Evagrios the Solitary, Blog 1, Asceticism and Stillness

Kallistos Ware, in a collection of essays on the Philokalia, writes that the spirituality of the writings of Evagrios the Solitary and St Maximus the Confessor, who built on the works of Evagrios, prevails in most of the Philokalia.  The writings of Evagrios the Solitary also influenced deeply St. John Climacus, St. John Cassian, and St. Maximus the Confessor, and many other Early Church Fathers.  The Philokalia adopts Evagrios’ threefold classification of the “spiritual way into the active life (praktiki), the contemplation of nature (physiki), and the contemplation of God (theologia).”  He quotes Evagrios, “When you are praying, do not shape within yourself any image of thee 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.”[1]

Another essay in this collection by Julia Konstantinovsky (who is not from Kansas) has an interesting manuscript history of the writings of Evagrios.  She proposes that in his work, Outline on Asceticism and Stillness, “voluntary exile is treated as fundamental to the life of stillness.”  Withdrawing from society and living a celibate life is necessary for the solitary life.  But it is not the abstention from marriage that counts, but “the abstention from fleshly thoughts and lusts.  The monk’s exile and stillness” is not merely a physical exile, but is also “an abandonment of worldly ways of life, full of material cares, for the sake of fostering an immaterial and carefree state of mind.  Thus the true exile is a spiritual exile.”[2]

Konstantinovsky has a valid point, this is a central theme of the work as it is addressed to monks, but how can the rest of us living in the world live a life of spiritual exile?  We need not interpret these works as being hostile to living in the world or a to living a married life.  Living in the world as a Christian but not being entirely of the world, living selflessly rather than selfishly, is living a life of a spiritual exile of sorts.

Many Christians have a shallow understanding of intimacy that somehow lust can only happen before marriage but never after.  In reality, the problem of lust never goes away, whenever we are in an intimate relationship the question we can never answer if whether we are compromising the dignity of the other, whether we are using the other for our own pleasure.  We should always pray that this is not so for us, we should always thank God for the gift that can enable us to truly love another person as we love ourselves, we should continually pray that in our relationship our love for each other is a selfless love rather than a selfish love.

Most of authors in the Philokalia are saints, but not Evagrios the Solitary.  Evagrios was a disciple of Origen, the Church Father who was not a saint because some of his teachings were considered heretical, he did not reject the Platonic borrowings that the church councils later condemned, namely the doctrine of universal salvation.  But Evagrios teachings on monasticism were revered and form the basis of the Philokalia.[3]

OUTLINE, TEACHING ON ASCETICISM AND STILLNESS IN THE SOLITARY LIFE

Evagrios begins by quoting Jeremiah, “You shall not take a wife in this place.”  The primary meaning of this verse is advice not to bear sons and daughters in time of war and troubles, but Evagrios interprets this allegorically, that we should not bear worldly thoughts and desires in our heart.  These worldly thoughts and desires are weak and sickly and lead to death, and “have no place in heavenly life.”

Evagrios also quotes St Paul, “ ‘He who is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife,’ and he is inwardly divided, and ‘she who is married cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.’ “[4]  This is good advice for monks, who lead a celibate life, but for we who are modern and married and living in the world, this is also good advice if we read the Philokalia allegorically, as do many devout in the Eastern tradition.

We can read this allegorically if we see marriage as a monastic calling, a calling turning towards selflessness, a calling turning away from selfishness.  If both spouses would flee from selfishness and seek to be selfless, they can truly succeed in loving at least their spouse as they love themselves.  Then their marriage would better enable them to truly love their neighbor, their marriage would truly be blessed, their children would truly be blessed, and everyone they meet will be better people because they met them.

Evagrios continues, “Let the monk renounce the materiality of this world to win the blessings of stillness.  For the practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty, its yoke is easy and its burden light.”  The memories of anyone who grew up in a house full of yelling and screaming and arguing and rancor would read this verse and wish that they had grown up in a house with peace and quiet, where patience and kindness and compassion was the rule, where anger and rancor and meanness was the exception, where nobody was bitter or angry or resentful. Evagrios urges to “make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything and choose always what contributes to it.”

Fasting was long a part of Christian tradition.  Jesus exhorts us, “When you fast, fast not like the Pharisees,” so fasting was not seen as optional.  As Evagrios says, “Fast before the Lord according to your strength, for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the min, drives away the demons, and prepares you for God’s presence.”  He is practical, “Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes.  Should the thought come to you of getting extravagant foods in order to show hospitality, dismiss it, do not be deceived by it, for the enemy lies in ambush, waiting to tear you away from stillness.”

Evagrios is quite practical in his monastic rule, “abstaining from food should be a matter of our own choice and an ascetic labor.”  You should never fast to the point of damaging your health, and you should modify the fast if you are elderly or sickly or diabetic.  But you should never make a show of fasting, fasting it a discipline rather than an accomplishment.  Evagrios advises, “If there is a meeting of the brethren, and you have to eat a second or third time, do not be disgruntled or surly.”  Be pleasant, “and when you have eaten a second or third time, thank God that you have fulfilled the law of love and that He Himself is providing for you.”

Fasting in the Eastern tradition never has the devout abstain from food completely but is more practical, refraining from meat but allowing fish at some times, refraining from meat altogether at especially holy times, refraining from oil and wine.  Fasting is year-round, part of daily life, scheduled according to the church calendar.  In the Eastern tradition you should consult with your spiritual father or priest if you have a need to modify your fasting.

Evagrios has other advice for monks that apply to all Christians, “When buying or selling you can hardly avoid sin.  So, in either case, be sure you lose a little in the transaction.  Do not haggle about the price from love of gain, and so indulge in actions harmful to the soul, quarrelling, lying, shifting your ground and so one. . . Be on your guard when buying or selling.  If possible, it is best to place such business in the hands of someone you trust, so that, being thus relieved of the worry, you can pursue your calling with joy and hope.”  Beware of boasting when you think you have gotten the better end of a deal, beware of boasting that it was a steal, for perhaps it was a steal, which would make you a thief.

We will always have a heavy emotional investment in matters that mean a great deal to us, both financial and legal, and we can avoid anger and rancor by having a broker and/or an attorney represent us in our dealings.  When we are forced into adversarial situations like divorce we should not seek counsel who will draw blood, for often they often draw big fees from you, but we should seek counsel that firm and fair and probably have a good reputation at the courthouse.

Evagrios concludes, “If you are disheartened, pray, as the Apostle James says, Pray with fear, trembling, effort, with inner watchfulness and vigilance.  To pray in this manner is especially necessary because the enemies are so malignant.  For it is just when the demons see us at prayer that they come and stand beside us, ready to attack, suggesting to our intellect the very things we should not think about when praying; they try to take our intellect captive and to make our prayer and supplication vain and useless.  For prayer is truly vain and useless when not performed with fear and trembling, with inner watchfulness and vigilance.”[5]

Evagrios Blog 2 http://www.seekingvirtueandwisdom.com/evagrios-the-solitary-blog-2-text-on-discrimination-of-passions-and-thoughts/

[1] Kallistos Ware, “St Nicodemus and the Philokalia,” in the Philokalia, A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 29.

[2] Julia Konstantinovsky, “Evagrius in the Philokalia of St Macarius and St Nicodemus,” in the Philokalia, A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 185.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evagrius_Ponticus

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+7%3A32-34&version=RSVCE

[5] Evagrios, “Outline Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life,” In the Philokalia, The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, Vol. 1, translated and edited by GEH Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 31-37.

About Bruce Strom 127 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.