Praktike & Commandments

CHRISTIANITY is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of [:]

  1. ascetical practice,
  2. the [contemplation of] nature,
  3. and theology.

Ascetical practice or praktike  entails “the fulfillment of the commandents” (Praktikos 81, KG 1.10 in Ilaria Ramelli’s translation). The first thing about Christianity is to do what God tells you to do. This is not much different from what St. Benedict recommends from the very beginning of his monastic rule: “listen” which means not simply hearing but obediently perform what one is told. The Holy Rule is contained in between two words: “listen” and “arrive” and in between these words stands the “fulfilling of God’s commandments.” All three stages or elements involve knowledge. For Evagrius the concept of knowledge is central. He connects it to salvation. As Ramelli comments: “Knowledge helps virtue, and virtue helps knowledge. This is why Evagrius states that knowledge leads to salvation, and this is also why demons oppose this process (Kephalaia Gnosica, transl. by Ilaria Ramelli, p. 13 Kindle edition).”

And thou, child, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest: * for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways;

To give knowledge of salvation unto his people, * for the remission of their sins.

Office of Lauds, Canticle (Lk. 1 9-10), Monastic Diurnal, p. 42.

The practical guidance provided in the Rule of Benedict is an example of what form the “commandments” can take. Now it is not merely knowing what these commandments are and performing hem though. As Evagrius warns the demons fiercely oppose the performance of these commandments. This, however, is where we meet another aspect of what praktike is for and what sort of salvific knowledge the practitioner gains.

As the demons oppose the fulfilling of the commandments they try to find a foothold within us. The myriad of footholds are all subsumed under the eight logismoi (which in St. Gregory the Great’s hands will become the 7 deadly sins) or eight “tempting thoughts.” These are the passions, or weaknesses within us that the demons can exploit in their attempt to lure us away from the commandments into sin. But in this strugle we can become aware of our weaknesses, we can diagnose them, and they can be exposed and cured! This deeper insight or knowledge of where the demons and the weakness of out nature intersect is salvific if we use this knowledge to apply God’s medicine of saving grace. We can crucify our flesh, nailing our passions to the Cross, and see our lives transformed by the power of the Cross. That is is the real work of praktike to be crucified with Jesus Christ so that we may also rise with Him.

As we continue our journey with Evagrius by means of The Praktikos we will meet this idea again and again. We will have many more opportunities to delve deeper into these teachings and how we can live them.

Fr. Gregory Wasen

Praktikos 1-3

Introduction

The Praktikos is perhaps one of the most famous and popular works of Evagrius of Pontus. There are good reasons for this. Evagrius writes in such a way that engagement with his books can sustain steady spiritual growth over a very long time. To really “read” one of Evagrius’ works is to receive spiritual guidance from one of the Church’s most accomplished spiritual masters of all time. The failure to receive guidance from Evagrius is not usually on his part but on ours. To receive spiritual guidance for spiritual growth one needs to learn to “listen” and it is precisely this listening that is so fundamental to the Father of Western Monasticism: Benedict of Nursia. Let us, whether monastics or not, listen to Evagrius.

Praktikos 1 – 3

The online translation of Evagrius’ Praktikos by Fr. Luke Dysinger Osb translates the first three “chapters” or “sentences” as follows:

  1. CHRISTIANITY is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of [:] ascetical practice, the [contemplation of] nature, and theology.

  2. THE Kingdom of Heaven is apatheia (dispassion) of the soul together with true knowledge of beings.

  3. THE Kingdom of God is knowledge of the Holy Trinity, coextensive with the capacity of the nous (mind/intellect) but surpassing it in incorruptibility.

The first thing to notice is that even though Evagrius begins this book with three definitions he does not offer a definition of praktike. In other words he declines to define the primary subject – after which the book is named – of the book. This is an interesting move and should not go unnoticed. In writing a book on spiritual issues it would have made sense to allow your readers to gain some grasp of your point of view by defining how your book will treat and look at the subject. It would make sense to establish clear limits so your readers have a well defined frame of reference within which they can begin to understand the message your book is trying to get across.

Evagrius is doing the opposite. He begins his book with a definition not of praktike but of Christianity. His second chapter is also not a definition of pratike, but rather of physike followed by the third definition of theologike. Pratike will not be defined until much, much later in the book (Praktikos, 78). From the beginning Evagrius lays down that whatever praktike is, it is not a monastic spirituality. Evagrius is not merely addressing ascetic professionals or monks, Evagrius is writing for Christians. Praktike, whatever it may be, is christian spirituality pure and simple. The spiritual growth to which praktike leads: physike and theologike are also not reserved for monks only. The path to physike and theologike are open to all Christians.

Physike & Theologike

If praktike can be said to be the path to physike and theologike, then, what are they? Physike – to put it simply – is mediated knowledge of God. That is we begin to grow intimate with our Creator by means of His creation: God speaks to us in the Bible, in events in our lives, through things in our environment. We begin to perceive creation as a “letter” written by God to us who are far away from Him. God reveals Himself by thigs he has created: thus mediated knowledge of God.

Theologike is different. It too is built on the soul that has been established in praktike, but it is unmediated knowledge of God. No longer does God limit Himself to revealing Himself indirectly, either through nature, events, or even the Bible. All these are presumed, but a new thing emerges: God reveals Himself to us without using “go-betweens.” This is what in Western theology is “the beautific vision” or in Evagrian language: “essential knowledge.”

Praktike is then the way to physike and theologike. Praktike is not defined and – as we shall see – physike and theologike are not exhaustively defined either. Rather what has happened in the first three chapters is that we have been presented with a path we should travel. We have not been given precise definitions of anything, but we have been given some parameters which will enable our journey – a journey back to God with whom we have lost contact.

[to be continued]

Fr. Gregory Wassen

Protology and Eschatology in Evagrius Ponticus

In my Praktikos blog (which has since then undergone radical change) I had written a few words (no longer available in that form) about Evagrian protology and eschatology. In doing so I quoted Evagrius at some length from his Epistula ad Melaniam which has recently been translated and renamed The Great Letter by Dr. Augustine Casiday:

Now it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘body,’ ’soul’ and ‘mind’ will pass away since they will be raised to the order of the mind ( as in, ‘Grant them to be one in us, as you and I are one); likewise, it will happen that the names and numbers of ‘Father,’ ‘his Son,’ ‘his Spirit’ and ‘his rational creation’ – that is, ‘his body’ – will pass away ( as in, ‘God will be all in all’).

But when it is said that names and numbers of rational creation and its Creator will pass away, that does not mean that the hypostases and names of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be expunged. The mind’s nature will be united to the nature of the Father in that it is his body; likewise the names ’soul’ and ‘body’ will be absorbed into the hypostases of the Son and Spirit and the one nature, three persons of God and his image will endlessly remain, as it was before the Incarnation and will be after the Incarnation, because of the concord of wills (The Great Letter, 22-23).

In order to understand what is going on in this passage it may be helpfull to read a little further in this letter:

As we said of the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank. Falling at some point from its former rank through its free will, it was called a soul. And it descended again and it was named a body. But at some point there will be a time when the body, soul, and mind – because of differences of their wills – will become this. Since their differences of will and movement will at some point pass away, it will rise to its former creation: its nature and person and name will be one, which God knows. The thing that rises in its nature is alone amongst all beings in that neither its place nor its name is known; and again the naked mind alone can say what its nature is(The Great Letter 26).

And it may also help to hear Evagrius speak a few words on what we would call ‘original sin’:

As for us, because we willingly corrupted our own nature, we arrived at this conception and birth that is enclosed by the curse. As for him, while being what he is, in his grace he received at his birth everything that follows from birth to death. Now these things are not only unnatural to him, but I would even say that they are unnatural to us, too. Because of the transgression we committed we have willingly fallen in to them – from which we are freed. But he willingly took them upon himself without transgression, since on our own we are unable to rise from them. We fell into them because we committed a transgression, but he not only did not dwell among them, but even raised us up because (as we have said) in his own love he descended into them without transgression (The Great Letter, 58).

Now let us unpack these passages a little. It is clear that Evagrius perceives our present condition as fragmented by sin “we willingly corrupted our own nature” so that our manner of conception and birth is characterized by “the curse.” We have fallen from a former, better, state to the one we are currently in by our own freely chosen actions. This former state is characterized by oneness “the mind it is one in nature, person, and rank” and it will one day be characterized by oneness again and will be a “naked mind” rather than a mind clothed in a soul and body subjected to the “curse.”  The soul and the body will be “raised to the order of the mind” which in the Kephalaia Gnostica is referred to as “the destruction of bodies” which does not indicate the dis-incarnation of the body (and the soul) but rather its unification with the (Holy) Spirit. Just as there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the eschaton so will there be mind, soul, and body. But just as the three Persons of the Trinity do not constitute three gods but one God, in like manner do mind, soul, and body not constitute three fragmented and self-contained realities but one reality (in the order of the mind). This is what a “naked mind” (nous) is.

The return of the fragmented mind to its “former creation” is the re-unification of mind, soul, and body with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because of this return of which Evagrius speaks (“it will rise to its former creation”) we know that the eschatological state is the same as the protological state (which he also indicates by saying things are the same before and after the Incarnation). Iow the standard interpretation of Evagrius’ doctrine which assumes that “naked” means dis-incarnate is mistaken. The fall of the mind into soul, and into body indicates the disintegration of the “naked mind” into three opposing realities not the incarnation of the mind into a soul, and then also a body. The human being is an incarnate mind from the get go: “The embodied (ἐνσώματος) mind is the spectator of all the ages (αἰώνων) (Skemmata, 35).

If we are to speak of Origenism in Evagrius we must keep in mind that his reception of Origen is mediated by two distinctly Orthodox traditions: that of the Cappadocians and later that of St. Anthony the Great the father of monks. Given this context, and given recent work on Origen (which suggest the “fall from pre-existence” was not part of his doctrine) it could shed a whole different light on Evagrius’ own doctrine.

It seems to me Evagrius is interpreting the story of Genesis as follows: God creates “naked minds” where embodied minds are one in name, and rank so that its soul and body are of the “order of the mind” in unison with the Son and the Spirit. These embodied beings freely come to sin against God and establish separation between themselves and God, each other, and even establish this fragmentation within themselves. A creative intervention of God prevents us from being lost alltogether and we are “clothed in garments of skin” the latter being a coarsening of our embodied state to adapt to our new mode of existence characterized by sin. To shed these “garments of skin” – their destruction – makes the mind naked once more (but not disincarnate).

Those are my thoughts on the subject. They are not (yet) final but are more of a “working hypothesis” as I continue to be immersed in Evagrius’ writings.

Dn. Gregory