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Evagrios the Solitary...Introductory Note

Excerpts from The Philokalia

Evagrios the Solitary


Volume 1. pp. 29-71

Introductory Note

Evagrios the Solitary, also known as Evagrios Pontikos, was born in 345 or 346, probably at Ibora in Pontus, although according to another opinion he was a native of Iberia (Georgia). A disciple of the Cappadocian Fathers, he was ordained reader by St Basil the Great and deacon by St Gregory the Theologian (Gregory of Nazianzos), and he accompanied the latter to the Council of Constantinople in 381 (the second Ecumenical Council). Evagrios was never ordained priest. After a brief stay in Jerusalem, he went in 383 to Egypt, where he spent the remaining sixteen years of his life. After two years at Nitria, where he became a monk, he moved to the more remote desert of Kellia, dying there in 399. While in Egypt he had as his spiritual father the priest of Kellia, St Makarios of Alexandria, and it is probable that he also knew St Makarios the Egyptian, the priest and spiritual father of Sketis. In the person of these two saints, he came into contact with the first generation of the Desert Fathers and with their spirituality in its purest form.

In the numerous writings of Evagrios there may be discerned two tendencies, the one 'speculative' and the other 'practical'. On the 'speculative' side he relies heavily upon Origen (c. 185-c. 254), borrowing from him in particular certain theories about the pre-existence of human souls and the apokatastasis or final restoration of all things in Christ. These theories were condemned at the fifth Ecumenical Council (553). On the 'practical' side he draws upon the living experience of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, mainly Copts, among whom he spent the last years of his life. He possessed to an exceptional degree the gifts of psychological insight and vivid description, together with the ability to analyze and define with remarkable precision the various stages on the spiritual way. Here his teachings, so far from being condemned, have exercised a decisive influence upon subsequent writers. His disciple St John Cassian, while abandoning the suspect theories that Evagrios derived from Origen, transmitted the 'practical' aspect of Evagrios' teachings to the Latin West. In the Greek East the technical vocabulary devised by Evagrios remained thereafter standard: it can be found, for example, in the writings of St Diadochos of Photiki, St John Klimakos and St Maximos the Confessor, as also within the Syriac tradition, in the Mystic Treatises of St Isaac of Nineveh. The works included by St Nikodimos in the Philokalia all belong to the'practical' side of Evagrios, and contain little if any trace of suspect speculations.

Several of Evagrios’ works have come down under the name of other authors. This is the case with the writing On Prayer, which in the Greek Philokalia is ascribed to Neilos; but recent research has made it plain beyond any reasonable doubt that this is a writing of Evagrios.[1]

[1] See the studies by I. Hausherr, 'Le Traite de 1'Oraison d'Evagre Ie Pontique', in Revue d'Ascetique et lie Mystique, XV (1934), pp. 34-93, 113-70; and Les lefons d'un contempjatif. Le Traite de 1'Oraison d'Evagre Is f antique (Paris, 1960). The Evagrian authorship of the work On Prayer is accepted by a previous English translator, John Eudes Bamberger, in his introduction to Evagrius Ponticus; The Praktikos; Chapters on Prayer (Cistercian Studies Series, No. 4, Spencer, Mass., 1970 [i.e. 1972]).
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