SATURDAY READING: The Virtue Of The Angels by Gabriel Bunge

The Virtue Of The Angels Gabriel Bunge

From Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness

The image of man, as presented by Evagrius, would remain one-sided were one only to present it against the dark background of those vices that pervert it, without also showing its luminous, “angelic” dimensions.  Furthermore, hardly anyone could muster the courage and endurance to do battle against a vice such as anger if he did not have an appealing image of real humanness before his eyes – an ideal which perhaps he is not able to develop, but which nevertheless widens the narrow horizon of our Earthly existence.  A good deal has already been mentioned in the preceding chapters, but here we shall attempt to form a synthesis.

Patience: the armor of understanding,
judgment over wrath,
sanatorium of the heart,
exhortation of the insolent,
pacification of the agitated,
storm-free haven,
comfort of the grieved,
kindness toward all.
When slandered, it blesses;
mistreated, it rejoices.
Consolation of the oppressed,
mirror of hoped-for good things,
trophy of the tortured.

The vices are nothing other than the perverted functioning of the soul’s three powers, and this point cannot be repeated often enough.  In order to fight effectively against a vice, one must thus practice the opposing virtue.  In the case of anger, this is forbearance – one of the manifestations of meek love, as Evagrius outlines above.  We have already seen that this meek love is in no way weak.  Among all the virtues, it is the one that grants mankind access to God and his mysteries.

“Make me to know thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths”: Whoever desires to know the “ways of the Lord” must become meek: for it says, “He will teach the meek his ways.”  But the meek are those who have brought to an end the endless struggle of irascibility and desire in the soul, as well as the struggle of the passions caused by these.

That meekness is an “aristocratic virtue,” in the best sense of the term, has already been made clear – according to the witness of scripture, it is a distinguishing mark of the ruling figures of Moses, David, and Christ.  This being the case, Evagrius makes use especially of Moses to sketch the figure of his true “Gnostic,” to whom knowledge of God and his creation was granted on account of his meekness.  David, on the other hand, is the type of one who is “like the angels.”  In both cases, Evagrius naturally proceeds from scripture as he understands it – that is, “intelligibly and spiritually.”  In the preceding pages, Moses was more often the topic of discussion.  Here, we shall turn to this man who is “like the angels”: David.

“When shall I come and behold the face of God?”  If the “angels always behold the face of the Father,” but this one [who prays] desires to behold the face of God, then David consequently desires to become an angel.

Does David thereby desire the impossible?  Not in the least, as Evagrius again culls from scripture.

“The light of thy countenance has shone upon us, Lord”: The angels always behold the face of God, but mankind beholds the light of his countenance.  The face of the Lord is the spiritual contemplation of everything that has come into being on this Earth, while the light of his countenance is a partial knowledge even of these things, if it is true tha] according to the word of the wise woman from Tekoa, David was like an angel of the Lord, perceiving all things on Earth.

David naturally became such an “angel of God” through his great meekness, “for this is the virtue of the angels!”

Kindness and meekness are the cherubim of the soul.

Consequently, ever since the time of the Old Covenant, it has been an established fact that certain people, thanks to their great “purity of heart,” have the ability to attain an “almost angelic state” and, what is more, to become “equal to the angels” through “true prayer.”  This, then, advances them to the level of eating the desired “bread of the angels,” that is, to participate in the God-knowledge of the angels.

“Man ate the bread of angels”: The Redeemer says: “I am the bread which came down from Heaven.”  The angels ate this bread first, but now mankind as well.  “Eating” here means “to recognize,” for the intellect “eats” what it recognizes, and does not “eat” what it does not recognize.

After all that we have heard up to now, it is clear that this “almost angelic condition” consists in “imitating the angelic mode.”  For if man is in himself “like a child that stands between justice and injustice,” neither an angel nor a demon, “until the consummation of the age,” he is, of course, free to share the life of the angels or that of the demons.  If he drinks the forbidden “dragon’s wine” (anger with all its consequences), he becomes a “demon,” a “serpent,” already in this present time.  Yet if he acquires the angelic virtue of meek love, he becomes “like an angel.”  Let us now examine more closely wherein this “angelic resemblance” consists and to whom it is granted.

In the Old Covenant, “some people recognized the reasons of the things on Earth” – for example, Moses and David, as we have already seen.  By contrast, in the New Testament this knowledge is in principle open to all who are baptized, especially those “who have believed in Christ,” and received “the spiritual seal” – that is, that “anointing” of the Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s mysteries to them.  These are the “sons of the Resurrection,” who Christ said would not die and would become “like angels.”

This “angelic resemblance” is an eschatological good, and Evagrius is naturally also aware of this.  However, like all eschatological goods of salvation, this one is already experienced here on Earth by God’s grace – a “guarantee,” so to speak, of the glory to come.  As we have already seen, this experience is made in “true prayer” and especially that “true worship of the Father in spirit and in truth,” which Christ describes as now abolishing the cult of the Old Covenant and every way of worshiping God on account of his coming.  This is so, since an angel stands in close relationship not only to the “beholding of the face of the Father in Heaven,” but also to the prayer “in spirit and in truth.”

The statement in the Apocalypse that speaks of the angel who takes care of putting incense in the bowl that contains the prayer of the saints refers, in my opinion, to precisely this grace wrought by the angel.  He infuses knowledge of true prayer so that for the future the spirit may stand firm, free of all acedia and all negligence.

“That grace” refers back to the preceding chapter where it is said that “when the angel of the Lord visits us, he dispels by his word alone every conflicting force of the demon acting in us, and brings it about that the light of our spirit operates with deception.”  In other words, the “light” of his ability to recognize things is now no longer darkened, but can freely develop.  Here we learn that this recognition aims at “true prayer” and the “worship of the Father in spirit and truth,” that is, in his Holy Spirit and his Only-Begotten Son.

The angel of the Lord is able to meditate such sublime knowledge to us since he not only “knows all things on Earth” and predicts the future (as in the book of Daniel), but also “always beholds the face of the Father in Heaven.”  But through his “true prayer,” man, in his desire to behold this same face, becomes himself “like an angel.”

The next chapter will conclude this thought and will also name the conditions for this exaltation of man.

The phials of perfume are said to be the prayers of the saints, which are offered by the twenty-four elders.  These phials are to be understood as the love of God, or rather as the perfect and spiritual charity in which prayer is offered in spirit and truth.

These “saints,” to whom this “friendship with God” (which at the same time is also friendship with the holy powers, i.e., the angels) was granted, are above all those of whom Holy Scripture speaks as “friends of God.”  In the Old Covenant, these are Abraham and Moses; in the New Covenant, John the Baptist and the Apostles.  Thereafter, these friends are all those who were made worthy of the “grace of the knowledge of true prayer.”  For Evagrius, these are first of all those whom he calls “spiritual fathers” and who “are to be honored like the angels.”  From their lives, we see excellent examples of what Evagrius understands by an “angelic man,” since they have been granted that knowledge that characterizes the angels.  With regard to their spiritual children, these fathers play a role analogous to that entrusted to the angels in general towards mankind.

Know that God watches over everything through Christ, and that Christ, in turn, carries out his providence over everything through the holy angels who possess in exceeding abundance knowledge “of the things on Earth.”

Consequently, God accomplishes the work of his providence over the world in manifold ways through the “hand” of the angels.  The “worlds” of angels and demons are, of course, not directly accessible to us; we can see neither angels nor demons as they really are, and in the case of angels, we also should not even wish to see them, since such “apparitions” are all too often only a demonic deceit.  Whoever falls for this runs the risk of losing his mind.  In order to become visible to us, the demons gladly assume alien bodies, transforming thereafter into “angels of light” in order to deceive us.

In an invisible way, mankind is entrusted to the guidance of the holy angels.  Additionally, every person has his own personal guardian angel “who is assigned to him from youth on.”  They are our guides to whom we are entrusted from the beginning.

The task of the angels – who naturally see us quite well and can also draw near to our world, just like the demons – consists first of all in defending us against demonic attacks.  This they do not least in prayer as well, during which they are always present in that they “dispel by their word alone every conflicting force of the demons acting in us” as we have already seen.  For this reason, we must not be neglectful, for we do not want to anger those who fight for us!

After that, they instill in us their “irresistible” angelic thoughts, which – together with our own will and the virtues deposited in our created nature like seeds – put us in a position to withstand demonic thoughts and do good.  In doing so, they are not always particular in their choice of educations means, for they also make use of nighttime terrors and hard blows in order to bring us to the straight path.  The goal of this multifaceted care is always to lead us to their own angelic knowledge.

Through the reasons of exhortation, the holy angels purify us of evil and make us impassible.  Through natural and divine reasons, they free us from ignorance, making us wise men and Gnostics.

Accordingly, the angels impart to us the entire knowledge necessary for our salvation – consisting in praktike, physike, and theologike – by teaching us their own “intelligible and spiritual knowledge.”  The “practical knowledge” relating to praktike deals above all with the “reasons” of the ascetic fight against the demons, which allows the monk to practice “praktike with knowledge.”  The following text gives us an idea of what Evagrius understands by “the knowledge of nature.”

After frequent observation, we have found that the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts coming from the demons is as follows.  First, angelic thoughts scrutinize the nature of things and search out their spiritual reasons.  For example, why gold was created and dispersed like sand and disseminated in the valleys of the Earth, and is found only with great effort and toil; and why, once found, it is washed in water and committed to the fire, and then put into the hand of artisans who fashion it into the lamps of the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offerings and the censers and the bowls, from which, by the grace of our Redeemer, the kind of Babylon now no longer drinks, but rather Cleopas, who bears away a heart set ablaze by such mysteries.

Second, demonic thought neither understands nor knows such things.  It only suggests shamelessly the acquisition of the gold that is pleasing to the senses and predicts the good life and glory that will come from this.

Lastly, human thought seeks neither to acquire gold, nor is it concerned about what gold symbolizes.  It merely brings before the mind the bare image of gold, devoid of the passion of greed.

By applying this rule mystically, one can say the same about other things.

In a similar manner, the holy angels “illuminate” for the contemplative not only the things God has wrought, but also – as they did in the past to Daniel – “the reasons of things to come.”  They accomplish this task until we have attained perfection in God, for then there is no longer “either pupil or teacher.”

The “divine reasons” (or the reasons pertaining to the divinity) refer to the knowledge of God, or theologike, in the narrow sense.  Insofar as this knowledge is necessary for our salvation, it is contained in the “holy dogmas” of the “catholic and apostolic church,” and confessed in the baptismal profession of faith.  For this reason , it is above all the subject of faith and worship, and not of purely rational “exploration.”  Evagrius therefore also advises one to touch on these topics only rarely.  Our array of conceptual instruments, borrowed from the material world, is not suitable for the knowledge of divine things.  Whoever does not remain constantly aware of this fact easily applies the categories developed for understanding created things to God and thus goes astray.  For Evagrius, true knowledge of the one God in three consubstantial hypostases – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – has an “angelic” character, unfolding in “true prayer” – the prayer “in spirit and in truth,” which alone makes man a “theologian” in the proper sense!

From the example of the angels’ unselfish activity, as well as their encouragement towards prayer, and their own intercession for us, it becomes clear that the angels are “servants of compassion and love.”  Consequently, “resembling the angels” consists first of all in imitating the angelic virtues.  Evagrius describes the activity of the “students of the angels” – those aforementioned “wise men” and “Gnostics,” i.e., “spiritual fathers” (named thus because they “possess the gift of the Spirit and beget many for the virtue and the knowledge of God”) – in a way quite similar to how he describes the activity of the angels.

Whoever has been made worthy of spiritual knowledge will help the holy angels and will lead rational souls from evil to virtue and from ignorance to knowledge.

This is already the case in this present life, but will more truly be so in the “coming age,” if such a man has become an “angel” properly speaking.  The opposite, however, is true of incompetent “patriarchs,” who on account of their long years ought to have knowledge at their disposal, but are in fact still dominated by the passions:

In the age to come, an angry man will not be numbered among the angels, nor will authority be entrusted to him, for he does not see because of the passions, and he is easily provoked against those who are led by him.  He falls away from contemplation, and he endangers those who are entrusted to him.  However, the state of angels is alien to both.

Standing in utter contrast to this is the true spiritual father, who like an angel “anoints us for the battles and treats the wounds we suffer from the bites of wild beasts [that is, the demons].”  He has “Heaven for his homeland and lives there constantly – not in mere word but in actions that imitate the angels and in a more God-like knowledge.”

It is right to pray not only for your own purification, but also for your entire race, so as to imitate the way of the angels.

In his very care for the “fallen image of God,” the spiritual father (like the angels) sometimes resorts to drastic measures.  On the “pure,” he works like a bright “light,” but on the “impure” he is like a stinging, cleansing salt.  Nonetheless, although he is severe with the quarrelsome, he is neither threatening nor inaccessible but always ready to cheer up the fainthearted.  Like God himself, he “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  His preeminent virtue is angelic angerlessness.  Accordingly, he is prepared to suffer an injustice rather than to fight for his right.  In his “condescension” he is always moderate, full of consideration for the spiritual maturity of his hearers.  Although he himself is a strict ascetic his entire life, free from care about his own needs and completely selfless, he is always generous with alms.

The main task of this angelic man is naturally teaching, and in this he is always guided by Holy Scripture correctly understood, which is the revelatory source par excellence of all our knowledge.  Nonetheless, he always remains aware that his knowledge is inferior to that of the angels.  In spite of everything, he is in the end just a man, burdened with weaknesses like all men, but who in caring for others also heals himself imperceptibly.

As loftily as Evagrius praises the ideal of “resembling the angels,” we may not forget that we are dealing here with a conceptual image.  Man was neither created as an angel, nor is he destined to become “merely” an angel at the consummation of the ages!  The perfect “image of God” according to which man was not only created, but also “renewed” in holy baptism, is Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.  The final goal in our “ascent” to God is thus not merely to be “like the holy powers”, i.e., the angels, but rather to “be made like” Christ!

For the prayer of our Lord must be completely fulfilled.  Indeed, it is Jesus who prays “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.”  Thus shall we be: no longer experiencing either increase or decrease in regard to knowledge, but rather living perfectly forever in the Lord.

This “similarity” begins in baptism when we are “baptized into Christ and put on Christ as a garment”: as “wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification,” but also as “meekness,” that quality that distinguished him from all others.  Consequently, we should above all “imitate” Christ here on Earth and become disciples of his meekness!

For this reason, the “bread of angels,” i.e., their perfect knowledge “of the things on Earth” (in other words, of the ordering of creation and of the history of salvation), does not ultimately suffice for man.  Only Christ has perfect knowledge of the “first principle” of all things in that he possesses not only the limited “contemplation of the created, but also knows him who himself created everything.”  We must therefore eat his “bread,” his “flesh” and “blood,” in order to become “partakers of the Logos and the wisdom of God.”  Naturally, the demons try to thwart this communion with all their might.  Only the Logos and the Spirit will one day make accessible to us the perfect knowledge of the Father.

By grace, the “angel-like” man experiences this eschatological elevation of his already here on Earth, when purified of all passions, he is allowed to rest his head on Christ’s “breast,” as once did John the Evangelist and Theologian.  In particular, this happens “at the time of prayer” when such a man receives from the Father “the most glorious gift” of true prayer “in spirit and in truth,” which makes him a “theologian” and thus a man who speaks not only about God and his works, but also bears witness to him from a most heartfelt intimacy.  Henceforth, he no longer praises God – like the angels and the angelic man – because of his creation, but in an ineffable way “he praises God because of himself.”  Only the one who has experienced this himself can understand what this means.


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