Monday, 15 January 2007

Orthodox Monasticism 18 — Evagrius Ponticus, Life

1500 years after his death, Evagrius Ponticus is still a controversial figure. Who is this fellow? He was born in Pontus, a Greek-speaking region on the shores of the Black Sea in Asia Minor, in 344 or 345, the date being uncertain. His name Ponticus simply means that he was from Pontus. It’s like saying ‘George the American’. His father was a rural bishop. Not much is known about the institution of rural bishop, but it appears to have been something like assistant bishop for a rural area under the main bishop of a district, who would have been in the main town or city of the district.

We don’t know the details but Evagrius was ordained reader by St Basil the Great. St Basil was archbishop of Caesarea, a city which is also in Asia Minor but further south. In the epoch in question, reader was a significant rank in the Church even though it was the lowest rank of clergy.

Not much is known of Evagrius’ relations with Basil. That he was ordained reader by Basil does not necessarily imply that he was Basil’s favourite disciple. It is not at all clear how close relations were between Basil and Evagrius. Basil had a rather large entourage about him and Evagrius could have been just one more face in the group photo. However, Evagrius was certainly one of Basil’s disciples. Moreover, since he was a reader, he certainly would have known how to read and write. We can therefore infer that he would have heard Basil teaching, perhaps have read some of Basil’s own works circulating in manuscript amongst the disciples and perhaps have had some direction in his own studies and spiritual life from Basil himself.

Basil’s brother was St Gregory of Nyssa, but absolutely nothing is known about relations between this Gregory and Evagrius. Evagrius is listed in one source (Palladius) as having been ordained deacon by Gregory, but this is considered to be in error: Evagrius was ordained deacon by St Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus, Basil’s close friend. St Gregory of Nyssa was about 13 years older than Evagrius and it is not at all clear that they had close relations. They were both at Basil’s funeral, but that does not necessarily imply that they spent hours there talking to each other.

After Basil’s death, it appears that Evagrius went to Constantinople where he was ordained deacon by St Gregory the Theologian, who had become Patriarch, and made Gregory’s archdeacon. Here it is clear that relations were close. Evagrius would have enjoyed St Gregory’s confidence. Evagrius calls Gregory his teacher and there is no reason to dispute this: it appears that Gregory gave Evagrius his theological formation.

This theological formation would have included an exposure to Origen (c.185–253). It is clear that both Basil and his close friend Gregory the Theologian had read Origen and had been influenced by him. However, their writings are considered free of obvious Origenist deviations. Basil’s own brother Gregory retains in his own writings a doctrine of Origen which was later condemned but without that disturbing his sainthood.

Evagrius played an important role at the Second Ecumenical Synod as Gregory the Theologian’s archdeacon. St Gregory of Nyssa, now a bishop, also played an important role at that Synod. Evagrius and Gregory of Nyssa would have met in this context.

After Gregory the Theologian’s retirement from being Patriarch of Constantinople, Evagrius remained in the service of the next Patriarch, St Nectarios.

Now things take an interesting turn in Evagrius’ life. Evagrius takes up a flirtation with a married noblewoman. The interest is returned. The sources imply that this flirtation was never consummated although nothing explicit is said. However, the woman’s husband gets wind of the flirtation.

Evagrius then has a dream in which an angel gives him to understand that his life is in danger (quite reasonable given that he is flirting with a married woman) and that the only way to save himself is to vow to leave Constantinople and to become a monk. In the dream Evagrius makes such a vow. When he wakes up he doesn’t waste any time and the same day takes a boat to the Holy Land.

When he arrives in the Holy Land he goes to Jerusalem where he becomes a guest in the monastery founded by Melanie the Elder.

Melanie is a known and committed disciple of Origen. One of her monks is Rufinus, who later translates Origen into Latin.

Although in the dream Evagrius has given a vow to the angel to become a monk, he dawdles without saying anything to Melanie. He gets sick and spends a year in bed. Melanie finally realizes that something spiritual is afoot and asks him what: it is clear, she says, that this illness is not natural. He explains about the dream. He is counselled by Melanie that the only way to get well is to fulfil his vow and become a monk. He does so. He gets well. He almost immediately goes to Nitria in Egypt. Evagrius maintains a correspondence with Melanie from Egypt.

Nitria was a monastic centre south of Alexandria. It was not a coenobium but a collection of monastic cells gathered into a monastic village. The rule was fairly relaxed in some respects, although there were three whips hanging from a tree, one of the whips for lay people who misbehaved, another for monks. Wine was available. Evagrius spends two years here learning the monastic ropes. He then moves to the Cells, a day’s walk from Nitria into the desert.

The Cells were a semi-eremitic, rather sparse, collection of monastic dwellings. The rule provided that the solitary monk would stay in his cell during the week, gathering with the other monks of the Cells in the central Church for a vigil on Saturday night towards Sunday, which vigil ended in the Divine Liturgy. The sources are not clear on the vigil program and the monks may have also had a common Divine Liturgy on Saturday. Evagrius lived here until his death on the Theophany in 399. In the later part of his life he had a servant with him in his cell, which was not uncommon. He was quite ill towards the end of his life. It appears that after he left Constantinople he never exercised his deaconate again.

During his time at the Cells, Evagrius met some of the most important Fathers of the Egyptian desert. The priest of the Cells was St Macarius the Alexandrian. St Arsenios the Great was there. Evagrius had close relations with St Macarius the Elder, the founder of Skete, a monastic concentration further south.

Evagrius also had close relations with Didymus the Blind, who lived as a hermit just outside of Alexandria on an island in Lake Mareotis.

By the time of his death Evagrius had been offered a bishopric by Theophilos, Patriarch of Alexandria, which he declined. There is nothing in the sources to indicate that he had close relations with Theophilos.

During his lifetime Evagrius was never condemned, although the Sayings of the Desert Fathers do include a vignette in which Evagrius is put in his place by the other Fathers.

However, in 553 the Fifth Ecumenical Synod condemned certain propositions based on the writings of Origen. It used quotations from one of Evagrius’ own writings, the Kephalaia Gnostica, to illustrate those propositions.

The detailed proceedings of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod have not been saved as concerns Origenism and there is some question among scholars in the Roman Catholic Church as to when the anathemas (condemnations) were issued and what discussion preceded their issuance. Some Roman Catholic scholars claim that the anathemas were never issued by the Synod at all but elsewhere at another time. However, we do have the text of the anathemas concerning Origenism of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod and these are considered genuine by most today. They are even published as acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Roman Catholic collections of acts of Ecumenical Councils. These anathemas do not refer to Evagrius by name. However, the Sixth and Seventh Ecumenical Synods in reiterating the decisions of the Fifth explicitly state that the Fifth Ecumenical Synod condemned Origen, Didymus the Blind and Evagrius.

The result of all this confusion is that there has started a revisionist movement in theology, beginning in the Roman Catholic Church, which claims that the anathemas never happened, that they were in error in condemning Origen and Evagrius, that Evagrius is a saint (as he is in the Monophysite and Nestorian Churches) and so on. This revisionist movement has influenced some in the Orthodox Church. However, while the Orthodox Church has always had a profound respect for Evagrius’ ascetical writings, which were often transmitted under other names in monastic circles in the Orthodox Church, it has traditionally accepted the dogmatic condemnations of Origen, Didymus and Evagrius as genuine and binding.

Evagrius’ ascetical doctrine is very influential in the School of Sinai, especially in St Hesychios; in St Maximos the Confessor; and in other Orthodox ascetical writers. It is very important in the West, being transmitted to the West by St John Cassian. It is also very important in the East, being a major element in the writings of St Isaac the Syrian.

The Origenist movement, based in large part on Evagrius’ Kephalaia Gnostica, took on very large proportions in the Orthodox monasteries in Palestine in the 5th Century, involving very important Orthodox ascetical saints such as Sts Euthymios, Sabas, Barsanuphios and John, who were adamantly opposed to it.

So on the one hand we have the good Evagrius, the ascetical theoretician; on the other hand we have the bad Evagrius, the Origenist heretic, condemned, as the Orthodox Church believes, by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod.

And therein hangs a tale.

No comments:

Post a Comment