The past is filled with people who have had a great impact on our present time but are not as well-known as they should be, given the amount of influence they have had. They suffer from what is known as the “Todd Rundgren Syndrome,” named after a musician who has had a wide influence on current popular music but is barely known outside his fan base. One of these people who are not as well known in Western society as they should be is Evagrius Ponticus.
Evagrius was born in AD 345 in the town of Ibora, which was located in the Roman province of Helenopontus (his name means “Evagrius from Pontus”). The location is now in modern day Turkey. His parents were Christians, and he became a deacon in Constantinople. During his time in the imperial capital, he liked to dress in fancy clothing and flirt with women, some of whom were married. In time he became aware that his lifestyle was not productive of the sort of person he wanted to become, so he moved to Jerusalem and eventually became a monk in AD 383. He soon moved to Egypt to live in the famous monastic communities there, and died in AD 399.
He was more highly educated than many of the monks in Egypt at the time, and he wrote some theological works that are now considered quasi-heretical. He was writing at a time when orthodox Christian theology had not been as well-defined as it is now, and he was merely trying to explain theological concepts in a way he thought helpful to his intended readers, but because of the accusations of heresy, these theological works were removed from many libraries and lost to Western Christians.
Besides these troublesome theological books, he also wrote some other works dealing with the more mundane topic of monastic life, and these have been more accessible to us because they were treasured by the monastic communities that had copies of them. They are still treasured by monastic communities because of their insight into (and concrete suggestions to help correct) recurring problematic thought patterns experienced by nuns and monks. These insights into thought patterns mark Evagrius as an important early psychologist. They are also the reasons he should be better known now than he is, because his insights and helpful suggestions hold true not only for nuns and monks in the fourth century Egyptian desert; they are also helpful for us now, whether or nor not we live in monasteries.
The psychological insights of Evagrius stem from the idea that recurring thought patterns greatly influence our actions. Therefore, a person who wants to act in a loving, peaceful way needs to replace his greedy, self-centred thoughts with loving, peaceful thoughts. That is harder than it sounds. In order to do it, one must first be aware of one’s thought patterns – something of which we are rarely aware. So, the first step is to objectively observe one’s thoughts for a period of time in order to see what is going on inside our heads. After we have come to know our thought patterns, we realise that some are helpful (love, compassion, gratitude, etc.) and so we want to foster them, and others are harmful (judgmentalism, jealousy, bitterness, etc.) and so we want to lessen their frequency. Fostering the helpful ones is the easier task: whenever they pop up, dwell on them. Lessening the harmful thoughts is the difficult task. Evagrius suggests certain scripture verses to repeat to ourselves whenever these harmful thoughts pop up. Eventually the scripture verses will crowd out and replace the harmful thoughts. His suggestion does indeed work, but it is slow and difficult work. That is ok – any lessening of harmful thoughts, no matter how small and hard won, is change for the better. As our thoughts slowly become more loving and peaceful, so do our actions. One important thing to remember is the fact that having harmful thoughts is not sinful or shameful or even our fault, but wilfully grooming them and acting upon them is.
Evagrius came up with a list of eight major harmful thoughts (logismoi λογίσμοι in Greek) as a diagnostic tool for discerning which areas of our own thought patterns we need to work on: gluttony, greed, acedia, sorrow, lust, anger, vainglory, and pride. It is noticeable that some of these harmful thoughts are about good things such as food, money, and sex – the problem comes when we are obsessed with them to the point that our lives are controlled solely by trying to acquire more of them than we need or even more than we can really enjoy. Sorrow is also on the list, but it is in the sense of self-pity, rather than depression (which should be taken care of by a professional). Acedia is the one item on the list whose name is least known to us nowadays but is perhaps most experienced by us; it is a combination of sloth, loathing, boredom, and torpor. Maybe the best word we have for it now is “ennui.” Basically, it is a crippling disgust of one’s current situation, no matter how good and normal that situation is (being in truly unhealthy surroundings is another case). In other words, it is an angry desire to be anywhere but where you are, doing anything but what you are doing, and being with anyone but whom you are with. Changing one’s situation is not a cure for acedia, because unless you yourself change, you are bringing the acedia with you. A cure for acedia common to many monastic elders is not to change your surroundings, but to learn to see the inherent beauty in them and be grateful for them.
If these “Eight Logismoi” look a little familiar, it is because many of them are found in the list of “Seven Deadly Sins” which became popular in the centuries after Evagrius (the new list became more popular, not the sins; they have always been a hit). Don’t try to figure out which of the two logismoi are combined in order to bring the list from eight to seven – they are a reworking, rather than a condensation. One might get the idea that if people were coming up with lists of sins, then they were unhealthily preoccupied with sin. Actually it is the other way around: Evagrius was healthily interested in helping people live full and joyful lives free from the bondage of unhealthy and misguided attachments to the otherwise good and beautiful things of this world.
If you are interested in learning more about Evagrius, there are several books about his life and work. Three of the most popular in our library here at the monastery are: Talking Back, an English translation by David Brakke of Evagrius’ book Antirrhetokos from Cistercian Publications; Praktikos, an English translation by John Eudes Bamberger OCSO of Evagrius’ Chapters On Prayer from Cistercian Publications; and Thoughts Matter by Mary Margaret Funk OSB, a survey of writings on the “Eight Logismoi” by John Cassian (AD 360 – AD 435), a slightly younger near contemporary of Evagrius, from Continuum Publishing Company. Of course, you can always Google both Evagrius and John Cassian – there are many websites devoted to their teachings. Learning from these almost forgotten pillars of Christian life can be a rewarding experience. And while you are at it, look up Todd Rundgren.
St. Gregory’s Abbey – Three Rivers