On Evagrius, the Desert Fathers, and the seven deadly sins: An afternoon with William Harmless

A couple of days ago, on Day 4 of the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins Seminar that I’m currently attending, we were treated to a visit from William Harmless, author of the superlative guide Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Bill spoke with us about the context and habits of the desert fathers, their therapeutic methods for dealing with sin and holiness, and the development of Evagrius’s early version of the seven deadly sins: the “Eight Thoughts.”

Bill’s presentation, accompanied with a slide show, was captivating. We also had the pleasure of hanging out with him in Bob Kruschwitz’s rooms afterwards for a pizza party. Wish I’d had my digital audio recorder on for that one! Here are my notes on the formal presentation. You’ll find the usual bits where I got a little behind the conversation and missed something, but since the presentation was very well-structured, I think you’ll get the gist of it. I’ve included the free-flowing Q&A as well, since he continued to fill in fascinating details of his portrait of the desert fathers during that time.

He started by telling us a story from Macarius of a monk being told by his abba to go to a cemetery and praise the dead. The monk did so, then returned to the abba. “What did the dead respond?” said the abba. Why, nothing of course, said the monk. They were dead! “Then go back and curse the dead,” said the abba. Same thing. The monk returned. “What did the dead respond?” Still nothing. They’re dead! Concluded the abba: “I want you to be like those dead, giving no response to praise or blame.”

That’s a diagnosis of the soul. That’s how to read these things. You’re getting a graced insight. Macarius’s nickname was “spirit-bearer”—reading people’s souls as if they were open books. That captures what was going on in the desert. This was Evagrius’s story.

In the 1900’s if you had asked a church historian who Evagrius Pontus was, they would say, if they really knew their stuff, it was one of three people condemned as an Origenist. And snippet from one of his disciples, a Pelagius. There was a tremendous reclamation, in Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, in the 20th c. Sometimes attributed to Basil of Ceasara, other more respectable types. About 1950 the French in particularly woke up and found that Evagrius had profoundly influenced history of Christian spirituality. Not until 1930 did they know that Cassian was a student of Evagrius. He never once mentioned Evagrius’s name. He was chased out of the desert in 399 in that same Origenist controversy. A wounded man. We now realize how Evagrian the whole tradition of Eastern theology is: Maximus steals from him right and left without acknowledgement (and critiqued some of his stuff). Cassian with the eight vices.

Evagrius profoundly influences Syriac tradition. Profoundly. And they acknowledged him. His mystical side is interesting too. We are studying only his ascetical side. We need to look at the mystical side to see where he’s taking the monks.

We can now reconstruct his bio with fair accuracy. Lausiac History. Also French analysis of Coptic version of Palladius’s Lausiac History. Much longer version of Evagrius’s life. Some precisions. What happened: Palladius wrote four lives while still a monk, then abbreviated them, added other people. Coptic is the rough draft of what would later become the Greek version.

Who is Evagrius? His father was a country bishop. He is from Pontus on the Black Sea, above Chalcedon (and to the East). Ordained lector by Basil of Caesarea, as a lector. At the time, the cutting edge discussion was “is the HS God or not?” Basil and the Cappadocians create orthodoxy on the trinity as we now Know it. These are Evagrius’s circles. He is there in Constantinople as arch-deacon. Unusually gifted in debating these issues.  In Constantinople, on eve of the council. That’s where the Nicene creed that includes affirmation of divinity of HS is forged.

Also key letter, considered great letter on the Trinity, we now recognize, since the early 20th c., is by Evagrius, not Basil. So he contributed to formation of Christian orthodoxy on trinity.

Greg of Nazianzus got in trouble all the time. Felt compeled to resign during council. Evagrius without patron. Nectarius the new guy. Evagrius member of his clergy. Fell in love with an upper-class married womamn. Could be subject to capital punishment. Evagrius dreamed he was brought before angel as judge, in chains. Made him swear on Bible he’d leave town. He did.

Packed up bags, fled to Jerusalem. No question adultery a capital offense. Read him on fornication—he’s talking about things that had happened to him!

Fled to Jerusalem: became part of circle of Melania the Elder (d. 410)—latin-speaking monastery on Mount of Olives. Melania the Jackie Kennedy of the ancient world. Her husband had been rising political star. She has died, had a couple of kids, one of the wealthiest wwomen in the empire. Refused. Fascinated by the new phenomenon, sweeping the empire, monks. Probably met monks in Athanasius’s entourage when he was in exile. She goes off to Alexandria to see the monks.

She is taken out to desert, lavishes her wealth on themonks of Egypt. Settles outside Jerusalem, starts Christian think-tank. Can read Origen, memorized thousands of lines of him in original Greek. She’s the abbess of probably a double monastery. The leader of the men’s half: Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410). Most of greek theology in medieval world was Rufinus’s translations from Greek to Latin.

So Evagrius encounters this internationally famous monastery. Melanius convinces him to become a monk. He becomes a disciple of Macarius the Alexandrian and Macarius the Egyptian. Ancient sourcdes got these two confused. The Egyptian was the founder of the monastery of Scetis, on whom Bill told the opening story. His local priest was the other guy, who was quite an ascetic. The Egyptian was a fourth-century truck driver equivalent. He had a gruff personality. If you treated him too holy he would blow you off. But if you talked about his wild youth, he’d like you.

Then sequence of events precipitating Chrysostom being thrown out of office. Evagrius within short time emerges as leader. Spends couple of years at a monastery of Nitria, large-scaled coenobitic. Can’t think of medieval terms. Think of wild west towns. They are settlements, spread out. In 1960s, a key Evagrian scholar, Guillamaune ?, was convinced he knew where Evagrius’s monastery was. He found it! The excavation of Kellia (that was Evagrius’s joint). Under Nitria, which is under Alexandria. NYC dynamics shape Alexandria’s self-consciousness. They didn’t think of selves as Egyptians more than NYC’ers think of selves as belonging to New York state. Scetis is below Kellia. So it goes N-S: Alexandria, Nitria, Kellia, Scetis, down the Nile delta.

He shows slide (the whole thing is accompanied by a slide show) of the Hermitages of Kellia. He lived in W Africa, served in peace corps in Mali. They lived in situations similar to this. The Abba lived in separate area. Walled-in courtyard, well, garden, gatehouse to control access, disciple in another hut in corner. Latrine on another corner. Fairly standard.

Now look at next set of slides. You can see the cells in the Archeology of Kellia: the Koms. Some of the buildings quite elaborate.

Insides of houses, some built a bit, half-story, below ground to keep it cool. Domes for light and air. Those have now collapsed, but the walls, mud brick with whitewash, and various painting decorations. Fake columns around doorways. Shows us wall of standard cell, with decoration, bottom half of elaborate cross. There were niches, storage compartments, in the walls. Door and hinge on them often. Church often functioned as dining hall as well—just as contemporary churches build gym that later becomes church.

Not sure of dating of a lot of these places. Some are more elaborate, with professional workmanship, probably 100 – 150 years after Evagrius. But some idea of what it was like. These were fishermen on the Nile, so fish graffiti, but also fish as Christ. Some of these guys ex-camel drivers. A lot of crosses on cells, artworks of crosses, some elaborate.

We read the Praktikas and On the Eight Thoughts. We have a feel for how he writes. The art of the chapter. Look at handouts. (bottom p. 2, top p. 3)

Writings of Evagrius: first the PRaktikos (the Practitioner, or the Monk). Then the Gnostikos (the Gnostic). Then the Kephalaia Gnostica (the Gnostic Chapters). He thinks this is E’s physics, not his theology. Physics is contemplating God’s presence within the natural world and the history of salvation. Meditating yes, on the Bible, but also in all things. Admiring beauty of creation, then asking as Isaac Newton is, what are the deeper principles of God’s providence that shape the sequence . . . of history. Not translated into English yet. We should be concerned with Praktikos and On the Eight Thoughts.

The other one just translated is the Antirrheticos, just translated in the last 6 months: “Talking back.” A list of 498 temptations and the monk talking back. Model: Jesus in the Bible. How he evicted those. It’s modeled on the Eight Thoughts.

Two works to undertand his more mystical side is Skemmata (Reflections) and De oration (Chapters on Prayer)—one of the most influential texts in Western spirituality. Shows up in the Philokalia too, shaping Orthodox spirituality.

Evagrius also a Biblical commentator: Scolia, brief comments on difficult verses. Scholia on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes are translated. Also we have 64 letters, though mostly not translated.  Letter to Melania, he sets out his worldview.

Other shorter things. 1.5 years ago in the Sources Chretiennes, “Chapters of the Disciples of Evagrius.” Critical edition. About four hundred sayings of Evagrius.

We are interested of course in the eight thoughts, eight vices (Cassian), seven deadly sins (Middle Ages).

Order matters. . . . (missed, see 36ish)

Comes to us via Cassian. Gregory makes alterations. Removes sloth (desert vice) and inserts envy (urban: appropriate to city of Rome).

One thing to think about. We have been reading Cassian. He refers to them as vices. Later: sins. They are none of these things. They are “thoughts.” Evagrius talking to monks who are praying all week. Stream of stuff going across the “ticker” all week. Are these thoughts legitimate? Discernment process. . . .

Story of John, guy enclosed in cell. Got community of monks he’s directing, who attend to him. He tells a guy who visits everything about his own family, about his temptations. It was Palladius. Wanted to go back, convert his family. But this guy John Lacopolis says: nope, that’s a bad thing, a temptation. Thhat’s what we’re dealing with in ..>

He goes to Evagrius on Acedia. See VI on p. 99 in our Praktikos, in the packet.

First, the guy is bored out of his mind. It’s a “tedium of the heart.” Restless boredom. Very real, if you’ve spent time in the desert. He is tempted to flee, wants distractions. This is the most modern of all the thoughts. All the students, this is why they’re texting each other. They suffer from acedia. Can’t be alone, can’t stay still. Manic desire of acedia.

How to counter it? Stay still. Do the opposite. What matters is the . . . .  This is the “training arena.” The “stadium,” he says. They’re training for the virtuous life. You need demons to get trained, like sparring partners. To leave the cell is to abandon the ring. “No mas!” is an act of athletic cowardice. The challenge is to stay put, endure the heat. Notice the excuses: the brothers don’t love each other any more. I could move and establish a ministry . . .

Favorite one is the boredom of spiritual reading. Look at the boredom of spiritual reading, in the Eight Thoughts. (44:45ish). Any college library: the demon of acedia has taken up residence there. Also you can tell Evagrius is a professional book-maker. You get a glimpse of him there.

In other accounts, the Antirrheticos, he talks about the temptation to go back home. Palladius’s story: he was suffering from acedia, the temptation to go home, do good deeds. And anxiety: how can I do this for the rest of my life? How to counter that: human being’s days are like grass. These monks want to see death every day. Life’s a gift, and I must savor it every day. But they’re in the midst of training, and it’s hard stuff.

Notice the psychology, fragment of a letter on acedia: It’s an entangled struggle of hate (whatever’s in front of him) and desire (for things that aren’t there). Evagrius is good at diagnosing multiple strands of a temptation.

For me this is the ultimate modern vice. A couple of perspectives.

First, for Evagrius his theory of the thoughts is simultaneously a demonology. For him, it’s hand-to-hand combat. People in the world, demons attack them through their possessions. Cenobitic monks are attacked by demons through the vices of their fellow monks. How does an anchorite encounter it? Via thought. And that war is much more fierce.

Most of us tend to read these guys purely psychologically. They primarily think metaphysically, though there is a psychology in that metaphysics. For him the demons are external, attack from the outside. They are like animals with acute senses. They can’t get into our heads. Air spirits. Angry. They can detect from things we say and do, or little patterns, like “tells.” Demons watch and capitalize. They try certain things—sometimes it works, sometimes not.

You are going to war. Often you’ll lose. Only way to get better: training, with the demons.

Demons and the Making of the Monk, see David Brakke on Evagrius’s views on the thoughts. He highlights the demonology. David is a very fine reader of the texts. The whole point: you need sparring partners. The demons may be malicious, but in the end they are God’s unwilling servants, Evagrius thinks. Can’t do things God won’t let them do.

Christ in the Desert and the Art of “Talking Back”

[Cassian’s dominant Christology is the transfiguration. See 9 and 10 in Conferences]

Other key: Evagrius takes on Platonic scheme: Soul has three parts: Rational, Irascible, Concupiscible. The latter is our attractions, what we desire. In his metaphysics, agrees with Augustine: we are inherently restless desirers. Demons are primarily irascible. It’s the energy. When it functions properly, it gives us courage, energy to take on the world. Enables us to fight the demons. That’s natural. What’s unnatural is fighting one another. That’s the wrong use of anger. Then there’s rationality. I used to think, when I read Evagrius, that he’s not thinking in logical thoughts, syllogisms. It’s intuitive. How do I recognize someone’s face? Instantly. Mind is not a debater, it’s a seer.

Also it’s what athletes call “focus.” I need both “heart’ and “focus.” The latter is the rational. Elite athletes. Zadan lost focus, head-butted someone, and his team lost the world cup (red-carded). Says nothing of his other skills, but he lost focus.

Looking at three of the thoughts: lust/fornication, anger, and vainglory.

In last couple of minutes, lets put Evagrius’s ideas within a map.

When he started working on Evagrius in late 90s, wrote to an expert, Jeremy Driscoll. Said “I think you can plot this: I could put it on a spreadsheet.” So I did. Look at handout. I’ll walk you through.

On one side: Praktike (ascetic practices: the practical method of purifying (spiritualizing?) the ___ of the soul. A cleansing of soul. That’s the negative part) and on the other side, mystical knowledge (gnostike).

Often depression is paralyzing anger that turns inward (lupe: he uses the word depression)—and he sees that anger often comes first, then depression after.

Rational facilities: pride, vainglory, and acedia . . . he’s not consistent. Sometimes he associates it with our energies. But elsewhere, in the chapters of the disciples, he associates it with the rational part. Like losing focus in the athletic analogy.

He also has corresponding theory of virtues. He got his three parts of the soul virtues thing from Gregory Nazaianzen, not directly from Plato, though Greg knew Plato.

When you get your life together, you get a certain calm, a stillness. Balthasar wrongly called Evagrius a Buddhist. Wrong, but a certain truth here. There’s a calm, a slight smile: that’s apatheia, passionlessness. I don’t use Impassibility, not a good translation. You’re not a driven person. You still have emotions, but they don’t drive you. They don’t disintegrate  you. For Evagrius, it’s a centering, bringing the fractured self into a whole.

Signs? You’re calm in your daily life. Also it touches your dreams: these are markings of our unconscious. Also then the spirit begins to see its own light, to have experiences (mystical) of “light.” Wordless, imageless, unceasing.

A century after Evagrius, in 5th-c. Palestine, they developed the Jesus Prayer.  Lord Jesus have mercy on me. Centering prayer. Wordless, imageless. What emerges from this, says E, is love. No illusions: you can’t love all the brothers equally. Bt you need to see in each of them an image of the prototype . . . (missed a bit, 1:02)

Then you get into the mystical life, which he calls Gnostic. First you find God in nature, physike, then direct encounter with God, theologike. That’s why “if you pray truly you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you pray truly.”

Jay: you’ve used term “spiritual athlete.” To what extent did Evagrius, Cassian, others, think this was a suitable progression for everyday folks. Or was it a “don’t try this at home?”

Bill: A little of both. But the Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies invited him to write the essay on monasticism. He asked “where is the future of your studies is going?”

Read it out (1:06ish)


Elite athletes goes beyond what we can do, but they’re laymen. This is ordinary AND elite Christianity simultaneously. Not an accident these monks are being kidnapped out of the desert and being made bishops. To this day the Orthodox Church does this. Might be able to guide ordinary Christians in the pathway. In our project this is what we’re doing! I don’t see this. There’s too much Foucaultian hyper-analysis of bodies in the field. Bodies are part of it, but that’s only one part of the training.

Pseudo-macarian letters: J Wesley has his experience of heart-warming from reading those letters.

Much dispute about how “Cappadocian” Evagrius was. But hasn’t absorbed Gregory Naz’s Christology. His Christology is very crude. Ev will be condemned heretically for his version of Christology. He was never ordained, so never had to preach the gospels. Didn’t spend enough time coming to grips with the historical Jesus. But the late fourth, fifth c. will grapple with this, climaxing at Chalcedon, 451. But Evagrius is deficient on that.

Samuel Beckett was James Joyce’s secretary. Joyce’s eyes very bad at end of life. He was Joyce’s secretary while writing Finnegan’s Wake. And read Beckett! Very pruned down, opposite of Joyce. Gregory baroque  (missed) But Evagrius adopts this Kephalaia style, very apothegmatic, one-liners. But on other levels, deep influence. From Gregory he picked up Origenist pattern. From Clement of Alexandria, he picked up “Gnostic” language. From his reading circle in the desert.

Keith: how many in an enclosure? Standard: an abba and a disciple or two. Could yell over to other cells. Before long, the cells got closer. There are 45 sq miles of those cells. They looked pretty luxurious, says Keith? Well those may be the ones of the wealthy, says Bill. Scetis is different: holes in rock face. Scetis more adobe cliff-dwellings.

Question from Darin: about this idea of pitting the thoughts from one demon to that of another. Bill: dunno. Doesn’t get picked up by the tradition.

Look at handout on fornication. You have to come to grips with the fact that you still have this mental pornography. (Demon as Sultry Temptress)

Note Bill does, in the chapter The Sayings of the Desert Fathers of his book Desert Christians: day in the life: get up before dawn, say morning prayer alone. Make ropes, baskets, or rugs. Sell those crafts in the market. Provides subsistence living. They eat in late afternoon. Acedia, waiting for sun to go down: he’s hungry! Lost concentration, falling asleep. Praying night prayers. Some are trying to do all night prayer vigils. Debate in desert on how much to eat. Evagrius inherited from Macarius a strict restriction of water. Adam and Eve fell because they ate. Gateway of the other vices. You can starve them out. This seems to be somewhat healthy. Monks tend to live long. Nuns too. Some of this really effective. But debate . . .

When I studied the apothegmata. The great moderate Poemon. He says, don’t go 2, 3, 6 days. Bad idea. Eat every day, but not enough to be satisfied. They’re all eating bread. It’s hard, so they soak it in a kind of brine. They get the salt they need. They eat vegetables only MAYBE on feast days, or when they have visitors. They grow em but may not eat em. In the Pachomian monasteries there are treats for feast days, sort of fig newtons. Some monks hoard them. Pachomian monks famous for sleeping in a sort of easy chair. Not actually laying down. Everyone thought that was awesome. Another deprivation. Probably sleeping 4-5 a day. Trying to pray and work simultaneously. Eucharist twice a week, once sat and once Sunday. Deep devotion to eucharist, though it doesn’t emerge as important in the texts. First debate on real presence happen with these folks. Eucharist not a full meal. The emerging forms of the liturgies as we now know them. They are also . . . (missed a bit on:) spiritual retreats in solitary, then breaks where you talk talk talk talk. Then back. And you remember all the things you talked about on that one day. . . . (Missed some, 1:26ish).

Anger: most regard these loose comments made on weekend over meals . . . little jokes. Digs at each other. And they get angry later, when they’re trying to pray. And it blinds you, like smoke, fog. You’ll carry on fierce debates, like “letters to the editor.” Sending out great treatises . . . but not praying!

He compares praying with anger to Oedipus: sticking pins in your eyes! Mastery is “un-anger.” Like Buddhist virtues that are all negative. He is coining terms like that. You can’t see the place of God . . . in essence that’s his term for the image of God within us. For him that’s a mountain, because Moses encounters God on the mountain. Moses sees God, but in Greek it says “Moses sees the place of God.” He interprets: what you’re doing is that in your prayer you’re climbing mount Zion. Going to go meet God. And he’ll move within you. Evagrius tends to say you see the light indirectly, not directly. So the purification is to make this “mirror mind” so you see God clearly in it. So these vices are clouding the mirror of the mind. And anger is the worst. Columba Stewart has done great work on Evagrius on anger. Bodily demons deal with the younger monks, who are hung up with gluttony, lust, etc. But the “soul demons” attack the advanced.

So advice to the Gnostic, he talks about J being salt, for the young monks, and light for the advanced monks. So as a teacher, who is your audience? Certain things for advanced monks and certain ones for beginning ones.

Bob: what about that translation you did, with the creatures leaving their traces. Bill: yes, he’s using hunting language who follows animal by dung. Boniface Ramsey’s translations a bit stiff. Cassian is a heck of a writer, whose language is gorgeous. Bob: this goes back to “which of these vices are first, which leaves pathways that let the other creatures through. Our job is to find the traces, chase down the vices . . .

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One response to “On Evagrius, the Desert Fathers, and the seven deadly sins: An afternoon with William Harmless

  1. Pingback: Where Nature Lies Naked Awaiting The Hunt | Hanging Gardens of Babylon

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