The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

ABBA EVAGRIUS - The Acting LIfe of the Monk

Abba Evagrius was a monk in Scetis. He was born in the middle of the fourth century, the son of a priest. Because of his background and obvious capabilities, he caught the attention of such notable contemporaries as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian. St. Basil anointed him reader, St. Gregory of Nyssa ordained him as deacon, and then took him to Constantinople. He eventually left there to escape temptation and went to Jerusalem where he took monastic vows. Shortly after that, he went to Egypt where he settled in Nitria for two years and finally in Scetis where he apparently spent the rest of his life. He died in 399.

In today's reading, we will study a short text of Abba Evagrius on "the active life," written as part of a longer text of spiritual instruction for monks.


-- Our holy and most experienced teacher used to say: a monk should be attuned in himself, as if he had to die tomorrow; and he should deal with his body as though he had to live many years. For, as he said, the first stops despondent thoughts and makes a monk more zealous, and the second keeps the body healthy and makes it always preserve an even temperance.

-- It is necessary to distinguish the differences between demons and to note their times. From thoughts we learn which demons are rare but grievous, which are constant but lighter, which jump on one suddenly and entice the mind to blasphemy. It is also important to observe when thoughts begin to bring forward their objects, so that, before quitting our usual state, we may have time to say something against them and to notice who is in them. For in this way we shall succeed with God's help and shall force them to turn away from us with vexation, marveling at us.

-- When the demons become exhausted in their struggle with monks, they withdraw a little and watch which virtue will be neglected during that interval; then, suddenly attacking this side they pillage the poor soul.

-- With laymen the demons fight rather by means of actual things, but with monks mostly by means of thoughts; for in the wilderness they have no things. But as it is easier and quicker to sin in thought then in deed, so mental warfare is more arduous than that waged by means of things. The mind is something extremely mobile and unrestrainable, susceptible to sinful fantasies.

-- We are not commanded to work, keep vigil and fast unceasingly; but we are commanded to pray without ceasing. For the former efforts, directed towards healing the lustful part of the soul, have need of the body for their action; and the body cannot exist in constant work and privations without support. Prayer, however, purifies and renders strong in battle the mind, which is created to pray even without this body, and to fight the demons for the protection of all the powers of the soul.

-- Let us discern the signs of passionlessness during daytime by means of thoughts, and at night by means of dreams. Let us call passionlessness the health of the soul, and knowledge its food; because it alone unites us with the holy powers, since union with the incorporeal beings is possible only when our state corresponds to theirs.

-- There are two peaceable states of the soul: one comes of the weakening and drying up of natural juices, the other is due to withdrawal of the demons. The first is accompanied by humility with contrition of heart -- tears and a measureless desire of the Divine; the second is followed by vainglory and pride, which take possession of a monk when other demons have withdrawn. He who protects the realm of the first state can more easily discern the attacks and wiles of the demons.

-- The demon of vainglory is opposed to the demon of fornication; it is not feasible for the two to attack the soul together, for one promises honors and the other casts into dishonor. Therefore if one of them approaches and begins to disturb you, bring to your mind the thoughts of the opposing demon. If you succeed, as the saying goes, in driving out one nail with another, know that you are close to the realm of passionless; for your mind has proved able to drive away the demon's suggestions by human thoughts. But of course, to banish the thought of vainglory by humility, or the thought of fornication by chastity, would be a sign of the deepest passionlessness. Try to act thus in relation to all demons and their opposites. Doing this you will also learn what passion was filling you. Yet beg God with all your strength to teach you and help you to drive away the enemies by the second method.

-- The further the soul progresses, the more powerful are the enemies who attack it. I do not think that the demons who surround it are always the same. This is known best to those who watch sharply the temptations which attack them, and see that their customary passionlessness is being shaken more violently than before by new demons, successors of the old.

-- Perfect passionlessness comes to the soul when all the demons who oppose active life are overcome. Passionlessness is called imperfect when the soul still wages war as much as it can with the demon who attacks it, without, however, giving ground.

-- The mind will not pass through, will not complete safely this passionate way (of trials) and will not enter the realm of the incorporeal, unless it sets right what is within. Domestic disorder is bound to turn it back to things it has left behind.

-- Both virtues and vices make the mind blind: with the first it does not see vices, and with the second, virtues. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (trans), "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 106 - 108