We start to pray when out of unreasonable love for God we cast aside our thoughts, our memories, and our temperament, and replace them with respect and joy. This is the kernel of the writings of a man who, along with Gregory of Nyssa, merits the title, Doctor of Christian Contemplation. His name was Evagrius. In spite of great influence in his own lifetime, his writings were ascribed to someone else; he scandalized both Eastern and Western churches of his day. St. John Clamacus and St. Maximus are full of Evagrius’ teachings, but did not use his name. And even modern scholars do not cite him without qualification. This is because the religious experience of Evagrius is coupled to that of Origen. Being a Christian of Asia Minor birth he was less affected by the controversy surrounding Origen in the southern Mediterranean; having been ordained by the Cappadocians he became a desert dweller in Scete under St. Macarius. His influence was recorded by Cassian. And he died just before the Origenist scandal of the fourth century when people sympathetically refused to assign his name to his insights.
Nevertheless, the insights that arise from his experimental life of love mimicking the New Testament witness has impacted the church ever since…
- that our self is the greatest barrier to experiencing God
- that he does not despise life
- that our passion of our self-will erodes our passion for God
- that moral and spiritual purity are in and of themselves dead ends
- that the summit of the Christian life is love
- that the Christian life is about self-denial and absolute submission to God
- that a sufficiently reflective (contemplative) life seeks first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice
Recall the book of Job…
- Job argues that he does not deserve what has happened to him
- God doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions
- God states that what Job has said of God is right
- Job repents
The book confounds Western populist notions of faith: Job says he is treated unfairly. God says that Job what right in this claim. God offers no explanation. Job rethinks his life. The whole process is backwards.
The book uncovers that the real problem is that none of the actors should have started speaking at all. Job’s complaint is that God isn’t treating him fairly. The problem is that Job is trying to view his interactions with God as a negotiation. Instead, God rejects these explanations outright.
Populist Christianity has historically allowed countless millions to mechanistically substitute the absolute respect and joy for God described by the first Christians with shoddy trade goods: going to church, decency guidelines, Bible study, reading religious literature, Christian schools, religious/insider language. In short, the ever-popular phrase of working on a personal relationship with God is no more than an unthinking cover for getting our way, which starts with controlling God.
Evagrius experienced prayer as a deep, habitual intimacy, not of the affections alone and not of reasoning. It is a disposition of immediate intuitive contact…a recurrent and perpetual commerce…not a conversation…with no intermediary. Askesis is not practised in order to produce a sufficient purity of heart.
Christ is our love and he unites our understanding to our neighbour in equanimity and a true indwelling of the Trinity.