The Centurion

Intellect and HeartNow when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man.” (Luke 23:47) Continuing now with the intellect and the heart, we return again to the Gospel of Luke and the centurion recognizing the crucified Lord as Lord in the eclipse. Remembering the words of St Makarios from On Intellect and Heart, and using them as symbol for the eclipse at the crucifixion, that is, the eclipse is our sinful passions, the centurion becomes a physical witness of what we previously discussed: the crucified Lord residing side by side with our sinful passions in our heart. St Ephraim the Syrian has some pertinent symbolic exegesis on this event:

Jesus’ kinsfolk stood far off so that [the word of the psalmist] might be fulfilled: “My neighbors stood far off.” They killed him before the sabbath, while there was opportunity for death, and before the sabbath they buried him, while there was place for mourning. For the sabbath itself is the boundary mark for toil, and on it all distress must remain [hidden] within. There is no place for suffering on it, and neither has it any share in corruption.” ~Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron

The Sabbath is rest from the passions or suffering under the corrupting influence of sin leading to death. In the spiritual Sabbath the nous reattains its impassibility – rest and repose in the stability of its cleansed, although inherent, divine image. About the centurion and the Jews standing there, St Cyril of Alexandria says this:

When the centurion saw what happened, he glorified God. He said, “Truly this man was righteous.” Please observe that immediately after Christ endured the passion on the cross for us, he began to win many to the knowledge of the truth. It says, “When he saw what happened, the centurion glorified God saying, ‘Truly this man was righteous.’ ” Certain Jews also beat their chests, because their consciences doubtlessly pricked them. Their mind’s eye looked up to the Lord.” ~Commentary on the Gospel of Luke

St Cyril is speaking of the nous-their minds eye. It is easy to assume St Cyril’s words-Their minds eye looked up to the Lord-only references the Jews who beat their breast. However, we must attribute this line to the centurion also, for otherwise how would he have recognized the Lord, i.e. used his intellectual (noetic) faculty? I do not say that the centurion used merely his rational faculty, but truly used his intellectual (noetic) faculty. Why?

What is the rational faculty? Reason, mind (dianoia): the discursive, conceptualizing and logical faculty in man, the function of which is to draw conclusions or formulate concepts deriving from data provided either by revelation or spiritual knowledge or by sense observation. (Glossary, Philokalia vol 1)

This certainly sounds reasonable. Couldn’t the centurion have simply deduced that the innocent man on the cross whose death brought about the eclipse was the Son of God (Mark 15:39; Matt 27:45)? Well, no.

Intellect (nous): the highest faculty in man, through which – provided it is purified – he knows God by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike the dianoia (Reason-above)…it [intellect] understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’. (Glossary, Philokalia vol 1)

The centurion sees Christ truly as the Son of God, which we know from the Lord’s words Himself is only revealed from the Father: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matt 16:17) Our Lord is telling St Peter here that it isn’t because St Peter pieced together data from other sources, and rationally concluded that Christ is the Lord. St Peter had this revealed directly from God; St Peter had a direct, immediate experience.

This is why I say that the centurion is using his intellectual (noetic) faculty. The centurion, in proclaiming the crucified Lord as Son of God, is having a “St Peter moment,” a similar proclamation as referenced in Matthew 16. In order for him to do this, it must be a revelation from God. The centurion recognizes the Lord in the eclipse: that is, the eclipse is a symbol of the intellectual (noetic) faculty. Though it is darkened with the passions, the centurion nonetheless noetically sees the Lord.

One could then ask: does this mean the centurion’s intellect (nous) is purified? To some extent, yes! To further discuss this, let us delve, only a little, into the patristic understanding of the passions, and their associating aspect in the soul.

In the Orthodox Church we are typically introduced to the passions through the the eight central passions. They are as follows: Gluttony, Fornication, Greed, Despair, Anger, Listlessness, Vainglory, and Pride. Though we tend to articulate them in these eight categories, in truth there are many, limitless even, passions. But this is a rather common way to introduce the Orthodox faithful to the passions, and to begin combating them. Not suggesting this is a bad or weak method, however, I want to look at a different, unfortunately rarely spoken of, division of the passions, by discussing where they arise in the soul.

The soul has three aspects, a tripartite division: the intelligent (to logistikon), the incensive (to thymikon), and the desiring (to epithymitikon) aspect. Yes, this is Platonic and found in The Republic. It’s also found in St John of Damaskos, “On the Virtues and the Vices,” Philokalia vol 2. I will work backwards, starting from the desiring:

The sins of the desiring aspect are gluttony, greed, drunkenness, unchastity (fornication), adultery, uncleanliness, licentiousness …” ~St John of Damaskos. Those of the incensive are: “…heartlessness, hatred, lack of compassion, rancor, envy, murder…” ~St John of Damaskos. Anger and wrath are also associated with the incensive power or aspect.

Of the passions, when we prepare for confession, I’m going to wager the majority of us focus on what has just been discussed: we were angry, we were spiteful, we were greedy, we were promiscuous, and so forth. So what of the intellect?

Are there truly passions associated with the intellectual faculty of the soul? It is true that the desiring and incensive aspects are referred to as the souls “passable” aspect, while the intellect is not truly termed as such. However, the intellect (nous) is nonetheless susceptible to passion. St John of Damaskos continues:

The sins of the intelligent aspect are unbelief, heresy, folly, blasphemy, ingratitude, and the assent to sins originating in the soul’s passable aspect.” ~On the Virtues and Vices, Philokalia vol 2

These are the sins of the intellectual faculty, the highest faculty of the soul. In a sense, these are the “highest” or “most grave” passions, since they affect the highest faculty in man, the nous.

Does a purified nous, even if only purified in a very limited way, mean that that person can never be wrong, or to use a favored Latin term, that person has become “infallible”? What is the proper patristic response to those who teach, both truthfully and falsely?

But if anyone believes, is persuaded by and concurs with the saints and does not ‘make excuses to justify sin’ (Ps 141:4 LXX) and if although ignorant of the manner of the mystery does not because of his ignorance reject what is clearly proclaimed, let him not refuse to inquire and learn from those who do possess knowledge.” ~The Declaration of the Holy Mountain in Defense of Those who Devoutly Practice a Life of Stillness

Here is the perfect safeguard of our intellect to fend off the intelligible passions both against disregarding true teaching, and accepting false teaching. First, we are persuaded and concur with the saints! We protect against the intelligible passions through obedience to the teaching of the Fathers. And like unto it, even if ignorant of a topic, as long as we do not reject what is clearly proclaimed by the Fathers, we guard against intelligible pride, like the Pharisees, putting our rational understanding ahead of what has been revealed and taught from the beginning.

And so we return to the centurion, to the Jews, and to the quote of St Ephraim and its explanation above:

The Jews who called for Christ’s crucifixion had sunk to relying on a lower faculty of man, reason (dianoia), merely deducing that Christ could not be God, because they were not contemplating His words noetically (John 9:41). Their stubborn proclamation of heresy and blasphemy allowed their intellect (nous) to assent to the lower aspects associating passions, the desiring and incensive, in the form of anger, wrath, and ultimately murder.

By contrast, the centurion, in some mystical way granted by God, is able to contemplate the crucifixion and the eclipse noetically, (to see the crucified Lord side by side his sinful passions, i.e. the symbolic eclipse as muddled nous/heart). He partakes as much as he is able in the Sabbath rest of the Lord, resting from his desiring and incensive passions. In doing so, the centurion has gained, to some degree, illumination which could be spoken of as the momentary stability, the Sabbath rest, of the intellectual (noetic) faculty.


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