Sunday, 18 March 2007

Orthodox Monasticism 19 — Evagrius Ponticus on the Inner Ascent 1

In our last post, after we had discussed some differences between Pentecostalism and the Orthodox ascetical and spiritual tradition, we promised that we would continue with our discussion of Evagrius’ ascetical theory.

The Orthodox, and even the classical Roman Catholic, monastic tradition emphasizes the ascetical ascent of the inner Sinai, the inner Horeb, that we discussed in the last post. In the Orthodox Church, this ascetical ascent of the inner Sinai is defined theoretically by a number of ascetics, chief of whom is Evagrius Ponticus although he is by no means the only such ascetical theologian in the Orthodox Church.

To segue into this ascetical doctrine, let us first look at the use of music in liturgical worship. In Evagrius’ time, and earlier, there were still pagans in Alexandria. They used ‘wild music’ as part of their celebrations. In Chapter 71 of The Monk, one of Evagrius’ most important ascetical works,[1] Evagrius says this:

On the one hand, demonic songs set our desire in motion and put the soul into shameful fantasies; on the other hand, psalms and hymns and spiritual songs ever bring the mind to a memory of virtue, chilling our burning temper and withering our desires.

We could reflect on this remark in regard to the concept of ‘Christian rock’. Something’s wrong. ‘If it’s got a back beat you can dance to it.’ That is what the pagans were doing in Evagrius’ day and that is what Evagrius is commenting on: such music sets the desire in motion—yes, Virginia, the guitarist is very handsome—but psalms and hymns and spiritual songs chill our burning temper and wither our desires.

In an Orthodox monastery, the way the services are done is very important. This includes both the actual type of chant and its manner of execution. All those droning monks have a role to play in the formation of the monk in the monastery: the very music is bringing his mind to a memory of virtue—a memory of God—and cooling his temper and withering his desire. The chant is calming him down, making him more serene. He’s not about to go spinning around the monastery church like a whirling dervish or leaping up into the air. He’s not going to ogle anyone. The music and related theatre used in the worship of the New Life Church that we described in our last post are going to do just the opposite.

This is not a matter of the New Life Church’s having the Holy Spirit and the Orthodox Church’s not having it. This is something very basic: the liturgical music in each place has a different effect, an effect that was commented on by Evagrius in the late 4th Century.

Nor is this a matter of our being a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have a good time. What is at stake is the very notion of the spiritual life: what it means for the newly baptized Christian (in our case, the newly baptized Orthodox or the newly repentant Orthodox) to turn to God, to begin the upward spiritual ascent to God.

The first thing that Evagrius is saying is that our liturgical music has to calm us down. We have to slow down. Only then can we start to turn inward.

Now that doesn’t mean that we should all be obliged to listen to Western classical music ten hours a day. An Athonite Elder has remarked that while rock music is demonic, at its end Western classical music leaves you where you were before: only Byzantine chant is truly transforming.

[1] Évagre Le Pontique. Traité pratique ou Le moine (Practical Treatise or The Monk). Tome I. Introduction. Tome II. Édition critique du texte grec… Antoine Guillaumont et Claire Guillaumont. 1971. Sources chrétiennes, Nos 170 & 171. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.

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