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Evagrius Ponticus...Outline Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life

Excerpts from The Philokalia

Evagrios the Solitary


VOLUME 1: Page 31

Outline Teaching on Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life

In Jeremiah it is said: 'And you shall not take a wife in this place, for thus says the Lord concerning the sons and daughters born in this place: . . . they shall die grievous deaths' (Jer. 16:1-4). This shows that, in the words of the Apostle, 'He that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife', and he is inwardly divided, and 'she that is married cares for the things of the world, how she may please her husband' (1 Cor. 7:32-34). It is clear that the statement in Jeremiah, 'they shall die grievous deaths', refers not only to the sons and daughters born as a result of marriage, but also to those born in the heart, that is, to worldly thoughts and desires: these too will die from the weak and sickly spirit of this world, and will have no place in heavenly life. On the other hand, as the Apostle says, 'he that is unmarried cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord' (1 Cor. 7:32); and he produces the fruits of eternal life, which always keep their freshness.

Such is the solitary. He should therefore abstain from women and not beget a son or daughter in the place of which Jeremiah speaks. He must be a soldier of Christ, detached from material things, free from cares and not involved in any trade or commerce; for, as the Apostle says, 'In order to please the leader who has chosen him, the soldier going to war does not entangle himself in the affairs of this world' (2 Tim. 2:4). Let the monk follow this course, especially since he has renounced the materiality of this world in order to win the blessings of stillness. For the practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty; its yoke is easy and its burden light.

Do you desire, then, to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of the world, and the principalities and powers that lie behind them; free yourself from attachment to material things, from domination by passions and desires, so that as a stranger to all this you may attain true stillness. For only by raising himself above these things can a man achieve the life of stillness.

Keep to a sparse and plain diet, not seeking a variety of tempting dishes. Should the thought come to you of getting extravagant foods in order to give hospitality, dismiss it, do not be deceived by it: for in it the enemy lies in ambush, waiting to tear you away from stillness. Remember how the Lord rebukes Martha (the soul that is overbusy with such things) when He says: 'You are anxious and troubled about many things: one thing alone is needful' (Luke 10:41-42) - to hear the divine word; after that, one should be content with anything that comes to hand. He indicates all this by adding: 'Mary has chosen what is best, and it cannot be taken away from her' (Luke 10:42). You also have the example of how the widow of Zarephath gave hospitality to the Prophet (cf. 1 Kings 17:9-16). If you have only bread, salt or water, you can still meet the dues of hospitality. Even if you do not have these, but make the stranger welcome and say something helpful, you will not be failing in hospitality; for 'is not a word better than a gift?' (Eccles. 18:17). This is the view you should take of hospitality. Be careful, then, and do not desire wealth for giving to the poor. For this is another trick of the evil one, who often arouses self esteem and fills your intellect with worry and restlessness. Think of the widow mentioned in the Gospel by our Lord: with two mites she surpassed the generous gifts of the wealthy. For He says: 'They cast into the treasury out of their abundance; but she . . . cast in all her livelihood' (Mark 12:44).

With regard to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body. 'Cast your burden upon the Lord' (Ps. 55:22) and He will provide for you, since 'He cares for you' (1Pet. 5:7). If you need food or clothes, do not be ashamed to accept what others offer you. To be ashamed to accept is a kind of pride. But if you have more than you require, give to those in need. It is in this way that God wishes His children to manage their affairs. That is why, writing to the Corinthians, the Apostle said about those who were in want:

'Your abundance should supply their want, so that their abundance likewise may supply your want; then there will be equality, as it is written: "He that gathered much had nothing over; and he that gathered little had no lack”’ (2 Cor. 8:14-15; Exod. 16:18). So if you have all you need for the moment, do not be anxious about the future, whether it is one day ahead or a week or months. For when tomorrow comes, it will supply what you need, if you seek above all else the kingdom of heaven and the righteousness of God; for the Lord says: 'Seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things as well will be given to you' (cf. Matt. 6:33). Do not have a servant, for if you do you will no longer have only yourself to provide for; and in that case the enemy may trip you up through the servant and disturb your mind with worries about laying in extravagant foods. Should you have the thought of getting a servant to allow your body a little ease, call to mind what is more important – I mean spiritual peace, for spiritual peace is certainly more important than bodily ease. Even if you have the idea that taking a servant would be for the servant's benefit, do not accept it. For this is not our work; it is the work of others, of the holy Fathers who live in communities and not as solitaries. Think only of what is best for yourself, and safeguard the way of stillness.

Do not develop a habit of associating with people who are materially minded and involved in worldly affairs. Live alone, or else with brethren who are detached from material things and of one mind with yourself. For if one associates with materially minded people involved in worldly affairs, one will certainly be affected by their way of life and will be subject to social pressures, to vain talk and every other kind of evil: anger, sorrow, passion for material things, fear of scandals. Do not get caught up in concern for your parents or affection for your relatives; on the contrary, avoid meeting them frequently, in case they rob you of the stillness you have in your cell and involve you in their own affairs. 'Let the dead bury their dead,' says the Lord; 'but come, follow me' (cf. Matt. 8:22). If you find yourself growing strongly attached to your cell, leave it, do not cling to it, be ruthless. Do everything possible to attain stillness and freedom from distraction, and struggle to live according to God's will, battling against invisible enemies. If you cannot attain stillness where you now live, consider living in exile, and try and make up your mind to go. Be like an astute business man: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything, and choose always what contributes to it.

Indeed, I urge you to welcome exile. It frees you from all the entanglements of your own locality, and allows you to enjoy the blessings of stillness undistracted. Do not stay in a town, but persevere in the wilderness. ‘Lo,' says the Psalm, 'then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness' (Ps. 55:7). If possible, do not visit a town at all. For you will find there nothing of benefit, nothing useful, nothing profitable for your way of life. To quote the Psalm again, 'I have seen violence and strife in the city' (Ps. 55:9). So seek out places that are free from distraction, and solitary. Do not be afraid of the noises you may hear. Even if you should see some demonic fantasy, do not be terrified or flee from the training ground so apt for your progress. Endure fearlessly, and you will see the great things of God, His help. His care, and all the other assurances of salvation. For as the Psalm says, 'I waited for Him who delivers me from distress of spirit and the tempest' (Ps. 55:8. LXX).

Do not let restless desire overcome your resolution; for 'restlessness of desire perverts the guileless intellect' (Wisd. 4:12). Many temptations result from this. For fear that you may go wrong, stay rooted in your cell. If you have friends, avoid constant meetings with them. For if you meet only on rare occasions, you will be of more help to them. And if you find that harm comes through meeting them, do not see them at all. The friends that you do have should be of benefit to you and contribute to your way of life. Avoid associating with crafty or aggressive people, and do not live with anyone of that kind but shun their evil purposes; for they do not dwell close to God or abide with Him. Let your friends be men of peace, spiritual brethren, holy fathers. It is of such that the Lord speaks when he says: 'My mother and brethren and fathers are those who do the will of My Father who is in heaven' (cf. Matt. 12:49-50). Do not pass your time with people engaged in worldly affairs or share their table, in case they involve you in their illusions and draw you away from the science of stillness. For this is what they want to do. Do not listen to their words or accept the thoughts of their hearts, for they are indeed harmful. Let the labor and longing of your heart be for the faithful of the earth, to become like them in mourning. For 'my eyes will be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me' (Ps. 101:6). If someone who lives in accordance with the love of God comes to you and invites you to eat, go if wish, but return quickly to your cell. If possible, never sleep outside your cell, so that the gift of stillness may be with you. Then you will be unhindered on your chosen path.

Do not hanker after fine foods and deceitful pleasures. For 'she that indulges in pleasure is dead while still alive', as the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:6). Do not fill your belly with other people's food in case you develop a, longing for it, and this longing makes you want to eat at their table. For it is said: 'Do not be deceived by the filling of the belly' (Prov. 24:15. LXX). If you find yourself continually invited outside your cell, decline the invitations. For continual absence from your cell is harmful. It deprives you of the grace of stillness, darkens your mind, withers your longing for God. If a jar of wine is left in the same place for a long time, the wine in it becomes clear, settled and fragrant. But if it is moved about, the wine becomes turbid and dull, tainted throughout by the lees. So you, too, should stay in the same place and you will find how greatly this benefits you. Do not have relationships with too many people, lest your intellect becomes distracted and so disturbs the way of stillness.

Provide yourself with such work for your hands as can be done, if possible, both during the day and at night, so that you are not a burden to anyone, and indeed can give to others, as Paul the Apostle advises (cf. 1 Thess. 2:9; Eph. 4:28). In this manner you will overcome the demon of listlessness and drive away all the desires suggested by the enemy; for the demon of listlessness takes advantage of idleness. 'Every idle man is full of desires' (Prov. 13:4. LXX).

When buying or selling you can hardly avoid sin. So, in either case, be sure you lose a little in the transaction. Do not haggle about the price from love of gain, and so indulge in actions harmful to the soul - quarrelling, lying, shifting your ground and so on - thus bringing our way of life into disrepute. Understanding things in this manner, be on your guard when buying and selling. If possible it is best to place such business in the hands of someone you trust, so that, being thus relieved of the worry, you can pursue your calling with joy and hope.

In addition to all that I have said so far, you should consider now other lessons which the way of stillness teaches, and do what I tell you. Sit in your cell, and concentrate your intellect; remember the day of death, visualize the dying of your body, reflect on this calamity, experience the pain, reject the vanity of this world, its compromises and crazes, so that you may continue in the way of stillness and not weaken. Call to mind, also, what is even now going on in hell. Think of the suffering, the bitter silence, the terrible moaning, the great fear and agony, the dread of what is to come, the unceasing pain, the endless weeping. Remember, too, the day of your resurrection and how you will stand before God. Imagine that fearful and awesome judgment-seat. Picture all that awaits those who sin: their shame before God the Father and His Anointed, before angels, archangels, principalities and all mankind; think of all the forms of punishment: the eternal fire, the worm that does not die, the abyss of darkness, the gnashing of teeth, the terrors and the torments. Then picture all the blessings that await the righteous: intimate communion with God the Father and His Anointed, with angels, archangels, principalities and all the saints, the kingdom and its gifts, the gladness and the joy.

Picture both these states: lament and weep for the sentence passed on sinners; mourn while you are doing this, frightened that you, too, may be among them. But rejoice and be glad at the blessings that await the righteous, and aspire to enjoy them and to be delivered from the torments of hell. See to it that you never forget these things, whether inside your cell or outside it. This will help you to escape thoughts that are defiling and harmful. Fast before the Lord according to your strength, for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the mind, drives away the demons, and prepares you for God's presence. Having already eaten once, try not to eat a second time the same day, in case you become extravagant and disturb your mind. In this way you will have the means for helping others and for mortifying the passions of your body. But if there is a meeting of the brethren, and you have to eat a second and a third time, do not be disgruntled and surly. On the contrary, do gladly what you have to do, and when you have eaten a second or a third time, thank God that you have fulfilled the law of love and that He himself is providing for you. Also, there are occasions when, because of a bodily sickness, you have to eat a second and a third time or more often. Do not be sad about this; when you are ill you should modify your ascetic labors for the time being, so that you may regain the strength to take them up once more.

As far as abstinence from food is concerned, the divine Logos did not prohibit the eating of anything, but said: 'See, even as I have given you the green herb I have given you all things; eat, asking no questions; it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man' (cf. Gen. 9:3; 1 Cor. 10:25; Matt. 15: 11). To abstain from food, then, should be a matter of our own choice and an ascetic labour.

Gladly bear vigils, sleeping on the ground and all other hardships, looking to the glory that will be revealed to you and to all the saints; 'for the sufferings of this present time', says the Apostle, 'are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us' (Rom. 8 :18).

If you are disheartened, pray, as the Apostle says (cf. Jas. 5: 13). Pray with fear, trembling, effort, with inner watchfulness and vigilance. To pray in this manner is especially necessary because the enemies are so malignant. For it is just when they see us at prayer that they come and stand beside us, ready to attack, suggesting to our intellect the very things we should not think about when praying; in this way they try to take our intellect captive and to make our prayer and supplication vain and useless. For prayer is truly vain and useless when not performed with fear and trembling, with inner watchfulness and vigilance. When someone approaches an earthly king, he entreats him with fear, trembling and attention; so much the more, then, should we stand and pray in this manner before God the Father, the Master of all, and before Christ the King of Kings. For it is He whom the whole spiritual host and the choir of angels serve with fear and glorify with trembling; and they sing in unceasing praise to Him, together with the Father who has no origin, and with the all-holy and coeternal Spirit, now and ever through all the ages. Amen.
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