How I came to On Prayer
The world may not have needed another English translation of Evagrius’s masterful little treatise, On Prayer– in Joel Kalvesmaki’s marvelous list of Evagrian translations one finds 11 published since 1968. Fr. Luke Dysinger’s is even freely available in the public domain. But I needed to create one. Evagrius is not my scholarly specialty. I came to Evagrius through my interest in two of his most important predecessors: Origen of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus. My doctoral dissertation dealt with Gregory’s poetics and poetic corpus; I’ve long been fascinated by Origen’s exegetical corpus, especially the homilies on the Psalms that were discovered early in the last decade. After finishing my doctoral work in 2019 at the Catholic University of America, I resolved not to embrace the peripatetic lifestyle of the adjunct professor. My wife and I decided that we would stay in the Washington DC area and that I would return to writing software (you can read about this decision here). Yet I wanted to continue reading and rendering Greek into English. Evagrius’ little treatise proved an excellent way to stay connected to philology and to profit spiritually through close attention to the voice of a wise master.
Who was Evagrius?
A monastic theologian, mystic, and philosopher, who lived 345–399 AD. For more info, see Kalvesmaki’s intro at evagriusponticus.net.
My Approach to Translating Evagrius
I have chosen spiritual utility as the primary goal of this translation. I’m convinced that Evagrius crafted these short observations to be used as objects of meditation during mental prayer. I want the translation to facilitate contemplation, not distract readers or listeners with unfamiliar terms.1 This focus has led to several decisions that may frustrate Evagrian specialists. First, I have not left Greek words untranslated, even pesky words like nous (rendered here as “mind”) and logos (rendered a variety of ways depending on context). The refusal to translate a word like nous is useful when reconstructing Evagrius’ thought, since the reader is less likely to import Cartesian and post-Cartesian discussions of mind/body into Evagrius’ different understanding of the human person. Yet to be useful to a general reader, we must pick an English word: mind is the most intelligible of the various choices. A few other idiosyncrasies:
- For πάθος, traditionally translated as “passion,” I have instead used the English word “compulsion.” Most lay readers aren’t familiar with the philosophical sense of “passion” and get confused when they find that word in a negative context. “Compulsion” is perhaps too strong, but it generally captures well what Evagrius means by the word πάθος.
- I’ve paid close attention to the aspect of the verbs. For instance, I’ve often translated the aorist προσεύξασθαι as “to carry out prayer” instead of merely “to pray.” Another example, in section 5, I’ve translated πρότερον περὶ λήψεως δακρύων προσεύχου as, “persist first in prayer to receive tears” (cf. Fr. Dysinger’s “First, pray to receive tears”). The present, imperfective imperative (προσεύχου) emphasizes an ongoing process, not a single complete action.
- I have generally used singular “they” instead of the generic “he”, to conform with my own idiom and the general changes in the English language. This will irk some, but I find it less awkward than the various circumlocutions one might employ to get around using it.
I have used Paul Géhin’s excellent recent edition of On Prayer as the basis for my translation.2 I naturally consulted his facing French version when I was puzzled by the Greek. I have not consulted systematically any of my fellow English translations; this affords my rendering a certain independence, but also means that I have made mistakes that could have been avoided. Should you spot something that looks off, do not hesitate to leave a comment below or write to me by email or twitter.
I must first thank three people connected with my alma mater, Catholic University of America. To Robin Darling Young (Associate Professor of Church History) and Carl Vennerstrom (Doctoral Candidate in Early Christianity) I owe many fascinating conversations on Evagrius. I also profited greatly from listening to Joel Kavelsmaki’s (PhD Early Christian Studies) observations on Evagrius at NAPS. I would also like to express gratitude to two people whose acquaintance I gained through Contemplative Outreach of Maryland and Washington. LJ Milone and Steve Thompson each led presentations at various meetings that included Evagrius. Steve has moreover read some of these and provided some helpful critique. Each of you have my thanks.
July 6, 2020
When I was being consumed by the flames of impure compulsions, you revived me through the touch of your letters, full as they were with love for God. You encouraged my mind while it was laboring with shameful thoughts, thereby imitating the great leader and teacher Macarius. This is not surprising, since like Jacob the “spotted cattle” have always been your portion.3 For after serving admirably for the favor of Rachel and receiving Leah, you persistently sought the wife you desired, and served for her another seven years. I shall not deny that I labored the entire night and caught nothing.4 Yet at your word, I let down my nets and caught a multitude of fish, not large ones, yet all the same 153 of them. Through chapters of the same number, I have sent these to you in the large basket of Christian love to fulfill your command.
I’m quite amazed and in awe of your passion for this excellent plan for chapters on prayer. Not only are you eager for the chapters that you can hold in your hand, which owe their existence to ink and paper, but you long for those that become fixed in place in the mind through love and freedom from all grudges. Since “everything is twofold, one after the other”, as the wise Jesus has it,5 receive the spirit in addition to the letters of the work. Take note that an intention always directs the letter, since without it, no literary work can come into being. Similarly, prayer is a twofold phenomenon– it has a practical element and a contemplative element. In the same way, numbers are twofold. Their quantity is ready to hand, while each also specifies a specific quality.
By dividing this treatise on prayer into 153 chapters, we have caught for you a meal of fish from the Gospel, so that you may discover the delight of symbolic numbers and the outline of this work, which is both triangular and hexagonal, and thereby discloses equally a holy knowledge of the Trinity and an outline of this world. By itself, the number 100 is rectangular. 53 is both triangular and spherical. Now 28 is triangular, while 25 is spherical, since 5×5 is 25. Therefore you may regard the rectangle as a figure for the four virtues, but also as the knowledge familiar with the facets of this age, as this knowledge resembles the number 25 because of the spherical nature of the passage of time. For week whirls to week and month to month. The time spins from year to year at the movement of the sun and moon, as we see in spring, summer, and the rest of the seasons. The triangle may signify for you knowledge of the Holy Trinity. Yet if through the fully seeing its qualities you grasp that 153 is also triangular, you should may understand that these facets also as practice, understanding of the natural world, and understanding of God, or, as “faith, hope, and love,” as “gold, silver, and precious stones.” This, then, is the nature of the number. As for the the chapters, do not deride their humble nature, since “you know what it is to love in plenty and not what it is to live in want.” All the more since you are always aware of the one who did not reject the two pennies of the widow but considered them beyond the wealth of many others. So, as one who knows how to guard for your brothers the fruit of love and good-feeling, pray for this one who is sick, that he may be well, take up his mat at once, and walk, through the grace of Christ. Amen!
If you wish to prepare a “fragrant offering,” you should combine in equal measure diaphanous frankincense, cassia, the aroma onyx, and myrrh, just as the law requires— these are the four virtues. For when these are perfected and present in equal measure, your mind will not be betrayed to the enemy.
A soul purified through the fullness of the virtues makes the rule of the mind in the body and soul secure, thereby making it receptive to the state that it seeks.
Prayer is the mind’s conversation with God. If the mind is going to be able to direct itself without distraction towards its Lord and converse with him directly, what state it must receive!
If in trying to approach an earthly burning bush Moses is prevented from coming close until he “removes his sandals from his feet,” how could you, who wish to see and converse with the One who is beyond all perception and concept, not remove every compulsive thought?
Persist first in prayer to receive tears, so that through this grief you can tame the wildness that resides in your soul and so that by “testifying against yourself of your lawlessness to the Lord” you obtain from him release.
Use tears to correct every request, as the Lord takes great delight in receiving a prayer born of tears.
Even if you pour out streams of tears in your prayer, you should never become conceited, as though you were superior to others. After all, your prayer has simply received additional support so that through tears you can more freely confess your sins and find reconciliation with God. Therefore, do not turn into a compulsion what should be a fortress against compulsion. Otherwise you’ll anger further the One who has bestowed on you this gift.
While weeping for their sins many people forget the point of tears and get all turned around in their madness.
Stand with diligence, persist in prayer with resolution, and continually turn away the attacks of cares and worrying thoughts. These vex and throng about you to sap away your resolution.
When demons see you desiring truly to carry out your prayer, they suggest thoughts of various tasks that seem necessary and soon stir up your memory about them, thereby moving the mind to seek after them. When it doesn’t find them, it gets upset and loses heart. When it then stands for prayer, they remind it of memories and these objects of seeking, so that the mind goes slack for this knowledge and loses the prayer that is truly fruitful.
Strive to have your mind stand deaf and speechless at the time of prayer, and you will be able to pray.
Whenever a temptation comes your way or a dispute incites you to release your anger in revenge or shout some unfitting word, recall your prayer and the clarity of discernment you have during it. At once, the uncontrolled emotion within you will cease.
Whatever you do to avenge yourself against a brother who has treated you wrongly will become a hurdle to you in the time of prayer.
Prayer is rooted in gentleness and the lack of anger.
Prayer is the the leafy growth of joy and thanksgiving.
Prayer is a guard against grief and despondency.
Go, sell your possessions, and give them to the poor. Then take up your cross and deny yourself so that you can carry out your prayer without distraction.
If you want to carry out your prayer in a laudable way, deny yourself hour by hour, and bear philosophically all manner of terrible things for the sake of prayer.
Whenever you withstand hardship philosophically, you will find the fruit of this at the time of prayer.
If you wish to pray as you ought, do not cause grief to any soul. Otherwise you are running in vain.
He says, “Leave your gift before the altar, go, and first be reconciled to your brother.” Then when you come back you will pray without disturbance. For during prayer a grudge will mar the ruling faculty of the mind and cast a shadow over your prayers.
Those who sweep up grudges and grief for themselves while thinking that they are praying are like those who draw water into a jar with holes.
If you are patient, you will always pray with joy.
While you are praying as you ought, situations will come to mind where you will think that you are entirely justified in using anger. Yet quite simply, there is no justified anger against your neighbor. For if you examine the situation, you’ll find that it is possible for it to be resolved well even without anger. So use every means at your disposal not to break out in anger.
See to it that while you think you are curing another you do not become incurable yourself and cut off the growth of your prayer.
By being sparing with anger you will find yourself spared. You will show yourself to be prudent and will be counted among those who truly pray.
As you are defending yourself against anger, you should never give into lust. For lust provides fuel to anger, which in turn disturbs the eye of the mind and ruins the state of prayer.
Do not go about your prayer only by external postures. Instead, continually direct your mind with great reverence to an awareness of spiritual prayer.
Sometimes when you stand for prayer you will immediately pray well. Other times, you won’t obtain your aim even after striving hard. This is so that you will seek still further. Then, once you obtain it, you will possess this virtue as as a shelter.
When an angel is present, all those that besiege us depart at once and the mind finds itself much relaxed and praying in a healthy way. But other times the normal battle takes place, and the mind fights and refuses to relax, because it is stirred up by various compulsions. And yet, when it searches further, it will find what it seeks, for to the “one who knocks vigorously, the door will be opened.”
Do not go on praying that your own desires come to pass, since they do not cohere perfectly with the desire of God. Instead, pray persistently as you have learned, “thy will be done in me.” In every endeavor, pray this way, so that his will would be done. After all, he desires what is good and beneficial for your soul. But quite often you do not pursue this.
Often after praying I would ask for what I thought good to come to pass and would persist irrationally in this request, thereby doing violence to the will of God and refusing to yield to it so that he would carry out what he knows to be best. Indeed, when I got what I asked for, I was extremely bitter that I hadn’t been asking for his will instead, for the matter did not work out like I’d supposed.
What is good besides God? So let us entrust all our affairs to him and they will go well. After all, he who is entirely good is also the giver of good gifts.
Do not fall into doubt when you do not immediately receive from God your request. He wants to bless you still further as you persevere with him in prayer. After all, what could be more exalted than conversing with God and exerting oneself for intimacy with him?
Undistracted prayer is the mind’s highest mental activity.
Prayer is the mind’s ascent toward God.
If you desire to carry out your prayer, reject all things so that you may inherit the all.
Pray persistently first to be cleansed of compulsions; second, for deliverance from ignorance and forgetfulness; and third, from every temptation and abandonment.
In your prayer seek only righteousness and the kingdom, that is, virtue and knowledge, and all the rest will be added to you.
It is right to pray not only for your own cleansing, but also for all your fellow race, so that you may imitate the way of the angels.
See to it that you are truly present with God in your prayer rather than being overcome by the desire for human praise. When you spur yourself with this, you are using prayer as a veil to true presence.
Whether you are praying with your brothers and sisters, or all alone, strive to carry out your prayer not through habit, but with perception.
Perception in prayer is the reverent and sorrowful awareness of a soul in pain from the confession of its faults by silent groaning.
If your mind still gazes about you during the time of prayer, you know that a solitary mind is no longer praying, but a worldly one, for it is trying to adorn its outward tent.
In your prayer. guard your memory with all your power so that it doesn’t present all the normal things to the mind but instead moves you to knowledge of the presence. By natural inclination the mind is easily held captive by memory during the time of prayer.
While in prayer your memory will present to you either mental images of old matters, or newer concerns, or the face of someone who has caused you pain.
The demon is exceedingly envious of a person at prayer and uses every means to ruin this goal. That’s why it never ceases stirring up thoughts about daily affairs through the memory and inciting compulsive desires through the flesh. It does this so that it can impede our progress in our journey out of this country to God.
Whenever that most foul demon is unable, after much trying, to hinder earnest prayer, it withdraws for a short time and then later has its revenge after the end of prayer. It either kindles some sort of anger within you and ruins that excellent and disciplined state that comes from prayer, or seduces you to some irrational pleasure and does violence to your mind.
After you have prayed as you ought, be on your guard against what you ought not to do and stand with courage as you guard your fruit. After all, in the beginning you were commanded “to work and to keep.” So after you have done your work, do not let the result of your labor go unguarded. Otherwise, you’ll have no benefit from your prayer.
The entire war waged between us and the unclean spirits is for nothing other than spiritual prayer. Nothing else is so hateful and hostile to them and so beautiful and life-giving to us.
Why do demons want to work up within us gluttony, sexual immorality, greed, anger, grudges, and the other compulsions? So that the mind would grow dull by them and thence unable carry out its prayer as it ought. After all, when the compulsions of the irrational part of the soul are in charge, they do not allow the mind to be moved in accordance with reason and to seek eagerly the God who is himself Rationality and Word.
We pursue virtues so that we may grasp the rational principles of the natural world, and pursue these so that we may grasp the Word who is himself rationality. Now it is precisely in the state of prayer that he likes to reveal himself.
The state of prayer is a condition free from compulsion that through desire for the highest good conducts the philosophic and spiritual mind to the summit of mental and spiritual reality.
The one who really wishes to carry out their prayer should rule not only over their lust and anger, but become free of every compulsive thought.
By turning away every compulsive thought, the one who loves God continually converses with him as with a father.
The one who has obtained freedom from compulsion does not necessarily pray in a true manner. After all, one can be entirely within one’s thoughts but distracted by the narratives they generate and hence far from God.
It is not necessarily the case that the mind has obtained the place of prayer once it no longer is among thoughts of day to day life. After all, it can be in contemplation of these day-to-day doings and spend its time among the explanations for these events. Even though they are just words, because these contemplations are directed at daily matters they shape and fashion the mind and lead it far away from God.
Even when the mind has moved beyond contemplation of bodily existence, it has not yet beheld the place of God’s perfection. For it may become enamored and divided with knowledge of the intellectual principles of things.
If you wish to carry out your prayer, you need God, who “gives prayer to the one praying.” So persist in calling out to him, saying “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come.” His “name” is the Holy Spirit and his kingdom is the only begotten Son. After all, this is what he taught when he said the Father was worshipped “in Spirit and in Truth.”
The one who prays “in spirit and in truth” no longer extols the creator for created things, but sings his praise for his very self.
If you are a theologian, you will truly pray. And if you are truly praying, you will be a theologian.
When little by little your mind withdraws, as it were, from the flesh because of its great yearning for God and turns away all thoughts that derive from sense, memory, or bodily desire, and then becomes suffused at once with both reverence and joy, then you may judge yourself to have drawn near to the borders of prayer.
The Holy Spirit suffers with us in our weakness and approaches us while we are still unclean. Should it simply find the mind praying to it with a desire for truth, the Spirit rests upon it and makes the entire troop of thoughts and worries that surround it disappear by turning the mind toward a love for spiritual prayer.
Angels and demons introduce various kinds of thoughts into the mind through interacting with our bodies. God does the exact opposite: as he rests upon the mind itself he places within it knowledge of whatever he wills and through the mind brings the unruliness of the body to rest.
There is no one who yearns for true prayer and is angry or brooding that has not forgot themselves. They are like someone who wants to see with clarity while scratching out their eyes.
If you long to carry out your prayer, do not persist in anything that is opposed to prayer, so that God may “draw near and walk alongside you.”
Do not form within yourself an image of the divine while praying, nor allow your mind to be imprinted with any form, but draw near as pure mind to pure mind, and you will have understanding.
Always be on guard against the snares of the enemy. It often happens while you’re praying in a pure and undisturbed way that a foreign and, as it were, Philistine image appears to you. By having you there circumscribe the divine, it wants to lead you astray into presumption to persuade you that this quantitative object disclosed to you is the divine. But the divine is without quantity and utterly beyond conception.
Whenever the jealous demon is unable to trigger the memory in prayer, he then assails the composition of the body in order to produce a foreign image in the mind and thus to shape it. Then, the mind that quickly mixes with its thoughts is easily overcome. Though it yearns for knowledge that transcends matter and form, it is deceived, clinging to smoke instead of light.
Stand at your watch: at the time of prayer, protect your mind from thoughts and stay in the tranquility intrinsic to prayer, so that the one who suffers even with the ignorant may also “make his visit to you.” That is when you will receive the much celebrated gift of prayer.
You will not be able to carry out your prayer in a pure way if you are entangled with material concerns and agitated by constant worries. After all, prayer is precisely rejection of thoughts.
One can’t run while in chains, nor can the mind gaze upon the place of spiritual prayer while in slavery to compulsion. It gets dragged down and carried off by compulsive thought and then won’t have any firm place to stand.
Once the mind is praying with purity and free of compulsion, demons come against not from the left, but from the right. They present to it a certain glory of God and some representation agreeable to its perception, such that it things to has obtained the goal of prayer in its fullness. A practicing physician told me this comes about because of the compulsion for recognition and when a demon touches the part of the brain that palpitates from the veins.
I suspect that this demon, by latching onto this part of the brain, is able to direct the light that surrounds the mind as it wishes, and that thereby the compulsion for recognition is directed toward a thought that impresses on the mind a definition of divine and essential knowledge. Since this sort of mind is no longer assailed by fleshly and impure compulsions, but stands free of them, it thinks that there is no longer any hostile activity at work within it. So it suspects that this vision within it is of divine origin, though it was generated by the ferocity of a demon who manipulated the light attached to the mind and shaped its sight, as we have just described.
When God’s angel stands present it causes with a single word all hostile activity within us to cease and spurs the the light of the mind to work without wandering.
When it says in Revelation that this angel “takes incense in order to give it to the prayers of the saints,” I think this gift is being spoken of that is effected by an angel. For it engenders knowledge of true prayer, such that the mind stands thenceforth free of all agitation, laziness, and despondency.
The bowls of incense that the 24 elders carry are said to be the prayers of the saints. We may suppose that the “bowls” (phialai) are affection (philia) for God, or rather a love that is perfected and spiritual, in which prayer is active “in spirit and in truth.”
Even when you think you don’t need tears in your prayer because of sins, consider just how distant you are from God and how much you need him in all things. Then you will weep more with greater abandon.
Indeed, when you truly know your limits you will groan with a certain sweetness as you confess your pitiable state like Isaiah, who though “impure” and “in the midst of an impure people” (that is, of enemies), nevertheless dared to stand before the Lord of hosts.
If you are really praying, you’ll discover deep assurance. Angels will come alongside you as they did with Daniel and illuminate the principles that give rise to created beings.
Realize that angels help turn us to prayer and take delight in standing at our side and praying on our behalf. So whenever be grow lax and entertain hostile lines of reasoning, we make them really upset, since they are laboring diligently on our behalf, but we are uninterested even in praying for ourselves to God! Instead, we scorn their act of service, forsake their God and master, and consort with unclean spirits.
Go about your prayer with gentleness and without disturbance, sing with understanding and with rhythm, and you will be like the chick of an eagle soaring high above.
The singing of psalms puts compulsions to sleep and causes the body’s unruliness to be at peace. Prayer then prepares the mind to engage in its own proper activity.
Prayer is an activity worthy of the dignity of the mind, or rather, its most pure and excellent activity and use.
Singing is part of God’s diverse and multicolored wisdom. Prayer by contrast is a prelude to knowledge that transcends matter and color.
Knowledge is extraordinarily lovely. After all, it is the collaborator of prayer, in that it awakens the intellectual power of the mind to contemplate knowledge of the transcendent.
If you have never received the gift of prayer or of singing, ask for it and you’ll get it.
It says that, “he spoke to them in a parable about how they must pray continually and not lose heart.” So do not remain in despair or lose heart because you haven’t yet received it, for you will receive it later. Later on in the parable the unjust judge says, “Even if I don’t care about God or other people, I will still take up her case because this woman keeps bothering me.” Just like this, God will soon take up the case of those who keep crying out to him day and night. So be encouraged as you persist in the labor of holy prayer.
Do not go on wishing that your affairs would turn out as you think best, but in a manner that pleases God. Then you will be undisturbed and grateful in your prayer.
Even when you think you are with God, be on your guard against the demon of sexual desire. It is extremely deceitful and jealous, and it intends to be faster than the movement and vigilance of your mind so that it can drive away from God even a mind that is standing before him with reverent fear.
If you are intensely attending to your prayer, you must continually prepare yourself against the onslaught of demons and with strength bear their attacks. They will come upon you like wild beasts to ravage your entire body.
Continually train yourself like an experienced athlete, so that you are not tripped up even if you suddenly see a frightening apparition in the mind. Even if you see a sword drawn against you or a torch approaching your eyes, do not be troubled. Even if you see a bloody and grotesque form, do not lose all heart. Instead, stand firm “confessing the good confession” and you will surveil your enemies with utmost ease.
The one who bears up in duress will obtain intense joys, and the one who endures resolutely through the bitter will not lose their share of sweet delights.
See to it that wicked demons do not deceive you through some mental impression. Instead, be circumspect, direct yourself to prayer, and call again and again on God, so that he will bring to light whether the thought comes from him, and if it does not, will drive it at once away from you. Take heart! These dogs will not be able to stand against you while you are using with fiery intensity the rod of prayer to God. Immediately they will be struck by God’s unseen and invisible power and be driven far off.
It is fitting also that you not be ignorant of this trick: at certain times demons divide themselves and when you think to pursue help, the other group approaches looking like angels and drives off the first. They do this so that you’ll be utterly deceived in thinking them to be holy angels.
Give utmost care to humility and courage. Then the deceit of demons will not take hold of your soul, and “the scourge shall not come near your tent, because he will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.” Though unseen, they will chase off the whole of the opposing action.
The one greatly devoted to pure prayer will hear clanging noises and torturous sounds from demons. Yet this person will not fall nor handover their thought. They’ll do this by saying to God, “I shall fear no evils, for you are with me” and other such verses.
In the moment of this kind of temptation, use a short and intense prayer.
Whenever demons from the air suddenly threaten to appear before you and hit you and snatch away your mind, or like beasts to do outrage to your flesh, do not be put to flight be them nor give thought to their threat. They are attempting to cause you fear to see whether you’ll pay attention to them or whether you’ve managed to ignore them completely.
If in your prayer you are standing before God, who is sovereign over everything, and also the creator and source of providential care for all that is, how could you ever stand before him in such an irrational manner: somehow you do not fear him, yet you quiver before bugs and beetles. Surely you have heard the passage that says, “you shall fear the Lord your God” and “before whose face everything trembles because of his might” and others in this vein.
Just as bread is food for the body, and virtue is for the soul, so also spiritual prayer is the food of the mind.
Continue in prayer not like the pharisee, but like the tax collector in the holy place of prayer, so that you too may be made right by God.
Strive never to utter a curse against anyone in your prayer, so that you do not destroy what you are building and thereby turn your prayer into something abhorrent.
The debtor who owed thousands of talents should be your instructor– if you don’t forgive those you who wrong you, you also will not receive forgiveness. It says, after all, “he handed him over to the guards.”
During the state of your prayer, set aside the body’s necessities. Otherwise when bitten by a flea, a fly, or a mosquito or beetle, you’ll lose the greatest profit of your prayer.
It has come down to us that the devil once opposed one of the holy men to such an extent that as soon as this man stretched out his hands to pray, the devil transformed into a lion, raised his front feet, and fixed his claws into the two flanks of this holy competitor. The devil meant to keep them there until the man set down his hands from prayer. Yet he did not relax his hands until he had finished his normal prayers.
We have learned that the same sort of thing also happened for the solitary monk of the lake, I mean John the small, who was in fact a supremely great monk. He remained motionless in the presence of God even when the devil appeared to him in the form of a serpent, wrapped itself around him, squeezed his flesh, and spat in his face.
You have doubtless also read the Lives of the Monks of Tabennese, where it states that while Abba Theodore was preaching to the brothers, two vipers slithered up to his feet. He treated them as though there were simple beetles and welcomed them in until he had completed his sermon. Then he showed them to the brothers and provided an explanation of the whole matter.
Again, of a different spiritual brother we have read that while he was praying a viper came and sank its teeth into his foot. The brother, however, did not set down his hands until he had finished his customary prayer. He was in no way harmed, for he had loved God more than he loved himself.
Keep your eye undistracted in your prayer. After renouncing your flesh and your soul,6 live in accordance with your mind.
Demons once approached another holy man while he was praying in stillness with great vigor in the desert. For two weeks they would toss and throw him into the air and catch him on a mat. Yet they were unable even for a brief moment to draw his mind away from its fiery prayer.
Again, two angels once approached another friend of God as he was walking in the desert and exercising great care in his prayer. They came along either side of him and started walking along the way with him. Yet he did not give over all of his attention to them so that he would not lose what was greater. After all, he had kept in mind the statement of the apostle that says, “neither angels nor rulers nor spiritual powers will be able to separate us from love of God.”
A monk becomes “equal to the angels” by desiring through true prayer to gaze upon the face of the Father in Heaven.
In your prayer, you mustn’t seek to receive any form, shape, or color.
Do not continue desiring to see with your physical eye angels or spiritual powers or Christ. If you do, even after becoming sovereign over your own mind you might take in a wolf instead of the shepherd and worship the demons that are so hostile to you.
The origin of a deceived mind is empty glory. When the mind is moved by this, it tries with mental forms and constructs to circumscribe the divine.
I will now say what I have also said to the younger monks– happy is the mind that at the time of prayer has obtained complete formlessness.
Happy is the mind that through undistracted praying continually receives greater longing for God.
Happy is the mind that at the time of prayer becomes completely detached from material and possessions.
Happy is the mind that at the time of prayer possesses complete detachment from the senses.
Happy is the monk who continues to regard himself as the “refuse of all.”
Happy is the monk who regards every human being as one deity after another.
Happy is the monk who looks eagerly with great delight on the flourishing and advancement of all as though it was his own.
A monk is one who is separated from all and joined together with all.
A monk is one who seess himself together with all, since he seems again and again to see himself in each person he meets.
The one truly prays who continually offers the first fruit of their thought to God.
Avoid every falsehood and oath, as befits a monk and one who desires to carry out prayer. If you don’t, you’ll conjecture in vain that which is beyond comparison.
If you wish to carry out your prayer in the Spirit, have contempt for no one. Then you will not have a darkening fog over you at the time of prayer.
Entrust the needs of your body to God. It is plain that you must also entrust to God those of your spirit.
When you obtain the promises, you will preside as a king. So then, by keeping your eye fixed on these, you will easily bear your present poverty.
Do not go on shirking poverty and affliction, the very stuff of uninhibited prayer.
Let the virtues of the body serve as collateral for those of the soul, the virtues of the soul as collateral for the virtues of spirit, and these last as surety for knowledge is what is immaterial and exists most fundamentally.
As you are praying against compulsive thoughts, take careful note, should they withdraw, of the source of this. Otherwise you may fall prey to a trick and in your deception hand yourself over.
Sometimes demons suggest thoughts to you and thereby incite you to say a prayer against them or to oppose them. They then willingly retreat so that you may be deceived in thinking of yourself that you have begun to conquer thoughts and scare off demons.
If you are praying against a compulsive thought or a demon that is besieging you, remember the one who says, “I will pursue my enemies and overtake them. I will not turn back until they withdraw. I will afflict them and surely they will not be able to stand. They will fall under my feet,” and the rest (Psalm 17:38-39).￼ At the right moment you should say this, thereby arming yourself with humility against your enemies.
Don’t think that you have obtained virtue until you have endured a battle for it “to the point of blood.” According to God’s apostle, we must even to the point of death stand against sin like a combatant yet without reproach.
If you do something good for someone, you’re likely to be contemned by someone else, with the result that you say or do something unfitting because you have been wronged. By this you profligately scatter what you had so carefully gathered. This is the wicked demons’ goal. So pay careful attention!
Again and again, accept the awful onslaught of the demons,7 all the while planning how you might escape enslavement to them.
At night demons choose to trouble a spiritual teacher through direct activity. During the day, they do it through people— they surround a teacher with crowds, flatterers, and dangers.
Do not go on shirking the fuller,8 since even if they beat and stomp, and then stretch and scrub, it is through this that your clothing becomes bright and clean.
To the degree that you have not rejected compulsions, but have a mind opposed to virtue and truth, you will not find a fragrant offering of incense in your breast.
The one who has emigrated from these parts and has their “citizenship in heaven” yearns to carry out their prayer at all moments, not only through mere words, but with action like that of angels and a knowledge more divine still.
If in difficulty you only remember of the judge that he is fear-inducing and exacting, you have not yet learned what it means to “serve the Lord in fear and rejoice in him in trembling.” After all, you should realize that it is in times of spiritual ease and celebration that you must worship him all the more with respect and reverence.
Prudent is the man who does not put off the bitter memory of his own sins and the just recompense that they deserve in the fire of the age to come until his repentance is perfect.
The one who is caught up in their sins and fits of anger and dares brashly to strive for knowledge of more exalted matters, or rather, rushes into immaterial prayer, ought to listen to the apostle’s admonishment that it is not without danger for them to “pray” with a bare “and uncovered head.” For this sort of soul, he says, “must have a covering of authority on it because of the angels” that are present, which is to say it must clothe itself with a fitting humility and reverence.
Just as the one who has a disease of the eyes will not benefit from an uncovered view of the sun in broad daylight, similarly receiving a firm impression in one’s mind of that prayer that is fearsome and beyond nature, which comes in Spirit and in Truth, is no use at all to the mind that is impure and overwhelmed with compulsion. Quite the opposite: this goads the divine to indignation against it.
If he who is impartial and lacks nothing has not received the one coming with a gift to the altar, until they are reconciled with the neighbor who is upset with them, take note of how much vigilance and discernment we need to give to God an acceptable offering in the altar of our mind.
Do not take delight in material things or in your reputation. If you do, “sinners are contriving” not “behind your back” but before your eyes. You will be their plaything at the time of prayer since you’ll be dragged about and enticed by them through thoughts of all sorts.
Attention that has eagerly sought prayer will find it. For even if prayer is something distinct from attention, it follows close behind it, and so we must always strive for it.
Just as sight is the greatest of the senses, so prayer is the most exalted of the virtues.
Worthy prayer is not simply a matter of quantity, but quality. These passages and those like them make this clear: “they were going up to the temple”9 and “but when you all pray, do not babble endlessly.”
To the degree and proportion that you attend to the body and your mind takes delight in the pleasures of its earthly tent, you have not yet beheld the place of prayer, but its happy road remains still far from you.
When you become one who stands for prayer in preference to every other joy, then you have truly found prayer.
Géhin, P., ed. 2017. Évagre le Pontique. Chapitres sur la prière. Sources chrétiennes no. 589. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf.
- Indeed, it was my hope to use this translation within a web app / mobile app to assist in centering prayer. I didn’t get so far as I’d have liked in this endeavor; hopefully I’ll get to polish it up sometime in the coming months.↩
- Géhin 2017↩
- A reference to Jacob’s agreement with Laban, narrated in Genesis 30, wherein Jacob would receive the spotted livestock as his wages for his service. Laban removed the speckled cattle before handing over the cattle to Jacob, but Jacob responded by using special staffs at breeding time to produce spotted cattle.↩
- Now Evagrius shifts his allusion to John 21, where the disciples have been fishing all night and caught nothing.↩
- See. Sirach 42:24. Note the “wise Jesus” isJesus Ben Sira, not Jesus of Nazareth.↩
- Evagrius clearly has in mind Jesus’ words, “whoever seeks to save his life/soul (psyche) will lose it, but whoever loses his life/soul for my sake will find it.” (TODO: insert reference)↩
- Reading the adjective επαχθεις not the participle επαχθεις as printed. Géhin prints the participle but translates as an adjective.↩
- That is, someone who washes clothes.↩
- Luke 18:10, which introduces the parable of the penitent tax collector and the proud Pharisee.↩