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.

The Monkhood of All Believers by Greg Peters

Disclaimer: Greg Peters is an online acquaintance of mine with whom I share at least one friend IRL, and this book was partly payment for professional translation work undertaken for him.

This book is an investigation into, as its subtitle says, ‘the monastic foundation of Christian spirituality.’ Greg Peters looks at the broad history of monasticism, including its critique by Martin Luther, to ascertain what its essence is, and to relate that essence to the life of all believers. As may be guessed, Peters argues, essentially, that we are called to the true essence of monasticism.

Like his book The Story of Monasticism, then, The Monkhood of All Believers, may be considered part of evangelical ressourcement. Indeed, a good amount of ancient Christianity makes its way into the discussion, something that warms my heart, as do eastern Christians, from St Symeon the New Theologian to Paul Evodokimov, stopping off with Dostoevsky along the way.

The book is divided into three parts:

  1. What is a Monk?
  2. Asceticism: The Monastic Vocation
  3. The Monkhood of All Believers

The first chapter of Part 1 I found particularly invigorating. Here, Peters considered the definition of monachos as used by different ancient authors, as well as the earliest use of the term monasterion, and here we find that it is not what we meet at dictionary.com:

a man who has withdrawn from the world for religious reasons, especially as a member of an order of cenobites living according to a particular rule and under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

If you find the word monk in a book, dictionary.com is the place to go. But if you find the word monachos written on your heart, read Peters. So, what, in essence, is a monachos, a monk? Someone who is monotropes, someone with single, undivided attention to the things of God. As Mark Galli put it in relation to early American evangelicals: a monomaniac for God. This basic understanding of the monk is in Eusebius, Augustine of Hippo, John Cassian, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Basil of Caesarea, et al., whom Greg Peters elucidates, showing the different colouring each author brings to defining the monk.

This discussion accords with John Climacus — earlier today I found a note about Climacus I once wrote that is germane:

John Climacus is concerned not so much with the outward trappings of monasticism as with its vital content. To him the monk is a believer who has undertaken to enter prayerfully into unceasing communion with God, and this in the form of a commitment not only to turn from the self and world but to bring into being in the context of his own person as many of the virtues as possible.

In the second (medieval) chapter, Peters analyses authors who approached the question of the monkhood beyond the cloister and even offered up the idea of marriage as a form of monasticism. Here we get the image of the monastery of the heart (or the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, as the title of one text discussed runs), which leads us directly into the third (modern) chapter, ‘Interiorized Monasticism’, which begins with Elder Zossima and Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov, and then analyses Paul Evdokimov, Raimon Panikkar, and Martin Luther.

To be honest, Panikkar I do not find nearly as compelling as Evdokimov. And I think Luther’s arguments at times go too far — but I know that much Luther wrote was responding to particular abuses in his day.

To move a bit more quickly, I appreciated the idea of ‘natural asceticism’ in the chapter ‘Defining Asceticism,’ which Peters gets from Met. Kallistos ware. Natural asceticism means eating only when you are hungry, or fasting occasionally. Unnatural asceticism means eating only mouldy bread. Natural asceticism means dressing simply. Unnatural asceticism means wearing a chain around your waist that makes your flesh start to rot. That sort of distinction.

Indeed, despite the bad name asceticism has (even with the first edition of Foster, Celebration of Discipline), the disciplined life is basically the ascetic life. It is the regular, measured life. It is the sort of asceticism promoted by Clement of Alexandria and the Rule of St Benedict.

Peters also engages with Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism, and I’ll have to finish Fagerberg’s book as a result. The title alone is alluring.

Ultimately, the arguments about asceticism and the priesthood of all believers and monasticism all coalesce with a certain engagement with Luther’s critiques with the arguments that we need to promote and engage in interiorized monasticism, in natural asceticism, since all Christians are monks, and that we still have room for institutionalised monks as a particular calling within the wider monastery that is all of the church.

Since this is largely a work of monastic theology, Peters doesn’t have a ‘Next Steps’ kind of chapter. But I would say: seek moderation in food and dress, as Clement of Alexandria encourages, and order your day around prayer as St Benedict encourages, and hopefully you will begin a true monk, with single-minded devotion to God.

A monomaniac.

Could we put together a Latin Philokalia?

This Lent I succeeded at finishing the English translation of vol. 1 of The Philokalia. Still four volumes to go (although vol. 5 still in production)! As I think on Philokalic spirituality, and the Athonite tradition of hesychasm, and the Greek Byzantine environment that fostered the 1000 years of Greek spirituality contained in the anthology, I ask myself:

Could we do this for Latin Christianity?

What to read next?

I suppose it would take a saint like St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain to properly sift the vast amount of Latin Christian spirituality that is out there to consider. I would want to keep it pre-Reformation and post-Constantine, similar boundaries to the Greek Philokalia. The first difficulty is discerning a common thread to unite the texts selected. Not all of Greek spiritual thought is in The Philokalia, after all — there are certain concerns that have been chosen. Thus, one of the most popular of all Greek ascetic texts, The Ladder by St John of Sinai (aka The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus), is not there. Nor are swathes of St Maximus the Confessor. No hagiography. No liturgy. No monastic rules. No Cappadocian Fathers. No St Athanasius. No St Cyril. No Ante-Nicene Fathers. No Pseudo-Dionysius.

Anyway, who are the neptic Fathers of Latin Christianity?

I’m not sure, but as an initial brain-storm, perhaps a prayerful exploration of theses guys would be good. Remember, we’re thinking selections with a theme, not the Complete Works.

  • John Cassian
  • Jerome
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Bernard of Clairvaux
  • Aelred of Rievaulx
  • Julianus Pomerius
  • Prosper of Aquitaine, De Vita Contemplativa
  • Gregory the Great
  • Hildegard?
  • Bonaventure?
  • Guerric of Igny?
  • Richard Rolle?

I know many would want to see, say, Meister Eckhart in the list, but I don’t know enough about his works to know if he’s worth searching for a common thread of Latin spirituality running from Jerome to the Renaissance. On the other hand, I know that, while Julian of Norwich is worth reading, her work is of a specific nature and, I think, very distinct from the tradition that links Bernard and Aelred with Cassian and Augustine.

Indeed, the late medieval mystics are hard. What about St Catherine of Siena? I’ve yet to read The Cloud of Unknowing. Would any of it fit?

Likewise, the scholastics. Bonaventure, sure. St Thomas Aquinas? Or the pre-scholastic Anselm: I love him, but I don’t think he belongs, even if he was a practicioner of the tradition from Julianus Pomerius to the Cistercians. My own inclinations lean towards Cistercians more than scholastics for this, but maybe that’s false?

Of course, should we cut it short with the Reformation? Will we suffer for the lack of Sts John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila?

Just some thoughts. It is at least an interesting thought experiment. Maybe a way to make a personal reading list, even if not a multi-volume anthology.

Philokalic Friday: The monastery and ‘the world’

Today I read John of Karpathos’ second text in The Philokalia, the ‘ascetic discourse’, also addressed to encourage the despondent monks of India (Ethiopia). Frankly, this work is an example of what is wrong with much in the monastic movement. John’s way of encouraging them to stay in the monastery is to argue that life in the world, with marriage and children, is lesser, that has less merit before God, that people ‘in the world’ live according to the passions, whereas the monastery is where asceticism happens and where true blessedness is found.

As a husband and father, I can assure this ascetic that there is an asceticism of marriage and an asceticism of parenthood.

Is not the heart of ascetic labour, ‘Take up your cross daily, deny yourself, and come, follow me’?

How is the married estate excluded?

Now, if you are a newcomer, fear not: I don’t hate monasticism, and I know that not all monks think that they’re holier than us. I have no doubt many of them are, but not because of their monastic profession. Rather, it is their faithfulness in discipleship in their vocation, just as it would be for a holy married person.

But it still rankles when I read it.

Philokalic Friday: St Neilos of Ancyra

I am publishing posts each Friday this Lent as I work my way through the latter half of volume 1 of The Philokalia, trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware. If you wish an introduction by me, read here; by Kallistos Ware, here.

At present, I am reading St Neilos (or Nilus or Nilos) of Ancyra’s (modern Ankara, Turkey; he died around 430, we think) ‘Ascetic Discourse’, on pages 199-250 of the English translation of The Philokalia, vol. 1. The text begins with some insights into wisdom and the philosophic life, as I blogged last Saturday. From here, Neilos moves into a discussion of how the monastic profession and ascetic life has fallen from its original ideals. Monks attach themselves to wealthy people and live in cities. They own property and are as undisciplined as anyone else.

It sounds rather high mediaeval, if you ask me! St Neilos is in the era of what I think of as the ‘second generation’ Desert Fathers (he’s not in the desert, of course), after the Origenist Controversy at the turn of the fifth century, when Antony, Pachomius, et al., are now ideals to pursue rather than the living embodiment of the monastic call. He is a contemporary of Shenoute of the White Monastery in Egypt and St Simeon the Stylite in Syria, as well as Sts Augustine of Hippo and John Cassian in Marseille.

Monasticism in St Anthony’s day sort of began partly as a protest movement against a perceived ‘worldiness’ taking over the church after her alleged ‘triumph’ in the conversion of Constantine. Those who entered the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Judaea with high ideals did so because they felt that the pure, high calling of the Christian life, the pursuit of Godmanhood, had been compromised by life in the city. So they went to the Desert and did battle with demons.

But 100 years later, it seems that rot has set in. The renewal and reform movement must be renewed and reformed.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — it’s not just a motto for Protestants.

St Neilos’ initial complaint is the amount of property monks and monasteries own. From St Anthony to Evagrius and Jerome, property was to be renounced by monks, family was to be forsaken, status to be shunned. St Neilos has some wise words about status we should consider wisely today, I think.

St Neilos’ concern with status is not worldly status but ‘spiritual’ status. Too many people are becoming spiritual directors too soon. These are men who have learned with their minds the teachings of the Fathers but have not lived the ascetic life, they have not experienced and enjoyed and endured the contest and the training in the battle for the human soul, the fight for purification. When I read this, I think about this blog and realise my own inexperience. I am certainly not qualified to be a spiritual director!

After warning people from seeking out spiritual headship, Neilos discusses what to do if it falls to someone anyway:

First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples’ salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. (p. 223 English)

Later, Neilos writes:

Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more. (p. 227 English)

Now, I do not want to sound critical of contemporary spiritual directorship. But it is a different creature from what St Neilos describes. Having people take the enneagram or lead them on guided meditations inspired by St Ignatius Loyola or helping them find what spiritual gifts they have or using modern psychological analysis to help them find the wounds in their hearts that Jesus needs to cure or whatever — this is not the desert tradition of spiritual directorship by any means.

The tradition of the desert, that lives today among the Orthodox with the Russian word staretz for the spiritual elder, is about wrestling for the salvation of the disciple. It is sitting and talking to learn the disciple’s thoughts and heart and mind. It is praying. It is about obedience. It is about life lived together, life shown as example, not a half-hour sessions every fortnight to help us ‘grow’ spiritually. It is about the transformation of the human heart into the likeness of the Godman, Jesus Christ.

It is about theiosis, deification.

It is about grace, for no one is qualified for this job.

Blogging Benedict: Property

Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, a Ferengi for those who don’t know what a Ferengi is

When one enters a monastery, there is an expectation to give everything up — family, career, bank account, life insurance, land, houses, cars, boats, combs, clothes, shoes. Everything. In some of the extreme forms of religious life, such as early Franciscans and related enterprises, there was even an attempt for the community as a whole to own nothing — not even the land where there housing was located.

The biblical inspiration for this is found in several places. Here are two:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Mt 19:21 ESV)

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Lk 14:33 ESV)

The first of these inspired St Antony to abandon everything and take up the ascetic life.

Yet humans, like Ferengi, have a tendency to be greedy. You would think from some of the stories of monastic life that one of the rules of the cloister was Rule of Acquisition 21: Never place friendship above profit. John Cassian tells of monks who had abandoned everything to dwell in the desert, only to come to grief and anger over a comb.

A comb.

Greed, as Rule of Acquisition 10 says, is eternal.

Benedict is aware of the Ferengi side of humanity. Thus, the cellarer (chapter 31) is to be a man of good character who does not treat the monastery’s resources as his own. There is to be no private ownership in the monastery (chapter 33), inspired by Acts 4:32:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. (ESV)

In such a situation, you must trust God more than your material goods. What about the future? Isn’t it prudent to set a little aside? We all say, ‘Yes.’ The monks of old say, ‘No.’ I honestly don’t know.

What is certain is that Benedict is certainly correct to have grumbling over material goods a grave offense that leads to ‘strict discipline’ (chapter 34).

Somehow we need to discover in our own consumeristic world where we accumulate all manner of stuff how to hold these things lightly and break free from the acquisitive nature of society around us. We need to be Benedictine, not Ferengi, in our out look on material goods.

Lanfranc: Keep what is essential in adapting for today

The heart of seeking wisdom in the Rule of St Benedict for today is encapsulated in Lanfranc of Canterbury’s (Arcbhp of C 1070-1089) own adaptation of the Rule for eleventh-century Canterbury. Whether it is Benedict or any other of the old ascetics, this strikes the right tone:

What we have to consider with the greatest care is that what is necessary for the soul’s salvation should be safeguarded in every way: faith, that is, and contempt of the world, together with charity, chastity, humility, patience, obedience; penance for faults committed and a humble confession of them; frequent prayers; silence in fitting measure; and many other things of this kind. Where these are preserved it may truly be said that the Rule of St Benedict and the monastic life are kept, whatever variety there be in matters which have been differently ordered in different monasteries. –The Monastic Constitutions, pp. 1-2, trans. D. Knowles