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OTT (Commentary) -- 4

12 All the demons teach the soul to be a lover of pleasure; only the demon of sorrow, then, does not condescend to practise this, but corrupts even the thoughts of those [pleasures] which have come into our mind, intercepting and drying up every pleasure of the soul through sorrow, if, indeed: ‘The bones of a sorrowful man become dry.’ [Prov. 17, 22.] And if this demon wars moderately, it makes the anchorite tested, for it persuades him to approach none of the things of this world, and to make a detour round every pleasure.

If it persists more obstinately, it gives birth to thoughts which advise the soul to lead itself out in an underhanded way,

We accept Gehin et al.’s interpretation that the word used means ‘commit suicide’.

or which constrain it to flee far from the place, which very thing has been concluded and has been suffered by the holy Job when he was being greatly troubled by this demon: ‘Would that I were able to lay hands on myself

Kill himself. Unless the words used are idioms for suicide, Evagrius prefers to use euphemisms rather than speak frankly about this. This is so even though the passage is a quotation, since Evagrius chose the quotation.

or that, having asked another, he would do this for me.’ [Job 30, 24.] The symbol of this demon is the viper, the beast of which the venom given philanthropically destroys the venoms of the other beasts,

We are otherwise unaware of this use of a moderate dose of viper venom as an antidote to the venoms of other beasts.

but, taken without measure,

As in a regular dose in a snake bite.

destroys the very living being.

Basing himself, evidently, on the science of his day, Evagrius draws a parallel between moderate sorrow and the use of a moderate dose of viper venom as an antidote to other venoms; and between immoderate sorrow—extreme grief and depression—and an immoderate dose of viper venom, which kills.

We are reluctant to say anything. The role of psychiatry in monastic milieus is a thorny and controversial matter. Let us make the following points. Evagrius was a man who was renowned for his delicate sense of discrimination in spiritual and psychological affairs. He does not say here, but in OTT 23, below, the following: ‘Let no one of those who live the life of solitude take up the life of solitude with anger, pride or sorrow; neither let him flee the brothers when he is troubled by such thoughts.’

It should be understood that Evagrius himself began his Egyptian monastic career in Nitria and after two years or so moved to the adjacent Cells.[1] The Cells were an eremitic—more properly, semi-eremitic—milieu, whereas Nitria was, evidently, much like an Athonite skete such as St Anne’s: there was much social intercourse among the monks, although neither Nitria nor St Anne’s could be considered to be a cœnobitical environment.

Hence, humanly speaking, Evagrius could be construed to have formulated the remark that we just quoted from OTT 23 on the basis of his own personal observation of the monk’s move from an environment such as Nitria (or St Anne’s) to a more remote eremitic or semi-eremitic environment.

Hence, in the remark quoted from OTT 23, he would be saying, do not make such a move if you are motivated by, or troubled by, pride, anger or sorrow. (Recall the analysis of motive in OTT 7, above.) These might be considered spiritual impediments to solitary or even severe asceticism.

The implication is that the monk making the move is not a newly arrived beginner, although the Sayings of the Desert Fathers certainly attests to a plethora of such cases.

Having clarified these technical details about Evagrius’ own monastic milieu, what we want to say, somewhat schematically, is that Evagrius is referring to the spiritual cases of sorrow, those which do not have a genetically-based biochemical or other organic cause, and those which do not base themselves on purely natural—psychiatric—problems. As we said, we are being schematic.

Genetically-based biochemical anomalies in the functioning of a person’s brain or nervous system, and other organic problems, are not demonic in origin.

Psychiatric difficulties with a purely natural basis are not demonic in origin. They are difficulties in adaptation from childhood. Environmentally caused, they have to do with how the monk coped with his childhood environment, which may have been unnatural or lacking in some essential element such as love or discipline. We need not give a course in psychiatry; we are monks.

However, there is a class of spiritual conditions, having their roots in temptation—as Evagrius has himself indicated in the example of the holy Job, tempted sorely by divine dispensation as a test of his faith in God and secretly helped by divine grace to overcome the temptation—or in sin—as St Paul remarks in the case of the man whom he has commended to Satan,[2] to which case Evagrius will refer below. These conditions are not intrinsically genetically-based biochemical irregularities or organic lesions, nor are they problems of adaptation. They are problems of temptation and sin. They have their roots in a man’s free will. Normally, in real life, all three factors are entangled in a knot that no one except a saint can disentangle by means of the charism of discernment that we have already discussed in our commentary on TPL 83. And in such cases the saint may prefer to cut the Gordian knot by refusing to deal with the details of the condition and by giving the person directions for a completely new life instead.

In cases where temptation and sin are a factor, then the priest has something to say. In cases where genetic abnormalities are a factor, then the priest has little to say, no more than in a case of cancer or diabetes, to name two diseases in which genetics plays a role. In cases where adaptation is a factor, then, in our day, everyone says something. What we mean is that, in those cases, no one really is capable of doing anything. Everyone tries. No one really accomplishes much in these cases of adaptation. Much depends on the psychological background of the person afflicted and on how he or she understands himself or herself. Much also depends on repentance. But that requires a free act, something that no one has ever been able to force on anyone.

What we are saying is that to the extent that the problem is genuinely spiritual, it must be handled spiritually; to the extent that it is genetic or organic, it must be handled medically. To the extent that the matter is psychological let anyone help who can.

In real life—we are ceasing to speak schematically—these three factors are mixed up the one with the other, and such cases are difficult to handle on more than a symptomatic basis. However, to the extent that the person is able, then repentance and confession—real confession, from the soul—followed by the Mystery of Unction, the anointing of the sick, and, if the priest permits, Holy Communion are salutary helps which can work miracles. If the person is willing, the priest can help with counsel, and the good monk with prayer.

This does not exclude the medical and psychiatric attendance of a qualified medical practitioner at the same time.

But the cases where the priest and the psychiatrist work together are rare.

Let us continue, addressing the psychiatric aspects: this is simple: we know nothing.

Hence, we are left with Evagrius’ text as a text referring to the spiritual aspects of the problem.

Paul committed the man who had transgressed in Corinth to this very demon [cf. 1 Cor. 5, 5], for which reason he writes again with haste, saying to the Corinthians: ‘Confirm charity to him, lest such a one be swallowed up in greater sorrow.’ [2 Cor. 2, 7–8.]

Excessive severity on the part of the spiritual ruler, whether priest, confessor, elder, abbot or bishop, can be crushing to the sinner or subordinate, and can lead, Evagrius is implying, to an immoderate sorrow that he has already compared to a full dose of snake venom.

But he knows this very spirit, straitening men, to become the means of repentance [cf. 2 Cor. 7, 10].

That is, when the sorrow is not excessive, it leads the sinner towards compunction and, ultimately, repentance.

Whence, St John the Baptist calls those who are pricked by this demon and who are fleeing to God for refuge ‘the brood of vipers’, saying: ‘Who showed you to flee from the future wrath? Bear fruit, therefore, worthy of repentance and do not think to say in yourselves: we have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able from these very stones to raise up children to Abraham.’ [Matt. 3, 7–9.]

This is an idiosyncratic, allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Normally, ‘brood of vipers’ is taken to refer to the Pharisees and Sadducees, as St Matthew makes clear, and to their vicious hearts. In Evagrius’ favour, St Luke’s Gospel presents St John as saying these words to the ‘multitudes’ who came for baptism. But still, normally, the sense is taken to be a viciousness of heart, not a sorrow. See, for example, Homily 11 of St John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, which interprets this passage.[3]

However, everyone who imitates Abraham and goes out from his land and his relatives

As Abraham did.

has become stronger than this demon [cf. Gen. 12, 1].

Evidently, since he has overcome the sorrow of losing his homeland and his dear ones, he has conquered sorrow in general.

In our own humble experience, sorrow at the stage of the thought which must be rebutted has the following characteristics: It must be recognized as sorrow. The peculiar aspect of this demon is that it often appeals to the monk’s sense of honour, thus making the sorrow ‘justified’ on account of some real or apparent, serious or trivial fault. Hence, we have found that the monk, motivated by honour, tends to agree with the demon and to accept the thought. In such cases, a behaviouristic response is necessary: a resolute rejection of the thought, even should it appear to be justified. This is what we meant when we said that the thought must be recognized as one of sorrow, as a temptation sown by the demon of sorrow. Despite the apparent honourableness of the thought, the apparent reasonableness—for the fault may be real—the monk must reach the experiential stage of grasping that thoughts of this type are temptations, not a reasonable response to his faults.

A modern Athonite Elder put the rebuttal in this fashion: ‘Having sinned, to the demon of sorrow that says, “You have sinned,” I reply, “I have not sinned.” Certainly, the man was a serious ascetic and would have gone to confession had he had serious unconfessed sins.

Scruples are connected to this sorrow.

The immediately preceding analysis assumes that the ascetic has the personal strength to recognize the sorrow for what it is—a temptation—and the personal strength to rebut the demon with the anger we have discussed in our commentary on TPL. The serious problems begin at a later, more evolved stage, when the symptoms take on physical dimensions and the person either is no longer able to comprehend his condition—that he is being tempted to sorrow—or no longer has the strength to rebut the thought, even if he understands just what the problem is. It is at this stage that psychiatric intervention may be necessary, until such a time as the monk can confront the problem spiritually with his spiritual guide. As we have already remarked, the demon of sorrow, just as the demons of fornication and accidie, can bend or even break the monk, especially in cases where the monk is fighting by night[4] and does not grasp what it really is a matter of. That is clearly why sorrow, along with pride and anger, is considered by Evagrius to be a spiritual impediment—a spiritual obstacle while it persists—to solitary ascetic endeavour. But we will leave it to Evagrius himself to discuss the matter further in OTT 23, below.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 11 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia.

The next chapter is almost as important as the preceding as a discussion of spiritual impediments.

13 If anyone has prevailed over temper, he has prevailed over demons. If one has been enslaved to temper, he is completely alien to the monastic life and a stranger to the ways of our Saviour, if, indeed, the Lord himself is said to teach the meek his ways [cf. Ps. 24, 9].

A monk of our acquaintance, quite charming, sociable and personable, well-known for his excessive asceticism, considered very spiritual, well-regarded for his high intelligence, does not only indulge anger, but also actively uses anger and white lies to get his way with inferiors, and also does not hesitate to wound and humiliate his inferior with a lofty spiritual dismissal of petty human concerns—all in the name of spiritual freedom and a more elevated, spiritually aristocratic comportment.

He who has eyes to see, let him see.

Evagrius insists on the need for meekness.

What is meekness? Our Lord said: ‘I am meek and humble of heart.’[5] St John the Baptist remarked, watching him: ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’[6] As St Peter says:

Finally, then, all persons of the same mind, sympathetic, showing fraternal charity, compassionate, not rendering evil in return for evil, nor verbal abuse in return for verbal abuse, but rather blessing, knowing that to this you were called, so that you inherit a blessing.[7]

As the Psalmist says:

For he who wishes to love life and see good days, let him stop his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; let him incline from evil and let him do good; let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the just and his ears to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those that do evil.[8]

Meekness is the virtue contrary to anger. Hence, it is first an absence of, and a refusal to indulge, anger. However, since the six passions of the soul belong to the irascible part of the soul, to the temper,[9] then meekness certainly has an effect on all the six passions of the soul. Moreover, that is why anger is so demonic: it encourages all the demons that correspond to the passions of the soul to approach—and even the demons of the two passions of the body, since the characteristic of all demons is their anger.

It should be evident that for Evagrius, meekness is a synonym for spiritual charity.

There is a sort of meekness that we Orthodox do not accept: it is a sentimental fawning or obsequiousness. This is unmanly. There is nothing unmanly about Christ in the Orthodox Church. That is why the icon of the Man of Sorrows—liturgically it precedes the icon of the Crucifixion—shows a very strong man inclined in suffering. The manliness and meekness show in this, that Christ, a man, accepted the suffering with the meekness of a lamb, not returning verbal—and physical—abuse, even though he could call for ‘more than twelve legions of angels’.[10] He was free of anger; his meekness is the strength of the Son of God, the Son of the Father whom he loves and to whom he was obedient, even to death, death on the Cross.[11]

Hence, our meekness, although it begins with abstention from anger by the constraint of prudence,[12] is perfected in the manly acceptance of suffering in genuine love.

Therefore the mind of those who live the life of solitude becomes hard to hunt down

The word that Evagrius uses is taken from the hunt.

when it flees to the field of meekness. For the demons have feared almost none of the virtues as much as meekness. This virtue Moses, that great man, acquired, being called ‘meek more than all men’ [Num. 12, 3]; and the holy David pronounced it worthy of the remembrance of God, saying: ‘Remember David and all his meekness.’ [Ps. 131, 1.] But even the Lord himself commanded us to become imitators of his meekness, saying: ‘Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find repose for your souls.’ [Matt. 11, 29.] If, then, someone were to abstain from food and drink but to inflame his temper with evil thoughts, he would be similar to a boat sailing on the high seas with a demon as pilot. Therefore care must be taken, with as much strength as we have, for our dog,

The temper.

and one must teach it to destroy only the wolves

The demons and, by implication, the thoughts sown by them.

and not to eat up the sheep, showing every meekness to all men [cf. Tit. 3, 2].

The sheep are the good thoughts and, by extension, all men. This imagery is repeated by St Hesychios in On Sobriety 31.

The Evagrian system of the eight passions, six of which belong to the irascible part of the soul, is such that meekness—true Christian charity and sweetness and a refusal to repay evil except with good, and prayer and love for him who has afflicted you—must play a central role in the spiritual struggle against the passions of the soul. This perspective on or overview of the practical life as a life aimed at the attainment of dispassion (apatheia), taken to be the acquisition of the virtues, which assigns such a central role to meekness—or spiritual charity—in the attainment of that dispassion (apatheia), can be considered the key to any interpretation of Evagrius. In this we agree with Gehin et al.

This chapter corresponds to Chapter 12 of Peri Diakriseos in the Philokalia

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[1] Derwas Chitty’s The Desert a City (Chitty) is good on the archaeology of Egyptian monasticism and is recommended.

[2] Cf. 1 Cor. 5, 1–5.

[3] Chr–Matt E and G.

[4] TPL 83.

[5] Matt. 11, 29.

[6] John 1, 29.

[7] 1 Pet. 3, 9–12.

[8] Ps. 34, 12–16.

[9] We discussed this in TPL 35 and elsewhere.

[10] Matt. 26, 53.

[11] Cf. Phil. 2, 8.

[12] TPL 73.


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