Evagrius, teacher of contemplation

We have met Evagrius now on several occasions, as he is one of the most important early Christian teacher on contemplation.  He was strongly influenced by the teaching of Origen and by Gregory of Nyssa, the founder of the Hesychast tradition. He was the teacher of John Cassian and thus through him influenced St Benedict and John Main.

His two most important books, which are still available in English, are first and foremost Chapters on Prayer followed by Praktikos, where he describes clearly the stages and difficulties on the spiritual path and gives practical advice to all those serious about contemplative prayer. His teaching is couched in short sentences, which encourage attentive reflection. They seem very similar to the koans of the Zen tradition – Thomas Merton called Evagrius a ‘Zen master’ – . In fact, many of the sayings sound very Buddhist to our modern ears, although he was totally Christ-centred. 

Although he was steeped in the Scriptures and very much lived his life based on them, he stressed that living a moral life was not enough: “The effects of keeping the commandments do not suffice to heal the powers of the soul completely – they must be complimented by a contemplative activity and this activity must penetrate to the Spirit.”  And if you follow his advice: “If you pray in all truth you will come upon a deep sense of confidence. Then the angels will walk with you and enlighten you about the meaning of created things.” Therefore prayer comes first, then enlightenment by the gift of grace. 

Prayer was the foundation of all he taught, as his variation on Jesus’ saying shows: “Go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and take up your cross so that you can pray without distraction.” To Evagrius prayer is essentially therapy leading to wholeness of being, oneness with God and harmony with others. Because of Evagrius’ own experiences of falling for temptations in the ordinary world as well as his experience in the desert, he had acquired profound psychological insights into the workings of the human mind and as we heard him say: “The ascetic life is the spiritual method for cleansing the emotional part of the soul”. (‘Ascetic’ means here a life based on the practice of meditation leading to deep contemplative prayer.) He was greatly admired and many a monk sought him out as a spiritual father, an Abba. 

The first problem, he points to is the one we are most familiar with and have met before: our thoughts. Unless we can let go off our thoughts prayer is difficult, but “If the flask is left standing for a while, the scum sinks to the bottom and the water becomes clear and transparent. In a similar way our heart, once it is restful and steeped in profound silence, can reflect God.”

But before we follow his advice and watch our thoughts (which he called ‘the passions’), he draws our attention to the source out of which thoughts emerge, namely sensations, feelings, and emotions. This is true ‘mindfulness’, being aware of what is going on in our mind and body. During prayer our whole attention is focused on our word but at all other times we keep not only our mantra in mind but also take note of all the passing sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts that float through our mind. The starting point are the senses: “The passions are accustomed to be stirred up by the senses.” Then the causal sequence according to him is as follows: sense impressions invoke feelings, the pleasure of these feelings leads in turn to desires, onto thoughts, then to action: “Whatever a man loves he will desire with all his might. What he desires he strives to lay hold of….. it is feeling, which gives birth to desire.”

The most striking example of a sense impression being the cause of first feeling and then desire occurs in the first book Combray of Proust’s master piece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrances of Things Past). One afternoon he is tired, depressed and dips a biscuit, a ‘petite madeleine’ into his tea. The moment he tastes it, an intense feeling of joy flows through his entire being. Then he is overwhelmed by thoughts of his childhood. The desire arises to capture this time and the ensuing action is writing a masterpiece. This then is the inevitable chain of events as proposed by Evagrius, pointing out that we need to be aware of the sensations, feelings and desires before they augment and embroider the thoughts that will then inevitably lead to action, sometimes inappropriate. In Proust’s case the strong feeling of nostalgia produced a work of art; for some of us unfortunately inappropriate automatic emotional reactions are the consequence. 

Evagrius therefore recommends constant awareness/ mindfulness not only of our sensations, feelings, emotions and desires but also of our thoughts, especially those encapsulating memories with a strong emotional contents, dreams, fears and fantasies. We need to be aware that our internal emotional state will be reflected in the external circumstances we create.

Next week more from this early Christian 4th century teacher of mindfulness and meditation/contemplative prayer.

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