by Shawn Fowler
The Christian Church experienced several major developments in the fourth century, not the least of which was the burgeoning of monasticism into a movement of great influence. This swelling was accompanied by a body of literature mostly constituting Lives, anthologies of sayings and exploits attributed to various monks. Also proceeding from the monastic communities of this time were the corpora of two figures whose writings were more prescriptive than descriptive, whose works would mold subsequent ascetic thought: Evagrius Ponticus and the pseudonymous Macarius. The Fifty Spiritual Homilies of the latter of these men is the locus of the current essay. After a brief introduction covering the little we know about said “blessed” author, we will investigate his teaching on spiritual sight. Our inquiry will uncover the presence of inner vision as a faculty indispensable to every stage of the Christian life. We will explore its role in discernment, that is, the recognition of the enemy, God, and self, and also its relation to revelation, events wherein God discloses ineffable mysteries to his children. Lastly, the place of spiritual sight with reference to the beginning and end of God’s salvific program will be identified, the eschatological vision demonstrated to be a restoration and, thereafter, a transcendence of the prelapsarian sight enjoyed by the first human beings.
Concerning the identity of the Macarian homilist, a dearth of information is available. The corpus is attributed to either Macarius the Great or Macarius of Alexandria, but that he cannot be either of these esteemed monks has become obvious to modern scholarship. It is now widely held that the writings are Syrian in provenance.[i] Dating the corpus is easier, as the author proves to have been a contemporary of the Cappadocian Fathers, and not only because of their influence on him. Gregory of Nyssa actually reworked the homilist’s Great Letter into his own De instituto christiano, demonstrating the immediate appeal of the Macariana and also placing its composition somewhere between 381 and 394.[ii] Lastly, the massive manuscript tradition of his homilies and sermons, extant in four collections, bears witness to Macarius’s ability to communicate the ascetic way of life effectively to successive generations.
Two Preliminary Points of Macarian Theology
Turning now to the theology of the author in question, a brief tour of two of his signature emphases will precede the primary task of this paper, the exploration of Macarius’ concept of spiritual vision. The first worth mentioning is the priority he places on experience. Macarius is not much of a theoretician; on the contrary, the purpose of his rhetoric is to see in his monastic audience the Christian faith realized. He, therefore, expects believers to experience “the renewal of the human being”[iii] that is Christianity. This is seen immediately in his corpus. The first homily is an interpretation of Ezekiel’s vision of the wheeled throne of God. He explains that the throne represents the individual human soul, and that the primary goal of our lives is to make God the charioteer who holds its reins. The end of this sermon describes the characteristics of a soul that is in right relationship with the Lord. Macarius’s purpose is that his reader will know through experience whether he is saved. His conclusion includes the following: “Look, you have received these things truly from the Lord so that you may live the true life. If, however, you are not conscious of having experienced any of these things, weep, mourn, and groan, because you have not yet been made a participator of the eternal and spiritual riches and you have not yet received true life.”[iv] The expectation of experience is ubiquitous in the corpus and frequently used, as is the case here, as a criterion for determining the spiritual status of a monk.
The second point of his theology included in our preliminary treatment is that of sin and grace. For Macarius, the earthly life of a Christian is a journey of transformation. Due to the original man’s failure in the garden, each subsequent human has been born in a state of sin. For one to partake of the ineffable, everlasting union with God at the eschaton, he must undergo the inner renewal which Christ’s earthly sojourn made possible. Spiritual vision is a faculty integral to this entire metamorphic process. Further, Macarius’s doctrine of the cohabitation of sin and grace must be grasped before one can understand the aforementioned faculty’s role in the life of a believer. Throughout the Macarian corpus, the author repeatedly reminds his monastic readership of sin’s presence within them, even after baptism. Its counterpart is grace, and the two have a war of sorts within the person. The battle endures the entirety of each Christian’s life. A fine example of his description of this dual residence can be found in the following:
For us, however, evil is real since it lives in our heart and there it operates by suggesting wicked and obscene thoughts and by not allowing us to pour out pure prayers. It leads our mind into captivity to this world. It has entered into our souls and has touched all our bones and members. Just as Satan is in the air and God, who is also there, is not harmed by being there, so sin is in our souls and God’s grace also, with the latter suffering no harm.[v]
Although both are present, it is by no means a hopeless situation for the believer. A life of virtue pleasing to God can be manifested if the Christian allows divine grace to “take the reins.” Describing the soul as pastureland trampled on by sin, Macarius encourages his readers to embrace the ascetic struggle which God rewards with incremental dispensations of grace: “Man is helped in this gradual method, and grace itself finds grazing land in the soul and sinks roots into the deepest levels of the soul and its thoughts, as a person on many occasions proves himself and corresponds with grace, until the whole soul is permeated by the heavenly grace which then reigns in the vessel itself.”[vi] This cohabitation of sin and grace means that the long-term transfigurative process that is a believer’s life is, in one sense, a removal of one’s own sin in order to make more “room” for the Spirit and his grace. Moreover, there exists a second “stage” of sin-removal that precedes and prompts divine revelation. When a Christian attains a state of near sinlessness, he becomes worthy to encounter God in a manner reserved for only the purest of hearts; such an experience involves seeing the heavenly glory. Therefore, one’s spiritual sight must be built up into a condition of formidable strength for such to occur. More accurately, as far as Macarius is concerned, said inner sight needs to be recovered.
Spiritual Sight Darkened
The entire enterprise of seeing spiritually and thereby making spiritual progress is a restoration of the prelapsarian vision of God. Just as sin came to be a dominant force within the human being after the ancient transgression, so also, and, as a result thereof, the “eyes of the heart” were darkened. “They [earthly kings] did not know the change that had come over the mind that at first was pure and contemplated the Master and was held in honor. And now on account of its fall the mind is clothed with shame and the eyes of the heart are blinded so as not to see that glory which our father Adam before his disobedience beheld.”[vii] The Christian life, then, is a return to the communion with God enjoyed by the original human.
Spiritual Sight as Discernment
The restoring of this sight through the eviction of sin begins with discernment. The discerning faculty of the soul allows for one to see upcoming obstacles generally, to recognize the works of the enemy and of God, and to examine one’s own soul honestly. These three activities facilitate the long-term undertaking of emptying oneself of sin, occurring in no particular order, or possibly in one that the homilist does not identify. Therefore, we will first consider the general description of discernment as an organ of spiritual sense.
Among the many uses of the human eye is that of obviation. By peering out before us, we can prepare for whatever may lie ahead, both helpful and impedimentary. In this same manner, discernment, functioning as the eye of the soul, empowers the Christian to see any upcoming obstacle set to ensnare him. He says,
. . . the soul, which is clothed with the attractive garment, namely, the body, possesses the faculty of discernment which directs the whole soul along with the body as it passes through the brush and thorns of life, through the mud, fire, and precipices, that is, the lusts and sensuous pleasures and the other vanities of this world.[viii]
Discernment, although a sight proper to the soul, guides the whole person, specifically acting as guardian of the body. Directly before the above quote, Macarius tells of a man traveling treacherous terrain and how he needs the eye to avoid rending his cloak. The man’s clothing is that which protects his body, but such protection is thin and easily torn by thorns. The eye’s role, therefore, is to assist the person in circumventing any situation in which said “weak link” might be breached, for then the body will be exposed and vulnerable. Transferred into the monastic context, discernment is the eye, the soul is the traveler’s body, and the body is the man’s outer garment. The discerning faculty is a gift from God allowing humans to counteract the weakness of the flesh, steering it clear of lascivious, lawless temptations.
Another aspect of discerning sight is that the monk is able to distinguish whether something be the work of God or the devil. In homily fourteen, the author describes the different domains of different beings, such as an “earth” for us, an “earth” for birds, and so forth. He starts with these examples in order to speak of the dwelling places proper to Satan and to God and how one is able to discern such locations. “There is also a land that is the homeland of Satan where the powers of darkness and the spirits of evil dwell and walk about and find their rest. There likewise is a land, luminous with the Godhead, where the camps and armies of angels and holy spirits walk about and find their rest.”[ix] Neither of these locales are perceptible to physical eyes as are those belonging to the birds, fish, and land animals. However, ” . . . to those who are spiritual, namely, who see with the eyes of the heart, both the world of Satan and darkness and also the world of divine light lie revealed.”[x] Besides the obvious sating of curiosity as to what “goes on behind the scenes,” this spiritual distinguishing serves a practical purpose in spiritual progress. As regards demons, discernment functions exactly as it does above in reference to obstacle avoidance, except that in this case, the disciple knows the source of his testing. “Just as the exterior eyes look ahead and spot the brambles and precipices and ditches, so also the mind, when it is quite alert, foresees the machinations and deceits of the power, the adversary of the soul.”[xi] On the opposite end of the spectrum, Christians discern both God and his works. Starting with the latter, Macarius speaks of a divine fire that purifies one’s mind in order to see God’s craftsmanship. “This fire burns up the beam in the interior eye; it renders the mind pure so that recovering its natural power of seeing, it may constantly gaze on the wonderful works of God.”[xii] The recognition of the Lord’s works is a reversal of the blindness incurred after the fall. Viewing the work of God eventually leads one to the author of those works, the divine Bridegroom of the soul.[xiii] Human beings are perpetually subject to an onslaught of thoughts, originating from myriad voices vying strenuously for their attention. The illumination given to believers by the Spirit enables this sea of confusion to be navigated, the person of Jesus acting as a lighthouse whose guiding beam is perceivable to enlightened inner eyes. Once the eyes of the heart are locked onto the beauty of Christ, viewers become “pierced with divine passionate love and [are] directed in the way of all virtues of the Spirit.”[xiv]
The last aspect of this inner sight that will be brought forth under the banner of “discernment” is the vision of one’s own soul. In homily seven, in a portion of the text in which Macarius answers various questions about the soul, he defines two categories that are relevant to our study: enlightenment and revelation. The former gives one the ability to see his own interior self, while the latter opens the eyes to the “mysteries of the Godhead.”[xv] Concerning this “self sight,” the master says, “The one who is enlightened is greater than the one who only sees by the senses. For his mind is enlightened insofar as he has received a greater portion of knowledge than the one who has only sense knowledge. He really sees in himself visions which give him certitude.”[xvi] This passage is unusually helpful in that the author defines a term which he uses frequently in his writings; he seldom provides definitions. Nonetheless, besides identifying the seeing of one’s own soul with enlightenment, no light is shed on what such activity entails and for what purpose it exists. Fortunately, a detailed pericope found elsewhere in the Macariana does just this. Homily eleven portrays the soul as a house shrouded in darkness and as a pool of mire in which its thoughts are firmly lodged. An appraisal of the situation reveals that “the soul is in need of a divine lamp, namely, the Holy Spirit, who puts in order and beautifies the darkened house.” Doubling up on metaphors, the homilist describes self-discernment as follows:
Truly the soul is incapable by itself of studying its own thoughts and discerning them. But with the divine lamp lit, the light dispels the darkness from the house. Then a person sees his own thoughts, how they have been covered by impurity and the mud of sin. The sun rises and then the soul sees its loss and begins to call out the thoughts that had been so mixed with dirt and squalor.[xvii]
Thus the illumination of the Holy Spirit functions as a great spotlight, shining into the soul and making visible psychic possessions that have sunk into the mire of iniquity. The Christian can then see clearly to locate and loose these intentions and thoughts of the soul, turning them over as an offering to the Lord.
Concerning Macarius’s overall conception of spiritual sight, discernment is a major component. It is the beginning act of the believer in the visionary process, but also continues to be utilized throughout the duration of one’s earthly life. As we have seen, it includes the foresight of obstacles, the recognition of the works of both God and Satan, and the careful examination of a person’s own soul. Having established an understanding of this basic purpose of inner vision, we will now move on to the revelation of God vouchsafed those who persist in their pursuit of the Divine.
Spiritual Sight as Revelation
Macarius defines the term “revelation” in homily seven: “revelation is still different [than enlightenment] in which great things, mysteries of the Godhead, are revealed to the soul.”[xviii] Enlightenment, and that of which it is a subset, discernment, appear mostly to be described by Macarius as an ongoing, general activity. Certainly the author is open to moments in which discerning means to see a supernatural vision of demons or angels, but this probably is not what he normally has in mind. Revelation, on the other hand, does seem to be an event wherein the Christian has a preternatural encounter with God, one that is often visionary. The best description the author provides can be found in homily ten, in a passage depicting the union of the human soul with its heavenly Husband. “The face of the soul is unveiled and it gazes with fixed eyes upon the heavenly Bridegroom, face to face, in a spiritual and ineffable light. Such a person mingles with Him with full certitude of faith, becoming conformed to His death.”[xix] This unhindered gazing upon Christ births a union between the soul and its Savior. The subject is conformed into the image of its object, a visionary notion common in Greek thought since Plato,[xx] but one thoroughly biblical in its employment of the Pauline identification with Christ’s death.[xxi]
The homilist’s lively depictions of seeing divine realities point to him having personal experience of such. This suspicion is confirmed, however, upon a reading of homily eight, in which the author records the details of a few revelatory visions granted him.
To certain persons the sign of the cross appeared as light and plunged itself deep into the inner man. At another time a man, while praying, was thrown into a trance. He found himself standing in church before the altar. There were three loaves of bread offered to him, as though leavened by oil. And the more he ate, the more the loaves multiplied.[xxii]
Macarius begins these anecdotes by ascribing them to the experience of unnamed people. Nevertheless, a little further in the same homily, when answering a specific question about the degree of perfection he has reached, the author describes the love for mankind with which he was filled after he “received the experience of the sign of the cross.”[xxiii] It is therefore reasonable not only to connect his statement with the vision of the cross, but also with the other couple stories recounted in the homily; “certain persons” is his version of the Pauline “I know a man in Christ . . .”[xxiv] Macarius describes two more revelations, the first of which centering on a dazzling robe: “To others at times there appeared a splendid robe, such as not found anywhere in the whole world, not made by human hands. Just as when the Lord ascended the mountain with John and Peter, He transformed His garments, making them brilliant like lightning, so too was that robe so that that man, clothed in it, was amazed and struck with awe.”[xxv] In addition to a sense of awe and holy fear, these experiences were sometimes too powerful for Macarius to handle. His last recollection speaks of a great light shining into his heart to the degree that “he was no longer in control of himself, but became like a fool and a barbarian toward this world, so overwhelmed was he by the excessive love and sweetness of the hidden mysteries that were being revealed to him.”[xxvi] The homilist does not interpret the symbols found in his visions, although such things as the cross, bread, and a brilliant robe undoubtedly have biblical and liturgical significance and would have conveyed rich meaning to his original recipients. Of much interest is the admission of losing self-control found in the final quote. Monastic literature, Macarius’s included, is known for its encratic bent. Nonetheless, it seems that the summit of spiritual experience available to the living, that for which askesis is endured, comes coupled with an obligatory deprivation of said control.
Sin-Removal as a Result of Revelatory Vision
Spiritual sight is intimately involved in the process that makes one a worthy recipient of revelations and, in addition, is often the means by which such disclosures take place. Even though an ineffable union with Christ’s Spirit, one replete with secret, heavenly images, is in itself something to be relished, the joy and satisfaction derived therefrom do not stand alone as results. Macarius teaches as a supplemental ramification the expulsion of sin from the soul. We noted earlier that the transformative journey of the Christian life is very much a process of emptying oneself of sin in order to be filled with the Spirit’s grace. If the employment of discernment assists one in gradually lowering sin’s presence through wise, godly choices made on a daily basis, the impact of revelations on sin-removal makes, in instantaneous and dramatic fashion, large swaths of the soul’s pasturelands once again available for “grace-grazing.” Immediately following Macarius’s description of the soul mingling with its Bridegroom quoted above, he says, “He certainly and completely believes that he will obtain liberation from his sins and dark passions through the Spirit, so that, purified by the Spirit in soul and body, he may become . . . a worthy habitation for the heavenly and true King, Christ.”[xxvii] The soul is further set free through its encounters with Christ, the goal being that one will be emptied of evil and therefore be a dwelling place fit for royalty. The Christian ought to long for visitations to develop into a permanent residence. However, the above quote says that the monk “believes” that such things will happen after experiencing a unitive vision of Christ; does the author give any indication of their realization? In fact, he does in the passage in which he relates his own visions. After his recollection of seeing the hidden light whose gratuitous love caused him to lose control, he states, “The result was that the person was granted liberty and arrived at a perfect degree of purity and freedom from sin.”[xxviii] These revelations, these gifts of God, not only bless their beneficiaries with overwhelming exposure to divine power, love, and light; they also change the spiritual makeup of the recipients in a substantive manner. It is as though a major “chunk” of the soul’s inherent sin is snapped off by the divine light and hurled far from its former victim. Although the language used in these “sin-removal” quotes is definitive, making it appear that Macarius was set free from sin for the rest of his life, he elsewhere makes clear that perfection reached during the earthly life is only temporary and that the monk will always be engaged in battle against sin. However, God does empower the believer to make substantial progress in holiness that prepares one for the perfection he will receive at the eschaton.[xxix]
We have examined spiritual vision as regards its ongoing function in the everyday life of Christians, that which Macarius labels “discernment.” Further, we have considered the role of non-physical sight with reference to revelation, the supernatural disclosure of mysteries of the Godhead. Our study has been in view of the overarching Macarian concern for vacating the soul of sin in order that the inner man might be a locale welcoming to and worthy of a holy God. The permanent dwelling of God within a person, a residence synonymous with perpetual union of Christ and the soul, is the eschatological goal of each Christian and the last subject of our discussion.
At the end of the salvific program which God has set into motion, He will be intimately united with His people, both corporately and individually. As throughout the earthly life of a believer, spiritual sight fills an important role here as well. When treating of the resurrection, the homilist continually makes a connection between the inward and outer realities of the human being. Alexander Golitzin puts it thus: “What is visible to the eyes of the illumined soul now and within, that is, the abiding and glory of Christ and the Spirit in the ‘inner man,’ will then become visible outside, in the very limbs of the transformed body.”[xxx] At this time God’s children will receive new clothing, “the glory of the divine light,” and will become united to one another in a way not previously possible; they will be “transformed into a new nature,” completely eradicating all interpersonal conflict and doing away with distinctions pertaining to class and even gender.[xxxi] This unimaginable unity among the people present in the heavenly kingdom is a direct result of their collective oneness with the Savior and their interminable vision of his light. He says, “For all are one in Christ and all find rest in the one light. One will attend to the other and in mutual gazing they will straight way shine forth in truth in the true contemplation of the ineffable light.”[xxxii] Those present in the eschatological kingdom will not simply gaze on the glory of the Lord as those entranced by the brilliance of an overpowering light. In addition, the viewers of this ethereal effulgence seem to act as refractive surfaces for the “ineffable light”; they bask in Christ’s glory, “soaking” it up while simultaneously sending it out toward one another.
At this final stage, the believer, and his spiritual sight, has been restored to the blissful state formerly held in Paradise before the entrance of sin into the world. The eschatological union of God with His people, however, is not simply a restoration of an earlier condition; it is more accurately a transcendence thereof. The experience of unencumbered communion with the Trinity will far surpass anything the Christian has previously known, even moments of unspeakable ecstasy. The daily struggle to maintain inward holiness will finally receive its full reward as God grants to the faithful permanent freedom from sin and a boundless measure of his love.
[i] Columba Stewart, “Working the Earth of the Heart”: The Messalian Controversy in History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 86.
[ii] Marcus Plested, The Macarian Legacy: The Place of Macarius-Symeon in the Eastern Christian Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 14-15.
[iii] Alexander Golitzin, “A Testimony to Christianity as Transfiguration: The Macarian Homilies and Orthodox Spirituality,” In Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality, ed. S.T. Kimbrough, Jr., (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 129.
[iv] Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies and the Great Letter, 1,12, trans. George A. Maloney, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1992), 44.
[v] Ibid., 16,6; 131.
[vi] Ibid., 41,2; 217.
[vii] Ibid., 45,1; 227.
[viii] Ibid., 4,3; 51.
[ix] Ibid., 14,6; 107.
[xi] Ibid., 7,8; 80.
[xii] Ibid., 25,10; 163.
[xiii] Ibid., 28,5; 185.
[xv] Ibid., 7,5; 80.
[xvii] Ibid., 11,4; 92.
[xviii] Ibid., 7,5; 80.
[xix] Ibid., 10,4; 89.
[xx] For a clear explanation of the substantive connection between subject and object in sight, see Plato, Timaeus 45, C-D.
[xxi] Phil 3:10.
[xxii] Pseudo-Macarius, 8,3; 81.
[xxiii] Ibid., 8,6; 83.
[xxiv] 2 Cor 12:2
[xxv] Pseudo-Macarius, 8,3; 82.
[xxvii] Ibid., 10,4; 90.
[xxviii] Ibid., 8,3; 82.
[xxix] Ibid., 8,4;82; 10,4-5; 90.
[xxx] Golitzin, 131.
[xxxi] Pseudo-Macarius, 34.2-3; 203-4.
[xxxii] Ibid., 34.2; 204.