The Praktikos (4th cent.)

For vainglory has a frightful power to cover over and cast virtues into the shade. Ever searching out praise from men, it banishes faith (13).

I have finished The Praktikos and am struck again by the lucidity of the Early Christian writing. Like so many of the desert mothers and fathers, Evagrius displays a single-mindedness toward God and relationship with God.

Turning to the book, Evagrius’ demonology, his writing on the eight kinds of evil thought, and the virtue of apatheia represent the three themes that have stuck with me most from this reading.

The eight kinds of evil thoughts involves Evagrius’ demonology. Interestingly, in the Introduction, the editor notes that for Evagrius,

demons represent a source and influence that is distinct from the mere intrinsic psychology of the human soul, a kind of added dimension of the affective life. It also assumes that, though the world of demons is separate from the world of the passions, yet it is in continuity with it, and follows laws analogous to the psychological laws of man’s nature (9).

The editor cites chapter 50 of The Praktikos, which reads,

If there is any monk who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons so as to gain experience in his monastic art, then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, their periodicity, the demons which cause them, with the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask from Christ the explanations of these data he has observed. For the demons become thoroughly infuriated with those who practice active virtue in a manner that is increasingly contemplative (30).

So from this, the reader learns that the demon interacts with the psyche and inclines it to sin. The demon causes the thought that leads to sin. This, for me, somehow makes the notions of demons more real. Instead of a little guy with a pitchfork running around looking to hop inside of someone, we are presented with a demon, a pervasive evil—for example, gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride—that hunts us out and seeks to incline our hearts toward their sin.

How does one combat the demons? Well the person “despises not only the demon he conquers, but also these kinds of thoughts [the demon] causes in us” (25). So one hates the demon of impurity, yes, but also the continuing presence of the impure thought within the person for it is both evidence of the demon’s handiwork and of our acquiescence to it.

It is worth noting that the demons are also overcome by praying to Jesus, as mentioned in the extended quote from page 30 above. The editor says that Evagrius “simply assumes that Christ would have an interest in assisting such a monk [i.e., the one who has observed his thoughts] to interpret his findings, for it would obviously be an aid to spiritual growth.” The editor continues,

Once again there is a profoundly orthodox theology behind such an assumption, a theology that accepts the nature of man in its operations as a sacrament of union with Christ. If this point were better appreciated, perhaps there would be less criticism of the tendency of the Desert Fathers generally, and Evagrius in particular, to employ themselves excessively in the understanding of the passions and the heart of man, and insufficiently with the love of God. For them such understanding assured that their love of God was genuine, not based on self-deception or evasion, but on a courageous and humble encounter with the forces of good and evil that aided or barred the way to their ascent. Once the obstacles are removed through intelligent, ascetic effort, directed where insight leads, the grace of Christ will flower fully into a love of God that is ineffable. This is the unexpressed preconception that underlies [Evagrius’] study of psychology, and his demonology as well (9–10).

Moving on, the eight kinds of evil thought represent the foundation of all sin. They are listed above—gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride—and represent the work of the corresponding eight demons.

Evagrius’ words on acedia are important. Acedia, “also called the noonday demon” (cf. Pslam 91:6), “causes the most serious trouble of all,” according to Evagrius. Acedia is the demon that “makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long.” Ah, yes, I know that demon, he appears in my cubicle at about 1:30 every day. After inspiring much boredom, acedia “leads [a person] to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethen, that there is no one to give encouragement. . . . This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself” (18–19).

After sending an email out to some friends about the notion of acedia, I heard back from one who wrote, “I learned from [Kathleen] Norris and other readings that acedia plagues us in different ways at different times in different forms. In general, acedia is caring too much about things that don’t matter, and too little about things that do. Thus, one either becomes lethargic and irascible, or stir-crazy and irritable. Neither is good for the self or the community. Somewhat different symptoms these, but the same virus—misaligned affections. Acedia can wickedly turn one inside-out in all the worst ways, especially making one uber self-conscious.” And he continued, “BTW, when I say ‘self-conscious,’ I mean it in the way that Archbishop Rowan Williams used it in his address to the Synod of Roman Catholic Bishops sometime back: ‘The enemy of all proclamation of the Gospel is self-consciousness, and, by definition, we cannot overcome this by being more self-conscious.'” Insightful words from a wise and dear friend.

Moving on to the notion of apatheia, or a state of peacefulness of the soul, Evagrius counsels his readers on how to combat the demons. First, he says that “[h]unger, toil, and solitude are the means of extinguishing the flames of desire” (20). He then advises, “When you are tempted do not fall immediately to prayer. First utter some angry words against the one who afflicts you. The reason for this is found in the fact that your soul cannot pray purely when it is under the influence of various thoughts. By first speaking out in anger against them you confound and bring to nothing the devices of the enemy. To be sure this is the usual effect of anger even upon more worthy thoughts” (27)—that final sentence represents an important warning against anger in all its forms.

The editor writes in a footnote, “Though this approach has been sharply criticized, yet there is a very real value in it, at least to this extent that sharp identification of the precise nature of our thoughts gives us a decided advantage in our efforts to work with or against them as the case may be” (28n45). Evagrius has another book entitled Antirrheticus—in English, Talking Back—in which he lists certain biblical passages to use against the offending demon.

Concerning the “two peaceful states of the soul,” Evagrius writes,

The one arises from the natural basic energies of the soul and the other from the withdrawal of the demons. Humility together with compunction and tears, longing for the Infinite God, and a boundless eagerness for toil—all these follow upon the first type. . . . The monk who preserves intact the territory of the first state will perceive with greater sensitivity the raids made upon it by the demons (32).

This peacefulness of the soul leads to apatheia, which is apparently borrowed from the stoics, but strikes me as being rather akin to Zen. He says that the soul at peace “has no images of the things of this world at the time of prayer” and that “[t]he soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well” (34).

The book concludes with some saying of the desert mothers and father; I one here.

A certain member of what was then considered the circle of the wise once approached the just Anthony and asked him: “How do you ever manage to carry on, Father, deprived as you are of the consolation of books?” His reply: “My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God” (39).

Another story from the desert is about a man who affirms his father’s immortality at his father’s funeral. The footnote reads, “We know from elsewhere this refers to Evagrius himself” (40n66). And that’s causes me to stop and think, “Wow, I’m reading one of the Desert Fathers.” What a great gift it is to have preserved and translated and available the writings of the first generations of Christians. Thanks be to God.

* Citations reference page numbers in the Cistercian Publications edition of the text, not paragraph numbers.

4 responses to “The Praktikos (4th cent.)

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