Evagrius on Prayer  

Posted by Joe Rawls in


Evagrius Ponticus (345-399), as his name implies, was a native of Pontus in Asia Minor. As a young man he made his way to the imperial capital Constantinople, where he soon made his mark as an eloquent speaker and writer. Ordained a deacon by Gregory of Nazianzus, he took part in the Second Ecumenical Council in 381.

The good life soon ended when he became infatuated with a married woman. The husband in question had good connections, and Evagrius had a dream in which the aggrieved man had him clapped in prison. Evagrius left the capital for Jerusalem soon after, no doubt a wise career decision.

In Jerusalem Evagrius undertook the monastic life, apparently as a form of penance. He ended up in Kellia, the Egyptian home of many of the Desert Fathers, and spent the last fourteen years of his life there. The spiritual writings by which he is known date from that time. He impresses many modern readers with his acute psychological insights; contemplatives value him for what he has to say about the process of prayer. What follows is excerpted from On Prayer: 153 Texts, which is found on pp 55-71 of The Philokalia, vol 1, tr and ed GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, London, Faber and Faber 1979. You will notice repeated references to anger, which one finds throughout the patristic literature. It's good to know that we are not the only angry contemplatives. Also, while I don't deny the existence of Satan, the references to "demons" are probably better understood as neurotic or obsessive thinking.

2. When the soul has been purified through the keeping of all the commandments, it makes the intellect steadfast and able to receive the state needed for prayer.

4. When Moses tried to draw near to the burning bush he was forbidden to approach until he had loosed his sandals from his feet (cf Ex 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.

9. Persevere with patience in your prayer, and repulse the cares and doubts that arise within you. They disturb and trouble you, and so slacken the intensity of your prayer.

10. When the demons see you truly eager to pray, they suggest an imaginary need for various things, and then stir up your remembrance of these things, inciting the intellect to go after them; and when it fails to find them, it becomes very depressed and miserable. And when the intellect is at prayer, the demons keep filling it with the thought of these things, so that it tries to discover more about them and thus loses the fruitfulness of its prayer.

12. Whenever a temptation or a feeling of contentiousness comes over you, immediately arousing you to anger or to some senseless word, remember your prayer and how you will be judged about it, and at once the disorderly movement within you will subside.

13. Whatever you do to avenge yourself against a brother who has done you a wrong will prove a stumbling-block to you during prayer.

14. Prayer is the flower of gentleness and of freedom from anger.

16. Prayer is the remedy for gloom and despondency.

19. If you endure something painful out of love for wisdom, you will find the fruit of this during prayer.

22. Those who store up grievances and rancor in themselves are like people who draw water and pour it into a cask full of holes.

24. When you pray as you should, thoughts will come to you which make you feel that you have a real right to be angry. But anger with your neighbor is never right. If you search you will find that things can always be arranged without anger. So do all you can not to break out into anger.

27. If you arm yourself against anger, then you will never succumb to any kind of desire. Desire provides fuel for anger, and anger disturbs spiritual vision, disrupting the state of prayer.

32. Often when I have prayed I have asked for what I thought was good, and persisted in my petition, stupidly importuning the will of God, and not leaving it to Him to arrange things as He knows is best for me. But when I have obtained what I asked for, I have been very sorry that I did not ask for the will of God to be done; because the thing turned out not to be as I thought.

35. Undistracted prayer is the highest intellection of the intellect.

45. When you pray, keep close watch on your memory, so that it does not distract you with recollections of your past. But make yourself aware that you are standing before God. For by nature the intellect is apt to be carried away by memories during prayer.

51. What is it that the demons wish to incite in us? Gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, rancour, and the rest of the passions, so that the intellect grows coarse and cannot pray as it ought. For when the passions are aroused in the non-rational part of our nature, they do not allow the intellect to function properly.

61. If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

63. 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.

65. 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.

67. 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.

83. Psalmody calms the passions and curbs the uncontrolled impulses in the body; and prayer enables the intellect to activate its own energy.

84. Prayer is the energy which accords with the dignity of the intellect; it is the intellect's true and highest activity.

93. He who bears distress patiently will attain joy, and he who endures the repulsive will know delight.

114. Never try to see a form or shape during prayer.

122. Blessed is the monk who looks with great joy on everyone's salvation and progress as if they were his own.

137. If you do good to one person, you may be wronged by another, and so feel injured, and say or do something stupid, thus dissipating by your bad action what you gained by your good action. This is just what the demons want, so always be attentive.

153. If when praying no other joy can attract you, then truly you have found prayer.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at Tuesday, May 26, 2009 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

2 comments

DelawareDave  

Thank you for listing these meditations. Truly wisdom of the ages.

February 6, 2012 at 7:55 AM
Anonymous  

Thank You!

May 22, 2014 at 9:51 AM

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