Who was he?
Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 A.D.) was one of the rising stars of the church in the late fourth century. He was well-known as a keen thinker, a polished speaker, and a gifted writer. Throughout his life, he was as a trusted friend to several of the most important church leaders of his era, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Nectarius of Constantinople, Marcarius the Great, and Theophilus of Alexandria.
He lived in Constantinople for a time before coming under severe conviction that he did not belong there. There were simply too many worldly attractions for him to effectively live a godly life. His sense of pride was fueled by the high praise of his peers. Gluttony, greed, sloth, and even lust, became persistent temptations over which he was not always victorious. One day, he simply left the capital, and set sail for the Holy Land. After a short stay in a monastery near Jerusalem, he joined a community of monks in the deserts of Egypt. Eventually, he became recognized as a leader in his commune.
Ever the scholar, Evagrius is believed to be the first monk to begin recording and systematizing certain teachings of the Desert Fathers. A prominent feature of his research was the list of eight patterns of impure thinking. While he did not create the list from scratch, he did refine and develop it.
Wasn't he a heretic?
If you are asking this question, then you likely know more about Evagrius and his teachings than I do!
He was something of an anomaly among his fellow ascetics. Unlike many other monks, he was highly educated and well respected by contemporary church leaders. It was not until shortly before his death that some of his more esoteric teachings stirred some controversy. He was later declared to be a heretic, and his writings were supposed to be destroyed.
What did he do that caused so much trouble? He was a student of Origen (c. 185-250 AD, an influential theologian who was also declared a heretic). Some of their more bizarre speculations included ideas about the pre-existence of human souls, the final state of believers, and certain teachings about the nature of Christ. Based on my limited understanding of the issues, some of their concepts were undeniably "out there." The primary reason I know so little about this controversy is because I have focused on his writings about the patterns of impure thought. He was quite intentional and successful at separating his theoretical musings from his pastoral and practical writings.
John Climacus, Maximus the Confessor, Benedict, and Symeon the New Theologian are among those he significantly influenced. His most famous student was John Cassian (described below). In my own studies, I have drawn extensively from both Evagrius and Cassian, while also drawing from other early writings which mention the eight patterns. The PITscan is not a strict reproduction of Evagrian thought, but is more accurately a modern synthesis of his teachings with my convictions.
Who was he?
Many of the teachings of Evagrius were adapted by and imported into the Western church by John Cassian (c. 360-435 A.D.) of Rome. Early in his career, Cassian interviewed many of the world's leading authorities on spirituality and asceticism, most of whom lived in Egypt at the time. These interviews form the foundation of his twenty-four volume series, The Conferences. Conference V, an interview with an abbot named Serapion, is about the eight principal faults.
Later in life, he established a few monasteries in Gaul (modern France). His twelve-volume series, The Institutes of the Coenobia and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults, established guidelines on how people should function in a monastic community. The final eight books in this series address the basic patterns (one book per pattern). These writings continue to influence modern monasticism.
Are ancient monastic writings relevant for today?
The short answer: yes. The long answer requires a bit of simple review on the origins of monasticism and asceticism.
During the first three hundred years of church history, Christians lived under the very real threat of persecution. Some areas were more dangerous than others, but every one was at risk. This changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (c. 274-337 A.D.) became a Christian and issued an edict of religious tolerance.
Christianity rapidly changed from an "illicit religion" to something quite popular. Churches filled up with those who were trying to curry imperial favor or to satisfy their own curiosity. Hypocrisy, which was inconceivable in the persecuted church era, became a very real problem. Many devout Christians chose to distance themselves from the institutional church. They retreated from public life to live in seclusion and without distraction. Some lived as hermits, while others joined together and formed communities known as monasteries.
Asceticism (a lifestyle of self-denial) also has its roots in this era. Early Christians did not generally seek out persecution, but accepted it as a reality. They drew comfort from the fact that it was evidence of a relationship with Jesus Christ and would be rewarded with a crown of righteousness. The greatest possible demonstration of love is to give up your life for your friends (or Friend). Martyrdom was acknowledged as the epitome of spirituality.
Many formerly oppressed Christians struggled with this new tolerance. Almost overnight, the Christian life became relatively easy to live. This required a radical adjustment in thinking: they were no longer called upon to suffer persecution and martyrdom. Sacrificial devotion then took on new forms as Christians sought alternatives to martyrdom. Instead of giving up one's life, one could take vows of celibacy, poverty and/or fasting. These freely made sacrifices made it possible to spend more time in undistracted prayer, study and service. [Note: Some communities later carried this concept to unhealthy extremes, including self-inflicted torture. This is far removed from the original intent and is not at all an accurate picture of true asceticism.]
Evagrius lived in a time when hypocrisy was a threat to the integrity of the church. He identified patterns of thought that led many into spiritual bondage. He encouraged Christians to strengthen each other so they could live unselfishly and victoriously. Not much has changed. Hypocrisy and selfishness still run rampant. Pride, lust, greed, anger, etc. continue to destroy lives. Fortunately, Evagrius did more than identify these dangers. He also scoured God's Word for safeguards and remedies. The dangers remain, but Scriptural solutions are timeless and always relevant.
Danté Alighieri (1265-1321 A.D.) was a highly regarded Italian poet whose most famous work, The Divine Comedy, prominently featured the Seven Deadly Sins. This epic is divided into three sections entitled Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise.
In Inferno, he takes an imaginary journey to the center of hell by traveling through nine concentric "circles.” The first circle, limbo, is a relatively gentle place reserved for unbelievers who did not quite deserve extreme judgment. After this, the punishments become increasingly severe. In order, the remaining circles are: 2) lust, 3) gluttony, 4) greed, 5) anger, 6) heresy, 7) violence, 8) fraud, and 9) treason.
Circles two through five neatly correspond to Evagrian patterns, and compose the Gray patterns of the Activity Index. According to Danté, these sins indicate a lack of self-control. The next two circles (heresy and violence) comprise sins that are part of the patterns of vainglory and pride. The remaining circles include a little of everything and do not easily map into the Evagrian scheme.
In the next section, Danté scales the mountain of Purgatory, which is divided into seven levels -- one for each of the Deadly Sins. The more serious sins are purged first before moving to the next level and closer to Paradise. He follows the same sequence proposed earlier by Aquinas, namely: 1) pride, 2) envy, 3) wrath, 4) sloth, 5) avarice, 6) gluttony, and 7) lust.
Danté categorizes the deadly sins in relation to pure love. Gluttony, lust, and greed corrupt love through excess, i.e. "too much." Sloth (sadness and acedia?) is a case of insufficient love, i.e. "not enough." Anger, pride (and vainglory?) are perverse forms of love "gone awry." This arrangement almost, but not quite, correlates to the Faculty Index categories.
It would be interesting to further pursue Danté's insights into the patterns, but after a brief survey of his work, it became obvious to me that it was beyond the scope of this project to try to integrate principles from The Divine Comedy into the PITscan. For more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dante.
John Climacus (c. 579-649 A.D.), also known as John of the Ladder, was an ascetic who lived most of his life in the Sinai peninsula. The majority of his monastic career was spent in solitude, but he is fondly remembered as the abbot of the monastery at Mt. Sinai which later came to be known as St. Catherine's.
His most famous book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, descibes the upward path of those who seek God. It is fairly easy to understand and quite rich in vivid word pictures. Each "step" of the ladder either encourages one to do something (such as renouncing the world, step 1) or to avoid/cease something (slander, step 10). The eight patterns appear as steps in The Ladder: anger (8), vainglory (10, 22), sadness (13), gluttony (14), lust (15), greed (16, 17), acedia (18?), and pride (23).
That John was heavily influenced by Evagrius and Cassian is beyond doubt. He employs much of the same terminology and concepts. However, Evagrius was still considered a heretic, and John disagreed with him on a number of doctrinal issues. Because I do not yet fully understand their differences, I have not attempted to include John's work in this project except for a few scattered quotes.
The Ladder is still highly regarded by many Christians (particularly those in the East), and it is often read during the Lenten Season. For more information:http://www.orthodoxwiki.org/The_Ladder_of_Divine_Ascent.