Prologue

Evagrius begins his Praktikos with a seemingly superficiality. Clothing. It seems strange that a fellow mink would ask Evagrius to explain the meaning of the clothing of the monks, but Anatolius asked anyway.

Clothes make the Monk

What interests Anatolius and Evagrius about the clothes of the monks is not simply the fabric. Nor whether it is fashionable. In the items of clothing that Evagrius describes the entire life’s journey of the monk is symbolically represented. The surface appearance is a harmonious revelation of what lives inside the monk. The point is not quite that we should all indiscriminately adopt this particular dress code. When it occurs again in St. John analavos-3Cassian’s The Institutes there are slight (but important) differences. It would seem that the point is rather that what goes on inside us is manifested outwardly.

In the discussion which follows Evagrius mentions several of the virtues that he expects his reader to gain. He expects his reader to adopt, or to stick with the symbolism, to dress him or herself in these virtues. It should not be passed over thoughtlessly that the several virtues find their origin in Jesus Christ. Putting on the virtues is to “put on Christ.” In this sense we can say that “clothes make the monk.”

Non-monastic readers are also addressed here. Virtue is not the hallmark of monks exclusively. All Christians ought to become virtuous. In a real sense we must also “put on Christ” and dress ourselves with virtues. It may very well mean that we have to change the way we outwardly dress and compose ourselves. An inner change must manifest outwardly. Our bodies, our behaviour, even our clothes, are not irrelevant. The everyday things of life have spiritual meaning. Spiritual living lifts the entire being to a higher level.

The Teaching of the Elders

The teachings of the Elders which will allow the reader to take the journey mentioned above. Evagrius does not teach a doctrine he invented. Neither did John Cassian. Neither did St. Benedict. All of them referred back to the teaching they received from “the Elders” or “Fathers.” To place oneself under the guidance of the Praktikos is to accept the teaching of “the Elders” as our rule. It is therefore necessary that we have a reasonable idea what this teaching is.

Anthony the Great

Evagrius mentions several Elders toward the end of the Praktikos which provide us access to the teaching of these Elders. The first of the Elders mentioned is St. Anthony the Great. The_Torment_of_Saint_Anthony_(Michelangelo)Much of what we know about him comes to us via St. Athanasius Life of Anthony. Athanasius did not write what we would today call a biography. The point of the Life of Anthony is not so much to in-form but to form. This means that Anthony’s life is written in such a way that it serves that purpose. Modern biographies are written to inform and, therefore, are written differently. We need to keep this in mind when reading Lives of the Saints at any time period. Information is not an end in itself but serves a higher purpose and the information is therefore provided in service of said (higher) purpose. Historical accuracy is not that highest purpose but neither is it entirely irrelevant.

The struggle of St. Anthony fighting the demons (who dealt him physical blows ! ) may not be “what happened” but it does depict Anthony’s real struggle with demonic forces and overcoming them by the grace of Jesus Christ. The point of the story is that demonic attacks are real, they have a particular “form,” and they can be overcome. The St. Anthony of the Life of St. Anthony  is an ascetic and Gnostic (knower). He is staunchly anti-Arian and pro-Nicene orthodoxy. As is Evagrius.

What is more, according to Evagrius, St. Anthony is “just.” Justice, as we learn from Praktikos 89, is the sum of the practical virtues. This means that Anthony has dressed himself in virtue (has “put on Christ”), and therefore has finished the foundation upon which knowledge (gnosis) is built. Anthony is not simply the “father of monks” he is the father of all who are “putting on Christ” – all Christians. The Life of Anthony is meant to facilitate this spiritual progress – from praktike to gnostike (from putting away vice and putting on Christ, to knowing God with familiarity).

The Letters of St. Anthony

Though Athanasius depicts Anthony as “unlettered” this does not necessarily mean Anthony was a country bumpkin. Far from it. Several of his letters have come down to us and they show him to be a master of theology as much as he was a master of ascetical practice. Though as Samuel Rubenson has demonstrated the theology which we encounter in the letters is Origenistic. This does not mean that St. Anthony believed in heretical Origenism as defined by Justinian the Great more than a hundred years later. Rather it means that theology and spiritual life as understood by Anthony depends heavily on the framework put together by Origen of Alexandria. The framework Origen himself put together and heretical Origenism as defined by Justinian are not identical. In fact whatever Justinian is attempting to describe and condemn is a rogue interpretation of Origen’s thought. A very different interpretation (and closer to Anthony’s thougt) is that provided by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Didymus the Blind, the two Macarii, the Council of Nicea, etc. The very trinitarian framework that makes possible Nicene theology is shaped along lines set out by Origen. In his letters Anthony has three recurring themes that seem to be particularly important to him and which show the influence of Origen.

  1. Creation – Fall – Return: in the Letters Anthony knowledge is a central concern. The kind of knowledge Anthony is talking about is closely parallel to what we find in Athanasius’ Against the Heathen (which is really the first part which together with On the Incarnation forms one whole) where we find the following:

“The knowledge of our religion and of the truth of things is independently manifest rather than in need of human teachers, for almost day by day it asserts itself by facts, and manifests itself brighter than the sun by the doctrine of Christ.”

St. Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Part 1. 1.

Clearly we are speaking of knowledge related to Jesus Christ. What this means in further detail will have to be discussed later. At this point what matters is that a Christian Gnostic is not a heretic, but a mature Christian who is familiar with the Trinity in Christ and has knowledge of the world within a Christian framework. In the words of the Teaching of Silvanus:

Know who Christ is, and acquire him as a friend, for this is the friend who is faithful. He is also God and Teacher. This one, being God, became man for your sake.

The Teaching of Silvanus.

The knower begins “to know who Christ is” via the things Christ has created. From knowing the Creator by His creatures we move “to knowing Christ as friend.” We become familiars of Christ as knowers of the Trinity. Knowing is here used it is Adam and Eve “knowing” each other which knowledge produced offspring. Knowledge is therefore and experiental, and intimate thing. Not an abstract.

This knowledge has the character of “return” as it does in Origen, Evagrius, Benedict, John Cassian etc. To know thyself means to know ourselves as creatures. That we are created “in the image of God.” that we have fallen away from God an that the image has been darkened (but not erased). Self-knowledge is knowing that we were created good, we have fallen away from goodness by our own fault, and need to return by God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

2. God’s visits to man: since human kind (which includes all of us) has fallen away from God, we were not abandoned by Him. God has been actively facilitating our redemption and return ever since we fell away. The story of God’s activity is contained in the Bible so that great stress is laid on scriptural understanding. The repeated meditation of Scripture and the continuous recitation of the Psalter shapes the  mind of the ascetic by the words, images, stories, and concepts of Scripture. This enables us, provided we receive guidance in proper reading/meditation, to gain a “scriptural mind.” A mind whose basic categories of interacting with the world in and outside are those of God as mediated to us in Scripture. Once this foundation (of the scriptural mind) is laid can the mind begin to know God directly without mediation.

3. The time in which we are: it is crucial for the Christian to understand “the time in which he or she is.” This puts special emphasis on the “now” as the opportunity for repentance. Spiritual progress can only be made now not in the past nor in the future. The decisions we make at each moment bring us where we are at this particular time. What we are now is fallen beings in need of return to our original nature. This return can only be done by means of repentance (to repent = to turn around). We have “drifted away from God by the sloth of disobedience and we need to return via the path of (virtuous) obedience to paraphrase St. Benedict.

These themes such as they are engaged here are, obviously, dependent on Origen’s framework. But St. Anthony is not the only “Elder” Evagrius mentions. There are few more but to name and treat them all would exceed my purpose here. All I intend to say here is that the teaching Evagrius begins to provide via the symbolic interpretation of clothing is not his own in the sense that he has received its basic features from the Elders that taught him. Of course there is such a thing as an Evagrian emphasis on this teaching, just as there is a peculiar emphasis to be found in Cassian and Benedict, but the core teaching is traditioned on to future generations. The wheel is not re-invented.

Fr. Gregory Wassen