15 March 2010

'You Sit Here as a Stranger'—Evagrius Ponticus


Twice now, here and here, I have posted on the life of St John Cassian the Roman. I have also posted passages from his writings—here and here—which I have deliberately linked with those of one of St Cassian’s primary teachers and sources of monastic theology, the 4th-century deacon, intellectual, and ascetic, Evagrius Ponticus the Solitary (c. 345-399). Evagrius is not a Saint, and indeed, in some of his writings he seems to have advocated some Origenist ideas that led to his condemnation at the Fifth Œcumenical Council. Columba Stewart argues that the persecution of Origenism, which famously and tragically led to the exile of another of St Cassian’s mentors, St John Chrysostom, created a climate in which St Cassian ‘felt constrained to down play his links with the Evagrian Origenism of Nitria and Kellia’. As Stewart sadly notes, ‘The impossibility of openly repaying his debt to his master must have been deeply painful to Cassian, who identified monastic tradition so closely with those who embodied it.’ [1]

For Evagrius’s ascetical, monastic writings, ‘so far from being condemned, have exercised a decisive influence upon subsequent writers’. [2] He is accorded a place in the Apophthegmata Patrum, or Gerontikon, the Lausiac History of Palladius, the Evergetinos, and the Philokalia. Stewart argues that ‘Evagrius was the single most important influence on Cassian’s monastic theology, although Cassian never mentions him by name.’ [3] Indeed, Evagrius’s monastic theology, in particular his terms and categories, have led many to ‘the conclusion that Evagrius is the chief source of the properly contemplative spirituality of the Byzantine tradition, to such an extent that its centuries old tradition should properly be described as Evagrian spirituality’. [4]

It is for these reasons that I have decided to offer a post on Evagrius’s life and person. By way of honouring St Cassian, whose feast day was two days ago, I hope to do what he could not and pay some modicum of honour to his master. I intend as well to revisit in future posts some of the controversial issues surrounding Evagrius’s teaching and influence.

Let’s begin with the biographical note composed by St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain as a preface to Evagrius’s Philokalic writings:

Wise and learned Evagrios flourished around the year 380. He was ordained a Reader by Basil the Great, and a Deacon by Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa. He was educated in sacred learning by Gregory the Theologian, and served him as Archdeacon at the time when Gregory was Patriarch of Constantinople, according to Nikephoros Kallistos (Book 11, chapter 42). Later, renouncing worldly things, he embraced the monastic life.

Being acute in intellectual perception, and very skillful in giving expression to what he grasped, he left many and varied writings. Among them are the present discourse to hesychasts and chapters concerning the discrimination of passions and thoughts. These have been included in the ‘Philokalia’ because they present to an iminent degree what is needful and profitable. [5]

But much of what was known about Evagrius by monastic authors like St Nicodemus, would have been learned from the classic text, passed down as a paradigm of monastic life: the Lausiac History of Palladius. Palladius, who knew Evagrius personally, produced an entire chapter on him which, while considerably briefer in the Lausiac History than in a closely related Coptic version, also seems to have passed through some ‘anti-Origenistic editorial pruning’. [6] For that reason, I shall largely confine my remarks to a few things about the Lavsiakon as the ‘safer’ of the two.

Palladius tells us that Evagrius was ‘of the Pontic race, of the city of Ibora, [and] son of a chorbishop’, [7] i.e., ‘a bishop of a country district in full episcopal orders, but with restricted powers’. [8] Palladius tells us that St Gregory the Theologian ordained the young Pontian having taken ‘note of his fitness’, and that during his career in Constantinople, Evagrius was ‘most skillful in confuting all the heresies . . . with youthful exuberance’. [9] But this career was not to last. Here is William Harmless’s summary of the story:

Not long after this [i.e., St Gregory’s resignation as Patriarch], Evagrius fell in love with an upper-class woman, the wife of a high imperial official. Apparently the risk of scandal was great, and, as Palladius notes, a sexual scandal would have risked the fragile hegemony of the Nicene cause in the capital city. Evagrius decided to break off the affair, but the woman was ‘by now eager and frantic’. One night he had an ominous dream. He imagined himself under military arrest, standing in chains and an iron collar. Suddenly an angel appeared and compelled him to swear on the book of the Gospels that he would leave town. When he awoke, he decided to fulfill the oath he swore in the dream vision and caught the first available ship to Jerusalem. [10]

But Evagrius’s troubles were not to end there immediately, for as Palladius writes, ‘Soon the devil hardened his heart, as in the case of Pharaoh.’ [11] In Jerusalem, the young man had become connected with the Cappadocian theologians St Melanie the Elder and Rufinus and their monastic community at the Mount of Olives. But he unwisely concealed the cause of his departure from Constantinople, and, ‘intoxicated with vainglory’, fell into a prolonged sickness. [12] According to Palladius:

9. Now when the doctors were in a quandary and could find no treatment to cure him, the blessed Melania addressed him: ‘Son, I am not pleased with your long sickness. Tell me what is in your mind, for your sickness is not beyond God’s aid.’

Then he confessed the whole story.

She told him: ‘Promise by the Lord that you mean to aim at the monastic life, and even though I am a sinner, I will pray that you be given a lease on life.’

He agreed, and was well again in a matter of days. He got up, received a change of clothing at her hands, then left and took himself to the mountain of Nitria in Egypt. [13]

Evagrius lived at Nitria for two years, beginning a lifelong diet of uncooked food and joining what Harmless calls ‘that remarkable circle of intellectual monks led by Ammonius the Earless and the Tall Brothers’, disciples of the Abba Pambo who later took refuge in Constantinople with St John Chrysostom. [14] Palladius writes that he earned his living as a calligrapher, ‘for he wrote very gracefully the Oxyrhynchus character’ [15]—‘so called because it was “sharp-snouted”’ and not because of the place name. [16]

After two years in Nitria, Evagrius ‘went off to the desert’, [17] staying for the rest of his life at Cellia, where he became a disciple of St Macarius the Great and St Macarius of Alexandria (as we shall see, a matter of irony). According to the historian, Socrates Sozomen, ‘Evagrius became a disciple of these men and acquired from them the philosophy of deeds, whereas before he knew only a philosophy of words.’ [18] In the case of St Macarius the Great, this involved ‘the dangerous trek from Kellia to Scetis’. [19] It seems to have payed off. According to the Coptic Life, Evagrius spent his time alone thusly:

14 With regard to sleep, he followed a rule: he would sleep a third of the night, but during the day he would not sleep at all. He had a courtyard where he would spend the middle part of each day walking, driving away sleep from himself, training his intellect to examine his thoughts systematically. When he had finished sleeping a third of the night, he would spend the rest of the night walking in the courtyard, meditating [meaning ‘to quietly utter on one’s lips the words of Scripture’] and praying, driving sleep away from himself, training his intellect to reflect on the meaning of the Scriptures. [20]

It is not surprising then that we read in the Lausiac History, ‘Within fifteen years he had so purified his mind that he was deemed worthy of the gift of knowledge and wisdom and the discernment of spirits.’ [21] Consequently, Evagrius himself eventually became recognised as a teacher of the monastic life. According to the Coptic Life:

17 This was his practice: The brothers would gather around him on Saturday and Sunday, discussing their thoughts with him throughout the night, listening to his words of encouragement until sunrise. And thus they would leave rejoicing and glorifying God, for Evagrius’ teaching was very sweet. When they came to see him, he encouraged them, saying to them, ‘My brothers, if one of you has either a profound or a troubled thought, let him be silent until the brothers depart and let him reflect on it alone with me. Let us not make him speak in front of the brothers lest a little one perish on account of his thoughts and grief swallow him at a gulp.’

18 Furthermore, he was so hospitable that his cell never lacked five or six visitors a day who had come from foreign lands to listen to his teaching, his intellect, and his ascetic practice. [22]

Interestingly, the demons of fornication and concupiscence continued to plague Evagrius throughout much of his life. Palladius writes of his time at Cellia, ‘The demon of fornication bothered him so oppressively, as he himself told us, that he stood naked throughout the night in a well.’ [23] Finally we read, ‘Near the time of his death he said: “This is the third year that I am not tormented by carnal desires”—this after a life of such toil and labor and continual prayer!’ [24] Evagrius reposed ‘after having communicated in the church at Epiphany’. [25]

Whatever we may conclude for now about his Origenism, on the basis of the history of honour accorded to Evagrius’s own person and his more practical writings I think Bamberger is at least partly right to refer to his ‘personal sanctity and good faith’. [26] As one last piece of evidence in his favour, and to begin drawing this post to a conclusion, I would cite the last of the apophthegmata under Evagrius’s name in the Gerontikon:

7. One day at the Cells, there was an assembly about some matter or other and Abba Evagrius held forth. Then the priest said to him, ‘Abba, we know that if you were living in your own country you would probably be a bishop and a great leader; but at present you sit here as a stranger.’ He was filled with compunction, but was not at all upset and bending his head he replied, ‘I have spoken once and will not answer, twice but I will proceed no further’ (Job 40.5). [27]

Concerning this story, Harmless observes that one can read it in several ways. He writes:

At one level, it lays bare what Evagrius’s choice of the desert had cost him: home, ecclesiastical honors, even the right to the public voice normally accorded the educated. In this sense, it is a telling demonstration of Evagrius’s humility—likely the reason it appears in the Apophthegmata.

But it can also be read as a foreshadowing of what was to come: while Evagrius accepted Egypt, Egypt did not accept Evagrius. In 399, on the feast of the Epiphany, Evagrius was near death. He had to be carried to church to receive the Eucharist and died soon after. He was fifty-five—comparatively young, given the long lives that desert literature normally accords its leaders. That year, the patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, embarked on a ruthless persecution against Evagrius’s friends and disciples. They were accused of Origenism and force to flee Egypt. Death spared Evagrius the bitter experience of exile and condemnation. [28]


[1] Columba Stewart, OSB, Cassian the Monk (NY: Oxford, 1998), p. 12.

[2] The Philokalia, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), p. 29.

[3] Stewart, p. 11.

[4] John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, ‘Introduction’, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, by Evagrius Ponticus, tr. John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1981), p. xxxii.

[5] St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, ‘Brief Biography of Evagrios the Monk’, The Philokalia, tr. Constantine Cavarnos (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine & Modern Greek Studies, 2008), p. 121.

[6] Tim Vivian, tr., with Rowan A. Greer, Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, & Macarius of Alexandria—Coptic Texts Relating to the Lausiac History of Palladius (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2004), p. 69.

[7] Palladius, The Lausiac History, tr. Robert T. Meyer, No. 34 in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation (NY: Paulist, 1964), p. 110. Bamberger points out that this is very close to St Basil’s family estate at Annesi, where the latter had pursued the ascetic life for a while (Bamberger, p. xxxvi).

[8] Palladius, p. 200, n. 340.

[9] Ibid., p. 111.

[10] William Harmless, SJ, Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford U, 2004), p. 313.

[11] Palladius, p. 112.

[12] Ibid., p. 112.

[13] Ibid., pp. 112-3.

[14] Harmless, p. 314.

[15] Palladius, p. 113.

[16] Ibid., p. 201, n. 350.

[17] Ibid., p. 113.

[18] Qtd. in Harmless, p. 315.

[19] Ibid., p. 315.

[20] Vivian, pp. 81-2.

[21] Palladius, p. 113.

[22] Vivian, pp. 83-4.

[23] Palladius, p. 113.

[24] Ibid., p. 114.

[25] Ibid., p. 114.

[26] Bamberger, p. lxxxi.

[27] Benedicta Ward, SLG, tr., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984), p. 64.

[28] Harmless, p. 316.

4 comments:

Benjamin Ekman said...

that's a lovely image! where is it from?

aaronandbrighid said...

The Greek iconographer Giorgos Kordes. I recently scanned a bunch prints of his icons of Philokalia authors, and have already used them for the posts on St Peter Damascene and St Cassian.

The Rev. Susan Creighton said...

I do appreciate your entry on Evagrius. For other of your readers who might be interested in his teaching, I highly recommend the work of Fr. Theophanes (Constantine), titled "The Psychological Basis of Mental Prayer in the Heart". His second volume of this work is "The Evagrian Ascetical System", although I urge any readers to read both Vol. 1, "The Orthodox Doctrine of the Person" and Vol. 3, "Hesychian Sobriety." Fr. Theophanes does an absolutely masterful job of analysis and comnmentary, and his work is utterly essential for anyone practicing the Prayer of the Heart.

His work is available online at http://timiosprodromos.blogspot.com/

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for this, Susan. I'd never heard of Fr Theophanes or his work, but I intend to explore it more in depth.

For anyone else who does not know, Fr Theophanes is a Greek-Canadian who was tonsured at Simonopetra in 1990, and now lives in a kelli at Kafsokalyvia. There is an interview with him, which I plan to listen to, at the website of the Institute for Orthdoox Christian Studies, Cambridge.