History of Christianity video 2: Late Ancient Christianty, 300-600

Here’s my second History of Christianity video, covering the years 300-600. I had hoped to create a handout this week. As yet, no such luck. Maybe later today if other things go well…

In this week’s instalment of the history of Christianity, we look at the years 300-600. Sticking to our themes of spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity, we look at three topics:

  1. Christianisation of the Roman Empire
  2. Monasticism from Egypt to St Benedict
  3. Christianity outside the Roman Empire

If this were a university course, I would assign the following readings (all available online):

Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Bk 1, chh. 26-32

Athanasius, Life of St Antony

St Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries, Prologue

Agathangelos, History, Book 3

Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, pp. 152-159, 174-183, and 192-212.

Further Ancient Sources

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1975.

John Cassian, The Conferences. The quotation is from Conference 10, ch. 7

Further Modern Sources

Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome. Oxford, 2011.

Henry Chadwick and G. R. Evans, Atlas of the Christian Church. Oxford, 1987.

J Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity. 2009. -Available if you have a Scribd subscription.

Worldview and lifestyle: What do you really believe?

Every once in a while I try to think about the connections between the different aspects of classic Christianity I blog about — between theology and spiritual disciplines, usually, although sometimes between different aspects of theology. One of the common teachings we find in books about worldview is that our worldview shapes how we live.

If this is true, most of us are atheists, materialists, and deniers of hell.

In the last point, I think David Bentley Hart once pointed out that if other Christians really believed in the hell of everlasting punishment that they profess, they wouldn’t waste any of their time, would they? Wouldn’t Hart’s intellectual opponents be out on the street preaching, giving away their money to mission work, turning conversations to evangelism, that as many would be saved as possible?

But most Christians don’t live like that, don’t live with any urgency that hell is an immediate possibility for ourselves and our neighbours.

In his cutting book, The Golden Cow, John White (author of the children’s fantasy The Tower of Geburah as well as several non-fiction Christian books for adults) says there are two kinds of materialist. There are the secular materialists who say that matter is all that is. And there are those who say that matter is all that matters. Many evangelical Christians, he contends, fall into this second category. We live the same lives as our neighbours. We strive for more money, for more comfort, etc., etc.

For most of daily life, most of us are what I’ve heard called “practical atheists”. We do not live as though the God of the Universe indwells us, as though any insignificant event may actually have eternal significance. We hardly set aside time for prayer. When we make non-moral decisions, we usually simply choose what is easiest or what we like best, not what is most spiritually beneficial. That latter may require discernment — but how many of us even try to discern anything in our lives?

So, if worldview impacts lifestyle, most of us don’t really believe Gospel, do we?

I, myself, attach my mind quite easily to high ideals. Nevertheless, having read Cassian and Jeremy Taylor about gluttony, I still sat down the other day and drank a bottle of sugary pop and ate 125 g of gummy candies. High ideals are nice unless I actually have to change how I live, right?

My main problems are probably acedia — listless despondency — and not even wanting this enough. That is to say, when it actually comes upon me that I should make some sort of decision for spiritual discipline rather than ease, acedia comes upon me. I feel tired. I feel soooo weary so much of the time. I do not wish to add another burden. So prayer, Scripture reading, disciplined eating …. these are set aside. Just for now. Don’t worry — I’ll do it tomorrow.

Some people say a Rule of Life is a cure for this. (Obviously besides the Holy Spirit seizing us.) Maybe that. Probably also community and spiritual friendship.

I’m thinking about how to make a Rule of Life, so maybe you’ll hear from me on that before too long.

What do you think? How can we cure our practical atheism in comfortable western Christianity?

The professionalisation of asceticism in late antiquity

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

In a couple, or a few, weeks I am going to be giving some online seminars about church history for my churches. I’ll make sure this blog is kept informed. The theme tying together the seminars will be spiritual disciplines and the expansion of Christianity. At the same time, I am attempting to forge a book about St Benedict’s Rule. As these two forces collide in my mind, I can’t help but think about the history of monasticism and its relationship to the ante-Nicene church.

And its relationship to non-monastic followers of Jesus — this post could just as easily be the appropriation of discipleship by monks in the Later Roman Empire.

John Cassian gives an account of the origins of monasticism that, although historically worthless as Columba Stewart notes in Cassian the Monk, is nevertheless of interest when we consider the definition of a monk and of asceticism — for this is how Greg Peters uses it in The Monkhood of All Believers — and, from there, the actual origins of the Christian ascetic tradition.

According to Cassian, the first Christians were cenobitic monks — that is, monks who lived in community with shared property — citing Acts 2 as his evidence. And this Acts 2 parallel will continue to be used in descriptions of the monastic ideal for much of the western ascetic tradition. But, sighs Cassian, this didn’t last. As more people converted, things got lax. It was up to the fourth-century monks to bring discipline, true asceticism, back.

Except, of course, when they did it, asceticism was appropriated by a distinct set of Christians who lived lives set apart from the increasingly Christianised population of the Roman Empire (and its successor states as well as easterly neighbours — the non-monk ascetic Ephraim the Syrian finds himself portrayed as a monk in later Syriac literature; East Syrian monasticism is its own flourishing form of asceticism in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages).

Cassian is right that the primitive church was essentially ascetic, although we may quibble about calling them monks. This is the contention of David Bentley Hart in the notes surrounding his translation of the New Testament. Hart believes that the New Testament authors actually expect members of the Christian community to abandon all of their possessions and lead lives of simplicity and prayer (in a nutshell; I’ve not read his notes, only about them — I may have details wrong). However far that may actually go, it is certainly the case that simplicity is certainly a mark of the apostolic lifestyle, and many Christians did abandon all to gain everything (St Clare’s laudable exchange).

Other early Christian literature bears witness to an ascetic, even rigorist, ideal. I do not recall all of the details, but the Didache expects Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and to pray three times a day. The Apostolic Tradition seems to expect members of the community to pray all seven canonical hours and to attend teaching at church before work when it is available.

Clement of Alexandria, who comes between Didache and Apostolic Tradition, believed in the simple life: simple food, simple dress, not owning fancy dishes and furniture. Eat in moderation. Study the Scriptures. Pray. These are a few of Clement’s recommendations; he believes in training, askesis, of the body and mind to be able to ascend to apatheia and in the state of dispassion to encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Other figures have expectations for Christian living surrounding food, dress, personal property, and prayer, that we today would consider ascetic, such as Tertullian and Origen. These expectations are coupled in Origen with a belief that a contemplative life and meditation on Scripture can help us enter the Cloud of Unknowing and encounter the impassible God.

To what extent these ante-Nicene ascetics represent mainstream Christianity is hard to say. Well, they represent mainstream thinking. How most Christians lived for most of history is actually hard to judge. But this strand of thought is taken up by Antony and his associates and soon becomes the preserve for a special, higher class of Christian: the monk.

The monk, for these purposes, is the professional ascetic who goes above and beyond the requirements of the “normal” Christian. He or she is single-minded in devotion to God and does special things for Him. The rest of us simply have to go to church and follow the Ten Commandments — or whatever else emerges from the systems created by institutionalised Christianity.

But the idea that we are all called to fast (truly fast, not simply abstain from certain foods), to pray the canonical hours, to give away unnecessary possessions, to be single-minded in our pursuit of God — this is lost. We non-monastic lay people are there for moral instruction, not ascetic labour.

This is perhaps a gross oversimplification, but I believe something along these lines happened to Christian discipleship in Late Antiquity, within the Empire as well as outside it, and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Christology and Ascetic Theology

From 428 to 431, the Bishop of Constantinople was a man named Nestorius who got the heresy “Nestorianism” named after him. To what degree Nestorius was actually “Nestorian” is immaterial for what follows. When I look at the literature surrounding this controversy, three anti-Nestorians stand out in particular: St John Cassian, St Mark the Monk, and St Shenoute of Atripe. Although my actual research into their anti-Nestorian tractates remains to be done, their existence serves as the inspiration for this post, for all three of these opponents of Nestorianism are much more famous as ascetic writers than as theologians.

What is the relationship between ascetic theology and Christology? It is easy enough to see how a monk might object to either Pelagianism or Augustinianism. But what about Christology?

Sound Christology, I believe, lies at the heart of ascetic theology, and therefore of ascetic practice. We have to recall the purpose of the ascetic life, whether lived by a hermit, a monk in community, or the devout Christian today: participation in the life of Christ and an encounter with God, the Most Holy Trinity. In Eastern terms — and all three of the aforementioned monks had their faith nourished in the sands of Egypt — it is theosis, in the beautiful passage from Cassian I keep linking back to.

Asceticism is not just about cultivating a pure heart; seeking purity of heart or apatheia or hesychia is simply … getting the house ready for meeting with God.

Nestorian Christology undermines this. Nestorianism (again, not necessarily Nestorius himself) teaches that Jesus Christ exists as two persons, one human and one divine.

It turns out that the Protestant Reformation has something to say here. One aspect of English Reformation thought I have encountered in the last year (first in Oliver O’Donovan’s On the Thirty-Nine Articles) is the idea that from eternity, God’s good pleasure upon us, upon the elect, is a direct result of God the Father’s loving embrace of God the Son. We are mystically united to Christ through baptism and Eucharist; we are His mystical body. Thus joined to Him, when God the Father looks at love upon God the Son, he looks upon the Church as well.

I have probably expressed that poorly and without full justice to the idea. But that’s how I grasp it, anyway.

In the past month or so, I have been spending time with Richard Hooker and his contemporary interpreters. For Hooker, Chalcedonian Christology was part of the necessary apparatus of our sanctification and union with God, as Ranall Ingalls discusses in a book chapter about Sin and Grace in Hooker. Recall the Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith (which I have translated here), that Jesus Christ exists in two natures but as a single person, without separation and without mixture/confusion. One of the theological results of the explication and elaboration of Chalcedonian Christology is the adoption within Chalcedonian circles (that is, Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox) of St Cyril of Alexandria’s concept of the communicatio idiomatum (I’ve written about this before and also here) — what can be said of Christ as God is also said of Christ as man. Richard Hooker makes a clear articulation of this doctrine in Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.53.3.

An outworking of Chalcedonian Christology in Richard Hooker, then, is that we are able to be united to God the Holy Trinity through the human nature of Christ, fully united to his divine nature to that full extent laid out in the communicatio idiomatum (implied by his teaching at Laws V.50.3. Thus we read (I modernise the spelling):

Christ is whole with the whole Church, and whole with every part of the Church, as touching his person which can no way divide itself or be possessed by degrees and portions. But the participation of Christ imports, besides the presence of Christ’s person, and besides the mystical copulation [union] thereof with the parts and members of his whole Church, a true actual influence of grace whereby the life which we live according to godliness is his, and from him we receive those perfections wherein our eternal happiness consists. Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are imputed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. -Laws V.56.10, quoted in Ingalls, p. 174

The -ism associated with Nestorius, by breaking the indissoluble unity of the communicatio idiomatum makes this impossible. The union of two persons is not full enough a union to allow for theiosis, essentially. The hypostatic union — which is to say, union according to person — of the reigning Christ, bringing together the fullness of humanity and divinity as one is what allows the end goal of asceticism. If the humanity and divinity are not fully united according to hypostasis, according to person, then the fullness of the human has not been drawn upward into the Godhead.

Therefore, we cannot be united to Christ our God through ascetic effort, maybe not even through pure grace. After all, as St Gregory of Nazianzus said, what has not been assumed has not been healed. The hypostatic union is the result of the full assumption of humanity by God the Word.

This is the entire theological — true theology, true thinking upon and contemplation God Himself — basis of mysticism, and things mystical are the entire point of asceticism. We wish to be pure of heart so that we may see God.

Nestorianism makes sitting on a pillar, praying all night, fasting, wearing uncomfortable clothing, watching one’s thoughts carefully, eating plain food, getting rid of earthly possessions meaningless. It is just ethics, not a pathway to God.

No wonder the monks reject the teaching associated with Nestorius.

What it’s all about

The point of the Collect for Purity, the end point of justification by faith, sanctification by whatever means necessary, of the means of grace, of any ascetic life or holy living, is not merely “to be good.” The end point — the telos — of all this God himself. Reading about Richard Hooker, reading The Cloud of Unknowing, thinking about historic asceticism — in all of it I need to keep this in mind.

It is expressed most beautifully by John Cassian, Conference 10.7:

And this will come to pass when God shall be all our love, and every desire and wish and effort, every thought of ours, and all our life and words and breath, and that unity which already exists between the Father and the Son, and the Son and the Father, has been shed abroad in our hearts and minds, so that as He loves us with a pure and unfeigned and indissoluble love, so we also may be joined to Him by a lasting and inseparable affection, since we are so united to Him that whatever we breathe or think, or speak is God, since, as I say, we attain to that end of which we spoke before, which the same Lord in His prayer hopes may be fulfilled in us: that they all may be one as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they also may be made perfect in one; and again: Father, those whom You have given Me, I will that where I am, they may also be with Me. (John 17:22-24)

(The Orthodox call it theosis.)

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.

St John Cassian

Yesterday (leap day, of all days in the calendar!) was the feast of John Cassian, monastic founder and one of the ascetic fathers of Latin Christianity. Clearly, though, he has something of a mixed reputation to get a feast that comes only once every four years!

Cassian’s reputation is marred by the predestination controversy, in which the Augustinians in Gaul (modern France) were so particular and powerful that an anti-Pelagian such as Cassian could still come under suspicion and find himself labelled “semi-Pelagian”. Cassian’s teaching on this subject is found in his thirteenth Conference. What we find there has been called by one scholar “semi-Augustinian” rather than semi-Pelagian. Vladimir Lossky, in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church says that what Cassian writes here is essentially Eastern in spirit, which is no surprise, since Cassian is from the Balkans, lived as a monk in Bethlehem, toured Egypt’s monasteries for about ten years, and spent time with John Chrysostom in Constantinople before moving West.

But Cassian, despite this label, despite so inauspicious a feast day, has had an enduring influence on Western asceticism and mysticism, from St Benedict to Steve Bell. Besides a couple of obvious references in Benedict, if you look through the commentary on the Rule by Georg Holzherr, you will find many passages inspired or paralleled by Cassian.

Indeed, Cassian is one of the great ascetic fathers of the Latin church — hundreds of copies of his main works, the Institutes and Conferences, exist. His teaching about the inner life has found eager readers in every generation. What is the telos (end) of the monastic life? The Kingdom of Heaven. What is the skopos (goal)? Purity of heart. Aim for purity of heart, and you will find the Kingdom of heaven. This wisdom is not just monastic but for all Christians, is it not?

His teaching on discretion is a reminder that true Christian asceticism at its best is not typified by standing on a pillar, tying a chain around your waist, wearing iron underwear, or mortifying the flesh to such extremes that you become ill. It is typified, in Cassian as elsewhere, by the words of Sergei Bulgakov, ‘Discipline the flesh that you may gain a body.’ It is what Kallistos Ware calls ‘natural asceticism’.

Conference 10 on prayer is a classic treatise on the subject — and the reason we say, ‘O God, make speed to save us. / O Lord, make haste to help us,’ at the start of the daily office!

It has been a long time since I read all of Cassian in full; in recent years, I have only whetted my appetite with the selections in The Philokalia, Vol. 1. There is a lot of wisdom, as I recall; I’ve blogged about it here. Clearly, being unpopular in your teaching about predestination is not enough to keep you from being read and digested for centuries. In fact, Lossky says that Cassian’s popularity results in St Bernard’s views on grace and freewill being more like the Eastern Church’s than the predominantly Augustinian West (take that for what it’s worth, though; I am skeptical about Lossky because of his misunderstandings of Aquinas on the Trinity).

I am going to be revisiting Cassian in greater depth soon. I think, though, that he is precisely the sort of guide to Christian “spirituality” we need in this age — an ascetic master esteemed in both the Latin and Greek churches who was not fully engulfed by either side of the predestination debate who sought purity of heart for the purpose of finding the Kingdom of Heaven.

As the empires and kingdoms of the human race descend into madness, that is the true Kingdom we all need.

Revivifying the tradition

One of the main thrusts of Gabriel Bunge’s book about patristic prayer, Earthen Vessels, is to drive Christians today back to the tradition and its fountainheads for our guidance on prayer. He believes that our faith fails in the West so often because our praxis of the faith — by which he means things spiritual, not naked activism — does not align with our doctrines. (NB: He wrote this while still a Roman Catholic member of the Order of St Benedict.)

What we need, then, are reliable guides to the ancient paths of prayer so that we can walk the Way that is Jesus in a manner compatible with the theology of the ancient faith we profess.

I noted in my post ‘Where do we find our mystics in Protestantism?‘ that most of us, especially from within evangelical communities, end up going it alone. Indeed, we lack that living tradition of the contemplative life found in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In that post, however, I did mention James Houston of Regent College here in Vancouver.

Perhaps this tradition is starting to return to us.

This morning at church, the Houston effect was felt as a Regent student gave a wonderful sermon all about how to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17). My own slightly tangential thoughts about Evagrius, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, The Way of a Pilgrim, and St Athanasius suddenly coalesced when the sermon began discussing a course the preacher had taken at Regent all about prayer, and how one of the pathways of prayer they learned was John Cassian’s invocation of repeating Psalm 70:1 over and over:

O God, make speed to save me / O Lord, make haste to help me. (BCP translation)

I’ve written on Cassian here a lot over the years, although I cannot seem to find a post devoted to this verse specifically. It matters little, I suppose.

Anyway, we were given some of Cassian’s own wisdom as well as the preacher’s own experience of putting into practice this ‘arrow prayer’.

I am encouraged beyond a reminder for my own self (a practitioner of the Jesus Prayer) but also for this wider world of Christian ‘spirituality’: Regent is teaching this sort of thing to its students. Regent is well-respected in the evangelical and academic worlds, both (as much as any evangelical seminary can manage both). And Regent students are sharing this wisdom in congregations.

This is tradition coming back to life!

John Cassian was himself, as has been demonstrated variously, a disciple of the great spiritual master, Evagrius Ponticus, who was a disciple of Gregory of Nazianzus before coming to Egypt, and then of the two Macarii (of Alexandria and the Great) when in the Egyptian desert. The full story of the mediaeval reception of Cassian is not germane today, though.

For Protestants, much of that reception gets cut off in the 1500s.

Nonetheless, we have editions and translations of Cassian’s works.

And so people like Steve Bell come to Regent College, equipped by the good work of (I do hope) Boniface Ramsey’s translation and share the riches of ancient ascetic wisdom to evangelical Christians. And suddenly, a roomful of people is plugged back in.

What we need, though, are the living people beyond well-known Manitoban virtuoso guitarists who prevent Cassian from being relegated to the Reserve shelf at Regent and who themselves take up Cassian’s wisdom and become, to cite the title of a book by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer.

The flowering of spiritual disciplines and the rebirth of these traditions may be taking longer than Richard Foster may have thought when he wrote Celebration of Discipline over two decades ago. But more and more people, whether the folks who preach at my church or Ken Shigematsu over at Tenth, or people beyond Vancouver, are reentering these ancient traditions and revivifying them.

That’s good. (Even if it’s not as full-on as Bunge would like.)

To close, here’s Steve Bell doing Psalm 70:1:

Acedia and raising children

Acedia, by Hieronymous Bosch

Today, six months of sleep deprivation got the better of me and I slept through most of the sermon. One of the few notes I wrote was unrelated to what was going on in front of me, but instead what was going on inside of me. I wrote:

ἀκηδία has taken hold

Latinised as accidia or acedia, this is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, often translated as sloth. It is not laziness, but, rather, dejection as Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translate it in the Philokalia, or despondency as in the English title of Gabriel Bunge’s book on the subject, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius of Pontus on Acedia. Here’s one of a few good posts by Fr Aidan Kimel on Bunge’s book. The pastor at my church calls it spiritual apathy.

In his text, ‘On Discrimination’ (part of The Philokalia), Evagrius Ponticus writes:

All the demons teach the soul to love pleasure; only the demon of dejection refrains from doing this, since he corrupts the thoughts of those he enters by cutting off every pleasure of the soul and drying it up through dejection, for ‘the bones of the dejected are dried up’ (Prov. 17:22 LXX). (ch. 11)

Cassian, the student of Evagrius who brought the riches of Evagrian asceticism to the Latin West, writes:

the demon of dejection … obscures the soul’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and keeps it from all good works. When this malicious demon seizes our soul and darkens it completely, he prevents us from praying gladly, from reading Holy Scripture with profit and perseverance, and from being gentle and compassionate towards our brethren. He instils a hatred of every kind of work and even of the monastic profession itself. Undermining all the sou’s salutary resolutions, weakening its persistence and constancy, he leaves it senseless and paralysed, tied and bound by its despairing thoughts. (From The Philokalia, Vol. 1, ‘On the Eight Vices’, which is a Greek translation of selections from Institutes 5-12)

Acedia is called the noonday demon. Imagine being a monk in the Egyptian desert. If that seems impossible, imagine being a monk in a Toronto heat wave. When else is such dejection more likely to come upon you?

Well, one other time it is likely to come upon you is when you are sleep-deprived because of your 6-month-old up in the night, combined with a toddler who gets up at 6 AM, on a day when you have been baked in the sun pushing the stroller to church and had the toddler reject a perfectly good snack on heaven-knows-what grounds, and you find yourself just wanting to take your introverted self away somewhere, but there is nowhere to go, and church just seems too much.

But you have to stay.

Your kid is in the toddler room.

Leaving church would be like using it as a daycare, wouldn’t it?

So I sat and sang the songs. I did not stand. I slept through most of the sermon. And I fled the church with my son as soon as I could.

Now, my elder son may have been an acedia trigger today, but part of the overshadowing of despondency in that pew is the rest of this life. The lack of work for September and the slowly drying prospects of work in my own field. The general spiritual weariness of anyone fool enough to consider his’erself Anglican. Not knowing where we’ll live in September. Not feeling that excited about my research. Feeling uncertain about this blog (that one being the least of my wearies).

So much. More than that, really.

But when your kid is Sunday school, and the noontide demon tempts you to just run away, you force yourself to stay at least for appearances, maybe with a tiny bit of hope that the Blessed Sacrament is what you believe it is and can do what you say it can do.

In other situations, you simply cannot run away at all. I could have decided not to maintain face and gone on a walk until the end of church. Maybe no one would even have known! But when acedia tempts you to just give up at other times, the toddler won’t let you. You will build the fort in his room. You will play with water on the porch. You will read a book seven times in a row.

And sometimes, you even like it. (Honestly, sometimes you still don’t. And sometimes you fall asleep reading to the poor creature.)

So the relationship between children and acedia is complicated. They can help cause it. They can help cure it.

Evagrius and Scripture

I am revisiting my decade-old work on St John Cassian’s reception of Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399) in his demonology. One false conclusion I drew then was that Cassian had a stronger commitment, or a higher view, of Scripture than Evagrius, explaining some of their differences. As soon as I saw that I had written that, I knew it was not true.

I just need to demonstrate it.

I also think that, if more Protestants, especially evangelical ones, are to read the monastic fathers, then understanding the monastic and patristic use of, regard for, and theology of Scripture is critical.

One of the first places to look for Evagrius’ view of the Bible is Evagrius’ Antirrhetikos, translated by David Brakke as Talking Back, a book I did not have access to 10 years ago. This handbook for battle with demons and their temptations is a topical arrangement of 498 passages of Scripture for the monk to familiarise himself with to be able to readily pull out ‘the weapons of the spirit’ (Prol. 5) when attacked.

The existence of the Antirrhetikos alone should tell us that Evagrius thinks highly of Scripture. It is the chief weapon of the monk as he fights.

The letter Evagrius wrote to Lucius (rendered ‘Loukios’ by Brakke; Epistle 4) in response to the request for the Antirrhetikos gives some detail. Chapter 5 says:

And so everyone who has enlisted in this army must request discernment from the Lord without neglecting the things that contribute to the reception of this gift, which are, to speak in outline, self-control, gentleness, keeping vigil, withdrawal, and frequent prayers, which are supported by reading the divine Scriptures — for nothing is as conducive to pure prayer as reading. Ascetic practice cuts off the passions by destroying desire, sadness, and anger, but the reading that follows it [ascetic practice] removes even love for the representations by transferring it to the formless, divine, and simple knowledge … (my emphasis)

The references to ‘reading’ in the passage should, I hope, be clearly seen as references to reading the Bible. Pure prayer is what monks aim for, and reading the Bible is the best way to get there. What he implies here, and states more clearly in the Kephalaia Gnostica (‘Gnostic Chapters’) is that the goal of pure prayer is the contemplation of the Most Holy Trinity.

Reading the Bible, then, is a short-cut for progress in both the ascetic and contemplative aspects of the disciplined life.

In the Prologue, Evagrius equates the words of Scripture with Christ Himself. We meet Him in the Bible.

In sum, based upon this work, Evagrius has a high view of Scripture, and he also, if you will, puts Scripture in its place. God gave us the Bible for us to get to know Him. Therefore, we read the Bible not simply to gain knowledge about the Bible but as a pathway to encountering God. What matters more than Bible study is knowing God, who is encountered through both prayer and Scripture.

Finally, this is important because Evagrius’s reputation has suffered due to some aspects of his speculative theology as outlined in the aforementioned Kephalaia Gnostica. It is important, then, as we unearth and retrieve the teachings of Evagrius, that we come to understand the place of the Bible on this ascetic master who was so influential — despite his condemnation — on both Eastern and Western Christian asceticism.