Book of Steps

Eukhitism and Anonymity in The Book of Steps

Brian E. Colless

The collection of ascetic discourses known as The Book of Ascents (now commonly called The Book of Steps, hereafter BS) has long been suspected of having connections with the ancient controversy surrounding the people known to their adversaries as Messallians (Syriac term meaning ‘praying people’, transcribed in Greek as Messalianoi), or Eukhites (Greek Eukhitai, ‘prayer devotees’). Elsewhere I have expressed my acceptance of this relationship between the BS and Eukhitism (Colless 2008, 50-68), but in this essay I want to examine the case more closely. The question of the book’s anonymity will also be considered: my proposal is that its involvement in the Messallian movement caused its authorship to be concealed, rather than modesty on the part of the author.

A fundamental weakness in research on the Book of Ascents, with regard to its possible Messallian connections, is failure to remember that we are looking at a two-tier system (though it actually has three levels, including a celestial stratum). This is what happens in practice: the bishops who catalogued the alleged heresies of the so-called Messalianoi (Messallians, ‘praying people’) spoke chiefly about matters concerning the elite class (the ‘spiritual ones’, those who had received the Paraclete); but the scholars who seek to dismiss the charge of Messallianism against the book tend to concentrate on the lower order of the system, scrutinizing what is said about the ordinary church members.

For example, the Church fathers accused the Messallians of rejecting baptism and pious fasting (or so it would appear); the BS includes baptism and fasting, therefore it is free of the ‘taint’ of Messallianism. This is sleight-of-hand scholarship, juggling apples and oranges but not distinguishing the two types. The BS makes a clear distinction between a lower class and an upper class in the church, namely the ‘upright’ and the ‘perfect’, and its statements about the ‘perfect’ members of the church are what we should examine when searching for connections with the list of presumed heretical doctrines; and there we find that physical matters such as baptism and fasting are not the main concerns of those who are in the state of perfection, but they do not discard them.

The original Messallians were certainly inside the established church, but they were the ‘spiritual’ members, who saw themselves as having moved to a higher level of spirituality, just like the ‘perfect’ or ‘the spiritual’ of the BS, who have made a higher ascent on the path of perfection, as laid down by Jesus Christ (‘Be ye perfect’). That the Messallians were indeed insiders is shown by the fact that Bishop Flavian of Antioch was able to call them to account; and Theodoret (Ecclesiastical History, IV.11) notes that they ‘did not separate themselves from ecclesiastical communion’. Moreover, when John of Damascus says that ‘they shun the work of the hands as not fit for Christians’, we know that they were followers of Jesus Christ, not Manichaeans or Buddhists (both of these likewise had two classes of devotees).

Accordingly, given that the Messallians were indeed members of the Christian Church, it is not valid to remove the BS (with its patent elitism) from the controversy, merely by pointing out that it contains all the institutions of the Church, when it also includes features comparable with the Messallianism documented by ecclesiastical councils of the 5th Century.

However, in taking a critical approach to the problem, it behoves us to recognize that the adversaries of the Messallian movement were not unbiased reporters, and their ‘information’ is manifestly loaded with distortion, misquotation, and vituperation.

It could well be that the BS gives the ideal ideology of the movement founded by Adelphios of Mesopotamia, while recognizing the excesses of some of the followers, who have created public disorder. Because the doctrine of ‘perfection’ (which entails ‘maturity’) was carried to extremes, some became sectarian ‘Enthusiasts’ (‘possessed ones’, another designation for Messallians). Heresy-hunters may have taken some of their incriminating statements from such extremists.

Like all self-respecting Christian sects, the Messallians (as their opponents called them) would have covered themselves with apt proof-texts from Scripture; this is certainly the case with the Greek Spiritual Homilies, attributed to Makarios, and also to one Symeon, who may have been the Messallian Symeon of Mesopotamia mentioned by Theodoret (Stewart 1991, 70). Similarly, I have suggested that the Syriac Book of Steps is another ascetic manual that would have been stigmatized as Messallian, and that its author might have been Adelphios of Mesopotamia, who was also charged with being a leader (or founder) of the movement (Colless 2008, 50-68).

Here I make a new attempt to show that the BS does indeed reflect the Messallian accusatory statements, but not absolutely clearly because of the distorting mirrors that the adversarial bishops used; the book can be employed to correct their inaccuracies and misrepresentations (hopefully without setting up elegant circular arguments).

In what follows it might appear that I am an ardent apologist for Messallianism (as represented in the Book of Steps), but it needs to be recognized that I am trying to practise my profession of ‘phenomenology of religion’, endeavouring to have empathetic understanding of the believers’ beliefs and practices. The fact of the matter is that Jesus Christ laid down a path of perfection, and his first followers practised asceticism and non-attachment to possessions. The problem for the established Church perhaps came to a head when Saint Francis of Assisi went the whole way, and the Pope did not treat him as a heretic but sidelined his party into an ‘order’, recognizing that not every Christian can follow the higher calling; similarly, the Buddha allowed that there must be pious ‘householders’ to feed the monks who had committed themselves to the path of enlightenment. In the BS we have the faithful Upright (or Righteous) and the spiritual Perfect; and ‘the Perfect are fulfilled and do not have faults’ (Memra 15.11), and ‘the Upright are inferior to the Perfect’ (15.9). This is an elitist system, in which ‘the Perfect lack clothing and food … and the Upright can give alms’ (28.11).

PART A: MESSALLIANISM AND THE BOOK OF STEPS

The heresiological accusations against the Messallians have been conveniently collected and catalogued under themes (with original Greek text, and English translation) by Columba Stewart (1991, 244-279).

Th (Theodoret, Haereticarum fabularum compendium 4.11, Patrologia Graeca 83, 429-432)

TC (Timothy of Constantinople, De iis qui ad ecclesiam ab haereticis accedunt, Patrologia Graeca 86, 45-52)

JD (John of Damascus, De haeresibus 80)

(A1) The Satan and the Holy Spirit co-dwell in a person

(John of Damascus 3)

This concept has an obvious and apparently unique counterpart in the BS:  

   Memra 3.11: ‘There are people who have in them something from God and something from the Satan; they do good works because of the mingling (mixture-ingredient or pledge or deposit) of the Spirit of Holiness (the Holy Spirit) that is in them; and they transgress and do evil works because of the mingling (or pledge or deposit) of Sin that is in them…. If they conquer the Evil One they become Upright; and if they are willing to raise themselves further they become Perfect … they have purified themselves from the mingling of Satan, and every hour of every day of their life they are full of the Spirit of God … the Paraclete.’

   M 3.12: ‘There are people who have only a little of our Lord, a minor blessing, that is, the minor portion, which is called the mingling (or pledge or deposit) from God; and there are some who have received the greatest gift of all, which is called the Spirit, the Paraclete; they are completely filled with this gift by God, so that Christ dwells in them completely’.

   M 3.13: ‘There are major gifts and minor gifts, and there is the mingling (or pledge) and there is the blessing … the portion of Martha was smaller than that of Mary … only his mingling was in Martha … Mary chose the good portion’ (Lk 10:42).

   M 3.13: ‘But anyone who does not perform a single virtuous deed has nothing of the Spirit of the Lord mingled in him’.

   M 1.2: ‘One becomes a ‘blessed one of the Father’ (Mt 25:34) through the mingling (or pledge) of the Spirit’.

   M 15.5: ‘the sin that dwells in us until we kill it’.

The basis for this doctrine of ‘indwelling’ is surely Paul’s account of his internal struggle with good and evil (Romans 7-8), where he refers to ‘the sin that dwells’ in a person (Rm 7:17, 20), and also the Spirit of Christ indwelling (Rm 8:9, 11). The idea of Satan dwelling in a soul is not explicit in the Scriptures, but there are cases of possession by demons (Mt 17:14-21) and Jesus and his disciples casting out devils (Mt 7:21); it was even said of John the Baptizer that ‘he has a devil’ (Mt 11:18). With regard to ‘co-dwelling’, in Memra 3.13 we find the idea of the Spirit, and also Satan, being ‘mixed’ or ‘mingled’ (root `rb) in a person; and in M 3.11 and also 1.2 there is a ‘mingling’ or ‘mixture’ (`urbana from the same `rb root) of the Spirit, or a ‘mixture-ingredient’ (as I have suggested, or perhaps ‘contribution’), though the root also means ‘pledge’, and there may well be a connection with the ‘pledge’ (arrabon) of the Spirit (2 Co 1:22, 5:5), but with a strange new concept termed ‘the pledge of Satan’. I think the case for ‘mixture-ingredient’ is stronger than for ‘pledge’, especially in the light of the evidence here in Memra 3; and I lean towards translating the terms as ‘contribute’ and ‘contribution’; but it cannot be rendered as ‘portion’ (and the verb as ‘apportion’), because ‘portion’ (mnatha) is in the same context (concerning spiritual gifts bestowed by God); but its presence shows that the mingling is about ‘apportionment’, though it is the ‘minor portion’ (3.12), as seen in the comparison between Martha (who had the smaller portion, the mingling) and Mary (who chose the good portion), and she would have purified herself from the mingling of Satan (as in 3.11). Note that words denoting ‘mingle’ and ‘indwell’ are characteristic of the Homilies of Pseudo-Makarios as well as the Book of Steps (Stewart 1991, 198-203, 203-223).

‘They say that a demon immediately falls upon each person born, and it incites one to unnatural practices’ (Th 3)

‘They say that a demon is substantially joined immediately to each person born, this having befallen from the condemnation of Adam’  (TC 1)

This allegation (promoted by Theodoret and Timothy) that every person has their own particular demon (rather than a contribution or ‘mingling’ of Satan) will be left till the end of the discussion, in Part B [B8]. On the sin of Adam as the cause of this situation (a human inclination to sin is passed on to his descendants, M 5.14) see [B2].

(A2) The sole efficacy of prayer

 ‘Neither baptism nor anything else can free the soul, but only the energy of prayer’ (Th 4; cp TC 3)

‘The reception of the divine mysteries does not purify the soul, but with them only zealous prayer’ (JD 4bc)

To liberate the soul from the Satanic influence, only energetic prayer is efficacious. The BS offers ample evidence of this doctrine.

   M 18.2: ‘It is necessary for us to strive to be without sin, and to entreat our Lord to deliver us from sin’.

   M 18.3: ‘When we cut off all our visible sins, we can take up the struggle against the sin that dwells within us, the evil thoughts that sin forges in our heart…. When we are without external sins we should engage in the struggle of prayer as our Lord said and did…. He was heard and was perfected (Hb 5:9)…. Until we are afflicted in prayer like him, and shed tears as he did, and implore vehemently as he did (Lk 22:42-44, Hb 5:7-9), we will not be liberated from the sin that dwells in the heart’.

The term ‘perfected’ in Hb 5:9 shows how firmly based in Scripture the BS is, and likewise Messallianism, which also speaks of making perfect (see JD on baptism in the next section).

(A3) The inefficacy of baptism

‘They say that baptism does not benefit those who undergo it’ (Th 1)

This is an accusation that may be based on an ill-informed informant’s testimony, or is simply a misrepresentation. The real point is that baptism does not root out embedded sin, but assiduous prayer does (see (A2) above).

‘Not even baptism perfects a person.’ (JD 4a)

‘Not in the Church’s baptism, nor by the ordination of clerics do the baptized fully receive Holy Spirit, but by their prayers … the baptism of Holy Spirit .… (JD d)

This is quite compatible with the BS doctrine that there is a higher and lower form of baptism, but both are valid and necessary.

   M 12.4: ‘A person is baptized in visible waters, and some are baptized in fire and the Spirit, which are invisible; and when a person has faith he loves, and when he has loved he becomes perfect, and when he has been perfected he reigns; but without this visible baptism a person can not be baptized in fire and the Spirit’.

   M 12.1: ‘Since we know that the perfect are baptized in Jesus Christ and are purified, let us believe and affirm this visible baptism, that it is of the Spirit and is the absolution and pardoning of sins for whoever believes in it, and is baptized in it, and performs good deeds’.

‘Like a razor it takes away the first growth of sinful deeds, but it does not cut out the root of sin.’ (Th 1)

So it does have some use! This is echoed by such affirmations as:

   M 18.3: ‘When we cut off all our visible sins, we shall rise up against the sin that dwells in us internally’.

Theodoret then adds:

‘Continuous prayer radically pulls up the root of sin, and drives out from the soul the evil demon inhering from the beginning.’ (Th 2)

‘Continual prayer’ is attested in 10.2 and 3.14, but not in this connection. The idea of ‘uprooting the root of sin’ occurs in the BS, and in Memra 20 with the analogy of cutting down and uprooting a tree:

    M 20.4: ‘A person uproots the hidden death, which Adam experienced in the transgression of the commandment, all the thoughts of sin … when he eliminates the external sins, he reaches the inner root’.

   M 20.7: ‘When we have ascended these steps, and have uprooted sin and its fruits from the heart, then we will be filled with the Spirit, the Paraclete, and our Lord will dwell in us completely’.

   M 19.1: ‘The end of your road is perfection, and its beginning is when you start to uproot from yourself all your faults’.

But, as we have seen (A2), prayer is the instrument for uprooting embedded sin:

   M 18.4: ‘Sin will not be uprooted from our heart, nor will the evil thoughts and their fruits disappear, unless we pray as our Lord and his preachers prayed’.

 (A4) Holy communion

‘They say that the holy reception of the sacred body and blood of Christ our true God neither benefits nor harms those who receive them worthily or unworthily’ (TC 12)

‘Not even baptism perfects a person, nor does the reception of the divine mysteries cleanse the soul, but with them only zealous prayer’ (JD 4)

‘Eating the holy food, about which the Lord Christ said, ‘the one eating my flesh and drinking my blood shall live for ever’, neither benefits nor harms’ (Theodoret Compendium)

In explaining this, the same idea needs to be invoked as for baptism (citing Memra 12 again): ‘The visible church, whose altar and baptism and priesthood were established by our Lord, is revealed to everyone, because in it our Lord and his apostles prayed, baptized, and sacrificed his body and blood … it is the true church and a blessed mother, bringing up all the children’ (12.2). However, the heavenly church is greater and higher, and at its altar Christ (our great High Priest) is the celebrant, and the saints and angels serve (12.1). Milk is the food in the visible church, for the children (the upright, weaker brethren), but ‘solid food is for the perfect’ (Hb 5:14), and ‘they eat our Lord’ (Jn 6:53-58, and the body, blood, and bread are not interpreted as referring to the Eucharist, as Theodoret does, above), and ‘they will enter the city of Jesus our King’ (12.3). Nevertheless, ‘let us not despise the visible church’ (and its altar and priesthood), ‘since it is the teacher of all the infants’ (12.3).

(A5) The spiritual ones

They call themselves spiritual ones’ (Th 6; TC 13; JD 9)

The BS constantly designates the achievers as ‘the Perfect’, but the term ‘the Spiritual’ is found (3.16, 28.8). The monastic term ‘solitary’ or ‘monk’ also occurs (19.1, 30.1).

(A6) Apatheia (freedom from passions)

‘Both soul and body come into apatheia’ (TC 9)

It is not easy to find a Syriac word for apatheia (‘impassibility’) in the BS, but the aim of the ascetic exercises is to achieve the Adamic state, the human condition of innocence and purity (in body and soul) before the transgression of the commandment.

   M 15.3: ‘What man or woman can stand unclothed before each other without their desire being aroused in their hearts, seeing each other naked, except those whose heart is pure from desire and are holy in their heart and body, as was the Adam family before they sinned? In this respect, our Lord said: Unless you are converted and become like these children (Mt 18:3), you will not become like the first creation of Adam, when he had not yet transgressed the commandment of his Maker.’

‘Before the transgression Adam had union with Eve without passion’ (JD 14)

Memra 15 is about ‘the copulation instinct in Adam’, and it gives no support to this statement, if ‘union’ means sexual intercourse.

   M 15.2: ‘They had no instinctual desire for union until they were persuaded by the evil one to be earthly … there was no desire in Adam and Eve before they sinned’.

(A7) Fasting and asceticism

They say that after the expulsion of the demon … there is no need for fasting or other discipline of soul or body’ (TC 9)

The idea that the perfect do not need to practise physical asceticism is found in the BS  (see 30.20 below); and in their poverty they do not have the wherewithal to commit the sin of gluttony; and, for the same reason, almsgiving is also beyond their means; their fasting is spiritual and ethical: ‘fasting to the world’, with renunciation of evil thoughts in the heart; but they might continue to fast with the body as an example to others.

   M 30:19: Here the first mission of the Apostles is considered (Lk 10:8), when they were instructed to eat whatever was given to them, without question (Buddhism has a similar precept for monks). They were ‘the disciples who had received the Spirit, the Paraclete, and they were perfected and filled with the Spirit, until it poured forth from them onto others, and their hearts were purified from sin’; and we who are purified from sin should likewise eat what is placed before us, though in moderation, ‘a little, as is fitting’.

   M 30.20: Speaking of older people who know they still have sin in their soul, but practise fasting, vigil, and lowliness: ‘When they have conquered they will walk in chastity and asceticism on account of their humility, even though they do not need to, so as to be an example to their disciples, in deeds as well as words, according to the model of our Lord’.

   M 12.1: ‘Brethren, since we believe that there is a hidden renunciation of the heart, which forsakes the earth and is raised up to heaven, we should also physically renounce our possessions and our inheritance…. Since we know that there is a hidden fasting of the heart from evil thoughts, let us fast openly, as our Lord fasted, and his first and last preachers.’

(A8) As ‘spiritual ones’ they undertake no work

(Th 6; TC 13; JD 18)

   Memra 16.11: ‘Lest the spiritual ministry cease from their soul they (the Perfect) have not done earthly work’.

   M 15.13: ‘The Perfect do not take wives, nor work on the land, nor acquire possessions, nor do they have anywhere to lay their head on the earth, like their Teacher’ (Mt 8:20).

   M 12.6: ‘The one who feeds the sheep of Christ (Jn 21:15-17) can not go and guide the plow and work the visible earth’.

   M 3.15: ‘‘He who provides everything can provide for everyone in need, as he does for the higher realms, where they do not labour or work for clothing and sustenance, but continually give praise … God desired all humans to praise him without labour; if only Adam had acted rightly’.

Timothy says that in shunning the work of hands because they are ‘spiritual ones’ they are ‘repudiating the tradition of the Apostles’; but the BS (M 3.16) supports its position that ‘a spiritual ministry is greater than a physical ministry’ by contrasting   Simon Peter’s serving the Lord spiritually and Tabitha’s physical ministry, feeding and clothing the needy (Acts 9:36ff). However, the Apostle Paul’s occupation as a tentmaker is not considered (Acts 18:3).

(A9) Women as teachers

‘They promote women as teachers of the doctrines of their peculiar heresy; they even permit them to rule over men, including priests, making women their head, and dishonouring the one who is the head, Christ our God.’  (TC 18)

This certainly shows that women were esteemed in the movement.

   M 16.5: ‘If our Lord greeted women in his lowliness, it is right for us to bow down before men and women’.

   M 17.9: A person who wishes to know the mysteries, and needs directions on the road to heaven, should not ‘despise a woman’.

   M 3.13: Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) are models for the Upright and the Perfect; Martha owned a house, and Mary was a teacher. Mary had chosen the better portion (Lk 10:42); she took up the Cross, practised lowliness, kept the major commandments (leading to spiritual perfection), died to the world, separated from its business, and lived in the Lord spiritually; and, significantly, ‘she instructed and taught, and made women-disciples for our Lord, who were worshipping and ministering with those disciples who received the Paraclete, serving the Lord in perfection’.

After this encomium to womanhood, Timothy’s complaint (quoted above) sounds misogynistic; but he is concerned about violation of social norms and disruption of church order; and the author of the BS understands that leaders have to exert authority, and chastise rebels (19:31). However, he wishes the bishops would cease harassing the Perfect, and allow them to carry out their God-given ministry: ‘instructing and teaching everyone in love and in lowliness, which is what our Lord Jesus taught and showed us in his person, and revealed to us by his grace and mercy’ (19.31).

(A10) Perjury

(TC 19; Th 10; JD 18)

‘After apatheia (freedom from passions) neither perjury nor cursing can harm those who have become, as they say, spiritual ones (pneumatikoi); they have it from the tradition of their teachers’. (Timothy).

The setting for such behaviour was when the sectarians were brought before the authorities and they deviously denied their beliefs. They would not admit to being heretics (and rightly so, we may interject in their defence), and they rejected the charges brought against them (Stewart 1991, 27, citing Theodoret). One such occasion was when Bishop Flavian interviewed Adelphios privately at a synod, telling him that all his young accusers did not understand spiritual things, and he persuaded Adelphios to ‘vomit out all his concealed poison’. However, this is not a useful example of Messallian prevarication and deceit!

   M 30.9:  The disciples of love (those who are striving to be spiritually perfect) in situations where they may be led away from the love of their Lord, remember that he told them to be ‘cunning’ like a serpent (Mt 10:16); perhaps significantly, in the original context, it is when they are delivered up to councils that they should exercise such subtlety (Mt 10:17).

   M 4.6: Peacemakers may use white lies to effect reconciliation between enemies.

It would appear that accusers would point the finger and say: ’You are a Messallian’; but the accused Christian believers would not say in any circumstance: ‘I am a Messallian’. (However, a pejorative label can be accepted eventually, as for example: ’I am a Methodist’.)

(A11) Visions and prophecy

(TC 10; Th 7)

Theodoret has them being ‘deceived by the demon that makes them frenzied’ (though they would surely affirm it is the Paraclete working in them), and falsely claiming to ‘see revelations’ and ‘foretell things that are to come’. Timothy reports their assertion that ‘after what they call apatheia, people can foresee things to come, and behold invisible powers perceptibly’.

   M 15.16: If an upright person does not ‘fast to the whole world, he will not be able to receive the Paraclete; and so the whole truth will not be revealed to him, nor will he hear the voice of God like the prophets, though the pledge of the Holy Spirit is in him’.  However, ‘if he lowers himself more, the Lord will be revealed to him in this world, and he will hear the voice of God, and be able to distinguish the voice of God from the voice of Satan’.

   M 15.17 (Jn 14:15-21, paraphrased with extra details): ‘Whoever loves me keeps my commandments, and I will love him and show myself to him, and reveal things about myself to him, and he will understand the power of my mysteries in what I manifest to him’.

   M 15.18: In the parable of the wastrel son and the loving father (Lk 15:11-32), the parent’s bestowing of a splendid robe and fine food is given an allegorical interpretation: ‘He fills him with the holiness for which he hungered, and indues him with perfection, the sublime garment of the supreme level; and while he remains physically on the earth, every day his mind lives spiritually in heaven, and there our Lord speaks with him, like that father with his son; and to others he distributes heavenly riches, spiritual food’.

   Final Memra: ‘You see how the Lord pours out his Spirit at various times, and sons and daughters prophesy (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17), those who keep the commandments of our Lord and imitate his humility.… So, do not demur and say that today there are no people who prophesy or talk about God’. However, the author does not claim to give signs from God, but asks that his preaching (memra) be accepted because it is based on ‘the testimony of the books of holy people who did perform powerful signs’. Is the preacher (possibly Adelphios himself) simply demonstrating his own humility by saying this?

   See [B6] on foreseeing the things that are to come.

(A12) The Heavenly Bridegroom

‘After apatheia the soul feels such communion with the heavenly Bridegroom as a woman feels in being with a man’ (TC 4, JD 8)

‘The faithful person does not receive the immortal and divine garment through baptism, but through prayer’  (JD6)

Once again we have the typically Messallian necessity of prayer for the experiences of the higher order (see A2 – A4); liberating and purifying prayer, the heavenly garment (after Mt 22:1-14, the Son’s marriage feast in a hall, at which proper wedding garments are required), and the soul’s mystical union of love with Christ (reclining at the wedding feast or in the bridal chamber) are all found together here:

   M 20.14: ‘Unless we pray as our Lord prayed with crying and with tears and making supplications for a long time, the Saviour will not come to us; as the Lord said: If you love me and keep my commandments … I will love you and my Father and I will come to you (Jn 14:21). If we do not raise our hands purely together with our heart, full of love for everyone and the love of our Lord, we will not be able to enter his bridal chamber with our Lord  … the glorified Bridegroom … The wedding garments of the Lord’s feast (Mt 22:11-14) are the purity of a perfect heart, as it is written, Blessed are those who are pure in their heart for they shall see God (Mt 5:8) … so they see his face inside his bridal chamber, and dwell with him, and are glorified with him, and enjoy him. 

(A13) Contemplation of the Trinity

(Th 8; TC 5)

Timothy states: ‘They say that the all-holy and life-giving blessed Trinity, which is by nature invisible to every creature, can be seen with the eyes of the flesh by those who have come into what they call apatheia; and that vision, seen by them bodily, happens only to such persons’.

Whenever the accusation is made that Syrian mystical monks are claiming to see God with their physical eyes (as here), they rightfully respond with the image from Paul in 1 Corinthians 2: we see the glory of God in the polished mirror of our purified heart (as in these quotations from the BS, below).

   M 18.3: When all sin has been eradicated from the heart, we may see him face to face: ‘As it is written, Blessed are those who are pure in their heart for they shall see God (Mt 5:8); in this world, as Paul said (1 Co 13:12), we see our Lord with the eyes of our hearts as in a mirror, but in that world face to face’.

   M 16.12: ‘That heavenly glory is what our Lord meant: The eye of the flesh has not seen … the thing that God has prepared for those who love him (1 Co 2:9)…. Those who lower, sanctify, and empty themselves from this world will be perfected and attain to observing their Lord in heaven as in a mirror in their mind, and imitating him in all his lowliness; and when they depart from this world they will be with our Lord’.

Here (18.3) and elsewhere (4.3, 4.7, 12.7, 19.24, 20.14) we have the cardinal text for Syriac Christian mysticism: ‘the pure in heart shall see God’ (Mt 5:8), but understood as seeing God in the heart, or in the mind; both are found in these extracts from the BS (though the heart was considered to encompass the mind). Timothy states that only those who achieve apatheia will have the vision; this implies two classes of Christians, and the BS certainly does not allow the Upright to see such glory in this world, though a glorious experience is prepared for them in the celestial realm (16.12). Note also that Paul distinguishes the spiritual person (who knows this glory) from the unspiritual (‘natural’) person, when speaking of this ‘mystery’ (1 Co 2).

Nevertheless, I can cite from my own lifetime the personal vision that Pope Pius had of Jesus Christ; also his appearing to my mother Irene Colless, sending her on a mission to tell the world of the experience; and I have been told that the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith saw the Heavenly Father and the Son in bodily form.

(A14) Antinomianism

‘They say that giving oneself up to wantonness and licentiousness after the so-called apatheia is guiltless and harmless, since one is no longer oppressed by any passion, but is free to pursue licentiously the forbidden passions’ (TC16)

In an enthusiastic new sect there can be a period when the old rules are rejected and behaviour that is ‘against the law’ (antinomian) may break out, before new rules or repression are introduced. Here Timothy is referring to cases of antinomianism, where some of the perfect thought they were now above the law, and were needing a dose of Paul’s admonitions in Romans 6 (on the temptation to ‘continue in sin so that grace may abound’). Such excesses are certainly not permitted in the BS, but the author does recognize and bemoan lapses of the perfect (notably in 29.3).

PART B: ADELPHIOS AND THE BOOK OF STEPS

Here we scrutinize what Adelphios allegedly said to Flavian (Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, 4.1). It is doubtful whether this is a verbatim report. We should consider the possibility that Theodoret knew the BS, and used it as a source of Messallian doctrine. The allegations are basically the same as in Part A, but if there is strong correspondence with the BS then the case for Adelphios as its author might be strengthened.

[B1] He said that no benefit follows from holy baptism to those who are worthy; zealous prayer alone drives out the indwelling demon.

See also A1-3 above.

If these are the very words of Adelphios, then he accepts that baptism is ‘holy’; as the author of the BS says: ‘If we doubt and despise this public church … and the propitiating baptism, then our body will not become a temple, nor our heart an altar and a palace of glory’ (12.2). If ‘the worthy’ are the ‘perfect’ of the BS, then they are certainly ‘baptized in Jesus Christ’ (12.1); further, ‘without this visible baptism a person cannot be baptized with fire and the Spirit’ (12.4). However, the essential efficacy of prayer for uprooting sin from the heart is affirmed more than once: ‘The heart is not purified unless the hidden sin has vanished from it … and the evil thoughts hidden and buried in it through the power of the indwelling sin; and sin will not be uprooted from our heart … unless we pray as our Lord and all of his preachers prayed’ (18.4).  The idea of an ‘indwelling demon’ is not easily attested anywhere else, but Paul certainly has indwelling sin (Rm 7:17). This question will be discussed in more detail below [B8].

[B2] Each person born derives from the first father his nature and slavery to the demons.

This statement says that ever since the sin of Adam human nature is plagued by servitude to evil spirits. In this respect we find such counterparts as: ‘This inclination  (to sin) was implanted in Adam on the day he transgressed the command, and from then on it has been implanted in all of his offspring from their mother’s womb’ (5.14); ‘Satan desired that Adam should become like him, and be subservient to him’ (15.1); ‘sin is mingled (root mzg not `rb) in people by the transgression of the commandment’ (29.2); the wastrel son wondering ‘ how he was created, and why he was created, and why he was made a slave to sin’ (15.18); the struggle against ‘the evil spirits and Satan the destroyer’ (12.7); ‘unclean spirits take over people … and they become their slaves’ (7.8); ‘the sons of Adam are convicted because they learn from Satan’ (7.9); ‘our body has tasted death from the beginning through the transgression of the commandment by our father Adam’ (29.18).

[B3] When these demons are driven away by zealous prayer, then comes the All-Holy Spirit, giving perceptible and visible signs of its coming.

The experience would be the baptism ‘with fire and the Spirit’ (12.4, after Mt 3:11). The results (‘visible signs of its coming’) are: ‘When we have climbed these steps and have uprooted sin and its fruits from our heart, then we will be filled with the Spirit, the Paraclete, and our Lord will dwell in us completely … and then we will be able to love and be merciful to all people, and pray with love for all … and our heart being pure we will increase in perfection’ (20.7). (These virtues are palpable indications of the presence of the Paraclete.)

[B4] The body is freed from the impulse of the passions, and the soul is completely released from the inclination towards worse things.

See also A6 Apatheia, above.

The carnal desire of Adam can be removed from his children (15.1), and the perfect are ‘those whose heart is pure from lust, and who are holy in their heart and bodies, just as Adam and Eve were before they sinned’ (15.3). ‘When the Paraclete comes, a person learns the whole truth … and fear is gradually taken away from him … and he is set free … and he is made perfect … and he grows in love daily’ (5.19). ‘The perfect are fulfilled and do not have faults’ (15.11).

[B5] So the body no longer needs constraint by fasting, nor restraint by teaching.

See A7 Fasting and asceticism, above.

The BS has a whole chapter devoted to disciplining the body (M 29). However, in principle the BS takes this line: the Perfect ‘fast to the world’ (2.4, 4.4, 15.16, 29.6) and do not need to practise physical asceticism. The perfect have received the Paraclete and know the whole truth, so they are not in need of instruction: ‘A person who has lowered himself from all things on the earth … and emptied himself of all he possessed … our Lord will look upon his lowliness and send him the Spirit, the Paraclete, and he will know the truth … and so he will be able to distinguish truth from falsehood, and wrestle with Satan and overthrow him … and be free of evil thoughts … and then rest from this enemy’s burning arrows’ (6.2).

[B6] The person clearly foresees the things that are to come

See A11 Visions and prophecy, above.

To someone who has received the Paraclete, ‘Christ will say: Behold, this person is now as perfect as on the day I fashioned him; then our Lord will open the gates of heaven to him, and he will enter and enjoy the riches of its mysteries … our Lord had taken away his mind and introduced it into Paradise’ (6.2). This may be what is meant by foreseeing ‘the things that are to come’; it is a form of realized eschatology, or the anticipated resurrection (as described in Ephesians 2:6). However, Theodoret adds elsewhere (Th, 7) that their attempts to foretell are falsified by the facts.

[B7] And beholds the divine Trinity with the eyes

See A13 Contemplation of the Trinity, above.

‘Let us pray for all people since Adam until the end, so that they may live and praise … the perfect Trinity’ (16.10).

Those who keep the major commandments (listed in 2.1-5) ‘are born again … they are in heaven with our Lord, and there is no power that can overcome them … they see the Lord himself in the Spirit, in this world as in a mirror, and when they have departed from their bodies, they will see him face to face’ (2.5).

[B8] The mystery of the indwelling demon

When scholars are discussing the Messallian controversy, they construct a set of propositions on the basis of the heresiologies, and the first of these is: the indwelling of the soul by a demon, from the time of one’s birth. This formulation, I suggest, has blighted our research: when we open the BS and apparently find no mention of ‘the indwelling demon’, we are tempted to look no further for Eukhite connections.

Notice that Theodoret begins with a single indwelling demon [B1]; but he then moves to demons (plural) and servitude to them [B2], and driving demons away [B3]; and finally he speaks about passions [B4]. It is striking that he does not mention ‘the Satan’, and this applies equally to his other account of the Eukhite heresy (cited in Part A, above), as also to the statements of Timothy of Constantinople (in Part A) against the ‘Adelphians’ (one of his names for the Eukhites). However, John of Damascus, who uses the significant appellation ‘Satanians’ as one of his designations for Eukhites, does not have the single indwelling demon, but reports that ‘the Satan and the Holy Spirit co-dwell in a person’ (JD 3), and this is a clear echo of BS 3.1 (as noted in A1, above). John Damascene also says: ‘the Satan co-dwells like a person with a human, and rules him in every way’ (JD 1). Moreover, ‘the Satan and the demons possess (katekhousi) the mind of people, and the nature of humans is in union with the spirits of evil’ (JD 4a); and ‘a person is compounded with sin even after baptism’ (JD 5); and ‘baptism does not perfect a person’ (JD 4).

Connections with BS are clear enough in these indictments (being ‘compounded with sin’ corresponds to the indwelling of sin) though the term ‘possess’ is strange, but it is suggestive of a solution for the origin of the mysterious ‘indwelling demon’ that the bishops were accustomed to subpoena as a witness at the heresy trials.

First, in the BS, the Syriac satana could mean ‘an adversary’ as well as ‘the Adversary’ (Satan), so it is possible that the term could sometimes be simply referring to a demon, not the supreme Devil; or this is how it has been interpreted by the heresy-hunters, rightly or wrongly.

Second, there may be a clue relating to ‘possession’ of the mind by the Satan and the demons (JD) in the fact that there are allusions to the healing of the boy ‘with a dumb spirit’ (Mk 9:14-29), through the quoting of Christ’s injunction in Mk 9:29:  ‘This kind can not be made to come out by anything but fasting and prayer’ (so the Syriac Peshitta, and also at Mt 17:21, but Greek manuscripts vary).

In BS Memra 20.11, we have that pronouncement cited inexactly thus: ‘You will defeat this kind of satan by fasting’.

In M 29.9 it is extended in this way: ‘This kind of satan and sin only comes out through fastings, humiliations, love, and good works’. 

In the latter case (29.9), prayer is not included (partly because the subject of the sermon is ‘the discipline of the body’); but in the context the point is that ‘when the body is sick through fasts and humiliations, the soul is strong in spirit and in prayer’.

Similarly, the former incomplete quotation is in a passage (20.11) about the intense prayer that will drive out the sin that is in us (see also A3 and B1, above), and the point is made here that our Lord prayed and fasted continually even though he did not need to, since he had no sin, and so we need to pray even more in order to be ‘perfected’. 

Here, then, is another example of the dreadful deviance of Eukhitism; but the indwelling demon had to be extracted, by the heresy-hunters, from a harmless citation of a saying of Jesus, in which the word satana has been inserted to clarify that ‘this kind’ in the original utterance referred to a possessing demon that had been exorcized. 

The accusers of Adelphios may have had his teachings in written texts, and it is possible that the discourses collected in the BS are his (written before or after the crisis). However that may be, it is quite clear (allowing for deliberate distortions in the reporting) that the BS contains material that corresponds to the main allegations (disregarding such details as shooting demons with their fingers, the desire to cut off their own physical members, the indwelling demon exiting through sneezing, coughing, and spitting): only intense prayer can drive out the demons (based on Mk 9:29), root out the indwelling sin (Rm 7:17), allow the Spirit to dwell in the person (Rm 8:9-11), purify the heart (Mt 5:8), enabling the perfected one (Mt 5:48) to see God (Mt 5:8), but as in a mirror (2 Cor 3:18).

Let us not forget that we are here privileged to be observing the birth of Syriac Christian mysticism, which in all stages of its growth was constantly under the suspicion and condemnation of the ecclesiastical overseers.

PART C: AUTHORSHIP AND ANONYMITY

My contention is that the BS is just as much a source of condemned Messallian doctrines as the Spiritual Homilies of Pseudo-Makarios (presumably because the Syriac collection of sermons was the work of Adelphios of Edessa, and the Greek homilies were composed by Symeon of Mesopotamia).  

The Syriac editor of the thirty discourses that make up The Book of Steps, says at the end that ‘they were set down by the blessed one who did not make known his name’. Laying aside the interesting coincidence of ‘the blessed one’ (Syriac Tubana, Greek Makarios) being applied to the authors of both collections of exhortations to perfection through zealous prayer, the question has to be asked why the Syriac author did not reveal his name. Humility, which is promoted in his book, may be the simple and complete answer, but concealment of identity may have been necessary to ensure the continued existence of the work (which survives only in one complete manuscript, plus one incomplete selection, and fragmentary extracts).

The types of false authorship attested in the Syriac world are:

(1) Pseudonymity is practised by authors in this field: Dionysios the Areopagite (Colless, 36-39), Holy Hierotheos, for Stephen bar Sudaili (Colless, 79-82); and the ‘blessed one, in the Greek Eukhite Asketikon is ‘the blessed Makarios’ (Colless, 25-36).

(2) Anonymity is applied when the author has been proscribed (as with Adelphios), and we have the case of John of Dalyatha to draw on here for a supporting analogy (Colless, 96-99): his own (East Syriac) church rejected him for alleged Messallianism (Katholikos Timothy), but not his own community of monks; but no ‘Nestorian’ manuscripts of his writings are known; his work was transmitted to the world by West Syriac scribes (‘Jacobite’, ‘Monophysite’), under such titles as 'the holy saba' and 'the spiritual sheikh'.

(3) Affixing names of acceptable fathers to works of Evagrios (Nilus, for example); and some of John of Dalyatha’s pieces were slipped into the collection of Isaac the Syrian (Colless, 92, 97). The name Philoxenos of Mabbug (Colless, 74-79) was attached to treatises of Joseph Hazzaya, who was also an alleged Messallian (Colless, 93-96). There is irony in the fact that the Liber Graduum is preserved in the same manuscript as the spiritual discourses of Philoxenos, who 'exposed' Adelphios (Colless, 56); and yet these works attributed to Philoxenos show clear influence not only from Evagrios but also from the BS. This could lead us to doubt that Philoxenos was their true author, since he knew so much about Adelphios and condemned him; but it could work the other way and confirm that Adelphios was not the writer of the BS.

The Makarian Homilies have the name Symeon in the manuscript tradition, and this assists the case for Symeon of Mesopotamia as their author. I have not found any clue in the Mss for applying the name Adelphios. The later Syriac editor had no idea of the authorship, but it was plain to him that the writer was a prophet who had received the Spirit, the Paraclete, and was a great and perfect man, and must have been one of the last disciples of the Apostles; and citing Acts 11:28 he toys with the name Agabus (a prophet who came from Jerusalem to Antioch and predicted a famine) as a speaker of Aramaic who could have composed these Syriac discourses (as Dionysios the Athenian Areopagite, mentioned as a convert of Paul in Acts 17:34, was a Greek Christian whose name could  be attached to the Greek treatises  on mysticism).

We can safely reject Agabus as the author of The Book of Steps, but it has to be admitted that Adelphios had very good credentials.

Spiritual elitism can get out of control, and the author of the BS acknowledges that bishops have to exert power over enthusiasts and rebels, but we can hear Adelphios in this direct plea to the ecclesiastical authorities (BS Memra 19.31): the leaders should show understanding of the ways of the Perfect, and not complain about them, nor accuse them in matters that concern them, nor hate them, nor drive them away from their God-given Christ-revealed ministry of instructing and teaching everyone in love and in lowliness.

 

REFERENCES

   Colless, Brian E., 2008, The Wisdom of the Pearlers: An Anthology of Syriac Christian Mysticism (Kalamazoo)

   Heal, Kristian S. and Kitchen, Robert A. (eds), 2014, Breaking the Mind: New Studies in the Syriac “Book of Steps”(Washington, D.C.)

   Kitchen, Robert A. and Martien F.G. Parmentier, 2004, The Book of Steps: The Syriac Liber Graduum (Kalamazoo)

   Kmosko, Michael, ed., 1926, Liber graduum, Patrologia Syriaca 1-3 (Paris)

   Stewart, Columba, 1991, ‘Working the Earth of the Heart’: The Messalian Controversy in History, Texts, and Language to AD 431 (Oxford)

 

 

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