Some friends and I read Evagrius Ponticus’ Chapters on Prayer while on retreat together. It made for some most interesting conversation. In it, Evagrius continues his themes from The Praktikos, with renunciation, purity in prayer, combating distractions and demons, and watchfulness featuring heavily.
The book begins with the claim that “[p]rayer is a continual intercourse of the spirit with God” (3). This language of intimacy prepares one for the single-minded vision that Evagrius has for the life of prayer. He advises first to prayer for compunction, the gift of tears, so that one can be moved to repentance. Once repentance comes, one is to “[s]trive to render your mind deaf and dumb at the time of prayer and then you will be able to pray” (11). What Evagrius envisions in the fourth century is essentially a model for contemplative prayer in which one must sit still in the midst of God’s presence, allowing distractions to fall away without engagement.
During our retreat an interesting observation was made about Evagrius’ call to be reconciled prior to prayer (22). One of my friends said that, for him, prayer often comes prior to the ability to reconcile. That is, the need to be reconciled with a friend often moves him to prayer so that reconciliation can flow out of that—a helpful counterbalance to Evagrius.
At our retreat locale, there is a “God Alone” gate, which made Evagrius’ following observation most meaningful: “What else is there that is good besides God alone? (33)” One can mull this over for hours, but the upshot is that where there is good (whether the beauty of nature or the fidelity of a spouse, for example), there is an outworking of God’s presence. Returning to the theme of perseverance in the midst of distraction, Evagrius continues, “For what greater thing is there than to converse intimately with God and to be preoccupied with his company? Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect” (34). Thus the intellect is most fully alive when it is without those things that distract if from God. (Which, of course, must cause us to raise questions about our present technocracy in America.) Freedom from distraction comes, for Evagrius, through freedom from the passions (e.g., gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride), ignorance, and temptation (37). When freed from these things we are free to pray for self and other, thus pursuing justice (38).
In chapter 60, Evagrius offers a simple, yet complex, statement: “If you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray you are a theologian.” The translator includes a footnote that claims this passage is key to understanding Evagrius’ “identification of contemplation with prayer” (n32). For Evagrius, the key to theologianhood is not one’s ability to say things about God but upon one’s ability to renounce all to be in God’s midst. (“This is Buddhism,” one of my friends said while reading Evagrius.)
One friend pointed out the phrase “drawing near a country whose name is prayer” (61). For Evagrius, while renouncing, one is drawing near a new habitat—namely, a country of prayer. That we discussed this phrase on July 4th was also significant, for we had retreated geographically to a silent country of prayer, away from all the bang-bang noises of the country that celebrates warring.
Chapter 75 mentions “negligence” and the translator included a footnote that points out how “[n]egligence is the source of the first sin and the fall” (n37). Evagrius says time and again (especially in The Praktikos) that we must be on guard against entities that keep us from God, but this footnote makes its importance clear: neglecting watchfulness is the root of all sin for if we were watchful, we would see the temptation coming. So we need to be aware of what’s happening in and around us.
Evagrius talks about stories of various holy people in chapters 106–109. Two were especially of interest to one of my friends:
108. Doubtless you have also heard of the monks of Tabennisi. It is related that, on one occasion when Abbot Theodore was speaking to the brethren, two vipers crawled up right between his feet. Well, he remained undisturbed and made a kind of arch of his feet to keep them there till he should finish his talk. Only then did he show them to the brethren and told them what had happened.
109. There was another spiritual man about whom we have read. While he was praying one day a viper crawled up to him and seized his foot. He did not so much as lower his arms until he finished his customary prayer, and he suffered no harm whatever from thus loving God above his own self.
My friend asked, “What are my vipers?” sensing the difficulty we have today with tales of snake hangling. (As one of my friends said, “I grew up where people played with snakes in church and died.”) So my friends introspective question is helpful. What are the things that seek to harm us that we are able to withstand because of our faith in God? …Incidentally, the Gospel reading on Sunday was the Rejection at Nazareth, where Jesus could not perform signs due to the lack of faith he found in Nazareth, which James Martin identified as a very religious place. This story forces us to ask ourselves how welcoming we are to the power of Jesus in the midst of so much platitude-driven religiousity in America.
Evagrius concludes with the affirmation that if we seek prayer, we will find it, which is comforting, given the degree to which his model seems unattainable.