Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SANGHA TALK: desert monasticism 4: evagrius

EVAGRIUS (345-399)

Evagrius is a contemporary and colleague of some great figures in church history such as Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen (or “the Theologian”) Gregory of Nyssa, Melania and Rufinus.
• As my confrere Fr Bruno says, this is an era when bishops were theologians and theologians were mystics.

We’ll discuss Evagrius’ life in four geographical phases: Cappadocia, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Egypt.

1. Cappadocia
• born in Cappadocia (Asia Minor, modern day Turkey) in the year 345. His place of birth was probably Ibora, Pontus.
• We know next to nothing of Evagrius' youth and education but that it was through his father that he became familiar with St. Basil the Great, who consecrated Evagrius lector (one of the minor orders on the way to priesthood and thereby numbered him among his clergy) somewhere in between 370 and 379.
• St Basil was one of the group of great oriental theologians to whom we owe our articulation of the Trinity and the Incarnation.
i. He was also the chief organizer of ascetic community life in the East, known as the father of eastern monasticism. His rule is still the basis of Greek and Russian monastic tradition.
ii. His brother is another great mystical writer of the church, Gregory (known as “of Nyssa”).
iii. Basil had studied at Constantinople and went on from there to Athens, which was still the great university city of the Greek-speaking world. Here another young Cappadocian, Gregory Nazianzen, was his fellow student and close friend. With Basil and his brother Gregory, the three of them make up the trio known as “the Cappadocian Doctors” of the church.

Basil had a deep impact upon the young Evagrius who saw St. Basil as a fountain of orthodox teaching.
• It is likely that Evagrius became familiar with Origen through St. Basil, who was himself an Origenist. Evagrius’ Origenism however became much more radical than Basil’s.
• Evagrius belonged to the intellectual-spiritual circle around these great Cappadocians, and became quite well known to Gregory Nazianzen (the Theologian) and probably Gregory of Nyssa as well.
• He was not at any time involved with the heretical teachings of Arianism, or Gnosticism; he teaches an orthodox Christology and Trinitarianism.

2. Constantinople
• Evagrius was devastated at the death of Basil in 379; he had lost his spiritual father, and fled to Constantinople.
• There St. Gregory (known as “the Theologian” or Nazianzen) who was bishop, became his spiritual father and ordained Evagrius a deacon. Evagrius served him well, especially during the Ecumenical Council of 381 during various controversies.
• He and St. Gregory Nazianzen were close friends. Evagrius would remain a pupil of St. Gregory for the rest of his life, but Gregory was forced to surrender his bishoric and he left Evagrius behind to serve his successor, Nectarius. St. Gregory would refer to Evagrius as the one who “stood beside him without being self interested.”
• Evagrius build up an enormous reputation for himself as a very skilled theologian, a reputation that might have been his downfall because he became proud and arrogant, and eventually ended up in a romantic entanglement of some sort with the wife of a Roman prefect. Not clear whether it was simply his infatuation or there was an actual affair.
• He suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown, and his life was in danger because the betrayed husband had planned an ambush on his life. Warned in a dream of the latter, Evagrius fled to Jerusalem to the monastic community of Rufinus and Melania the Elder.

[some background on Melania and Rufinus...

Tyrannius Rufinus (349-410)
• from Italy, Aquileia. He studied in Rome, where he met St Jerome, who encouraged him to become a monk.
• In 371, Rufinus travelled to Egypt to live in the Nitrian desert. He became a disciple of Didymus of Alexandria, and John of Jerusalem ordained him in 390.
• He is best known as a translator of the works of Pamphilius of C├Žsarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Basil the Great––and especially of Origen!
• He also translated and extended an important work known as the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius; his continuation of the work became the first history of the western church. And his commentary on the Apostles' Creed contains the earliest known continuous Latin text of the creed.

Melania the Elder (about 341 - about 410 CE)
• born in Spain, widowed at 22: the same illness that took her husband also took two of her sons and left her with one living son, with whom she moved to Rome.
• There she became a Christian and, when her son was ten, placed him with a guardian and set off for Alexandria where she joined other Christian desert ascetics.
• She associated with monks of the Arian party -- those who believed that God the Son, Christ, had been created after God the Father. When the Arians were banished from Egypt, she left with them.
• Melania came to Jerusalem, where she founded a monastery with Rufinus, whom she'd met in Alexandria.

Both were students Origen.
• Later when Origen's teachings were condemned, Rufinus refused to renounce them, and so St Jerome also condemned Rufinus.
• Melania founded more monasteries and promoted theological tolerance and the unity of Christianity.]

3. Jerusalem
• It is always noted that Evagrius did not go back to his well-known haunt in Cappadocia. In Jerusalem Rufinus and Melania became great friends and helped him back on his feet again. He was about 37 at the time.
• But his psyche broke down again and he became very sick, suffering from a burning fever that threatened to dehydrate him so he would die.
• As the story goes, the physicians were at a loss to help him but Melania “perceived in her spirit” that this sickness did not come from an ordinary cause, but that there was something deeper going on, and she confronted Evagrius about it.
• Evagrius admitted he had fled from Constantinople due his troubles with the prefect’s wife and that he had made a vow to the Lord to “watch after his soul,” which he had not done. Melania told him only if he would lay down his life for Christ and live as a monk he would survive his illness, and be made whole again. Evagrius agreed to do so and within a few days he was restored to his health and adopted the monastic life.
• Probably received his monk’s cloth from the hands of Rufinus in 383, and he would later write about it to Rufinus in great gratitude.
• During this period, due to his association with Rufinus and Melania, he was also introduced to Origen’s works to an even greater extent, and became introduced into the tradition in Egypt of the circle known as the Tall Brothers.
• These two “nervous breakdowns” can be seen as the foundation of Evagrius’ own ability as a “psychotherapist,” and his gift of reading souls and counseling people who were plagued with “passions” and “demons.”

3. Egypt
• Evagrius now set out for Egypt, the center of monasticism at that time, about 39 years of age.
• In Egypt, Evagrius received training and spiritual advice from a famous monk known as Macarius the Great, and also likely from St. Didymus the Blind. Interesting that the sources speak of him learning at the feet of––upanishad––these two greats a direct teaching from master to disciple.
• Evagrius is now in the company of the circle of monks known as the Tall Brothers or the Long Brothers who were well-trained and well-experienced intellectual Origenist monks.
• He settled in the Nitrian desert and would remain there for the remaining fifteen years of his life.
• He himself became a well-known abba. It is said that he had an enormous capacity to discern spirits, and was an excellent “psychotherapist.”
• In Evagrius’ teaching we see a marriage of Egyptian monastic spirituality and Origenism of the Egyptian intellectually inclined monks.
• This “intellectualism” that is in his background is important, the marriage of intellect and spirituality that is a salient feature of the Hellenistic Cappadocians as opposed, perhaps, to the simplicity of the indigenous Egyptian monks among whom he lived. (See, for example, the life of Antony.)
• Evagrius’ severe ascetism damaged his health, and later in life he reduced his ascetic standards. But as a result of his severe lifestyle he died, peacefully, in 399 at the age of only fifty-four.

Right after his death, an enormous controversy broke out concerning Origen and the tradition that looked to him as its father. Evagrius was spared seeing his friends persecuted, and driven from their homes, and condemned.
• Origen and Orgineism and its condemnation has a very complicated history; there not only theological issues at stake; neither side seems to have been the communion of saints…
• As J.E. Bamberger explains: Evagrius “speculated at great length upon certain of the more daring of Origen’s teachings, such as the doctrine of pre-exisence of souls and the doctrine of the eventual return of all souls, even those of demons, to the primitive union with Divinity [apkatastasis]. It is not so certain the Origen himself held some of these points at the end of his life [!]. In any case he was quite careful to express his submission to the Church’s judgment on their orthodoxy. Evagrius was less cautious… Evagrius tended to pursue principles to their extreme logical conclusions and then proceeded to adopt them in this extreme form as norms for life.” (intro. to Praktikos, p. xxv)
• “Evagrius joined Origen and Didymus the Blind [note: his teacher in Nitria] on the list of heretics. The first official condemnation was at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553… The next three Ecumenical Councils that met made it a part of their business to repeat this same condemnation.” (intro. to Praktikos, p. xxv)
• Also––and this seems even more important––the Egyptian monks viewed “with suspicion the intellectual pursuits of the more cultured and refined monks of Hellenistic background… One of their chief objections to the system taught by Evagrius was the immateriality of God, the doctrine that held that [God] was pure spirit. This was indeed a keystone in the Evagrian system. Literally all depended on it. In opposition to this view the Copts [Egyptians] for the most part help an anthropomorphic concept of the divinity. They considered that [God] was in his very form a pattern for the structure of the human body, except in larger proportions. After all, they reasoned, the Bible tells us that [the human person] is made in the image and likeness of God.” (intro. to Praktikos, p., xlviii)
• We see evidence of this, for instance, in Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer:
a. #66: “When you are praying do not fancy the Divinity like some image formed within yourself. Avoid also allowing your spirit to be impressed with the seal of some particular shape, but rather, free from all matter, draw near the immaterial Being and you will attain understanding.”
b. #114: “Do not by any means strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer.”
c. See also Chapters on Prayer #3, 62, 92, 128
• Evagrius is in good company here, if he has had commerce with Gregory of Nyssa especially, the beginning of our own apophatic tradition (see Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, for instance).


Recall Origen’s system of the three stages of the soul’s ascent to God: ethike, physike, and enoptike. When Evagrius writes about the stages of the soul’s ascent he names them: pratike, physike and theologia.
• The term pratike is very instructive; it means “the practice of virtue.” Compare to ethike of Orgien, and “purgation” of St John of the Cross.
• One of his most famous writings of course is called the Praktikos, which we have been reading.

To understand the central teaching of Praktikos, and what I think is the most practical (if you’ll excuse the pun) aspect of his teaching there are three terms that are important
logismoi: a train of thought which engages the mind so that bit by bit one drifts away from what one is supposed to be doing into a world of fantasy. A monk’s mind (for instance, since he is writing mainly to monks) becomes befogged and besotted by these thoughts so that he cannot concentrate on the actual reality of his own life.
patheia (passions): ways in which our human faculties get trapped in pointless and irrational reactions. They are not emotions as such; they are disordered reactions, so that passionless can be stated to be "health of the soul."
  • I am reminded of the term “disproportionate recurring reactions,” or DRRs of the PRH program.
  • These actually cloud our view and understanding of reality, what is really going on besides leading to debilitating obsessions and compulsions.
• apatheia: the absence of passions––pointless, irrational reactions; full possession under the divine contemplation of the affective faculties so that disordered passions are resolved into a state of abiding calm.

In Praktikos (see esp. #6–14), Evagrius lays out the eight logismoi, or the eight evil thoughts. Aside from one, acedie, you might recognize the other seven as what become later the seven deadly sins.

• #7, gluttony: suggests to a monk that he give up his ascetic efforts and brings the mind to concern for his physical well-being, the scarcity of commodities of life and worry about his body
• #8, impurity: impels one to lust after bodies; it attacks more strenuously those who practice continence
o see also #22: When it is our lust that flames up they cause us to seek out once again the friendly company of [people] and call us callous and uncivil in the hope that while we feel the desire for bodies we might happen upon them.”
• #9, avarice: fear of old age and the future
• #10, sadness: comes from deprivation of one's desires, often accompanies anger
• #11, anger: boiling up and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury or is thought to have done so
• #12, acedia: instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, for his very life itself
  • we often translate this as listlessness and refer to as “the noonday devil,” the specifically monastic vice
  • “The time of temptation is not the time to leave one's cell, devising plausible precepts. Rather, stand firmly and be patient. . . above all face up to the demon of acedia. . . Indeed to flee and shun such conflicts schools the spirit in awkwardness, cowardice and fear.” (#28)
• #13, vainglory: desire to make their struggles known publicly
  • “The demon of vainglory lives in a state of opposition to the demon of impurity, so that it is impossible for both of them to assault the soul at the same time... the ability to drive away the thought of vainglory through humility, or the power to repel the demon of impurity through temperance is a most profound proof of apatheia.” (#58)
• #14, pride: to deny that God is your helper and consider that you yourself are the cause of virtuous actions

This is not so much a battle against the sins themselves as against the logismoi which are unbalanced passions, thoughts that cause the temptations to sin.
• What conquering these unbalanced passions leads to is called apatheia. That sounds like “apathy” but it’s not what we understand as apathy. It means more or less “a state of tranquility,” which Evagrius claims is the natural state of the soul.
• When Evagrius speaks of the logismoi and patheia in the Pratikos, for instance, he means ways in which our human faculties get trapped in pointless and irrational reactions, ways that are para physin––against our nature.
• Even our passions are basically good energies gone awry; the disordered passions are not just emotions; they are disordered reactions, so that passionless or apatheia is “health of the soul.” (see Prak. #56)
• It is still not emotionless-ness that he is pointing us toward, but “a state of harmony in which all our faculties are doing precisely what they were created to do”––kata physin!––according to our nature––“so that they do not disturb our equilibrium or hinder the proper clarity which the mind should have.” (Tugwell, Ways, p. 28)
• Note the similarity to Athanaius’ description of Antony upon coming out of the tombs. The ascetical life does not destroy our human nature body and soul, but brings to us to our natural state.
• Evagrius: “When we were created at the beginning, seeds of virtue existed in us naturally but no malice at all.” That is our natural state. It is the demons who have hounded us and chased us from this state which is naturally ours.
• Compare to what George Maloney writes in “Breath of the Mystic”
  • “So good does not get superimposed on us from the outside; it is evil that comes from the outside, outside of God’s creation and outside of our own nature. Evil does not come from our basic nature. It can and does touch our intellect; it can and does touch and our will. But the good news is that it can never touch or destroy or completely corrupt our nature. We can lose grace, we can lose our likeness to God, but the nature given to us can never be destroyed. The image of God that is the very mark of our being can be covered, tarnished, hidden, but it can never be destroyed––it is our very nature.”
There are two proofs, you might say of apatheia.
• First, we know when the soul reaches a state of apatheia, because she is able to pray without distraction, with the peace that comes from an undisturbed conscience.
  • The state of apatheia means “a state of self-mastery and attention form which one cannot be dislodged by distractions or by the kinds of outbursts of spiritual energy that expresses itself in anger and resentment.” (Louth, The Wilderness of God, p. 63-64)
  • "The kingdom of heaven is apatheia of the soul along with true knowledge of existing things." (Prak. #2)
  • "We recognize the indications of apatheia by our thoughts during the day, but we recognize it by our dreams during the night. We call apatheia the health of the soul..." (Prak. #56)
  • The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light, when it remains in a state of tranquility in the presence of the images it has during sleep and when it maintains it calm as it beholds the affairs of life. (Prak. #64)
  • The soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well. (Prak. #67)
• Second proof of apatheia is agape!
  • #81 Agape is the progeny of apatheia. Apatheia is the very flower of ascesis. Ascesis consists in keeping the commandments...
  • So, the formula might be stated, ascesis leads to apatheia leads to agape; discipline leads to tranquility of soul, tranquility of soul leads to charity.
  • #84, “The goal of the asctic life is charity; the goal of contemplative knowledge is theology. The beginnings of each are faith and contemplation of nature respectively.”
  • apatheia and agape are but two aspects of a single reality

According to Evagrius what we are seeking is a relatively permanent state of deep calm arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life under the influence of love
• not a leveling of human emotions to an equal degree of indifference to all people but a state where all people can be loved at least to the extent that one lives peacefully and without resentment toward others. (see Prak. #100)
• According to Evagrius in his writing On Prayer #27, the logismoi that “darken the mind and cause ruin to the state of prayer are the most serious ones:
• “… those inspired by anger, resentment, brooding on slights (or imagined slights) to oneself… The soul afflicted by such logismoi can no longer pray at all.” (#27)
• Evagrius teaches that, “People who hoard their miseries and brood on their wrongs and then expect to pray are like people who draw water and pour it into a jug with holes in it.” (#22)
• The fundamental remedy is to realize that anger against other people is never justified. So Evagrius writes:
  • When you pray as you should, you will run into all kinds of things that make you suppose that it would be entirely right for you to make use of anger. But there is no such thing as justified anger against your neighbor. If you look you will find that it is possible for the matter to be settled quite well without anger. Use any device you can to avoid losing your temper. (#24)
Other favorite passages from Praktikos
  • 15. Reading, vigils and prayer––these are the thing that lend stability to the wandering mind. Hunger, toil and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire. Turbid anger is calmed by singing the psalms, by patience and almsgiving. But all these practices must be engaged in according to due measure and at the appropriate times. What is untimely done, or done without measure, endures but a short time. And what is short-lived is more harmful than profitable.
  • 22. When under some provocation or other the irascible part of our soul is stirred up, it is just at that moment that the demons suggest to us the advantages of solitude... When it is our lust that flames up they cause us to seek out once again the friendly company of men and call us callous and uncivil in the hope that while we find the desire for bodies we might happen upon them. Give no confidence to such promptings; on the contrary follow the opposite course.
  • 29. ...the monk should always live as if he were to die tomorrow but at the same time he should treat his body as if he were to live on with it for many years to come. . .
  • 38. The passions are accustomed to be stirred up by the senses, so that when charity and continence are lodged in the soul then the passions are not stirred up.
  • 42. When you are tempted do not fall immediately to prayer. First utter some angry words against the one who afflicts you.
  • 50. If there is a monk who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons so as to gain experience in his monastic art, then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, their periodicity, the demons that cause them. Watch the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask Christ for the explanations of the data he has observed. For the demons become thoroughly infuriated with those who practice active virtue in a manner that is increasingly contemplative. They are even of a mind to "pierce the upright of heart through, under cover of darkness."
  • 100. …it is possible to associate with all in a manner that is above passion... free of hatred and resentment... Our old men are to be honored like the angels for it is they who have anointed us for the battles and who tread the wounds we suffer from the bites of wild beasts.

Some other writings a propos our topic:

1. On the [Evil] Thoughts
• relatively lengthy treatise of 43 sections
• Evagrius analyzes closely the tactics of demons and the counterattacks available to the ascetic. He explains the interrelationships between the various evil thoughts, and provides a glimpse into the anthropological, and cosmological notions that undergird his advice on spiritual warfare.

2. The Eight Spirits of Wickedness
• Evagrius devotes each of eight chapters to the evil thoughts, in this sequence: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, pride.
• Each chapter contains mostly brief aphorisms, frequently set in pairs, occasionally punctuated by longer discursive paragraphs.
• advice on how to combat the evil thoughts, is ripe with metaphorical imagery, intended to be read slowly and contemplated.

3. On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues
• brief treatise addressed to the monk Eulogios
• each of the nine chapters epitomizes the characteristics of a vice, then that of its antithetical virtue.
• gluttony versus abstinence,
• fornication versus chastity,
• avarice versus freedom from possessions,
• sadness versus joy,
• anger versus patience,
• acedia versus perseverance,
• vainglory versus freedom from vainglory,
• jealousy vesus freedom from jealousy,
• pride versus humility.
• departs from the traditional eight vices, because Evagrius inserts jealousy, a subject he normally does not discuss extensively

4. Antirrheticos
• Lists of Scriptures that are effective in combatting the eight passions.
• organized according to the eight passions with scriptures listed according to their biblical order.