Evagrius in Anglo-Saxon England

In rereading St Bede the Venerable, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book 1, in preparation for this past Monday, I encountered (unsurprisingly) Evagrian resonances in Pope St Gregory the Great’s letters to St Augustine of Canterbury in 1.27. Evagrius of Pontus was a late fourth-century mystic and ascetic master amongst the Desert Fathers of Lower Egypt at Nitria and then Kellia. Father Luke Dysinger has an accessible biography of Evagrius here. Despite being controversial in posthumous Origenist controversies, Evagrius remains foundational for ascetic and mystical theology and practice both East and West. In the West, his teachings were transmitted and refracted through the work of St John Cassian, and then further refracted through the works of Pope St Gregory.

The Evagrian resonances were most explicit for me in St Gregory’s response to question 9.

First, Gregory recapitulates teaching common to both Evagrius and St Cassian that fornication and gluttony are intimately linked. The immediate context is the ongoing, perplexing question raised by ancient monastics as to whether someone who has nocturnal emissions has sinned or not.

Pope Gregory writes that the illusions that accompany such emissions are sometimes caused by overeating, that one’s body is essentially overburdened by eating. The correlation between gluttony and fornication is made by Evagrius in the “Texts on Discrimination” excerpted in The Philokalia Vol. 1:

For one does not fall into the power of the demon of unchastity, unless one has first fallen because of gluttony…

Trans. Sherrard et al., p. 38

One of the basic realities I discovered when I did my first dive into John Cassian was the interconnectedness of our whole lives, including the life of sin. Succumb to one sin, and you are setting yourself up for being bound to the others. Excel at one virtue, and you gain strength to fight all the sins. I confess here and now that I have yet to read Gregory the Great on the Seven Deadly Sins (which he adapts from Evagrius-Cassian), but I imagine his concept is much the same.

But what really got my Evagrian gears turning was this passage in Bede, EH 1.27, Q IX:

all sin is committed in three ways, namely by suggestion, pleasure, and consent. The devil makes the suggestion, the flesh delights in it and the spirit consents. It was the serpent who suggested the first sin, Eve representing the flesh was delighted by it, and Adam representing the spirit consented to it: and when the mind sits in judgement on itself it is necessary to make careful distinction between suggestion and delight, between delight and consent. For when an evil spirit suggests a sin to the mind, if no delight in the sin follows then the sin is not committed in any form; but when the flesh begins to delight in it then sin begins to arise. But if the mind deliberately consents, then the sin is seen to be complete.

Ed. McClure and Collins, pp. 53-54

Gregory the Great goes on. But this is enough to see the Evagrian anatomy of sin. The suggestion comes first — that is, the initial temptation as we would see it. We like the idea — sure, why not have another goblet of wine? We succumb; our spirit consents. (Another goblet … or three?)

It is a sublte, psychologically real approach to sin that attaches all the responsibility for action upon the human agent. Gregory notes that one may have the suggestion, and be delighted by it, but resist so as not to consent with the spirit. This circumstance, of being delighted by sin yet able to resist, is what St Paul spoke of in Romans 7:23,”But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” So we are able to fight these thoughts when they come.

This fight is what much of the surviving work of Evagrius is about, and it is also the chief business of many writers in the Philokalia. One of the chief skills Philokalic and Evagrian spirituality seeks to hone is watchfulness. We must watch our thoughts, “to recognize the difference between angelic thoughts, human thoughts, and thoughts that come from demons.” (Evagrius, On Discrimination 7, p. 42)

Watchfulness and the discernment of the thoughts and the battle against temptation are central to Evagrian praktike, but central to his whole program, central to St Gregory, to the Venerable Bede, to the missionaries of Anglo-Saxon England, is the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, to be met in contemplation, theoria, and worshipped and adored.

Nothing else really matters.

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