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)

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).

Evagrius, Avarice, and Us

So, although I’ve fallen off the Read the Fathers cart (but hope to hop on again soon!), I’m still very much in the world of the Fathers. And since Thursday, I’ve returned a few times to the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were my entry point into the patristic landscape of theology and spirituality.

This morning, over tea and toast, I read Evagrius Ponticus’ brief treatise ‘[To Eulogios.] On the Vices Opposed to the Virtues’, in Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus (a translation of all the extant Greek versions of Evagrius’ ascetic writings). Herein Evagrius has some good things to say about anger, and I’ll probably blog on them soon.

But what caught my eye was ch. 3, ‘Avarice and freedom from possessions’:

Avarice is the parsimony of idols, the prophecy of the crowd, a vote for stinginess, a hoarding mentality, a wealth of captivity, a race of injustice, an abundance of illnesses, a diviner of many years, an enchanter for industriousness, a counsellor of sleeplessness, poverty of the belly, meagreness of foods, insatiable madness, a wickedness of many cares.

Freedom from possessions is the uprooting of avarice and the rooting of freedom from it, a fruit of love and a cross of life, a life free of suffering, a treasure free of envy, a heaven free of care, a sun without distraction, immeasurable matter, incomprehensible wealth, a scythe for cares, the practice of the Gospels, the world readily abandoned, a fast-running contestant. (PG 79.1141D; p. 63 in English)

I think every culture and every age is susceptible to certain of the Eight Thoughts* more than others, although all of us are beset by all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Today, we are hounded and beset on all sides by avarice — greed — in the ‘West’.

Many of us will not think that we are. But just as Cassian has thrown aside the veil covering our gluttony, so Evagrius here removes the mask of generousness that hides our avarice. Do you have ‘a hoarding mentality’? Does your desire for possessions or for money lead to injustice (whether directly by you or indirectly by companies and corporations)? Are you industriousness at work not for a job well done but a pay check well fattened? Do you worry about the fate of your earthly possessions — whether iTunes won’t allow you to pass your music on to your son or whether thieves will break in and steal?

Avarice is an attitude of the heart. When we are not free to give away our things or spend our money generously or give to the poor or loan things; when we feel a need to own that which we could as easily borrow — whether from a library or a friend; when we neglect other duties to make more cash; when we not only have an abundance but do not share that abundance with others; when we are never willing to open our homes up to friends and neighbours — we exhibit symptoms of avarice.

And the cure for avarice? Simplicity. As we shall see later.

*Although in this text, Evagrius gives us nine, adding Jealousy between Vainglory and Pride.