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.
I'm not one of Augustine of Hippo's biggest fans, but the following bit from one of his sermons (Sermo de Ascensione Domini, Mai 98) makes good reading on this Ascension day. I found it in the sadly out of print The Prayer Book Office (Seabury 1988 pp 738-739).
Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him. Listen to the words of the apostle: If you have risen with Christ, set your hearts on the things that are above where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God; seek the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. For just as he remained with us even after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies.
Christ is now exalted above the heavens, but he still suffers on earth all the pain that we, the members of his body, have to bear. He showed this when he cried out from above: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? and when he said: I was hungry and you gave me food.
Why do we on earth not strive to find rest with him in heaven even now, through the faith, hope, and love that unites us to him? While in heaven he is also with us; and we on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power, and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity, but in him, we can be there by love.
He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
These words are explained by our oneness with Christ, for he is our head and we are his body. No one ascended into heaven except Christ because we also are Christ: he is the Son of Man by his union with us, and we by our union with him are sons of God. so the Apostle says: Just as the human body, which has many members, is a unity, because all the different members make one body, so it is also with Christ. He too has many members, but one body.
Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are with him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.
St Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) spent most of his life in Constantinople, where he was the abbot of St Mamas. The title "Theologian" (referring in this context to a highly evolved mysticism and definitely not to an ability to write dense books with lots of footnotes) is given in Orthodoxy to only two other saints: John the Evangelist and Gregory Nazianzen. He combined a most intense mystical life with a very rigorous asceticism. His feast is variously celebrated on March 12 or October 12.
The Eucharist, along with a frequent and worthy reception of the same, occupies a crucial place in his spirituality. Of the following three quotes, the first (a communion prayer) is found on pp 60-61 of Kallistos Ware The Inner Kingdom (SVS Press 2000). The following two come from, respectively, On the Mystical Life and Hymn 15.
Rejoicing at once and trembling,
I who am straw receive the Fire
And, strange wonder!
I am ineffably refreshed
As the bush of old
Which burned yet was not consumed.
The Son of God cries out plainly that our union with Him through communion is such as the unity and life which He has with the Father. Thus, just as He is united by nature to His own Father and God, so we are united by grace to Him, and live in Him by eating His flesh and drinking His blood.
We become members of Christ--and Christ becomes our members,
Christ becomes my hand, Christ my foot, of my miserable self,
and I, wretched one, am Christ's hand, Christ's foot!
I move my hand, and my hand is the whole Christ
since, do not forget it, God is indivisible in His divinity;
I move my foot, and behold it shines like that one!
Do not say I blaspheme, but welcome such things,
and adore Christ who makes you such!
Since, if you so wish you will become a member of Him,
and similarly all our members individually
will become members of Christ and Christ our members,
and all which is dishonorable in us He will make honorable
by adorning it with His divine beauty and His divine glory,
and living with God at the same time, we shall become gods,
no longer seeing the shamefulness of our body at all,
but made completely like Christ in our whole body;
each member of our body will be the whole Christ
because, becoming many members, He remains unique and indivisible,
and each part is He, the whole Christ.
Today (in some calendars at least) is the commemoration of St Pachomius, the founder of cenobitic monasticism. He was born in Thebes, upper Egypt, to pagan parents in about 292. At the age of 20 he was forcibly drafted--rounded up like a prisoner is more like it--into the Roman army during one of the civil wars endemic to that period. Fortunately the war ended before he had to do any fighting. Before this happened, he and his fellow recruits/prisoners were ministered to by local Christians. This so impressed him that he converted and undertook the ascetic life.
After some years as a hermit (the predominant form of monasticism at the time) Pachomius had a vision of an angel, who told him, "The will of God is to put oneself at the service of humanity in order to call them to himself". This inspired him to establish a series of monasteries in which monks and nuns would live in structured communities under the guidance of an abbot and a written rule. At the time of his death he had founded nine monasteries with a total of 5,000 monks. His rule influenced later monastics, including Benedict. He refused to let priests join (they came from local villages to celebrate the Eucharist on-site) and he refused ordination even when it was offered by the great Athanasius himself. Oh, yes, and he also invented that indispensable accessory of Eastern monasticism, the prayer rope.
Martin Thornton (1915-1986) was a priest of the Church of England and a prominent writer on the contemplative life. His English Spirituality (Cowley 1986; out of print but check Amazon for used copies) is a masterful introduction to the subject, covering both its pre- and post-Reformation aspects. Chapter 20 deals with the role of the Book of Common Prayer in spirituality and its relationship to the Rule of St Benedict .
The Prayer Book and the Rule of St Benedict
At first sight, the 1662 Prayer Book might appear to be even more than its thousand years apart from the Regula. The ages and circumstances are as different as they can be: Monte Cassino seems an entirely different world from the parish of St Mary, Manchester. But that is only the judgement of social history. From the point of view of ascetical theology, these two documents have a remarkable amount in common, and in a very real sense Caroline and modern England remains "the land of the Benedictines". There are five points of practical interest.
1. The basis of both the Prayer Book and the Regula is the fundamental, and biblical, threefold Rule of the Catholic Church: Office-Eucharist-personal devotion. The Prayer Book Office is two-fold instead of seven-fold, and is more elaborate, but both sets of Offices are based on the Psalter, both constitute corporate worship, the main emphasis of which is objective praise. Both presuppose a weekly celebration of the Eucharist although provision is made for more frequent services as required.
2. Both documents point to the ideal of a life of contemplative recollection, with private prayer as but a support to this. Jeremy Taylor [17th century English bishop] writes, "I would rather your prayer be often than long", St Benedict says prayer should be "short and frequent": neither provides much direct teaching on formal prayer and neither gives any semblance of a "method". Recollection is not just a religious exercise but that whic controls and colours practical daily life: to the Carolines all the duties of one's station, to the Benedictine, manual labour. The 57th "Instrument of Good Works" is simply "to apply oneself frequently to prayer"; the 48th and 49th are "to keep guard at all times over the actions of one's life' and "to know for certain that God sees one everywhere". Those are "Caroline" phrases if ever there were any. In fac the whole of this fourth chapter of the Regula is of recollective significance, moral rather than affective, and could be almost a skeleton syllabus for Caroline moral and ascetical theology.
Both Regula and Prayer Book couple recollection with repentance and progress towards perfection, and both extend daily recollection into the setting of the liturgical year.
3. Both systems are designed for an integrated and united community, predominantly lay. Ch 62 of the Regula makes it clear that there is no distinction between priest and lay-brother "except with regard to his office at the altar". The Rule is for everyone within the united community, while the priest is exhorted to set a good example of obedience to it to encourage the others.
4. Both books breathe a sane "domestic" spirit, and are noted for prudence, especially over physical discipline like fasting and mortification. St Benedict's Prologue speaks of "a school for the Lord's service, in the setting forth of which we hope to order nothing that is harsh or rigorous". The Regula is "a little rule for beginners" aimed at the needs of the less gifted. The Whole Duty of Man, arranged as a companion to the Prayer Book, is "laid down in a plain and familiar way for the use of all, but especially the meanest reader". Simon Patrick's A Book for Beginners, or A help to Young Communicants, another Prayer Book guide, goes even further with "directions for such as cannot read"; it is requested that "their masters and mistresses, or some good neighbor or relation, to be so charitable as to read them their duty about the matter". Like the Christian faith itself, both St benedict and the Prayer Book are capable of nurturing saintly doctors and saintly illiterates.
5. Liturgical revisers and pastoral planners do not always realise that the Prayer Book, no less than the Regula, presupposes a comparatively compact and very stable community. Whatever the difficulties we face to-day, and whatever reorganization may be necessary, the geographical parish is as much as part of the Prayer Book ascetic as the monastery was to the Benedictine Rule. The Common Office, empirical guidance within the "family" unit, as well as rubrics relating to Baptism and the residential qualifications for marriage and burial, all presuppose "Benedictine" stability. Whatever the answers to our practical problems, we should realise that huge parishes, group-ministries, industrial chaplaincies, eclectic congregations, and so on, are basically ascetical matters which are opposed to the Prayer Book system of spirituality.
- Joe Rawls
- I'm an Anglican layperson with a great fondness for contemplative prayer and coffeehouses. My spirituality is shaped by Benedictine monasticism, high-church Anglicanism, and the hesychast tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy. I've been married to my wife Nancy for 36 years.
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