From Ammoun to Sisoes: A Path through the Evergetinos – By Michael Centore

Michael Centore reads a medieval compendium from the monastic Fathers of the ancient Christian East

Humankind is starved for silence. Quick to define, describe, and classify, we have reasoned our way into dominance over the Earth rather than respecting the ineffability of our transient existence upon it, and the results have been nothing short of devastating: endless wars, environmental catastrophes, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, to name but a few. The sources of these crises are spiritual as much as they are political or economic: a failure, at base, to contemplate our origins as clay and ash and instead use any justification to set ourselves above our fellow man.

In this the way of the monk has much to teach us. By recognizing that he comes from nothing and will one day return to nothing, that the body itself is not even his own, the monk hews close to the harsh truth of the world and lives accordingly. He understands that, in the interdependent web of creation, one man’s possession may be another’s privation, and so he embraces a state of voluntary poverty that strikes at the root of inequality. His solitude is neither retreat nor escape, but rather an essential precursor to a fuller, deeper connection with others; for it is only in solitude that he can attain the prayerful focus necessary to combat the jealousy, rancor, contentiousness, and whatever else clouds the intellect and constricts the heart from opening into selflessness. Dying to the world, he lives in a love not subject to fleeting vanity, a love that undergirds the whims of conscience and endures all things.

Difficult though it may be to reach this “promised land [of] dispassion,” in Saint Gregory of Sinai’s words, our future may depend on us adopting a more monastic attitude. It is a task that clashes with our modern lives, where we have every tool at our disposal to avoid facing ourselves alone. We can align ourselves with groups that speak to our hopes for a more humane society, but without that radical change of heart in which each individual confronts his or her own role in our shared tragedy and embarks on the “work of love” necessary to correct it, those hopes can be polluted by our self-regard. It is at this juncture that the voices of the Evergetinos — as of 2008 rendered scrupulously into English by Archbishop Chrysostomos, Heiromonk Patapios, and their team at the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies — carry renewed resonance.

Originally compiled in the eleventh century by one Monk Paul of the Monastery of the Benefactress (Mone tes Evergetidos in Greek, the slight derivation of which supplies the title) in Constantinople, the Evergetinos is, at its core, a compendium of sayings and doings of the monastic Fathers of the ancient Christian East. Monk Paul culled his material from a wide variety of sources — everything from readily accessible hagiographies to more obscure collections of monastic literature — and arranged it according to theme. There are two hundred themes in all, some of which are elemental and direct (“Concerning how we should repent”), others more elaborately nuanced (one title addressing the necessary prerequisites of spiritual teachers runs 120 words).

In the present translation, Archbishop Chrysostomos has rendered these organizational elements as “hypotheses,” a choice that seems entirely apt when we consider the speculative nature of any thought about one’s relationship to God. Hence the text becomes something of a simulacrum of the “monastic laboratory” of the Egyptian desert: a place where the reader can encounter a whole enclave of spiritual practitioners, each testing and re-testing the ways and means to work out his salvation.

Such was the intent of Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain when, with the aid of his close collaborator Saint Macarios of Corinth, he prepared the Evergetinos for publication in 1783 after centuries of it circulating only in manuscript. His prologue to that first edition stresses the rational pursuit of a good geared not toward gnosis, but praxis. He laments those learned men who immerse themselves in materialistic philosophies yet

entirely neglect moral philosophy, even though it is both the paramount and most necessary of all types of philosophy. These men study the harmony and order of the heavens, and earth, and all other matters. But because they do not know, as they ought, that the investigation of ourselves is distinctly superior to that of alien matters and, moreover, because they do not know that knowledge on its own—that is, being bereft of practical application—has no substance and does not differ from fantasy . . . precious few of these men address the question of how to bring themselves into harmony with the beauty of moral life, or how to learn true virtues through experience.

The saint’s plaint would be pithily recast for the twentieth century by Thomas Merton when he famously asked, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?” Now in the twenty-first, the need of people to harmonize “with the beauty of moral life” is as pressing — and as threatened by the specter of empty conceptions such as “Human Achievement” — as ever. “The danger of ignoring the limits of knowledge is particularly acute in modern societies where the density of information is so great,” the writer and critic Robert Bird has stated; indeed, we seem to have moved little past the definition of intelligence as pejoratively formulated by Paul Evdokimov in 1964, the same decade Merton was condemning our curiosity-cum-escapism: “To be intelligent today means to understand everything and believe in nothing.” Whether or not we interpret that “believe” in a religious sense is beside the point: in its confusion of access for assimilation, our consciousness grows ever more atomized, capable of taking in increasing amounts of data yet lacking the still, silent center necessary to determine its historical usefulness, let alone its ethico-cosmic significance. The imbibing of information becomes an end in itself, crowding out the space of real reflection that helps us perceive what Nicodemos calls the “universal laws of orderly and all-harmonious motion.” Cut off from the “attainable effulgences” of these laws, we begin, perhaps unwittingly, to make a false idol of a mind deluded in its acquisitiveness, no longer able to discern its relation to the good; it knows much about what it knows but can do little to reprocess such cyclic knowledge into wisdom.

Following Nicodemos, the Evergetinos is a work that bears more fruit when approached with a contrite, humble heart than an overheated analytical mind. There are many ways to forge one’s path through the text, though its four-volume breadth coupled with the gravity of its teachings begs for a slow, labored reading in the style of Benedictine lectio divina: parceling out one volume per season, perhaps, beginning each morning with a single hypothesis (or part of a hypothesis) so as to structure the day on a solid foundation. We are soon alive to the counsel of the Fathers, journeying from cave to cave as along the corridors of an ascetical academy. The moment we feel time and the circumstances of our lives might separate us from the fullness of the desert experience, we hear the following:

Abba Longinos once asked Father Loukios:

“Abba, my soul yearns to dwell in a remote place.”

“If you do not succeed in controlling your tongue,” the Elder replied, “you are not in a remote place, no matter where you move. But if you control your tongue, then you will be far removed even here.”

Barely a sixteenth of the way into the Evergetinos, the instruction comes as an invitation to make a desert of wherever we are. By “setting a guard over our mouth” (Psalm 141:3), we cease to give voice to those vainglorious thoughts that “come forth from the heart and defile a man” (Matthew 15:18); thus we take a small but not inconsequential step toward imposing a “remoteness” on the avarice, self-importance, and myriad other passions that govern our worldly concerns. We are edified in knowing that we share one silence with the teachers of the Evergetinos, and that the possibility exists for us to occupy the same spiritual, if not physical, geography. This knowledge allows us proceed on our Evergetinos pilgrimage with greater confidence: it brings us into the sphere of monastic “hearers” for whom the text was originally intended, equipping us to deepen engagement with hypotheses to come.

Fra Angelico - Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Fra Angelico – Scenes from the Lives of the Desert Fathers (Thebaid). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, we are called to temper this feeling of “solidarity in silence” with humility, recognizing we have only just begun to reveal the desert of the human heart as a place of encounter and confrontation. The moment we believe we are making progress in internalizing the lessons of the Evergetinos is the moment we are most susceptible to self-flattery; we risk attributing advances to the strength of our own will rather than the efficacy of the Fathers. This is lectio without divina: it turns a living relationship into a literary exercise. We may slacken our reading as a result — or, worse yet, succumb to pride, forgetting that “knowledge wrought by inertness puffs one up.” Abba Isaiah addresses this pitfall as we prepare to exit the first volume:

Do not be lethargic in any labor; for labor, hardship, and silence give birth to humility—and humility forgives every sin. Know this: that to the extent that a man is careless, he thinks in his heart that he is a friend of God; but if he is freed from the passions, he is ashamed to raise his eyes to heaven in the presence of God, because he then sees how far away from God he is.

If we apply these words to the labor of spiritual reading — where “lethargy” is an unwillingness to act on what we have read and “carelessness” a failure to guard against the “passions” of spurious knowledge-gathering and idle curiosity — we see how easy it is to engender a “false friendship” not only with the Fathers, but with God Himself toward whom their whole lives point, if reading is abstracted from the necessary work of humility.

The reader is called to feel the “hardship” of distance between the project of divinization as set forth in works such as the Evergetinos and his or her own human weakness. Only then, in the confines of the chastened heart, can one return to the “remote place” he or she has made of silence and begin to inhabit it as a fellow struggler with the Fathers. So Abba Poimen greets us at the onset of the second volume: “Whatever difficulty comes your way, it can be overcome by silence”; later, Saint Ephraim will advise: “When he is contending, an athlete’s mouth is clenched tight; as for you, keep your mouth tightly clenched, so as not to utter superfluous words, and you will have rest.”

Silence so fortified in humility becomes more than just absence of speech. It is a silence “gravid with spiritual energy,” in Saint Diadochos’s phrase, for through it we come to know ourselves in need of teaching. Like Saint Ephraim’s athlete, our whole focus is on keeping pace with the Fathers, falling neither into the excesses of aimless zeal nor the deficiencies of exhaustion and despair; each beat of our hearts parcels out a footfall of repentance as we race toward that place of perfection which we will never reach.

Free of a desire to possess the text or to see our reading as anything other than one small element in a series of salvific acts, we adhere to Abba Isaiah’s injunction with greater ease: “Safeguard your speech from bragging and your mind from self-conceit,” he says, “lest God abandon you and you fall into the opposite of what you boast about having achieved; for the good is accomplished not only by man, but also by the aid of God, Who sees all things.” The real achievement, rather, is “for a person to sacrifice or abandon his entitlements, which he believes are according to God, and to put into practice the advice of the one instructing him according to God.”

As pertains to our reading, this abandonment constitutes a triple movement: from legalistic self-discipline to the true freedom of spiritual obedience, from the fantasies of the impassioned intellect to the clear-sightedness of dispassion as evinced by the lives and words of the Fathers, and from interpretation to assimilation of knowledge into practice.

As a river fed by the spring of silence and strengthened by the tributary of humility, our passage through the Evergetinos here splits into three branches to carry us beyond the islands of the passions and further out into the depths of contemplation — not of ourselves, nor of the created world, but of those “attainable effulgences” of divine harmony expressed in and by the virtues.

It should be enough to repeat this journey for the duration of our lives, returning to the source of the Evergetinos and following along its currents, each time eroding more and more of the passions that the river might flow most expediently toward its destination. Yet what of the logjam some of us encounter, or more likely make ourselves, when we feel the need to define or defend this experience to others? Rather than submerge ourselves in the text, we would walk alongside it to sketch out its course, or wade in only so far as to trace our reflection in its surface. Whatever we produce is already something of a failure before we even start, for it shows that, no matter how much we have grasped, we have not taken that final plunge into wisdom’s unobstructed waters. “He is truly wise who teaches not by beautiful speech but by his deeds,” says Abba Hyperechios; for Abba Mark, wisdom

is not merely knowledge of truth gained by an examination of the natural relationship between things and concepts, but also a person’s strength to endure the wickedness of those who wrong him as though it were a matter of his own wickedness.

Those who have remained in the first state of wisdom (“theoretical” wisdom, so to speak) have been overcome by pride; but as many as have arrived at the second stage of wisdom (“practical” wisdom) have acquired humility of mind.

In this “second stage,” the virtues converge and become self-activating, and one repentant tear is worth all the representations of rivers we have made in the past. Abba Isaiah: “The desire to examine Holy Scripture out of curiosity engenders enmity and disputes between those who misinterpret it; but to weep for one’s sins brings peace.” The “theoretical” falls away with the mind’s descent into the heart; speech becomes deed as our lives their own defense. We would prefer silence than to disrupt consciousness of our spiritual poverty, which both inspires and focuses. As an ascetic elder cautions: “If you teach someone concerning the spiritual life, accompany your words with tears and compunction; otherwise, say nothing at all, lest you die spiritually, wishing to save others with words devoid of every act of virtue.”

All of this is beautifully encapsulated in a brief exchange between Abba Ammoun, “who lived in asceticism in Rhaïthou,” and Abba Sisoes, the great saint and spiritual master and a stalwart presence throughout the Evergetinos:

Abba Ammoun . . . asked Abba Sisoes:

“When I read a holy book, my thoughts urge me to compose a fine discourse, that I might have it as a reply when I am questioned. What should I do?”

Abba Sisoes answered:

“There is no need for you to occupy yourself with such things. Rather, struggle that, by means of the purity of your mind, you might acquire spiritual calmness and tranquility from on high; and also wisdom from on high, that you might speak and answer in a soul-profiting way.”

One could say that in this dialogue is the whole of our Evergetinos journey epitomized. Like Ammoun, we set out with an eye toward the approval of men, stockpiling knowledge as a means of self-justification. The longer we live with the text, the less concerned we are with giving shape and substance to our intellectual apprehension and the more with submitting ourselves to the yoke of its teachings.

Thus initiates the process of disarmament: the defensiveness of Ammoun cedes ground to Sisoes’s spontaneous wisdom of calmness and tranquility. It is on this particular point where the Evergetinos — and the Desert Fathers in general — touches on the glut of information clouding the mind of modern man: in the miasma of the media-saturated world, sadly, it seems self-assertion is the only way for him to preserve his inherent uniqueness. With faith reduced to the strength of his own voice as it rises above the clamor, he is not allowed to say he doesn’t know something; and this, in turn, prevents him from opening to the graces of apophatic knowledge.

Against this trend the way of Sisoes helps restore a mystical dimension to life — one in which we recognize everything as being “on loan” from God, even our words, and through this transcend love of neighbor as a moral imperative and come to grasp it as an ontological reality: the sharing of a single, sustaining breath, so that the livingness of my neighbor’s life is mine and mine his. If, then, a feeling still seeks expression, we have Abba Mark as a check against presumption: “He who does not attend to your recommendations from the very first word, do not compel him to carry out what you have proposed to him by entering into a disputatious war of words with him; rather, take care to reap gain from that which he rejected; for you will benefit more from your forgiveness than from his correction.” The thought falls like an epilogue over the final pages of the Evergetinos: well-informed talk is here and now, but to image even the smallest act of divine mercy is eternal.

In another work of Saint Nicodemos’s extensive bibliography, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel, he quotes Saint Neilos: “It is necessary even for him who does not do good things to say good things that he may be shamed by the words.” This is the attitude with which we must approach the Evergetinos. For while some of the ascetic feats described therein may be beyond our limitations, simply reading them in context of our hyperactive lives can inspire us to greater watchfulness.

If we take a few moments each day to sit with the Fathers, we find they communicate something of themselves to us; they demonstrate the “practical application” of virtues that were once abstractions and help inculcate a silence born equal parts awe of the grandeur of the cosmos and humble acceptance of our lowly station within it. It is in the meeting of these two extremes, reconciled through the faculty of spiritual contemplation, that our labors for a better world can truly begin.