Sunday, 22 April 2007

Orthodox Monasticism 20 — Evagrius Ponticus on the Inner Ascent 2

It seems to us that a basic problem in discussing the history of Orthodox monasticism is to convey why anyone should be interested. We have finished with Pentecostalism. However, we are left with a question: in this day and age, when, presumably, we could just as well be Pentecostalists as Orthodox monks, why would we become Orthodox, one, and, two, why Orthodox monks? Are we monks fools?

The significance of the inner spiritual ascent is that it is the Orthodox tradition’s answer to the question of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, the Orthodox Church does not teach that Pentecostalism is one way and Orthodox spirituality another way, choose what you will. The Orthodox Church steadfastly witnesses to a single way, that of the Orthodox Church: Orthodox spirituality. Now what we are discussing is the history of Orthodox monasticism: what does that have to do with Orthodox spirituality?

As St John of the Ladder puts it, the monk is the light of the layman and the angel the light of the monk. Orthodox spirituality was being defined in the period we are now discussing. In other words, the ascetics who were defining in the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Centuries what it meant to be an ascetic were defining the norm of Orthodox spirituality even for the Orthodox laymen of their time—and therefore even for the Orthodox monks and laymen of today. In discussing the history of Orthodox monasticism, what we are really discussing is what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. However, it is clear that the ascetics were well aware that a layman does not live like a monk—otherwise he would be a monk, not a layman. Still, it is worthwhile to consider this saying of Amma Synklitki:

II, 27. Amma Synklitiki said: ‘Many who were on the mountain but who were practising the acts of townspeople were lost. And many who are in cities but are doing the works of the desert are being saved. For it is possible being among the many to be a monastic in disposition; and being alone to live with crowds in the intellect.’[1]

It is also worthwhile to consider that when St Anthony the Great asked God if there was anyone who was his equal, he was sent by God to a layman in Alexandria, a shoemaker.

Therefore, when we discuss the inner ascent in Evagrius, we are not merely engaging in an intellectual exercise for the lack of anything to do: we are discussing what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

Certainly in the case of Evagrius there are some aspects of his doctrine, for the most part not on the ascetical plane although impinging on it in places, which have been condemned by the Orthodox Church. We are not promoting those aspects of his doctrine; up to now we have avoided discussing those aspects because they are difficult to understand; and we will continue at least for the present to avoid discussing those doctrines.

However, the basic structure of the inner ascent in Evagrius took hold in Christian East and West, from Spain to Mesopotamia, through the writings of a number of great Christian ascetics, from St John Cassian in the West to St Isaac the Syrian in Mesopotamia, who based themselves on Evagrius.

What is that structure of the inner ascent according to Evagrius?

Basically it is this. A man born on the face of the earth is born with passions, which we can describe as emotional tendencies to sin. These passions are all based on pleasures of the senses, with the exception of one passion, sorrow, which withers all pleasure. These passions prevent the person from seeing the face of God.

In order to see the face of God, a man or woman must first be baptized into the Orthodox Church. That baptism restores the image of God in him or her but does not restore the likeness to God in him or her. The likeness to God is present when a person is permanently full of virtue through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

After baptism, the newly-baptized person is called to work on restoring the likeness to God in himself or herself. St Diadochos is the first writer, writing in the Gnostic Chapters about 450 AD, to discuss in detail the relation between this dynamic of restoring the likeness to God and the Jesus Prayer. That is, a disciple of Evagrius in 450 AD wrote a treatise discussing how the Jesus Prayer is connected to baptism and to the calling of the newly baptized Christian to restore the likeness to God in himself.

Now what does Evagrius himself say about this restoration of the likeness to God? Evagrius defines a spiritual journey to God in three stages. The first stage is purification. As we pointed out, as men born on the face of the earth we are born with emotional tendencies to sin. These prevent us from seeing the face of God, or, put another way, these prevent us from attaining the likeness to God that we are called to. When we are baptized these emotional tendencies to sin are weakened so that we can combat them more effectively but they are not eliminated. We ourselves must make a choice to combat them in our daily lives. This is the spiritual struggle of every Christian.

A person’s baptism does not completely eliminate his or her emotional tendencies to sin. The man or woman must every day through his or her free choice choose the road of virtue over the road of sin that his or her emotional tendencies to sin call him or her to.

Now those emotional tendencies to sin are these: gluttony, fornication, anger, sorrow, avarice, sloth (accidie), vainglory and pride. These obviously cover a much wider range of human behaviour than the merely sexual.

This spiritual struggle to restore the likeness to God entails that the person work on transforming these emotional tendencies to sin to emotional tendencies to virtue. This is the first stage of restoring the likeness to God in the person.

Evagrius talks in great detail about how these passions are combated. He pays particular attention to the ascetic’s thought processes. Usually before someone becomes an ascetic he lives in a coenobium, where he can learn the basics of combating the passions in his actions. The layperson applies this ascetical theory as best he can in the circumstances of his life, usually his married life: in the context of his wife and children. He concentrates on actions suitable to the layperson: almsgiving, justice in his social relations, regular attendance at Church, keeping the fasts and so on. However, each one of these three persons—the ascetic, the coenobite and the layman—is, according to Evagrius, basically doing the same thing: combating his passions.

That is the first stage of the spiritual journey, where the spiritual journey is what we earlier called the inner ascent of the personal Sinai, the personal Horeb. When a person has accomplished this first stage he is full of virtue. Evagrius remarks that Christian love is the offspring of the accomplishment of this first stage. That is, a person who has transformed the emotional tendencies to sin in himself to emotional tendencies to virtue is a man of Christian love. This is not something mechanical in the person’s actions (doing good deeds), but a complete transformation of the person emotionally, crowned by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

The second stage, in this day and age, very few attain to, even devout monks. This is the illuminative stage. After the person has been completely healed in his emotional drives, so that they are no longer directed to sin but to virtue, then the person begins to encounter in contemplation the ‘trace’ of God in creation. This trace of God in creation is the essence that each thing has that was created by God. Now this is not the rational discovery of the inner workings of things the way someone might do a philosophy or science course. This is an immediate direct encounter with the essence of a thing as that thing was intended by the Word of God to be when it was created. This is a very high state of spiritual attainment. The monk at this stage views a created object and ‘sees’ directly with the eye of his soul the essence of the thing as it was intended by God. In this, the monk is not praying but contemplating the trace of God in creation as he is viewing that creation. He will pray at another time of the day.

There is a further stage of the illuminative way where the monk begins to contemplate the angels, but this is a dangerous matter to talk about because of the danger of demonic deception.

The final stage is to enter into union with God in prayer. This is where the person both sees the face of God and completely restores the likeness to God in himself.

One of the very basic points in the inner ascent of these three stages as defined by Evagrius is that as the person ascends through the three stages he passes from the data of sense perception to what are called intelligible essences. This is a very difficult area, but basically what it means is this: In daily life, we perceive things with our senses: we see the computer in front of us and so on. As we proceed in the spiritual life, we have to leave the world of the senses behind and enter into the intelligible world of essences. Now it should be clear that this intelligible world of essences is very different from the world of fantasy. The Evagrian tradition is very clear that the world of fantasy is ultimately demonic in nature. In common language, to leave the world of the senses for the world of fantasy is to encourage a psychotic episode in ourselves. What we want to do is surpass the world of senses through purification of our emotional drives to sin so as to enter into the world of essences, from there to ascend through further purification to union with God in prayer. It is intrinsic to this spirituality that the intelligible world of essences is only attainable to those who are completely healed emotionally. The reason for this is that the emotional tendencies to sin, dependent as they are on pleasures of the senses, tie us to the world of the senses, preventing us from entering into the world of intelligible essences, thus preventing us from entering into union with God. It should be clear why Pentecostalist spirituality is preposterous in this context.

The ascent takes decades. Evagrian ascetical doctrine is directed to explaining how we should commence and practise this inner ascent. That is, Evagrius is laying down general principles and explanations about how to proceed along this spiritual road. Hence, spiritual practices which diverged from this theory would have to be treated with caution, lest they be a sign from the devil to overturn the Christian even before he started on the spiritual road. On this blog we ourselves have had this as our scope: in various ways to convey what we ourselves understand to be sound doctrine as concerns the spiritual life of the Orthodox man and woman, whether monk or layman.

This outline of the stages of the inner ascent is very similar to the doctrine in the West of St John of the Cross, with due allowance being given to St John of the Cross’ Roman Catholic background. The reason that the stages are so similar seems to be that St John Cassian introduced Evagrian ascetical doctrine into the West, where it was received into the Benedictine tradition and from there spread throughout Roman Catholicism (although there are certainly other independent formulations of the mystical ascent in Roman Catholicism).

[1]Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Systematic Collection, Volume I. Introduction, Critical Text… †Jean-Claude Guy, S.J. 1993. Sources chrétiennes No 387. Paris, France: Les Éditions du Cerf.


  1. Father,

    This is such a great explanation of Evagrius and the Mind of the Church on the process of salvation. I really think that defining the passions as "emotional tendencies to sin" is a really helpful way to put it.

    Could you further explain what the Church believes about spiritual progress after death? What I mean is, there are few Orthodox who even attain to the first stage in this inner ascent during their lives-- how does it go for them in the next life? Maybe also you could touch on the nature of heaven and hell.

    I recently found your blog and am trying to carefully mine it because it is trully a source of great spiritual treasure. Thank you.

    - zac

  2. Dear Zac:

    Thanks very much for your comments. I will try to answer your questions as soon as I am able--in a new post.

    Orthodox Monk