The alphabet of the Spirit: A conversation with Evagrius Ponticus

The alphabet of the Spirit: A conversation with Evagrius Ponticus

Three hundred years after the death of Jesus on the outskirts of Jerusalem and 1,000 kilometers away, the habitable margins of the deserts of Egypt were filling up with strange people devoted to becoming more like him.  The eldest and most revered of these are called the Desert Elders.  Most were native Egyptian villagers and peasants who left their villages and farms to enter the desert and follow more seriously the way of Christ.  They were mostly poor, not well educated, and of lower social class.   Their language was Coptic, with its roots in the ancient agriculture of the Nile. 

Though they spent much time alone, their life was in important ways social, built upon strong ties of apprenticeship with those who had gone before.  There is record that even Anthony, who is said to be the first to go far into the desert, apprenticed under a monk who lived as a hermit on the outskirts of his village.  During his apprenticeship, Anthony learned the athletic training (ascesis, often translated as asceticism) appropriate to this life: manual labor to support himself, eating, drinking, and sleeping little, and devotion to prayer. 

It is likely that in his apprenticeship he also learned the important practice of revealing his thoughts to his master.  Anthony was portrayed by his biographers as adept at the interior dialogue of meditation and prayer, at the discernment of his own thoughts. He likely honed this skill just outside his village, in conversation with his own master and first monastic host.  This tradition of self-revealing conversation among those seeking God in isolation and prayer has resulted in collections of the Sayings of the Desert Elders, a radical guide to the spirituality of the desert.  It is also the focal point of this week’s reflection.

The practice of revealing of thoughts and asking questions about them was designed to give guidance to the apprentice.  Meditation and prayer are, at least in part, interior thought-tasks.  And all major religious traditions agree that guidance is needed to keep the novice from become lost, confused, led astray, or even bored and demoralized (acedia).  As one reveals one’s thoughts in loving and rigorous conversation with an elder, the thoughts become more clear, and also less powerful.  As they do, one can discern their meaning and not merely be their victim.    Insight from this discernment can then be used to build a deeper interior connection, to the true self and to God.

Let us begin, then, in conversation.  Here is story of a well-educated Desert Father being himself asked two questions after he had spent time in conversation with an uneducated Coptic-speaking Elder:

Someone asked him “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask a peasant about your thoughts?” He answered “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not even know the alphabet of this peasant.” …

One day another brother came to Arsenius. … He too had come to question the worth of his fine learning: “How is it that we, with all our education and our wide knowledge get nowhere, while these Egyptian peasants acquire so many virtues?” Arsenius answered, “We indeed get nothing from our secular education, but these Egyptian peasants acquire the virtues by hard work.”
- from William Harmless: Desert Christians: An introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, Oxford Press, 2004. pp: 311 – 312.

In this series of conversations, we can find a key to early monastic spirituality.  Arsenius was well educated (and thus likely of good family background) but when he perceived that someone had (as it was said) “a word” for him, he eagerly accepted it and spent long conversation with a person he recognized as his elder.  Though he could have been proud of his great education and status, he instead went out into the desert to learn from the peasant/Elders who had preceded him. In this conversation, Arsenius discovered that he “got nothing” of a spiritual nature from his education, and that he had not done the “hard work” to acquire even the basic virtues necessary to begin the religious quest.  What did he do in response? He was spending time with one of these peasants, and disclosing his thoughts to him in conversation, so that he might get coaching in the hard work ahead on his spiritual path.   

The person who asked Arsenius both of these questions was Evagrius Ponticus. Evagrius is called the “first great theoretician of the spiritual life” by William Harmless.  Educated in Greek and Latin in Constantinople, and an important participant in early church councils, Evagrius left this high society first for Jerusalem, where he became the friend and then disciple of Melania the Elder, a woman who led a monastic community there.   He then left for the desert communities of Egypt where he remained for over 15 years until his death.  There, he did the hard work to acquire the virtues, to meditate on God, and then to translate this experience into a systematic exposition of the course of that work. 

He wrote these systematic explorations of Egyptian desert spirituality at the time of a great flowering of spiritual writing in the early church: Augustine, Chrysostom, Basil, and others were writing at about the same time.  And yet, for over 1,500 years he disappeared from the lists of important writers of the early church, mostly because of his association with the loser in a theological battle over the nature of Christ.  Because of newly discovered manuscripts, the influence of his work can now be mapped throughout much of church history. 

We now know he wrote in a complicated, mystical style, sometimes hiding more than he revealed.  But, outside of the New Testament, and along with the Sayings of the Desert Elders, his work is the closest thing we can get to the vital early springs of Christian spiritual wisdom.  Here is one more saying, from Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer:

If you are a theologian, you pray truly;
If you pray truly, you are a theologian.

Here, in a cryptic reply that might be given in conversation, he teaches us something that is at the heart of the emerging theme of this reflection:  true knowledge of God requires the true practice of prayer.  Lovers of theory might think they can storm heaven with logic, and lovers of doctrine might think they can capture heaven in a formula.  We cannot.  We would then be worshiping idols.  We can only capture heaven in our hearts, through the hard work that Arsenius tells us he learned in conversation with a peasant.   

This is the lesson we can learn from peasants and from scholars.  Theology must change us, and when it does, that will change our theology.  Our image of God must change us, or it is only an idol.  And when it changes us, it will likely change our image of God.

This week, as you find time, you might return to the two short stories about Arsenius I have included above, and imagine the conversations of Arsenius with the peasant/Elder and of Evagrius with Arsenius (about the peasant/Elder).  Or do some research yourself on the lives of the Desert Elders and their way of having conversation.  In the next reflection, I will ask how we can begin the process of praying in truth.  It will be no surprise that it will start with conversation.  

Learning from the Desert Elders: Taking Conversation to Heart

Learning from the Desert Elders: Taking Conversation to Heart

Walking with the Desert Elders through Lent: An invitation

Walking with the Desert Elders through Lent: An invitation