Evagrius’ mystical communion

In light of my post on Sunday about virtual communion, the following proverbs from the Ad Monachos of Evagrius Ponticus are worth some attention:

118. Flesh of Christ: virtues of praktiké;
he who eats it, passionless shall he be.

119. Blood of Christ: contemplation of created things;
he who drinks it, by it becomes wise.

120. Breast of the Lord: knowledge of God;
he who rests against it, a theologian (theologos) shall he be.

-Trans. Jeremy Driscoll, Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 62

Here, Evagrius has completely allegorised and spiritualised Holy Communion, it would seem. The Eucharistic imagery is used to direct the reader/listener to the three stages of Evagrian ascent to God — praktikephysike, and theologike. The first is ascetic labour — battling the eight wicked thoughts, pursuing the virtues, engaging in the lifestyle of the hesychast. The second is the first level of theoretike, of contemplation, where we contemplate created things. The created order, at this stage, is not viewed for its own sake, but rather for the sake of what it can show us of God. It is, essentially, a sacramental worldview, one similar to Coleridge’s idea of symbols being gateways to God, passages to the numinous (not sure he used the word numinous, though). The third level is moving upward to direct contemplation of God.

These three stages are referenced throughout the Evagrian corpus. A single example should suffice, I hope. Evagrius sees these three levels of the spiritual life in Scripture, writing in the Scholia on Proverbs:

The one who has widened his heart through purity will understand the logoi of God – those connected with praktike, physike, and theologike. For all matters which concern the Scriptures, are divided into three parts: ethics, physics, and theology. And to the first correspond the Proverbs, to the second Ecclesiastes, and to the third the Song of Songs. (Scholion 247) –Trans. Luke Dysinger

In Kephalaia Gnostica 1.27, Evagrius says that contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity is the highest level and goal of the contemplative life. We also read in Ad Monachos:

Better is knowledge of the Trinity than knowledge of the incorporeals;
and the contemplation of it beyond reasons for all the aeons. -ch. 110, trans. Driscoll

This tripartite scheme of spiritual ascent has been applied by Evagrius here in Ad Monachos to the Eucharist. My immediate inclination is to see this as allegorising, as I say. However, through comparison with other Evagrian texts (interpret Evagrius with Evagrius, the right way forward), Jeremy Driscoll warns us against such an interpretation, saying:

These three proverbs would be badly misunderstood if the reader were to see in them merely a spiritualizing or allegorizing tendency such that the flesh of Christ is thought to be no more than a scriptural code word for virtue or his blood no more than something of the same for contemplation. The point is rather quite the opposite. The proverbs mean to express that the very possibility of progress within praktiké and from this to contemplation and from this to the knowledge of God is grounded in the mystery of the Incarnation. But here Evagrius says more. What the Incarnation makes possible is communicated through the action of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood and the intimacy that this implies. Further, it should be noted that the expressions “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood” are generally so closely associated with the Eucharist that it seems unlikely that Evagrius would not have wished the same connection to be made here. (Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, 321)

Indeed (I need not display the evidence here), Evagrius makes reference to the Eucharist and its effect on us elsewhere in his writings. This, I think, is important, because I think we sometimes develop an image of the Desert solitary of Egypt sitting alone in his cell, eschewing all human contact and meeting God directly through the uncreated light. However, Evagrius, the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, and the various stories about them in a number of historical sources all point to the weekly celebration of Holy Communion in the Desert communities of the fourth and fifth centuries.

And yet.

As we sit here now, 1600 years or more later, it can be a comfort, I think, to meditate on mystical communion with Christ, communion of a sort that does not mean gathering within six feet of a large group of people and drinking wine out of the same silver chalice. He comes to us alone in our cells (apartments, houses). Let us open our hearts to Him as we practise the virtues, seek knowledge of Him in creation, and hope one day to ascend to contemplation of God Himself directly, a sort of mystical holy communion with its own grace abounding in our hearts.

Digital resources for the daily office during your daily confinement

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that a Desert monk of the fourth-century Egyptian desert would have spent most of his or her time confined to the cell praying and reading Scripture. In particular, in fact, they were devoted to praying the Psalms. One example of many:

Oblige yourself to practice the discipline/attention of the psalms, for that will protect you from being captured by the enemy.-Isaiah of Scetê Ascet.
logos 9 (p.84)/Sys. 5.53. (Cited by John Wortley in his article “How the Desert Fathers ‘Meditated’“)

Evagrius writes:

The singing of Psalms quiets the passions and calms the intemperance of the boy. Prayer, on the other hand, prepares the spirit to put its own powers into operation. –Chapters on Prayer 83 (trans. John Eudes Bamberger p. 69)

Prayer in the Egyptian Desert of antiquity happened at fixed times, and it involved singing Psalms.

This practice, variously called the divine office, daily office, liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, etc., is older than monastic asceticism, attested as early as Tertullian around 200 and the Apostolic Tradition a few decades later (I’ve talked about the latter at least once). Scot McKnight, in his excellent, readable book Praying with the Church, shows the New Testament and Jewish roots of this practice.

So if you’re stuck at home, alone, wondering what to do, seeking some tools to kill time and grow spiritually, maybe even seeking hesychia, here are some resources to help you pray the fixed hours of prayer, beginning with apps for your phone, then online resources, then digitised books.

Apps for your phone

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – This app has Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer in both BCP language and “contemporary.” It gives you the daily readings, including Psalms and both main lessons, and the Collect. This is an advantage over flipping through a BCP and a Bible for ease of comfort — an advantage all born-digital daily office resources tend to have!

iBreviary – This Catholic resource has the Roman Breviary in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Ambrosian Rite in Italian, Monastic Rite in Italian, and Latin, both Tridentine and Novus Ordo. I use the Tridentine Latin, myself, but that’s because I’m old-fashioned and weird. It does the full round of offices of day and night.

Common Prayer – This ecumenical Protestant resource comes from Shane Claiborne, drawing from different traditions but also with a good amount of Scripture. It also means that there is more of an emphasis on social action in the prayers and meditations included. Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer.

I see some Orthodox resources in the Google Play store, such as Orthodox Daily Prayers from the Orthodox Church in America, but I haven’t tried any out. I’m also sure Lutherans have come up with something, too.

Online Resources

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – Like the app but a website.

Celtic Daily Prayer – The daily offices of the Northumbria Community, providing Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. Typically rooted in mediaeval Irish and Scottish sources but with some Desert Fathers in it as well.

Celebrating Common Prayer – This is the daily office of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis with Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline.

The Synekdemos: Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians – Provided by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Divinum Officium – This Roman Catholic resource appears to be similar to the iBreviary app noted above.

There are undoubtedly many others, but I’ve never used them!

Digitised Books

Coptic Offices – It seems only right (rite?), given our inspiration here, to include the daily office of the Coptic Orthodox Church, here translated into English.

Breviary Offices from Lauds to Compline – An English translation from mediaeval Use of Sarum, that is, the mediaeval English office. I do not know how easy this would be to use digitally!

The Lesser Hours of the Sarum Breviary – An English translation made principally to fill gaps in the Book of Common Prayer.

Orthodox Daily Prayers  – A 1982 publication from St Tikhon’s Monastery.

Desert wisdom about staying home

Abba Antony said:

Just as fish die if they stay too long out of water, so the monks who loiter outside their cells or pass their time with men of the world lose the intensity of inner peace. So like a fish going towards the sea, we must hurry to reach our cell, for fear that if we delay outside we will lose our interior watchfulness.

He said also:

He who wishes to live in solitude in the desert is delivered from three conflicts: hearing, speech, and sight; there is only one conflict for him and that is with fornication. –The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Anthony the Great, sayings 10-11 (The Greek Alphabetical Collection), trans. Benedicta Ward, p. 3

Before I really get moving with this post, in the interests of full disclosure, I am not staying alone even if I am staying home. My household includes at present four adults and two preschoolers. I eat three meals a day with other people, besides bathing two of them (the kids, of course), dressing them, playing with them, reading with them, praying with them. COVID-19 has not increased my solitude; if anything, it has decreased it because my evenings find themselves populated by online gatherings or phone calls to keep in touch.

But I do know others who are alone — single people with no roommates, the widowed. While I think the wisdom of the Desert about staying put is timely for all of us, it to those who find themselves physically extraordinarily alone I particularly pass these thoughts along.

Abba Anthony the Great and Abba Paul of Thebes, desert monks

The Desert Fathers have a lot to say about staying in the cell — the first saying of Antony the Great above is perhaps the most famous. The second reminds us that when we are alone, we still bring ourselves with us. John Cassian observes that if you suffer from anger, solitude will not cure it, for alone in the Desert your own angry self comes along. The only place to cure anger is the company others who make you angry.

Evagrius also recommends the solitude of one’s cell:

The one who guards against these arrows [of the logismos of fornication] does not frequent public festivals, nor will be go around agape on feast days, for it is better to stay at home, passing time at one’s prayers, than to become an accomplice in the work of one’s enemies by thinking that one is reverently observing the feast days. –On the Eight Thoughts 2.7

The evil thought that is most likely to drive a monk from his or her cell is akedia, listlessness, despondency, dejection. Boredom, perhaps? Called “the noonday demon”, misrepresented in English as “sloth”. The restlessness associated with akedia is doubtless relevant to all those in these strange times who want to go out, see people, walk around, shake hands with a neighbour.

In On the Eight Thoughts, 6, Evagrius writes of akedia:

5. The spirit of acedia drives the monk out of his cell, but the monk who possesses perseverance will ever cultivate stillness.

6. A person afflicted with acedia proposes visiting the sick, but is fulfilling his own purpose.

7. A monk given to acedia is quick to undertake a service, but considers his own satisfaction to be a precept.

8. A light breeze bends a feeble plant; a fantasy about a trip away drags off the person overcome with acedia.

9. The force of the wind does not shake a well-rooted tree; acedia does not bend the soul that is firmly established.

10. A wandering monk is like a dry twig in the desert; he is still for a little while and then is carried off unwillingly.

-Trans. R. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 84

The Desert tradition believes that staying put alone in the cell is good for you. Their main goal is, of course, hesychia, as I discussed yesterdayHesychia — inner calm, stillness, quietude. Maybe our goal should be, too. So maybe corona quarantine will be good for us.

If you’re wondering what the Desert tradition expects of you trapped alone all day, the answer is: Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Eat one meal around 3 PM. Pray. Read Scripture. Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Weave a rush mat.

This is essentially the lifestyle of Evagrius as described by his disciple Palladius in the Lausiac History. He probably also read other spiritual works — Gregory of Nyssa who was his spiritual father or Origen, for example — and he spent time writing down the fruit of his prayer and meditation.

Maybe now is the time to get down with the daily office …

Dispassion and stillness (apatheia and hesychia)

I have been reading Evagrius, and about Evagrius, lately, either with the purpose of understanding his approach to Scripture (hence his inclusion in my post, Early Ascetics Talking About the Bible) or his demonology. Along the way I encountered Luke Dysinger’s Evagrius website, about which I recently blogged, and there I was able to read his text and translation of select scholia on Proverbs by Evagrius.

These scholia, like most of Evagrius’ works, are little nuggets to ponder over — in this case, to help you understand Scripture. Proverbs 1:33 reads, “He who hears me reposes in hope and lives in tranquility, fearless of any evil.” Evagrius writes:

Ὁ ἀπαθὴς ἡσυχάζει ἀφόβως ἀπὸ παντὸς κακοῦ λογισμοῦ

The person who has dispassion (apatheia) lives in stillness (hesychia) with no fear from any evil thought. (My trans.)

The [one who possesses] apatheia [dispassion] lives in tranquillity without any fear of evil [tempting-thoughts] (Dysinger trans.)

This is a scholion you could read over and over and ponder anew in different ways. We see very clearly Evagrius’ concision with language — he has a single Greek noun to that I render with three English words, and a single verb that likewise takes three English words. It’s not just ‘Greek has such precision’ here — Evagrius uses great concision, as well. These two words, apathés which derives from apatheia and hésychiazo which derives from hésychia are the subject of this post. These two words are key to grasping Eastern Christian spirituality.

Apatheia

I have mentioned apatheia on this blog before, with reference to Clement of Alexandria — passionlessness, dispassion, freedom from the passions: these are normal ways of Englishing it. It became controversial around the turn of the fifth century, so John Cassian avoided it in his Conferences, using the phrase puritas cordi, purity of heart, instead. (I’ve also written about that.)

Apatheia doesn’t sound very fun to us these days. It sounds like being grim and maintaining a stiff upper lip — stoic in a bad sense. We like to laugh, to cry — all these emotions. However, I do not think this is what the ancient ascetics mean by it. Evagrius himself says:

“Whether all of these [thoughts] trouble the soul or do not trouble it does not depend on us. But whether they linger or do not linger or whether the passions move or are not moved, that depends on us” (Praktikos 6, trans. Jeremy Driscoll in the introduction to Evagrius Ponticus: Ad Monachos, p. 13). 

The passions are those movements within our hearts, minds, souls, that affect us. We do not necessarily control them. A life lived at the mercy of the passions is not necessarily happy. To consider an extreme case, I have a friend with bipolar who, when he was undiagnosed, purchased a very expensive set of Civil War figurines online because he was sure they would be collectibles and multiply in value over the years. They have not. He wasted that money in a manic moment precisely because he was being ruled by his passions — his enthusiasm for these figurines and how cool they were.

That is the sort of life apatheia wants to set us free from.

My son, approaching three years old in a few months, currently asks endlessly, “Why?” Sometimes the answer is, “Because I/you/he/she/the bird felt like it.” In Evagrius’s world, the person possessing apatheia — the apathés — might “feel like” doing something, but whether or not he or she did it would be based upon discretion/discernment, wisdom, love, and knowledge.

A life thus lived is, as a result, calm, peaceful, tranquil — it possesses hesychia, peace, stillnness, quietude.

Hesychia

The result of attaining apatheia is to live in hesychia. I first met the term hesychia in John Michael Talbot’s book The Music of Creation. Talbot provided the image of a pool of water that is stirred up so that you cannot see the bottom. Hesychia is the peacefulness and stillness of the so that it becomes clear and limpid, so that you can see the bottom and pull out any garbage you might see.

In the English translation of The Philokalia, Vol. 1, the translators give the following definition in their glossary:

a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepend by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him. (p. 365)

Much of The Philokalia is about watchfulness, as with Evagrius. The watchful Christian attains heyschia, calmness and stillness. It is, perhaps, paradoxical,that pure prayer leads to hesychia, given that one of the Desert Fathers (I forget which), said that prayer is a struggle until your last breath. But this state of peacefulness is always under attack from the thoughts arising from within our own fallen minds as well as those provoked by the demons. 

Hesychia comes up at various points in Evagrius. In Ad Monachos he writes:

The double-tongued monk agitates the brethren,
but the faithful one brings stillness. -ch. 95

In the one singing psalms, irascibility is quiet (hésychiazei);
and the long-suffering one, fearless shall he be. -ch. 98 (trans. Jeremy Driscoll)

Not that seeking hesychia is easy:

As it is impossible to purify water once troubled unless it remain undisturbed, so too is it impossible to purify the state of a monk unless he practise stillness with all rigour and perseverance. -Exhortation 1 to Monks, ch. 7 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz)

This is the quest of Evagrian and Philokalic spirituality — hence why its later exponents, such as Gregory Palamas, were called hesychasts.

As you sit in your house today, maybe working from home, maybe taking care of children, maybe alone with your spouse, maybe truly alone, perhaps now is a good time to attempt to quiet those many thoughts that come through all of us. Take a few moments to cultivate hesychia, seeking apatheia and purity of heart, after all:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matthew 5:8)

Father Luke Dysinger and Evagrius Ponticus

Having recently polished off some revisions to my book about manuscripts of Leo the Great, I’m working through an article about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, based on research I did as an MA student in 2009. Besides 11 years of scholarship having transpired, I’m also aware of how much Evagrius I did not read back then. I had read all of The PraktikosChapters on Prayer, and Kephalaia Gnostica, and (in standard MA student fashion) I had used the index to Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus.

But the Gnostikos, the letters, the scholia on Scripture — I did not read these. I did not even know the scholia existed until this past summer!

But where can a person easily get his or her hands on the works of Evagrius? I have access to university libraries, but the quality of their holdings can vary widely. What about people who primarily use public libraries and do not wish to spend $80+?

Father Luke Dysinger, author of Psalmody and Prayer in the Writings of Evagrius Ponticus can help. His website, St. Evagrius Ponticus, includes texts and translations of much Evagrian material. Not all, mind you. It is a work in progress. But it is a place to start. Here you can find PraktikosGnostikosKephalaia GnosticaOn the Thoughts (Peri Logismon), On PrayerSkemmataSentencesAntirrhetikosOn PsalmsOn Proverbs, On EcclesiastesOn Job, and Letters.

Father Luke also provides an introduction to Evagrius, and pages on secondary sources, themes, and early monasticism. It looks to be a great resource; I’ve been using it for some of the material. Unfortunately, I’m going to need the full scholia on the Psalms, and we’re all on lock-down from coronavirus right now, so getting to a library is hard …

But why read Evagrius in the first place?

For some of you, I may be putting the cart before the horse. Why even read Evagrius? Wasn’t he some sort of heretic? Well, in the words of an Orthodox monk, he was also a saint!

Evagrius Ponticus was a highly influential spiritual master living in the Egyptian desert in later fourth century. His spiritual theology deeply influenced St John Cassian, one of the fathers of Latin monasticism, and, even after his posthumous condemnation as a heretic over 150 years after his death, he continued to be read throughout the Greek Middle Ages, often under another’s name, usually St Nilus of Ancyra. Beyond the Byzantine world, he was read in Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic, and continued to be an influential father in the eastern Christian tradition.

His teaching is psychologically nuanced and acute. He perceives the roots of our disordered hearts and seeks to give us advice to bind us firmly to the Most Holy Trinity. Many have found both his praktike — practical teaching — and theoretike — contemplative teaching — of enormous value. So, regardless of his influence, regardless of how orthodox (or not) he was, St Evagrius of Pontus is a figure worth getting to know for your own sake.

He can help us become more watchful against the eight evil thoughts, and then ascend through contemplation to the Most Holy Trinity. Sounds good to me.

Early ascetics talking about the Bible

I have been looking briefly into the teachings of some early ascetic writers about sacred Scripture. Here are some juicy quotes for you:

Toil at reading the Scriptures more than at anything else: for in prayer the mind frequently wanders, but in reading even a wandering mind is recollected. -John the Solitary early 400s, Letter to Hesychius, ch. 44 (trans. Sebastian Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 92)

Let us open up our hearts so as to understand the Scriptures which are filled with spiritual life and wisdom. In them there speaks the Spirit of God who gives life and knowledge. …

For all the wisdom of Life is hidden in the Scriptures. In them we are able to gain knowledge of God and of his creative activity, of his wonderful governance and providence; likewise of his goodness and, at the same time, of his righteousness, and, in sum, of his great and mighty power. …

Again, it is from the Scriptures that we learn how to travel on the road of virtuous conduct, for in them all the fine deeds of the just life are delineated. Just as one cannot see anything without light … similarly, without the light of the Scriptures we are unable to see God, who is Light, or his Justice, which is filled with light. -Martyrius (Sahdona) in the 600s, The Book of Perfection, chh. 48, 49, 50 (trans. Brock, Syriac Fathers, pp. 221-223)

Out of fear become conversant with the divine scriptures on a daily basis, for by association with these you will drive away converse with thoughts. He who by meditation treasures the divine scriptures in his heart easily expels thoughts from it. In listening to the divine scriptures in the night-time reading at vigils, let us not render our hearing moribund by means of sleep, nor hand over our soul to the captivity of thoughts; rather, with the goad of the scriptures let us prod the heart, so that with the goading of diligence we may pierce through the opposing negligence. -Evagrius of Pontus, To Eulogius 20 (trans. Robert Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, p. 46).

Some Irish saints

Happy St Patrick’s Day! I commemorated the feast of the Apostle to Ireland with a post about the man himself a while back. Another year, I posted about his missionary predecessor, Palladius. This year, I’d like to commemorate St Patrick by mentioning some of those people who are his spiritual descendants, men and women who trod the ancient path of Jesus as a result of the conversion of Ireland.

St Brigid seems to be the only one here who didn’t leave Ireland …

St Columba (521-597) — One of the important missionaries to Scotland, St Columba operated in the north of that country. He founded the monastery of Iona as a monastic mission centre for Britain. I’ve posted about him here and here. I also posted about the Life of St Columba by Adomnan and about St Columba’s poetry.

St Aidan  of Lindisfarne (d. 651) — An important missionary to England, St Aidan was a monk from Iona and was instrumental in the conversion of Northumbria. I’ve posted about him here.

St Brigid of Kildare (c. 451 – c. 523) — St Brigid has occasionally been accused of not existing; recent scholarship says she did. She was an abbess and foundress of abbeys in Ireland. She also wrote some grand poetry.

St Brendan the Navigator (c. 484 – c. 577) — One tradition that arose in early mediaeval Irish Christianity was wandering as a spiritual exercise — similar to pilgrimage, but not with Jerusalem or any such place as a destination. St Brendan decided to sail West, and he met various wonders along the way, including sea monsters and an icy gateway to Hell. You can read the medieval account of his voyage here. He also founded abbeys and suchlike in Ireland.

St Columbanus (540-615) — St Columbanus was a monastic missionary to the Continent where his mission was more about founding monasteries and bringing renewal to the church than converting the heathen. He founded some very important monasteries in Italy and Gaul, and his Rule was used throughout the seventh century and into the eighth. I have discovered his SermonsLetters, and Rule online as well as his very interesting Boat Song. He was an important part of the Insular contact with the Continent, coming from Ireland and founding monasteries at Luxueil and Bobbio, both of which were important in the Merovingian and Carolingian age. You can read a seventh-century account of his life online as well, written by Jonas, who became a monk at Bobbio three years after Columbanus’ death.

John Scotus Eriugena (815-877) — Eriugena was a notable theologian and philosopher in the ninth century who helped establish the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the western tradition. Some have found commonalities between him and Maximus the Confessor, others between him and Buddhist texts. Eriugena is not a canonised saint. You can read about him at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So, since you probably can’t get out to the pub tonight, stay in with a Guinness or a whiskey, and read about an Irish saint or two!