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:
CHRISTIANITY is the teaching of our Savior Christ consisting of [:] ascetical practice, the [contemplation of] nature, and theology.
THE Kingdom of Heaven is apatheia (dispassion) of the soul together with true knowledge of beings.
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