Abba Evagrius The Solitary - Part 2
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.
The Path to True Prayer
According to Matthew 5:8, purity of heart is required to see the mystical vision of God. Disciplines are a means to an end, the end is the pure state of prayer that beholds God. The disciplines of Evagrius are: stillness, silence, remembrance of death, remembrance of God, and detachment. These cultivate within the heart awareness of the interior life.
To Evagrius, prayer was to be simple.
“When you are in the inner temple pray not as the Pharisee but as the publican, so that you too are set free by the Lord.”
The Pharisee of Luke 10 prays that God would acknowledge all he does, the publican prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” This short refrain became one of the most common prayers in early Christianity, and Evagrius was no exception.
Additionally, prayer was not to be mere words, but was to fully engage the presence of God.
“In your prayer seek only righteousness and the kingdom of God, that is, virtue and spiritual knowledge; and everything else 'will be given to you' (Matt. 6:33),” as well as, “Do not pray only with outward forms and gestures, but with reverence and awe try to make your intellect conscious of spiritual prayer.”
Prayer must engage the depths of the heart, the inner temple of God.
Prayer is also to stir the soul.
“When you think that you do not need tears for your sins during prayer, reflect on this: you should always be in God, and yet you are still far from Him. Then you will weep with greater feeling.”
Prayer is man standing naked before God, there is no pretence in that image. No amount of excuse or comparison with others can hide our depravity. In light of God’s holiness we always fall short, but that is entirely the point, we need him.
Evagrius counselled monks not to pray for what you wished, but to relegate prayer to the will of God.
“Do not pray for the fulfillment of your wishes, for they may not accord with the will of God. But pray as you have been taught, saying: Thy will be done in me. Always entreat Him in this way - that His will be done. For He desires what is good and profitable for you, whereas you do not always ask for this.”
The movement of prayer was twofold, on one hand weeping for sin, but on the other hand rejoicing over the blessings that await…
“…lament and weep for the sentence passed on sinners, mourn while you are doing this, frightened that you, too, may be among them. But rejoice and be glad at the blessings that await the righteous, and aspire to enjoy them and to be delivered from the torments of hell. See to it that you never forget these things, whether inside your cell or outside it. This will help you to escape thoughts that are defiling and harmful.”
This steels the thought life against what would distract it from God, as well as inspires the individual to live for, and consider the glorious blessing of eternity. In our “immediate gratification” culture, the idea of living for something other than the next paycheque, cellphone, gadget, toy, upgrade etc…is lost on us. We would do ourselves a great favour to consider ourselves in light of eternity for a few moments every day.
Depth of prayer cannot be experienced when great anger, bitterness, or offence is held.
“Whoever loves true prayer and yet becomes angry or resentful is his own enemy. He is like a man who wants to see clearly and yet inflicts damage on his own eyes. If you long to pray, do nothing that is opposed to prayer, so that God may draw near and be with you.”
If you desire true prayer do nothing that would hinder true prayer.
Evagrius goes on to say…
“Whatever you do to avenge yourself against a brother who has done you a wrong will prove a stumbling-block to you during prayer. Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger.”
Who has not sat down to pray when holding anger or bitterness and not had their thoughts distracted by present hurts? As Jesus said in Matthew…
The gift is hindered by the anger held over offence and bitterness.
True prayer is not in seeing images, it is in approaching God.
“When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of the Deity, and do not let your intellect be stamped with the impress of any form: but approach the Immaterial in an immaterial manner, and then you will understand.”
If the pure at heart are those that see God, then the thrust of prayer should be purity of heart, and the true vision of God will follow. Oftentimes people get caught up in having ecstatic experiences, rather than merely being with the One who fashioned mankind from dust.
When it comes down to it, Evagrius taught that prayer was not something that we could achieve, but that it was something the Holy Spirit worked within.
“The Holy Spirit, out of compassion for our weakness, comes to us even when we are impure. And if only He finds our intellect truly praying to Him, He enters it and puts to flight the whole array of thoughts and ideas circling within it, and He arouses it to a longing for spiritual prayer.”
In order to truly pray, Evagrius taught that we would have to deal with our carnal thought life.
“You cannot attain pure prayer while entangled in material things and agitated by constant cares. For prayer means the shedding of thoughts.”
If you are agitated or concerned about worldly cares, you have not truly begun to pray.
There is a state of prayer that moves past worldly concerns and enters into the heart of God.
"If you intellect is still distracted during prayer, you do not yet know what it is to pray as a monk, but your prayer is still worldly, embellishing the outer tabernacle.”
True prayer only begins when we remove our shoes.
"What state, then, does the intellect need so that it can reach out to its Lord without deflection and commune with him without intermediary? When Moses tried to draw near to the burning bush, he was forbidden to approach until he had removed the sandals from his feet (Exodus 3:5). If, then, you wish to behold and commune with him who is beyond sense-perception and beyond concept, you must free yourself from every impassioned thought."
As long as passionate thoughts full of anger, frustration, worry, care, lust, desire, anxiety, loneliness, despair, desperation, etc…continue to fill our hearts our intimate prayer will be hindered.
Purifying the Thought Life
The discerning of the interior thought life is vital to entering into depth of prayer. Recognizing the source of a thought means you can combat that thought or embrace that thought. The bible states that a man is what he is thinking in his heart (Proverbs 23:7). The vital problem of humanity is that we are entirely unaware of our heart. God alone knows the heart. It is necessary as it pertains to the spiritual life that the tenor of the interior thought life is exposed, reformed, and cultivated. This is only possible in relation to God.
To Evagrius, a thought can have one of three sources: heavenly, natural, or demonic.
The heavenly thought is the one that thinks deeply and considers the nature of things and the nature of God.
“Angelic thought is concerned with the true nature of things and with searching out their spiritual essences. For example, why was gold created and scattered like sand in the lower regions of the earth, to be found only with much toil and effort?”
Evagrius goes on to consider why gold would then be utilized in the tabernacle and the mysteries of scripture that Christ unfolds on the road to Emmaus.
The natural thought is simply the knowledge of the thing considered.
“…human thought neither seeks to acquire gold nor is concerned to know what it symbolizes, but brings before the mind simply the image of gold, without passion or greed.”
Human thought cannot by itself be inherently evil because when God declared humankind created in his image and “good” in Genesis, he acknowledged that man’s thought life was not inherently depraved.
He shows this by considering again the image and substance of gold…
“…in which of these does the sin consist? Is it the intellect? But how then can the intellect be the image of God? Is it the intellection of gold? But what sensible person would ever say that? Then is gold itself the sin? In that case, why was it created?”
How can the intellect (the deep portion of man) be sin if it is created in the image of God. Is sin found in considering gold? Unlikely as gold can be considered without greed. Is the gold itself sinful? Obviously not. Then it follows that something else is at work within to turn the deep portion of man upon itself. This would be the third source of thoughts.
“Demonic thought, on the other hand, neither knows nor can know such things. It can only shamelessly suggest the acquisition of physical gold, looking forward to the wealth and glory that will come from this.”
The cause of sin in the thought life of the heart is suggested by darkness (which Jesus claims man has become infatuated with in John 3), and incited by pleasure.
“It follows, then, that the cause of the sin is the fourth element, which is neither an objective reality, nor the intellection of something real, but is a certain noxious pleasure which, once it is freely chosen, compels the intellect to misuse what God has created.”
The cause of sinful thoughts is the “noxious pleasure” which compels humankind to misuse what God has created for good, in this case gold to be used as a display for the glory of God in the tabernacle.
Why is this important to Evagrius? His answer is found in understanding what it is that needs to be cut off from the interior life.
“Just as it is possible to think of water both while thirsty and while not thirsty, so it is possible to think of gold with greed and without greed. The same applies to other things. Thus if we can discriminate in this way between one kind of fantasy and another, we can then recognize the artfulness of the demons.”
It is not the thinking of a thing that is evil, it is the twisted desire and passion that it inspires. And there lies the thoughts that are to be resisted. These thoughts turn the heart in upon itself and stir up all kinds of strife.
“All thoughts inspired by the demons produce within us conceptions of sensory objects; and in this way the intellect, with such conceptions imprinted on it, bears the forms of these objects within itself. So, by recognizing the object presented to it, the intellect knows which demon is approaching…But all thoughts producing anger or desire in a way that is contrary to nature are caused by demons. For through demonic agitation the intellect mentally commits adultery and becomes incensed. Thus it cannot receive the vision of God, who sets us in order: for the divine splendor only appears to the intellect during prayer, when the intellect is free from conceptions of sensory objects.”
How do you tell where a thought comes from?
Consider what it is working in your heart. Anger, greed, pride, etc… If the image that appears to you is of that nature consider it a spiritual hindrance. The greater the degree that we recognize this spiritual influence we will be able to depart from it and receive the vision of God.
What are we to do then? Having discerned the improper use of the thought life we are to cast all care upon God.
“It is needless to insist that we should not worry about clothes or food. The Savior Himself forbids this in the Gospels: 'Do not worry about what to eat or drink, or about what to wear' (cf Matt. 6:25). Such anxiety is a mark of the Gentiles and unbelievers, who reject the providence of the Lord and deny the Creator.”
Jesus himself said that the implanted word would be choked out by the cares of this world, namely our anxiety, worry, stress, and strain.
“The divine word can bear no fruit, being choked by our cares. Let us, then, renounce these cares, and throw them down before the Lord, being content with what we have at the moment; and living in poverty and rags, let us day by day rid ourselves of all that fills us with self-esteem.”
Those things that fill us with self-esteem are the thing things from which we derive identity and comfort. We become attach to our possessions and then our possession possess us. We orient our lives around what is important to us.
To Evagrius, if we truly seek to know God, it will take renouncing the interior thoughts and attachments that connect us to the “cares of this world.” These attachments to material possession (including immaterial possessions such as our own ego and pride) stir up every care and anxiety that choke out the life of Christ in the depth of the heart. The Desert Fathers and Mothers spent their lives in the desert finding the space to do just that. In order to know God they had to forget the world.
Do you desire, then, to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of the world, and the principalities and powers that lie behind them: free yourself from attachment to material things, from domination by passions and desires, so that as a stranger to all this you may attain true stillness. For only by raising himself above these things can a man achieve the life of stillness.
Evagrius taught that the life of stillness was about communion with God, and communion with God took purity of heart.
Evagrius passed away around 399 AD. He was familiar with the highs and lows of following God. He ascended the heights of intimate union with God, and he had descended into the depths of the depravity held in the heart of man. Through it all he carried within himself an intense love for God the Father. Once, when told about the death of his father, he said, “Cease blaspheming, for my father is immortal."