I’ve finally finished translating Evagrius’ On Prayer. You can find the complete translation and a short introduction here.
One spiritual practice I’ve found richly rewarding over the past few years is poetic composition– to try to wrap words around a moment of unveiling. There’s something sacrilegious about putting words to the ineffable, yet I find the practice grounds me to a certain extent; the words help me remember, return me to that moment of insight, beauty, and grace. The sonnet below I composed several weeks ago after a long hike through the Maryland wilderness.
Here, the wet weight of honeysuckle scent,
the shadows dancing on the brook’s brown bank,
the brook’s deliberate gurgling descent,
the poplar tulips flowering its flank,
assert the withering to naught of Spring,
its ceding to empyric Summer’s glow,
th’exhausting days that toil from us wring,
the heaviness that rests on those that grow.
My god this too’s the season of my life,
of limits I am achingly aware.
My soul with cares, with duties now is rife.
They close in on me with a haunting stare.
“My son, beloved, look into my face,
And feel the natural rhythms of my grace.”
Saturday, May 30, 2020. On personal retreat near Waldorf, MD.
This is why holy Bartholomew says that theology is both expansive and minute, and that the gospel is both wide and broad, and narrow. With extraordinary insight he seems to have intuited that the cause of all things, being inherently good, is worthy of long discussion, yet also ineffable, requiring but little speech. It cannot be fully grasped nor described, since it itself lies beyond all things and appears in true, uncovered fashion only to those who have gone through the holy purification rites, ascended all the way up the holy summits, left behind divine lights, sounds, and words from the sky and entered into the darkness where the scriptures say the One who is beyond all things really is. After all, it isn’t just that Moses is bid to purify himself and separate from those not like him; nor that after his purification he hears the ensemble of trumpets and sees lights flashing pure and varied beams of light. After this, he separates from the many and arrives with his chosen priests to the highest summit. Even in such circumstances, he does not meet God himself, nor does he see him (for God cannot be seen). Rather, Moses “saw the place where God stood.” (I think that the “highest and holiest places” signify certain suppositions about how visible and intelligible realities are ultimately subject to the One that transcends all, yet through these assertions we see the presence of the One who is beyond every thought, since it appears to those “peaks of spiritual in sight” in those “most holy places.”) Then Moses separated from them, both things that see and things seen, and went into the darkness of unknowing that is truly a mystery. In this darkness, he closes off all that is grasped with knowledge and enters that which is entirely unseen and intangible. He is entirely of the One who is beyond all things, and of nothing. He is not his own, nor another’s, yet through the complete ceasing of all knowing he is all the more perfectly made one with the One that is unknowable, and through letting go of knowing he begins to know with something that transcends the mind.
Take care that none of the uninitiated should hear these words. I refer to those who are bound up in things that are and imagine that there is nothing beyond these entities, nothing that transcends being itself, but instead think to know through their own knowledge the one who has established “darkness as his hiding place.” If this mystical invitation into the divine is beyond these people, what may we even begin to say about the truly uninitiated, who define the cause that lies beyond everything as deriving from what is and who say that there is nothing beyond the varied forms that they have concocted, forms without divinity? In the face of this transcendent cause, we must establish and assert certain theses, as it is the cause of all things, and still more properly negate them, as it transcends all things. Moreover, we mustn’t think that these assertions are opposed to the negations, but rather that this cause is beyond all lack and is beyond both assertion and negation.
I decided to take a bit of a break from Evagrius’s On Prayer. I’ve been itching to read some from Ps.-Dionysius for some time now, so I thought I’d try my hand at some of his short treatise, Mystical Theology. Ps.-Dionysius is hard to render into English in a way that does justice to the beauty of his Greek. Rendering him literally results in ridiculous gobbledegook.1
Trinity, beyond all being and divinity and goodness, you bestow on Christians insight into the mystery of God; direct us toward that highest peak of the mystical scriptures, which is both supremely radiant and dense with unknowing. There the simple, purified, and unchanging mysteries of theology are concealed in the luminous darkness of mystical silence, where in that place of utter tenebrity they shed light on that which is beyond revealing; where all is completely invisible and beyond grasp, they fill to repletion minds unseeing with brilliance of surpassing beauty.
Let this be my prayer; as for you, my dear Timothy, through this short treatment of mystical vision take your departure from the senses and from mental activities, from all that is perceived and from all that is thought, from all that is and from all that is not. To the degree possible, strain through unknowing toward oneness with the one who transcends being and knowing. After all, through pure “coming out of oneself”, wherein you set aside all things and are cleansed of all things, you will with purity lead yourself up to that gleam of divine darkness that transcends being.
- If I may shamefully pick on a predecessor, you may compare here John Parker’s rendering from 1897:
TRIAD supernal, both super-God and super-good, Guardian of the Theosophy of Christian men, direct us aright to the super-unknown and super-brilliant and highest summit of the mystic Oracles, where the simple and absolute and changeless mysteries of theology lie hidden within the super-luminous gloom of the silence, revealing hidden things, which in its deepest darkness shines above the most super-brilliant, and in the altogether impalpable and invisible, fills to overflowing the eyeless minds with glories of surpassing beauty. This then be my prayer; but thou, O dear Timothy, by thy persistent commerce with the mystic visions, leave behind both sensible perceptions and intellectual efforts, and all objects of sense and intelligence, and all things not being and being, and be raised aloft unknowingly to the union, as far as attainable, with Him Who is above every essence and knowledge. For by the resistless and absolute ecstasy in all purity, from thyself and all, thou wilt be carried on high, to the superessential ray of the Divine darkness, when thou hast cast away all, and become free from all. ↩
The annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) is over a week in the past. I had a delightful time at the conference. A few of the highlights:
- Presenting a delightful poem. I presented in a panel entitled, “Literary Texture in Augustine and Gregory.” (Handout, full-text, and primary text here) Late Antiquity never draws crowds, and this was no exception. However, the audience present listened attentively and asked good questions. Since I presented on a topic few people know anything about (the poetry of Gregory of Nazianzus), I knew that I had successfully connected my niche topic to texts and themes of more general interest. That’s the mark of a good conference paper, I think, at least for a large conference. As I’m now working full time as a software developer, it was quite fun to wear my “scholar of literature” hat again.
- Meeting other digital philologists. It’s always worthwhile listening to Greg Crane talk (the nous, inter alia, behind Perseus and the Open Greek and Latin Project). I got to sit in for most of the Digital Philology panel, which meant I got to meet people involved in terrific digital projects (like Logeion and Tesserae). This also led to a meet-up about the Classical Language Toolkit, where I got to meet Kyle Johnson. Chatting classics and code with someone who’s tread a similar path was absolutely delightful. I’m hoping to make some contributions to the CLTK in the coming months. I also got to meet Luke Hollis and see some of the terrific projects coming out of the Center for Hellenic Studies. A lovely time!
- Seeing old friends. Though I still live quite close to my alma mater, I don’t frequently get an excuse to see my colleagues and professors from Catholic University. It is always fun to catch up. Special κῦδος to my friend, Patsy Craig, for presenting a terrific paper on Vergil!
Conferences like these are best spent strengthening old ties and making new ones. By that measure, these few days were a great success! I’m looking forward already to the next SCS.
On Friday, January 3, 2020, I present a paper at the annual meeting of the Society of Classical Studies (program here). The paper is entitled, “Gregory of Nazianzus and Apollinaris of Laodicea: Callimachean Polemic in the 4th c. CE.” Relevant links:
If you wish to carry out your prayer, you need God, who “gives prayer to the one praying.” So persist in calling out to him, saying “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” His “name” is the Holy Spirit and his kingdom is the only begotten Son. After all, this is what he taught when he said the Father was worshipped “in Spirit and in Truth.”
The one who prays “in spirit and in truth” no longer extols the creator for created things, but sings his praise for his very self.
It is not necessarily the case that the mind has obtained the place of prayer once it no longer is among thoughts of day to day life. After all, it can be in contemplation of these day-to-day doings and spend its time among the explanations for these events. Even though they are just words, because these contemplations are directed at daily matters they shape and fashion the mind and lead it far away from God.
Even when the mind has moved beyond contemplation of bodily existence, it has not yet beheld the place of God’s perfection. For it may become enamored and divided with knowledge of the intellectual principles of things.
The one who has obtained freedom from compulsion does not necessarily pray in a true manner. After all, one can be entirely within one’s thoughts but distracted by the narratives they generate and hence far from God.