Introduction to Evagrius for Monastic Formation Today

Rev. Dr. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB

I have given you an outline of what I hope to speak about today.  When Sister Miriam Claire asked me to come to speak to you, she asked if I would speak about some aspect of St. Basil’s monasticism.  But I thought you probably know more about that than I do.  It didn’t seem right for me to address a topic that I was not deeply grounded in.  So I asked her if I could speak about somebody who St. Basil very much influenced and who has been very much important in monastic tradition – Evagrius Ponticus. Mine is not a scholarly presentation of this important monastic figure.  The time and the setting do not allow for it.  But I do hope to speak of him in a way that helps you see his importance for our monastic life today.

Evagrius was born in Cappadocia in the year 354.  When he was a young man, perhaps about 15 years old, his father entrusted him to Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, for his education in philosophy and religion.  The relationship between them was very close, and Basil ordained him a lector in the Caesarean clergy when he was about 30 years old.

Shortly after that, Basil died and his death left Evagrius without the guide that was so important to him.  He went with St. Basil’s great friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, to the city of Constantinople for the several years that St. Gregory was in Constantinople, particularly important as a theological help to him during the Council of Constantinople in 381.  As you know, that Council was critical for its definition of Trinitarian theology, and Evagrius would have certainly been very much imbued with the so called “Cappadocian” solution to the Trinitarian controversies of the time. As you probably know, St. Gregory Nazianzus was very frustrated as the Archbishop of Constantinople and left the city shortly after the Council, leaving Evagrius there without any further guide or reference.

He eventually went to Jerusalem where he tried to become a monk in the monastery of Rufinus and Melania on the Mount of Olives.  His monastic conversion was not an easy one for him.  We don’t have time to go into details, but what is interesting about Evagrius as a person, is how difficult it was for him in the beginning to be faithful to the monastic life.  He loved the life of the city.  He loved the life of Constantinople and he loved the life of Jerusalem. It would seem that the monastery in Jerusalem was too close to the city for him to remain undistracted by it.

So he was advised by Melania to go to the more radical version of monastic life that could be found in the deserts of Egypt. In Egypt there were different monastic traditions already developed, and Evagrius went among the monks who would have been open to the thinking developed especially under the influence of Origen, whom Evagrius would have learned to admire through Basil and Gregory.  In the desert of Egypt, Evagrius makes himself a disciple of some of the greatest monastic fathers of Egypt, most notably, Marcarius the Great and Marcarius of Alexandria.  So after some years in the desert, Evagrius began to write this monastic tradition that he learnt there, and, hence, he is the first major writer of Egyptian monastic tradition.

What Evagrius brought to that monastic tradition was the profound theological background that he had learned from Basil and Gregory, as well as their own preoccupation with the importance of the Holy Trinity in the spiritual life.  I would describe Evagrius and his writings as a combination of Cappadocian Trinitarian Theology and Egyptian ascetical life.

I have prepared an outline for you that I hope can summarize the main themes of Evagrius’ theology. I will go through that outline with you, only saying a few things about each point. At the end I copied a text for you where Evagrius cites St. Basil, and it is a very beautiful text in which a great deal of Evagrius’ theology is summarized and attributed to St. Basil.  So at least in that way I will be honoring Sr. Miriam Claire’s request that I speak about St. Basil.

Let’s look at the first point – what I would call the value of Evagrius in Monastic Formation.  The first is that these teachings give a monastic conception of the spiritual life and its various stages.  He gives us detailed information about what we would call the interior life and the many different dimensions of the interior life. In doing this he is, as I said, putting in writing for the first time the tradition and wisdom that the monks of Egypt had already developed before him.

The second point is that we have in Evagrius a guide for finding in the Scriptures very useful remedies for the onslaught of demons.  I will say more about that later.

The third contribution is what I call eliciting and increasing a desire for knowledge of the Trinity and showing a way to make progress toward this by means of Christ, the incarnate Word.  Here we really see the contribution of Basil and Gregory to the Egyptian desert tradition, and it comes through Evagrius. Thus, his importance.

The fourth dimension that we find is an insistence on inner practice and inner work – spiritual exercise.  This too, he certainly would have learned from St. Basil from his youth. St. Basil himself was very marked in his own youth by Eustathius of Sebaste, a very strong ascetic.  So that’s why Evagrius is worth paying attention to in our own monastic life.  He focuses the tradition, and he has been a major influence on monastic theology ever since.  So that we can experience just at least a taste of his value, I have tried to summarize for you a number of principle themes from his thoughts.  That is the second major division of the outline I gave you.

Let’s take the first one – Rational Beings:  Minds in Souls and Bodies.  Look at those three words – mind, soul, body.  That’s us!  Not three different things.  We are one reality.  These three words help us to understand three different dimensions of ourselves.  This is a theology that goes back to Origen and that can be found, in part, in Basil’s Hexameron.

The first word that we can talk about is the word “mind”, where Evagrius speaks of—point A —  the original creation of the mind.  The Greek word for mind is “nous”.  It doesn’t mean your brain.  It means the capacity of a human being to understand, to grasp connections, to perceive the “logos” or reason in the world.  Mind in Evagrius means I am created as an icon of God to know God as Trinity and as essential unity.  What did God create when he created human beings?  He created a creature capable of understanding something of who God is.  Who God is, is the Father, Son and Spirit.  One God – and the mind is an icon, an image of God.  Beautiful!

Then, the mind falls from this beautiful divine plan.  And this is the second point, where we need to speak about our souls and our bodies.  Now the mind is in a body and a soul.  The mind had become negligent in its adherence to knowledge and disintegrates into a soul joined to a body.  And so this beautiful creature created to know God as Trinity is instead a divided creature.  Monasticism is thus conceived as a way, a path, to recover the original integrity of our creation.

So God in His mercy, not only adjusts to the Fall from original glory, but God also equips the soul and the body with energies that will aid us in the recovery of the original beauty. Monasticism is the place where this wisdom of recovery is taught, this wisdom of how to move now with the body, soul and mind.  This wisdom is recovered in the monastic tradition.  For this reason it’s useful to talk about the three parts of the soul.  That’s the next point on the outline.  Again – one soul, not different compartments – but three words that will help us to discover the dimensions of the soul.

This division of the soul is actually part of platonic philosophy, but already Origen and Basil and Gregory and many other Christians have taken this philosophical system into Christianity and began to use it as their own.

But let’s look at how it is used now by Evagrius inside of this monastic tradition.  The rational part of the soul, as Evagrius says, is the highest and most noble part of the soul.  It is a direct extension of the mind— think of all that I said about the mind as made for the knowledge of God.  It’s that capacity, that inner capacity that we have to understand something, to see a connection, to see coherence.  In Greek it’s called the “logikos”, – Logos it’s logos –   the title of Jesus Christ.  John1:1 “In the beginning was the Logos, the Logos was with God and the Logos was God.”  And there is logos of the mind.  There is a logos of the whole body. There is a logos of the whole creation.  With the mind we perceive this logos.

The irascible is the second part of the soul.  The positive dimension of the irascible part of the soul is that this is part of the inner life in which we find energy and courage to do something. It’s good energy, and it is given to us by God.  He gives us this energy so that with strength we can pursue knowledge of Him.  And we can do that with personality, with verve, with strength of character.  We can do it in a unique way.

Let’s go on to the third part of the soul—the concupiscible.  The concupiscible is that part of our inner life where we desire. God has given us this energy.  He has given us the desire to enjoy the beautiful world.  But alas, in our fallen condition we desire wrongly and the desiring energy is out of control.  So we desire too much food and we desire sex inappropriately and we desire too many pleasures that only money can buy. Again, monasticism is training in controlling these energies and learning to desire God himself with our whole being and our whole body.  That is the meaning of the last sentence on your outline: “The spiritual life is conceived as a battle to establish the virtues in these different parts of the soul”.

With that, let’s move on to the third point of the outline, the spiritual life divided into Praktiké and Knowledge.  I said in the beginning that Evagrius, in fact, is the first to transmit in writing the rich tradition already established in Egyptian monasticism.  He presents this tradition to us with good order.  And one of the biggest things that becomes clear in this monastic tradition is that we can distinguish two phases of the monastic life – two different stages of monastic life that are intricately interrelated.  In fact, I used the Greek word “praktiké” but the English word would be “practicing – doing things”.  In fact, if you look back at the three parts of the soul, where we need to practice things is especially in terms of the irascible and concupiscible parts of the soul.

So praktiké is that dimension of the monastic life that involves ascetical practices. It concerns what we do with food, sex and money.  What we do with anger, hatred and division.  When we make some progress in praktiké, then we can attend to the ultimate goal of monastic life, which is knowledge – in Greek “gnosis”.

We want to be certain that we understand this word “knowledge” and how it is used in this monastic tradition.  It doesn’t mean what you get from books.  It doesn’t mean what you get from being smart.  It means the rational part of your mind is functioning as it ought.  It means that you know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  It means that you can gaze on Him with your whole body, your whole being.  It means that you see that you were created by God precisely for this relationship with Him.  In this sense “knowledge” is the same as love because God is love.  God is Love—Father, Son and Holy Spirit— and God loves me in creating me in His image.  I love God, I know God if my food, sex, money, anger and relations in the community do not obscure and destroy that love and knowledge.

Let’s go to the fourth point – that people’s thoughts are demons and their order.  This is a dimension of Evagrius’ thought that is considered very important and of immense practical value for the spiritual life.  Here we are talking of  the details of praktiké.  The spiritual life, we have already explained, is divided into two major areas. Entering into the details of the first part, called praktiké, we encounter what Evagrius called the eight evil thoughts.  We don’t have time today to go into this, but I list the eight thoughts that Evagrius’ monastic tradition identifies as the eight major problems that you find in monastic life.  They are gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory, pride.  Again, I just want to say there is an immense practical wisdom in his writings around this.  And this wisdom is deeply rooted in the Scriptures and in a way of reading the Scriptures that he surely would have learned from St. Basil and St. Gregory.

If you turn the page, there is a fifth point. This concerns the various levels of knowledge and its details. Here Evagrius distinguishes three levels of knowledge that move in an ascending order.  The first level of knowledge is knowledge of corporeals and all created things.  Again, we can imagine here the influence of Basil’s Hexameron.  What does it mean, this world in which we find ourselves, this created world?  What does this created world mean that, as St. Basil says, finds its climax in the created human body?

The second level is knowledge of incorporeals, providence and judgment.  “Incorporeals” is a word that Evagrius uses to suggest that yes, I have a body, but there is a dimension to me that is more than the body –  the incorporeal.  And, when I understand that, then I am prepared for the goal of my existence – which is the third level   – knowledge of the Holy Trinity.

Here you see then, that our knowledge of God is not something different, but knowledge about ourselves.  When we understand why we were made – that we were made as creatures capable of knowing God, then we are ready to contemplate flesh and blood and from there ascend to a contemplation of God in himself.

So I know that’s a lot, it’s too much.  But now let’s read Evagrius on this page in which he cites St. Basil.  Evagrius worked with a unique writing style, in the sense that everything he wrote was very brief. You can see that on a printed page.  You see it is not a dense text.  It is just four lines.  With Evagrius you don’t sit down and read for hours and hours.  You read two or four lines and then you meditate on that for a week.  The text I have given you, by Evagrius’ standards, was very long.  You will see, when we read it, that virtually everything that I have spoken about these five points is in this text.  So I would like to read it, and read it through for you and then just point out briefly how all the themes that are spoken about, are here.

Here we are speaking explicitly of St. Basil.  I will read the text.

“That column of truth, the Cappadocian Basil has said:  ‘the knowledge which comes from men is strengthened by careful meditation and diligent exercise; however the knowledge that by God’s grace has come to be within us is strengthened by justice, by the refusal to indulge anger, and by compassion.  The first knowledge can be received by those still subject to passion; the second knowledge is received only by those who have achieved passionlessness (apatheia) – those who are also able at the time of prayer to contemplate the illuminating gentle radiance proper to their mind (nous).”

Everything is there is that text.  You see first he distinguishes two types of knowledge like I have just done.  Let’s be sure we understand the word “knowledge” in the right way.  There is a knowledge you can get by careful meditation and diligent exercise.  He means studying hard and reading lots of books, like St. Basil did as a young man in Athens.  But now we are speaking of a different knowledge.  Look at the text.  It speaks of a knowledge that comes by God’s grace, strengthened by justice, by the refusal to indulge anger and by practicing compassion.  Justice, refusal to indulge anger, praticing compassion— all this is praktiké.  The first knowledge can be obtained by those still subject to passion. Anyone can do it.  You can be angry and eat too much, and you can still grow in knowledge. But not so with the second kind of knowledge.  Only those who have achieved apatheia have access to this knowledge.  And then the text ends with that passionless person and a description of prayer.  What do we see in prayer?   The illuminating, gentle radiance proper to the mind.  This is the way God created us.  This is what God created us for.


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