“Desert” Experience. Evagrius Ponticus’ Principles of Soul-Care
This article analyses Evagrius Ponticus‘ theory of eight basic Thoughts. The definition of evil and essence of passions is discussed. The principles of soul-care are analysed pointing to the methods of combating Thoughts. The expression of acedia is defined and its interface with spiritual life is revealed.
Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345–399) occupies a special place among well-known Desert Fathers. He is regarded as a teacher of Christian philosophy because of his perfect Christian life and knowledge of God. As a monk he was a lover of divine wisdom striving for innocence of heart and consequently the inner vision of God. As a “psychologist” he sought only one objective – to restore human happiness, i.e. ability to be with God and to love him. According to Evagrius’ teaching the only possible way to achieve it leads through overcoming passions which destroy human nature and falsify love. To gain the victory over passions one must comprehend well the way they are active and the activity of demons who inspire them.
According to Evagrius, there are five stages of the evil penetration to human heart: 1. suggestion or proposal; 2. dialogue or discourse; 3. fight or resistance; 4. approval or acceptance; 5. passion or lust. We experience sin when being free to approve the evil. Thus, because of our free will a simple thought becomes a sin. To avoid this the Desert Fathers suggest to practise the so called attentiveness of heart or vigilance.
Evagrius created a system of eight principal thoughts in a not strictly defined sequence: gluttony, concupiscence, greed, sadness, anger, acedia, jealousy and pride. The acedia is privileged in this list because it points to slackness of soul and feeling of emptiness, boredom and resentment. It leads to self-isolation, melancholy, senselessness, depression and unwillingness to live. The acedia is the most dangerous enemy on the road to God, as it threatens to strangle intelligence.
However, the acedia can be overcome firstly, by recognizing its features and secondly, by employing instruments which heal soul and rise no doubt because of their efficacy. The range is quite large: tears, meditation of death or “death exercises”, labour and fast, rejection or opposition, and finally, endurance and prayer.
Evagrius wrote a handbook Antirrheticus (guidelines how to resist specific temptations using biblical verses). Resistance in praxis (antirrhesis) was highly effective but for ordinary people appeared to be too sophisticated. Instead, the so called “Jesus’ prayer” (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner) became widely accepted. Spiritual authors praise and recommend this prayer because of its liberating power and high efficacy opposing different temptations and worldly distractions. This prayer requires inner concentration and there is no place for other thoughts and images. “Jesus’ prayer” belongs to a group of hesychastic prayers. The Greek term hesychasm in tradition of the Desert Fathers is used to denote a certain spiritual system that helps to acquire peace to unite with God in contemplation. This spiritual system is close to Stoic conception of apatheia that also points to a still and peaceful mind in times of joy and of disaster and to freedom of heart.
The human nature for Evagrius, as well as for the majority of oriental theologians is “integral good”. The human nature is always good because sin and passions are merely foreign bodies and parasites which must eventually be eliminated. “There was a time when evilness did not exist, and there will be a time when it will no more exist, whereas there was no time when virtue did not exist, and there will be no time when it will not exist. For the germs of virtue are impossible to destroy” (Evagrius, Kephalaia Gnostika, 1.40).