A week ago I didn’t know that Evagrius Ponticus ever existed. However in conversation this week with Westfield House Tutor, Rev. Dr Boris Gunjević, I learnt of him (a Desert Father of the 4th century) and was intrigued. (I also was rather excited to learn something new while sighing at the same time about how much I don’t know. Our world and its history has so much in it!) So a few articles later, I have a little more understanding but which is really the tip of an iceberg.
The comment the piqued my interest was that Evagrius, in his teaching and supporting the monks in their spiritual disciplines, had devised a system of ‘eight generic thoughts’ influenced by Origen (c.185 –c.253) and which became the basis for Pope Gregory I’s ‘seven deadly sins’ 200 years later. This was part of their understanding that monastic life developed through stages – first asceticism, then contemplating creation, and then finally theology and a deep relationship with the Holy Trinity. What impedes the divine life are ‘thoughts’ which were linked to problematic behaviours or attacks from the demons. The use of the word ‘thought’ allowed the ambiguity that what can hinder following Jesus can come from within us or from an external source. Evagrius understood us to be body and soul. He divided the soul into desire, repulsion or resistance, and mind – the mind guides the whole self, the desire is to love God, and we are to resist evil and injustice. But each aspect could be misused by us, be affected by our problem behaviours, or be attacked from ‘the outside’. To help the monks understand their problem behaviours, their struggles, their despair, their shames one needed clear knowledge.
This came from Scripture and asking the questions of the besetting troubles ‘Who are you? Where have you come from?’. The eight generic thoughts were designed to help the monks understand – to categorise – what was happening and why. Thus the monks were better equipped to use the techniques they were taught – reading, meditating, praying, reciting,
singing Scripture; talking with a brother; fasting; keeping vigil; having patience and generosity for people; avoiding the object of desire or aversion.
What I found fascinating in all this is that Evagrius took the understanding of humanity of his time – the Platonic framework as influenced by Origen – to develop what I would call ‘pastoral care’ which recognises the reality of sin and evil, the Devil and demons, and our own existence, personality, consciousness and that we are responsible for our sin. While I am sure that temptations do come from the ‘Father of lies’ and from ‘sinful flesh’, the only response that helps is fleeing to the cross, to God’s Word where we receive both mercy and forgiveness and then told to ‘go sin no more’. The trouble is we seem to get tired of hearing this long before God gets tired of saying it and people can give up.
Martin Luther wrote for his time and place. When he wrote Section Two – Daily Prayers – of the Small Catechism that was his way of describing daily living with Jesus. Today we might call this lifestyle ‘daily repentance’ – and yet discipleship is the same down through the centuries – trusting God’s forgiveness in Christ, returning to our baptism, and following Jesus by struggling with our sins and living to serve those around us. The mystery is that this is life in all its fullness! GS