Abba Evagrius The Solitary - Part 1
Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers! If you are just joining us on this journey through the Desert Fathers, please refer back to my initial letter The Desert Fathers; An Introduction explaining the goal and purpose of this series.
Who Was Abba Evagrius the Solitary?
Author, mentor, teacher, and one with an incredible passion for experiencing Christ in the depths of the heart, Abba Evagrius rings out to us from history as authentically as any figure. His teachings are full of incredible wisdom, understanding of the human heart, and the heart of God. His struggle with sin and temptation, as well as his eventual victory present to us a figure of incredible depth and maturity.
“Shortly before his death he told us: ‘For three years I have not been troubled by fleshly desire-after so long a life and toil and labour and ceaseless prayer.’”
Abba Evagrius the solitary was born around the year 345 AD. He spent his initial years in church ministry serving Abba Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen as a reader and a deacon. He was involved with Gregory at the first Council of Constantinople around 380 AD in the argument against the Arian heresy (the belief that Jesus was a created being).
During his time serving and learning under these men, a particular episode drove him into the solitary life. He had taken a fancy to the wife of a nobleman in the city. He found himself unable to control his imagination when it came to her. Over time, he struggled and battled against these thoughts. This period of time most likely served to inspire his incredible teaching on discerning the source of thoughts.
To complicate matters, the wife of this nobleman became infatuated with Evagrius, sending him gifts almost daily. Abba Evagrius cried out to God to for grace to destroy the working of lust in the heart of the woman and in his own heart. God sent him a warning in a dream before he fell into sin with this woman.
In the dream, an angel threw him into prison with others that were guilty of committing the sin he was tempted with. The angel rebuked him and told him to leave the city, to which Evagrius swore an oath in his dream to do just that. Upon awaking, Evagrius took the oath seriously and left the city and his position, never to return.
In 382, he had come to Jerusalem and fell very ill. Amma Melania the Elder spent six months caring for him. After exhausting the effort of every doctor to discover the root cause, by divine revelation Amma Melania became aware that the source of the sickness was not physical, but spiritual. Amma Melania implored Evagrius to tell her what was hidden in his mind that could cause this. Evagrius confessed to Melania the whole ordeal that had happened in his heart with the nobleman’s wife. Amma Melania said to him,
“Promise me truthfully that from this time onward you will take care of yourself in a habitation of monks, and that you will work to God; and however great a sinner I may be, I will pray for you, and relief will be given to your tribulation.”
Evagrius agreed and within a few days his health returned. In 383 AD, he left Jerusalem for the desert of Egypt where he spent ten years as a disciple of Abba Macarius of Alexandria (not to be confused with Abba Macarius the Great).
It was said of Abba Evagrius that…
“…in the course of fifteen years having purified his mind to the utmost he was counted worthy of the gift of knowledge and wisdom and the discerning of spirits.”
After having spent two years in Nitria, he retired deeper into the desert at the monastic community of Kellis. He spent the rest of his life living in the heart of the desert where he worked, wrote, prayed, and knew God.
The Spiritual Life
According to Abba Evagrius the entire thrust of the spiritual life is to be intimacy with God. As such, a large portion of the teaching that has been preserved is on the nature of prayer. Included in this is a profound understanding of the human thought life.
Abba Evagrius said that the one thing necessary in all the spiritual life is to hear God.
“Remember, the Lord rebukes Martha (the soul that is over-busy with such things) when He says: 'You are anxious and troubled about many things: one thing alone is needful' (Luke 10:41-42) - to hear the divine word: after that, one should be content with anything that comes to hand.”
If our mind is a Martha (busy and distracted), hearing the divine word will be difficult. If the purpose of the spiritual life is to hear God in intimate union, then the thrust of the spiritual life is preparing the heart for that union.
“Abba Evagrius said: ‘The beginning of salvation is for a man to reproach himself.’”
In reproaching oneself, the monk is throwing their identity upon God. It is stating to God that you are nothing, and he is everything.
The spiritual life is about restoring mankind to a pre-fallen state.
“When the intellect has shed its fallen state and acquired the state of grace, then during prayer it will see its own nature like a sapphire or the colour of heaven.”
"If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian."
To Evagrius the Solitary prayer is the knowledge of God. The commands of God in scripture purify and prepare the heart for true prayer, the deep experience of God:
"When the soul has been purified through the keeping of all the commandments, it makes the intellect steadfast and able to receive the state needed for prayer. Prayer is the communion of the intellect with God."
If the experience of God is the highest call of the monk in this life, then it follows that pure prayer is the highest form. Pure prayer, according to Evagrius, is undistracted prayer.
“Undistracted prayer is the highest intellection of the intellect. Prayer is the ascent of the intellect to God.”
The more undistracted the mind is in its effort, the purer the prayer of the heart before God.
Prayer is not necessarily ecstatic experiences, visions, or trances. While those things can happen, they may involve the will, and…
“He who wishes to pray truly must not only control his incensive power and his desire, but must also free himself from every impassioned thought.”
Prayer is drawing near to God.
"He who prays in spirit and in truth is no longer dependent on created things when honouring the Creator, but praises him for and in himself."
Prayer is not picturing God, or knowing things about God, it is being with God.