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, August 7, 2013

ABBA EVAGRIUS - The Eight Thoughts (Vices)

Abba Evagrius is well-known to students of the Philokalia. He was a monk of Sketis, born around the middle of the fourth century to a priest. He was known to such contemporary teachers as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian. He attended the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, but he left there after a short while for Jerusalem. There he became and monk and returned to Egypt a short while later. He lived in Nitria for two years, then in the area known as "the Cells," and finally in Sketis. He was a student of St. Macarius of Egypt and St. Macarius of Alexandria. Abba Evagrius wrote many texts which were translated and read widely in both the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking Churches. His works were translated and carried to the West by his disciple, Rufinus.

This teaching from Abba Evagrius is written in the form of a letter to Anatolius and is about the eight vices from which all other thoughts stem.


BEGIN:  -- There are eight principal thoughts, from which all other thoughts stem. The first thought is of gluttony; the second, of fornication; the third, of love of money; the fourth, of discontent; the firth, of anger; the sixth, of despondency; the seventh, of vainglory; the eighth, of pride. Whether these thoughts disturb the soul or not does not depend on us; but whether they linger in us or not and set passions in motion or not -- does depend on us.

-- The thought of gluttony suggests to a monk that he make haste to give up his ascetic life, depicting to him diseases of the stomach, liver or bile, dropsy or some other long illness, the lack of medical remedies and the absence of physicians. Moreover, it brings to his memory brethren who actually contracted such diseases. At times the enemy urges brethren, who have suffered such diseases, to visit monks who are fasting and to relate what has happened to them, adding that this was due to too strict an abstinence.

-- The demon of fornication excites carnal lust, and insidiously attacks abstainers, striving to make them abandon their abstinence, thinking that it brings them no profit. Polluting the soul, it urges it also towards such actions and makes them say and hear certain words, as though the act itself were before their eyes.

-- Love of money conjectures a long old age, inability to work with one's hands, hunger, illness, the hardships of want and the grievousness of accepting from others the wherewithal for bodily needs.

-- Discontent is sometimes caused by the loss of what is desirable, and sometimes accompanies anger. When caused by the loss of what is desirable it happens thus. Certain thoughts come first and bring to the soul memories of home, relatives and the old way of life. When they see the soul does not oppose them but goes with them and mentally spreads itself in enjoying them, they seize it and immerse it in discontent, both because the objects of their thoughts are absent, and because by the statutes of a monk's life he cannot have them. So the more eagerly the poor soul spreads itself in the initial thoughts, the more it is stricken and grieved by the sequel.

-- Anger is the quickest passion of all. It is aroused and inflamed against a man who has done, or seems to have done one an injury. It hardens the soul ever more and more; it particularly captures the mind during prayer, vividly bringing up the face of an offender. At times, lingering in the soul and passing into enmity, it causes nightmares, depicting physical tortures, the horrors of death, attacks of poisonous snakes and beasts. These four phenomena accompanying the birth of enmity, bring with them many thoughts, as every observer will find for himself.

-- The demon of despondency, which is also called the noonday demon (Psalms 90:6), is more grievous than all others. It attacks a monk in about the fourth hour (about ten in the morning) and whirls the soul round and round till about the eighth hour (two o'clock in the afternoon). It begins by making a man notice dejectedly how slowly the sun moves, or does not move at all, and that the day seems to have become fifty hours long. Then it urges the man to look frequently out of the window or even to go our of his cell to look at the sun and see how long it is till the ninth hour, at the same time making him glance hither and thither to see if some of the brethren are about. Then it arouses in him vexation against the place and his mode of life itself and his work, adding that there is no more love among the brethren and no one to comfort him. If in these days someone has offended him, the demon reminds him of it to increase his vexation. The it provokes in him a longing for other places, where it would be easier to find the wherewithal to satisfy his needs by adopting some craft which is less strenuous and more profitable. He adds that to please God does not depend on the place; God can be worshiped everywhere. He connects with this thought memories of relatives and former well-being; and prophesies here a long life with the hardships of asceticism, and uses every wile to make the monk end by leaving his cell and taking flight from his career. This demon is followed by another, but not at once. However if a monk fights and conquers, this struggle is followed by a peaceful state, and the soul becomes filled with ineffable joy.

-- The thought of vainglory is the most subtle of all. It comes to those who lead a righteous life, and begins to extol their efforts and collect praise from men, making them imagine the cries of demons being cast out, the healing of women, crowds pressing round a man to touch his garments. Finally it predicts his consecration into priesthood, brings to his doors men to seek him who, on his refusal, bind him and lead him forcibly away against his will. Having thus kindled idle hopes in him, the demon withdraws, leaving the field for further temptations either by the demon of pride or the demon of discontent, who at once suggests to him thoughts opposed to these hopes. At times he even surrenders to the demon of fornication, this man who, only a short time before, saw himself as a holy and venerable priest.

-- The demon of pride is the cause of the most grievous fall of the soul. It counsels the soul not to profess God as its helper, but to ascribe to itself its righteousness and to puss itself up before its brethren, considering them to be ignorant because not all of them think so highly of it. Pride is followed by anger and discontent and by the final evil -- going out of one's mind, frenzy and visions of many demons in the air. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, trans., Early Fathers from the Philokalia, (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 110 - 112.