Evagrius Ponticus (345-399) is one of the earliest spiritual writers on asceticism in the Christian eremitic tradition. As a theologian he closely followed the Gnosticism of Origen (185-254) on the preexistence of souls and the final union of all things in God, views condemned by the early church authorities, though not for a century and a half after Evagrius’ death. His credentials on asceticism, however, were without controversy. He closely observed the Desert Fathers and spent his last years as one of them. His influence on the more popular John Cassian is significant, for it was through Cassian that the West learned about desert spirituality.
The Outline Teaching On Asceticism and Stillness in the Solitary Life is a catalog of ascetic practice for the hermit, who in this context is the monk, but the application is, of course, universal to solitaries. The practical goal is what the Eastern Christian tradition calls “stillness, the state of equanimity and “emptiness” that is the product of solitude. “For the practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty.” Hence stillness is both the fruit and the practice, the goal and the means. And the means are the ascetic practices he recommends in this essay.
Do you, then, desire to embrace this life of solitude, and to seek out the blessings of stillness? If so, abandon the cares of he world, and the principalities and powers that lie behind them; free yourself from attachment to material things, from domination by passions and desires, so that as a stranger to all this you may attain true stillness. For only be raising himself above there things can a man achieve the life of stillness.
Here are Evagrius’ recommendations, with a summary of his explanations.
1.. “Keep to a sparse and plain diet.” Avoid extravagant foods difficult to prepare and tempting desire. Offering hospitality should not be an excuse for acquiring these foods. “If you only have bread, salt, or water, you can still meet the dues of hospitality. Even if you do not have these, but make the stranger welcome and say something helpful, you will not be failing in hospitality.”
2.. “With regards to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body.” If in need, one should accept what others offer, since shame can be a kind of pride. If one has excess, it should be given to those in need.
3.. “Do not have a servant.” The employment of a servant means providing for another person and exposing oneself to a potentially resentful or hostile personality Spiritual peace is far more important than bodily ease. “Even if you have the idea that taking a servant would be for the servant’s benefit, do not accept it.” This may work in a community setting but not for a solitary.
4.. “Do not develop a habit of associating with people who are materially minded and involved in worldly affairs.” Live alone or associate only with the like-minded. Worldly people (that is, anyone else, whether of worldly values or just caught up in worldly business) will subject one to social pressures, vain conversation, material desires, anger, depression, scandals. This extends to parents and relatives, who will being with them their worldly affairs.
5.. “If you find yourself growing strongly attached to you cell, leave it, do not cling to it, be ruthless.” Everything should work to promote “stillness and freedom from distraction” in one’s life. If this is no longer possible in the vicinity where one lives, fondness for one’s dwelling (and the investment of physical or emotional energy put in it) should not deter moving, even into exile, if necessary. By exile, Evagrius means uprooting of the familiar and going elsewhere, a kind of exile where one knows no one or the environs; this can be literally another county, as the desert hermits who moved deeper into the desert or mountains as they perceived their original place to be crowding. With regard to one’s dwelling, Evagrius recommends the attitude of an “astute business man” who apprises everything on his one standard of value.
6.. “Do not let restless desire overcome your resolution.” This section reiterates the need to avoid the pressure of friends urging lax standards. These temptations are not even friendly advise but provocations leading to self-doubts, a weakening of the will, the entertaining alternative scenarios, and eventually to assent to giving up the solitary life. As a practical measure, “If someone who lives in accordance with [your values] comes to you and invites you to eat, go if you wish, but return quickly to your cell. If possible, never sleep outside your cell.”
7.. “Do not hanker after fine foods and deceitful pleasures.” This section extends the first section on plainness of diet in noting the social context of food. Eating with others carries the danger of being offered fine foods that provoke desire – which is the deceitful pleasure here referred to. Such invitations should be declined. One should see how much these social exchanges weaken stillness. “Do not have relationships with too many people, lest you intellect becomes distracted and so disturbs the way of stillness.” Such exchanges often begin or certainly culminate in eating together. This is a keen psychological insight of Evagrius into the anthropology of eating and the difficulty so many have in resisting the food, and hence the company, of others.
8.. “Provide yourself with such work for your hands as can be done, if possible, both during the day and at night, so that you are not a burden to anyone. …” This section addresses the issue of what today would be called labor and income. The desert hermits usually employed themselves by plaiting reed baskets because no other work would fit the criterion Evagrius states. The hermits would entrust a disciple or other representative to sell the baskets to a merchant and to bring back provisions from the proceeds of the sale. To enter the marketplace themselves would be to call forth all the distractions to stillness described elsewhere. The object was simply to garner a little money for survival. For those hermits who had to do this in person, Evagrius warns them not to haggle. “When buying or selling you can hardly avoid sin. So, in either case, be sure you lose a little in the transaction.”
Other ascetic practices promoting stillness are mentioned by Evagrius without elaboration: meditative techniques including visualization, fasting, and prayer. None of the counsels seems new or original, but in the context of the time and their application to the solitary life they are outstanding.
Evagrius knew both of the famous Macarius: the saint of Alexandria and the Sketis abbot. He drew the breath of desert spirituality from their example. Evagrius spent the last fourteen years of his life in the Egyptian desert as a hermit.