palestine in the 430’s), were not so much the victims of some novel "heresy" as they were the continuation of traditions which long antedated them, but which had also been rendered anachronistic — as I noted earlier — by the doctrinal developments of the fourth century. In any case, and to return to Evagrius, the latter’s short work, On Prayer, feature a number of sayings directed against the notion of a divine form or body, notably numbers 67-68, 73-74, and 114-117. Saying 67 is directed against human efforts to image the divinity:
When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form; but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand.
In two following sayings, however, the impression of God as having a form is instead ascribed to demonic activity. As Saying 73 also provided me with the title for this paper, I shall quote it in full:
When the intellect attains prayer that is pure and free from passion, the demons attack no longer with sinister thoughts, but with thoughts of what is good. For they suggest to it [i.e., the nous] an illusion of God’s Glory in a form [schmatis-mov"] pleasing to the senses, so as to make it think that it has realized the final aim of prayer. A man who has spiritual knowledge has said that this illusion results from the passion of self-esteem and from the demon’s touch on a certain area of the brain.
The last sentence, particularly the last phrase (less the demon, of course) has a modern ring to it — visions of the divine form as the result of psychopathology! What is primarily to my point, however, is Evagrius’ affirmation of the visio dei gloriae as "the final aim of prayer", in which he is clearly at one with the traditions represented both by the merkavah texts of the Rabbis and by Pachomius and Apa Aphou, and his simultaneous negation of that vision as in any way of a human form. The one place where I found that he does use the word form, eij’do", in a positive sense comes by way of a brief remark on the Bridegroom of Song of Songs 5:15: "The form of the Bridegroom is as a form of light" The combination of the Song of Songs, Bridegroom, divine form, and light is itself surely suggestive of, among other things, the shi’ur qomah traditions, though again any note of the human form is deliberately absent. We are rather in the presence of the "substantial light" and "formless form" which will, for example, appear six hundred years later in the citation from Symeon the New Theologian quoted above, and nearly a thousand years later in the Hesychast movement of Mt. Athos and the whole Byzantine commonwealth.
V. Survivals and Continued Polemic in the Apophthegmata, Historia Monachorum and Lausiac History
Before I close, I should like to note that Evagrius was not alone in his efforts to recast older traditions of the visio dei formae. At the same time as he was working, or even a little before, we find both both polemic directed against and occasional direct echoes of those traditions. Permit me then simply to cite here three brief anecdotes from as many fourth/fifth century monastic sources, and then conclude with a fourth passage from an exact contemporary of Evagrius who lived and wrote not in Egypt, but somewhere in Mesopotamia on the Roman side of the border with Sassanid Persia. The first of my three sources, the Sayings of the Fathers (Apophthegmata Patrum), is a collection of narratives and logia of the earliest monks, though the collection itself was not edited in its present form until the turn of the sixth century, probably in Palestine and in the neighborhood of Gaza. I cannot resist including here its brief account of Abba Silvanus’ journey to heaven. One day, the holy man’s disciple comes to speak with him, only to find the old man rapt in a trance. He tries again several times over the next few hours with the same result. Finally,
[He] finds him at rest and says to him, "What happened to you today, Father?" And the other said, "I was sick today, child". But he, seizing his feet, said, "I won’t let you go until you tell me what you saw." The old man says to him, "I was caught up into heaven and I saw the Glory of God [hJrpavghn eij" to;n oujrano;n kai; ei’j;don th;n dovxan tou’ qeou’] and I was standing [ijstavmhn] there until now, and now I have been sent away.
True, there is no mention of the divine form in this story, but we do find other elements — the trance, rapture, visio gloriae, and the "standing" before, presumably, the divine throne — which are all elements familiar from sources in apocalyptic literature, in the Pauline corpus (esp. 2 Cor 12), and in Rabbinic merkavah lore. I would add, though it does not appear here, that the transformative aspect of these mystical traditions also shows up in the Apophthegmata, as in:
They used to say that, just as Moses received the image of the glory of Adam when his countenance was glorified, so too with Abba Pambo, that his face shone like lightening, and he was as a king seated on his throne. And the same thing applied as well to Abba Silvanus and to Abba Sisoes.
Here I would underline the connection between the "glory" and Adam, the reference to Moses’ encounter with the kavod on Sinai and subsequent descent with shining face in Ex 34:29-35, so important for Paul in 2 Cor 3:7-4:6, and the image of a king enthroned. All of these elements are likewise familiar from the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and, again, Rabbinic sources.
Trips to heaven and converse with angels are relatively frequent in another collection of early monastic stories and sayings, the Historia monachorum in Aegypto, written just prior to the turn of the fifth century by an anonymous monk from Byzantine Palestine who is recounting the tour-pilgrimage he and some fellow members of a monastery in Jerusalem had taken to visit the already famous sites and personalities of monastic Egypt. What catches my eye particularly is a story directed precisely against visions of the merkavah type. Abba Or, whom the Historia holds up to its readers as one of the great old men, describes in the third person a temptation that he had experienced:
The demons came to him [i.e., to Or himself] in a fantasy, showing up as the angelic hosts together with a chariot of fire and many spear-carriers, and [a figure] like an emperor on tour who says to him, "O man, you have accomplished everything! Worship me and I shall take you up like Elijah!
The devil’s appeal is clearly to the self-esteem that we saw Evagrius also warn against, and Or is not fooled, but counters with a confession of Christ as King and the vision promptly vanishes. Yet, given the frequency of ascents to heaven elsewhere in the Historia, together with the story of Silvanus’ trance and Evagrius’ polemic, it is difficult not to suspect that this sort of merkavah vision may have been fairly common, or, at the least, that it was a well known type.
Indeed, the vision of the merkavah as demonic temptation shows up again in a third collection of monastic stories, this time by one of the same four disciples of Evagrius whom I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Palladius of Heliopolis. The latter wrote his Lausiac History sometime in the 420’s about the monks, primarily of Egypt, whom he had known personally or else had heard about. Besides the expected paradigms of ascetic virtue, the History also contains a few admonitory tales, examples of the dangers that could befall someone living the monastic life. The Palestinian monk, Valens, is one of the latter, and his sin is, once again, an overweening pride — "arrogance", in Palladius’ words — which makes him an easy victim of demonic dellusion. Once more, too, the specific temptation is a false merkavah vision:
[When] the demon was fully satisfied that Valens was completely won over…he went and disguised himself as the Savior. He appeared at night in a vision of a thousand angels carrying lamps and a fiery wheel [trovco" puvrino"] in which, so it seemed to Valens, the Savior had taken shape…
A false angel then appears to Valens and tells him to leave his cell and go adore the apparition:So he went out and, when he saw marshalled in a line those who carried lamps, and the Antichrist himself about a stade or so away, he fell down and adored.
Ananisho, Palladius’ translator into Syriac in the early seventh century, adds a few details which further underline the resemblance of this story to merkavah literature. I quote here from E. Wallis Budges’ translation from the Syriac:
…when Valens had gone forth and seen the ranks bearing lamps of fire, and the Antichrist himself sitting upon a chariot [markabto] of fire — now he was distant from him a mile — he fell down and worshipped him.
Following his vision, Valens runs off to the monks’ church in order to announce to the assembled brethren that he no longer needs the Eucharist, since "I saw Christ this very day!" The fathers thoughtfully clap him in irons for a year and pray over him until he comes to his senses.
A number of things are worth notice here. First, there is the association of the false Christ with a "shape", particularly we may assume a human shape. It is difficult not to catch an echo of Evagrius’ polemic, including the note of the sin of pride, in the story his disciple tells. Second, there is the size of the figure Valens sees. He sees and thinks he recognizes it from six hundred feet away in Palladius’ account, and from a mile off in Ananisho’s translation. I think that we can safely assume, especially in the Syriac version, that the figure is assumed to have been of super-human size, and that we may have thus an allusion to the shi’ur qomah tradition. Third, we have a clear enough allusion to the merkavah in Palladius’ "fiery wheel", but this becomes unmistakably explicit in Ananisho’s use instead of the Syriac equivalent, markabto. Fourth and last, the tie-in to the Eucharist is itself of significance. In the Pachomian visions cited above, it is precisely the synaxis or church which is highlighted as the locus of the divine presence. Each of the three apparitions mentioned in the Bohairic Life shows up in the eastern part of the building, that is, in the sanctuary or altar area, while for Aphou the Eucharist is the very center and pivot of his argument in favor of the human form of divinity, the body of God. I cannot therefore help wondering if perhaps Palladius has added a layer here to the polemic which further distorts the older tradition. Not only are the anthropomorphite monks wrong and deluded, as in Evagrius, or even just heretics, as with Evagrius’ other disciple, John Cassian, but now they are deniers of the Church and sacraments as well.
VI. The Adjusted Merkavah and visio gloriae of the Macarian Homlilies
It is true, on the other hand, that there were ascetics who simultaneously claimed the possibility of a vision of the Trinity with their physical eyes and understood both Baptism and Eucharist as matters of relative indifference. These were the Messalians of Syro-Mesopotamia, condemned in a series of episcopal synods held between ca. 390 and 431. Writing somewhat earlier, but out of the same traditions and as a result sometimes (by both ancients and moderns) wrongly identified with the heretical Messalians, is the unknown author of the so-called Macarian Homilies, a body of monastic letters and discourses which was sheltered for centuries under the distinguished name of Macarius of Scete. The homilist has arguably been as influential as Evagrius in subsequent Eastern monastic literature, and both men, though separated by hundreds of miles and by very different cultural settings — Greek and Coptic Egypt versus Semitic Syro-Mesopotamia — also shared in a number of other ways: in fidelity to the Niceno-Constantinopolitanum, in acquaintance with the Cappadocian fathers (though in "Macarius’" case the influence traveled in both directions), in knowledge of the Alexandrian tradition of spiritual exegesis, and, as a result of these, in the effort to reconfigure ancient traditions in accordance with Nicene trinitarian orthodoxy. Like Evagrius, too, "Macarius" (to give this writer the name he has gone by for centuries) is also an advocate, and if possible even more forcefully so, of the visio dei luminis, which he insists is not a mere product of the intellect, a noLma, but:
…a divine light, shining essentially and substantially [ejn oujsiva/ kai; uJpostavsei] in the hearts of the faithful…the divine and essential [oujsiwvdh"] light which appears and shines in souls more than the light of the sun.
In support of this assertion he appeals at different points to scriptural witnesses, as for example the long catena of texts in one homily which begins with 2 Cor 3:18 and 4:6 (transfiguration and the glory of Christ within the heart), then moves to Pss 118:18 and 42:3 (the light of God’s face), Acts 9 and 22 (the light at Paul’s conversion), I Cor 15:49 (the "image of the heavenly man"), Phil 3:21 (the "body of glory"), I Cor 2:9-10 ("what eye has not seen"), and R 8:11 (the indwelling Spirit). Elsewhere he will appeal frequently to Eph 4:13 ("the measure of the stature of Christ’s fulness"), to Jacob’s ladder in Gen 28:12-19, to Moses’ shining face in Ex 34:29-35, to the Synoptic Transfiguration accounts, to Jn 14:21 and 17:22-24, which promise an indwelling manifestation of Christ and participation in the Glory, and to Rev 21 on the "new earth and new heaven". Those familiar with Alan Segal’s recent interpretation of Paul as a merkavah mystic will recognize the Pauline loci cited above. They are the same, by in large, as play a central role in Segal’s argument. Macarius, it seems to me, is saying much the same thing in the late fourth century, albeit against the changed background of the Nicene settlement, which should come as no surprise since he, too, is a kind of Christian merkavah mystic.
This is borne out in spectacular fashion in the opening paragraphs of the best known collection of Macarius’ works, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies. The first paragraph of Homily I is a straight paraphrase of Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot throne, and in the second paragraph Macarius moves to its interpretation:
The prophet truly and assuredly saw what he saw, but [his vision] also suggested something secret and divine, a mystery truly hidden from eternity and after generations made manifest in these last days with the appearance [lit., epiphany] of Christ. For Ezekiel beheld the mystery of the soul which is going to receive its Lord and become his throne [qrovno"] of glory, since the soul which has been made worthy of the fellowship with the Spirit of his [i.e., Christ’s] light, and which has been illumined by beauty of his ineffable Glory after having prepared itself for him as a seat [kaqevdra] and dwelling place [katoikhthvrion] becomes all light, and all face, and all eye.
Gershom Scholem touched briefly on the importance of this passage sixty years ago, noting at the end of his chapter on the hekalot texts in Major Trends that Macarius represents "a mystical reinterpretation of the merkavah tradition". Other than Gilles Quispel, I know of no scholar of the Homilies who has since picked up on the echoes of Jewish-Christianity in Macarius. Put another way, Macarius does effectively the exact same thing with Ezekiel’s chariot as Evagrius does with the Sinai theophany. Note in the passage cited how he begins with an affirmation of the prophet’s vision: Ezekiel really and truly did see the kavod. Macarius is speaking to other monks who, I rather think, were quite keen on this passage as exemplary of the sort of vision that they hoped to enjoy themselves — recall the Pachomian materials I cited earlier, as well as Abba Silvanus’ heavenly journey, or, in a negative phrasing, Abba Or and the monk Valens. Only after this affirmation does the homilist introduce his qualifying "but", his point being that since, as he writes elsewhere, "with Christ everything is [now] within", Ezekiel’s vision means something a little different and, in Macarius’ eyes, even greater for the Christian. It is no longer the hope of an exterior vision which should drive the monks’ desires and longing, but the promise of transfiguration from within. The soul itself is to become at once the chariot throne and, as Macarius goes on to explain, the soul’s faculties are thus typified by the living creatures (hayyot) which support the merkavah. The soul is the true and intended dwelling place and seat of the Glory. This again is functionally identical with Evagrius’ understanding of Sinai and the "place" of the divine presence. Like Evagrius, too, Macarius does not simply moralize or ethicize the Glory out of effective existence. The Trinity itself is light, true and substantial, which can be known and seen within the soul in a real anticipation of eschatological transformation in the age to come.
VII. Concluding Remarks: Continuity and Discontinuity
In this harmony of emphasis on the consubstantial Trinity, on the formless light of the Godhead, and on the possibility of knowing the latter directly even in the present life, the homilist and Evagrius lend that shape to the ruling emphases of Eastern Christian spirituality and mysticism which obtains to the present day. True, this late fourth century shift does constitute a discontinuity of sorts. It is in some respects a break with prior traditions that is comparable even to the discontinuity which Christianity itself represents with respect to the Second Temple matrix out of which it came. On the other hand, I also think it fair to say, first and together with Guy Stroumsa very recently, that the newly exclusive stress on interiority in these writers is in harmony with a certain logic inherent in the Christian Gospel itself, and, second and this time rather in opposition to or at least as supplementing Stroumsa, that the break with the past is a little less sharp in the Christian East than in the West of Augustine and the latter’s heirs. The divine light remains, as do the notes of transfiguration and of the commerce of heaven with earth even in the present life. The monks of Egypt who protested Theophilus’ letter were doomed ultimately to lose their struggle, at least for that particular configuration of the traditions which they cherished. Yet the earlier emphases and hope did not disappear. The old apocalyptic texts of the Pseudepigrapha continued to be read, copied, and, I presume, valued by Eastern monks. Likewise, the hope of the visio dei maiestatis retained its central place and, I think, continued to be nourished by texts from Jewish antiquity. The story of this continuity remains to be explored and charted. I hope that this paper has made some small contribution toward that enterprise, just as I hope, too, that it may serve as a signal of my own deep gratitude for the work of those Jewish and Christian scholars who have, since Scholem, begun to open a door toward the glimpse of wider vistas, and of deeper affinities between Jew and Christian, than had long been thought to be the case.