Evagrius Ponticus—Gnostikos Premier

Evagrius Ponticus (b. 345 in Ibora; d. 399 in Egypt), was an ascetic-theologian monk and is considered to be one of the most outstanding intellects of the fourth century. Seemingly destined for a brilliant ecclesiastical career, he chose the more radical option of fleeing to the desert in Egypt and living at the monasteries in Nitria and Kelli. This move was necessitated after engaging in a brief extramarital affair:

Evagrius fell in love with a married woman of the aristocratic class, but even though he recognized the danger of scandal and the use the heretics might make of this, he found himself unable to break off the relationship. Then, while at prayer, Evagrius had a vision in which he was imprisoned by the soldiers of the governor, presumably at the instigation of the woman’s husband. An angel appeared to him in prison and advised him to leave Constantinople as soon as possible. Evagrius agreed and swore an oath on the Gospel.

Warned by this experience, Evagrius packed his bags and boarded a ship for Jerusalem. These events probably took place in 382. In Palestine he met Melania the Elder who offered him hospitality, presumably in the neighbouring monastery of Rufinus. Evagrius’resolve seems to have faltered at this point, for he is said to have turned to his old ways that were characterized as displays of vainglory and pride. God then afflicted him with a six-month fever which wasted his flesh and thereby tamed his unruly passions. When the doctors could not cure his fever, Melania suspected the real nature of his illness and demanded to know what was troubling him. Evagrius told her the whole story. She then made him promise to take up the monastic life. Evagrius accepted her counsel and recovered within a few days, receiving the habit from Rufinus and then departing for Egypt. Evagrius arrived in Egypt probably in 383, spending two years in Nitria before moving on to Kellia where he lived for fourteen years until his death.

(Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus, The Greek Ascetic Corpus, from the introduction)

It’s not uncommon for those who are bound to the ascetical life to be afflicted with various ailments {thorns in the flesh} should they wander from the path. This is not meant as a punishment, but a means to re-direct them to their true vocation—life in solitude. Living in the material world is no longer an option; should one deny this salvific course, the heavy weight of samsara will descend upon them with an excessive and unending fury.

Evagrius was boldly inspired by the writings of Origen (184-253), a Greek scholar and ascetic who was never canonized a saint because his teachings were considered as too radical by the ecclesiastical powers of the day. He taught about the pre-existence of souls and the eventual “final reconciliation” of all creatures, even the devil…in essence, universal salvation: apokatastasis. Evarigus shared and was eventually to sharpen this bold hypothesis. Evagrius was renowned for his gifted sense of discernment and in doing so attracted disciples who were to be influential in their own right. He is considered as the premier theoretician on the spiritual life. He taught that the mind itself must be purged of all concepts if one were to enter into the heights of mystical prayer, yea, this was the wordless and imageless mystical ascent to the Source Supreme. For Evagrius, to know one’s True Selfhood–the mind–one must strive for this advanced and imageless state, thus entering into a profound mental ascesis, clearing the mind of ALL images. In this fashion, he has much in common with the principles found within Unborn Mind Zen. Thus, his spirituality places great emphasis on the “nous“, or mind. It’s only in this vein that one can experience that most profoundly deep calm–apatheia. The one who is worthy of such gnosis Evagrius defined as Gnoskitos–or the Knower. Gnostikos: This adjective describes something related to “mysterious intellectual or spiritual gnosis”. The word “gnostic” itself comes from this Greek word gnostikos, meaning “knowing” or “able to discern.”

As the monk settles into his life of ascetic commitment, he will inevitably encounter the problem of acedia. Acedia is basically the temptation to relax one’s ascetic efforts or even abandon them entirely; he stressed that the ascetic must progressively divest oneself of all material attachments in order to develop an unrestrained spirit:

Show no love for living with people who are material-minded and involved in business affairs. Either live alone or with brothers who are free of material concerns and think as you do. The person who lives with those who are material-minded and involved in business affairs himself shares completely in their circumstances and becomes enslaved to human impositions, idle conversations, and all sorts of other dangers—anger, sadness, madness over material things, fear, and scandal.

Do not let yourself be carried away by worries for your parents or by affection for your relatives. Rather, avoid frequent meetings with them, lest they rob you of the stillness in your cell and lead you to involvement in their own circumstances. ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but you come follow me,’ says the Lord (Matt. 8:22). If even the cell in which you live is too easily accessible, flee and do not spare it; do not grow slack because you are attached to it. Do anything and everything so you can cultivate stillness and devote your time to diligent application to the will of God and to the struggle with the invisible ones (evil agencies, inclusion mine).

Indeed, I tell you, love voluntary exile, for it separates you from the circumstances of your own country and allows you to enjoy the unique benefit of practicing stillness. Avoid stays in the city, persevere with your stay in the desert (ibid, pg 7)

Above all says Evagrius, as the ascetic monk/solitary begins to embrace their commitment, one must beware of the aforementioned gravest of all dangers…falling into acedia. Our next blog will focus exclusively on this pitfall. In doing so, we will observe how acedia can affect all who embrace an ascetic and contemplative lifestyle, irrespective of spiritual tradition.

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