Saturday, July 11, 2009

Evagrius: Admonition on Prayer


While I was visiting my family in MN, I read a book containing the writings of Syriac fathers on Prayer. One I would like to share was by Evagrius. Although he wrote in Greek many of his documents survive only in Syriac. He comes from Pontos being born in the mid fourth century. He was ordained a reader by Saint Basil the Great and a Deacon by Saint Gregory the Theologian. He spent the last 18 years of his life in the desert. Some of his more speculative works were condemned two hundred years later in the Fifth Ecumenical council yet his spirituality was deep and he had a significant impact on later Syriac writers as well as western fathers such as Cassian and Byzantine fathers such as St. Maximos the Confessor.
The aarticle I plan on sharing is titled "Admonition on Prayer"

He begins as follows:
"You know very well, my brother, that someone who wants to set out on a long journey will first of all examine himself, and then he will attach himself to another travelers with whom he is able and willing to keep up; otherwise he may get left behind by his companions on the journey an come to harm."
Now in those days to travel was quite a different proposition than today's travel. It required great physical stamina and was dangerous because of thieves. One who was not prepared for the journey would be left by the roadside, very likely in a remote area, unable to continue. So he is using this as an example to show us how we must assess our condition before embarking on a spiritual journey. We must first examine our condition so we can choose a course that fits our present condition. Otherwise we may be harmed and left behind or fail altogether.

He goes on to say:
"First of all let him look into himself and see how strong he is, then let him choose a way of life that is appropriate to himself."
If we are inexperienced in prayer we cannot start at the level of mental prayer as many of the desert fathers discuss. So we have to be careful when reading the fathers on prayer as often they are talking to highly advanced monks who are conditioned for a much higher level of spiritual journey than we may be prepared for. Not only are we mistaking the life of a monk to be the same as our worldly life, but also ignoring the difference in our spiritual condition. If we attempt to follow their course we can easily fail and even be harmed.

He says,
"It is better to begin from one's feeble state and end up strong, to progress from small things to big, than to set your heart from the very first on the perfect way of life, only to have to abandon it later,__or keep to it solely out of habit, because of what others will think––in which case all this labor will be in vain."
I can speak from experience on this point in my practice of the Jesus Prayer. In my earlier years I was not able to assess my weak condition and felt I could run with the most advanced practicers of this prayer. After all I was a disciplined and successful person in worldly affairs. What use was vocal prayer I thought, if the aim is mental prayer in the heart, begin with mental prayer. So I would say the prayer in my mind focusing my attention on the heart. I forced such a practice for several years and finally become discouraged. My mind wandered all the time and this I tended to ignore or discount. I was focused on achieving someting and not on developing a relationship with our all-powerful God. Finally, I heard the fathers say, BEGIN WITH VOCAL PRAYER and mental prayer will flow naturally when you are ready. Concentrate. Concentrate on God over all else. Stamp out all extraneous thoughts. When I heard and accepted this advice, I began to say the prayer vocally with more humility. I was more and more able to concentrate on God, the wandering of my mind was reduced, and then without any effort mental prayer came to me. Occasionally I still have to revert to vocal prayer, but I learned an important lesson about a spiritual journey. LISTEN to the Fathers who teach beginners and be humble in your own assessment of your spiritual condition. Pride and ambition can destroy all your efforts.

Evagrius continues going back to his travel analogy:
"It is the same with people who travel: if they tire themselves out on the very first day by rushing along, they will end up wasting many days as a result of sickness. But if they start out walking at a gentle pace until they have got accustomed to walking, in the the end they will not get tired, even though they walk great distances.
Like wise anyone who wishes to embark on the labors of the virtuous life should train himself gently, until he finally reaches the perfect state. Do not be perplexed by the many paths trodden by our Fathers of old, each different from the other; do not zealously try to imitate then all: this would only upset your way of life. Rather choose a way of life that suits your own feeble state; travel on that, and you will live, for your Lord is merciful and he will receive you, not because of your achievements, but because of your intention, just as he received the destitute woman's gift" (Mk 12:43 & Lk 21:3).
This point seems to be very important to me, God will not receive you based on your achievements, but on your intention. The achievement you may seek will come as a gift from God. The spiritual realm is different than this world where we are rewarded based on our achievements. In the spiritual life we are blessed when we hold a humble view of our condition. What is most important is our sincerity, our intention. So do not be hurried in your efforts. Be realistic about your current status. Be wary of equating your spiritual condition to that of the monk whose writings you may be reading. Be clear about who they are instructing.
Do not be discouraged by discovering your lowly status, but be encouraged by your intentions to be in relationship with God and to do His will. Seek His help and He will guide you along the path that is suited to you.

More to come....

Source of quotes: The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. Sebastian Brock, Cistercian Publications,1987

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