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