An interesting article contrasting and comparing two monastic greats... http://www.byzantines.net/scranton/evag.htm
PRAYER IN EVAGRIUS PONTICUS AND ST. NIL SORSKI
Definition of Prayer in Evagrius
What is prayer? The New Catholic Encyclopedia gives three definitions of prayer, one of which is taken directly from Evagrius. Evagrius gives us a very succinct definition when he says that "Prayer is an assent of the mind to God." (Chapters on Prayer, 35, p. 60) This simple statement is the very center around which Evagrius developed his thought. He stressed a solitary, monastic life, strict asceticism, control of passionate thoughts and development of virtues, especially charity. For Evagrius, all of these help to free the mind from cares and concerns of the flesh, to separate ourselves from the material world, to allow the mind to perform its proper activity, contemplation of God. "But prayer makes the spirit strong and pure for combat since by its very nature the spirit is made to pray." (Praktikos, 49, p. 29) Evagrius took elements from the thought of Origen and added to it the ascetical practices and teachings of the Desert Fathers. Meyendorff calls Evagrius "the first great codifier of the monastic doctrine of prayer." (Meyendorff, p. 21)
Definition of Prayer in Nil Sorksi
St. Nil Sorski on the other hand, while he may have been influenced by Evagrius' writings and contributions to monasticism, was at heart a Russian hesychast. His definition of prayer would be more like a "rapturous union with God." (Maloney, p. 142) While Nil's spirituality included much of Evagrius' asceticism, especially concerning the classification of the eight passionate thoughts, he relied much more on the hesychast tradition in his teaching and practice of prayer.
Monasticism of Evagrius
Evagrius embraced the monastic life as the ideal way to Christian perfection. The period from c. 330 to c. 440 has been called the "golden age of Egyptian Desert Fathers." (Tsirpanlis, p. 154) These first Desert Fathers, following the example of St. Antony, lived alone or in two's and three's in cells which were caves or huts. They lived very simply growing their own food and supporting themselves by their own labors. They spent their days in prayer, in work, in reading Scriptures.
Evagrius was born in c. 345. He was a lector for St. Basil the Great and a deacon for Gregory of Nazianzus. He engaged in debates with heretics and soon found great success. He had a brilliant career in Constantinople and took advantage of the many perks offered to one so successful. But he gave it all up to become a monk.
He went to Nitria for two years and then spent fourteen years in the Cells, living a life of prayer and severe asceticism. To control his desires and to keep his body under subjection, Evagrius sometimes went to extremes. It is said that he ate only a pound of bread and a pint of oil in a three month time period. (Tsirpanlis, p. 154)
As a result of his asceticism and purity of heart, Evagrius became well-known for his unusual gifts of knowledge, wisdom, and discernment of spirits, and began to give spiritual direction to the many disciples that flocked to him. (Introduction to Evagrius, p. xliv) Through his writings and his disciples, like John Cassian, a more intellectual type of Christian monasticism began to flourish in Nitria. Evagrius is credited as the founder of Christian monastic mysticism. (Tsirpanlis, p. 153)
Evagrius has been called on the most important Eastern writers on the spiritual life. Through Syriac translations, Evagrius' teachings come to us today through the work of Syrian writers, especially Isaac the Syrian. Isaac was profoundly indebted to Evagrius for his teachings on the mystical life. (Brock, pp. 64-65) Thus through Isaac's translations of Evagrius into Greek, Evagrian theology had a profound influence on Maximus the Confessor, St. John Climacus, Simeon the New Theologian. Evagrian theology became important in hesychast spirituality by being incorporated in the teachings of Gregory of Sinai.
Monasticism of Nil Sorski
Nil Sorski lived in a much different time. He was born in 1433 in Russia. In fifteenth century Russia, the monasteries were growing rich by owning large land tracts and also by the labors of the serfs who worked the land. Born a peasant, Nil became a monk as the only way to complete his education. The Russian monasteries of that time were growing rich materially, but they were growing poorer spiritually. There were many conflicts of interest and serious abuses connected with the large land holdings of the Russian monasteries. De Grunwald wrote of Nil, that "his undying merit is that he endeavored to arrest the decline of Russian monasticism by bringing it back to the purity of the precepts of the Gospel." (Grunwald, p. 90)
To find the means to attain salvation, we have been given the examples of all other saintly men who have lived before us. So Nil travelled to Mt. Athos to learn the ways of the Fathers. It was during this extended pilgrimage to Mt. Athos where he read books on mysticism, learned Greek to study patristic literature, and learned the theory and practice of hesychast prayer.
PRAYER IN EVAGRIUS
"Just as sight is the most worthy of the senses, so also is prayer the most divine of the virtues" (Chapters on Prayer, 150, p. 79) Evagrius teaches that prayer is the most important thing in the life of a Christian. "For what greater thing is there than to converse intimately with God and to be preoccupied with his company? Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect." (Chapters on Prayer, 34, p. 60) But more important for Evagrius is not quantity of prayer, but the quality of prayer. For Evagrius, pure prayer is to pray without distraction. One must purify his heart and clear his mind of all other things except for God. He distinguishes between two types of prayer. He uses unceasing prayer to purify his heart and mind, to control thoughts, to subject the body to the workings of the soul. The other type of prayer is the contemplative kind, which will be discussed later in this paper.
Role of Asceticism and Virtue in Prayer
Asceticism then, for Evagrius, was always oriented toward the goal of attaining purity of heart. He used the term 'apatheia' which he describes as "a habitual state of imperturbable calm." (Chapters on Prayer, 52, p. 63) For Evagrius, 'apatheia' was a state of the soul where the passions no longer exert any influence on the mind. 'Apatheia' would allow one to pray without distraction, culminating in the state of pure prayer. "The proof of 'apatheia' is had when the spirit begins to see its own light." (Praktikos, 64, p. 33)
Evagrius stressed the importance of developing virtues as an essential part of a life of prayer. In the longest chapter in the Praktikos, 89, he lists the virtues and their role in the health of the soul. He firmly believed in a careful examination of one's life. The monk should work hardest on aquiring the virtues most lacking in the soul. He must practice and work for the things that we can take with us, like the virtues, rather than the things of this world which passes away. He stressed the practice of acquiring the opposite virtue to combat the most troublesome passionate thoughts. He recommended acquiring virtues to help purify the mind and heart, to bring the monk closer to God. "The soul that is purified by the plenitude of virtues renders the spirit unshakable in its balance and makes it capable of possessing the state for which it longs." (Chapters on Prayer, 2, p. 56) This state, of course, is the state of pure prayer.
Thus, all of his teachings on the ascetic life, ascetic practice, control of passions, development of virtues are made with the goal of attaining purity of heart. Thus Evagrius defines the ascetic life as "the spiritual method for cleansing the affective part of the soul." (Praktikos, 78, p. 36)
Once a monk has attained to 'apatheia', a state of deep calm where passions are in check, only then can he speak of perfect charity. Evagrius saw a close connection between 'apatheia' and 'agape'. Thus Evagrius chooses a specifically Christian and biblical context, 'apatheia', as the keystone of his whole structure of ascetic practices.
"The fear of God strengthens faith, my son, and continence in turn strengthens this fear. Patience and hope make this latter virtue solid beyond all shaking and they also give birth to 'apatheia'. Now this 'apatheia' has a child called 'agape' who keeps the door to deep knowledge of the created universe. Finally, to this knowledge succeed theology and the supreme beatitude." (Evagrius, Letter to Anatolius)
So, the monastic life for Evagrius is not only the struggle to rid the self of all evil and ignorance, but also the monk is to establish in the soul virtue and knowledge, through prayer and contemplation. "In your prayer seek only after justice and the kingdom of God, this is to say, after virtue and true spiritual knowledge. Then all else will be given to you besides." (Chapters on Prayer, 38, p. 61)
Discernment of Spirits
It is said of Evagrius that he was well-known for his "unusual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and discernment of spirits." (Introduction to Evagrius, p. xliv) This discretion or discernment of spirits was seen by his followers as a result of his purity of heart and asceticism. For Evagrius, much self-scrutiny, prayer, and asceticism is needed so that a monk who is granted this gift may learn to recognize the traits of demons.
Ascetics who ascribed to a life of prayer and sought virtue and spiritual perfection through contemplation viewed their efforts as a battle against the demons who tempt the monk by means of passionate thoughts. This was a major theme in The Life of Antony written by St. Athanasius.
Evagrius sees an extremely close relation between the demons and the passions that they stir up, but he also holds an essential distinction. The demons influence man through these passionate thoughts. Thus the reason for his devoting so much attention to analyzing passions is that this insight gives us power to use against them. (Introduction to Praktikos, p. 8) Bamberger in his introduction says that Evagrius is often criticized for his excessive concern for understanding passions, and his insufficient concern with love for God.
"For them (the Desert Fathers and Evagrius in particular) such understanding assured that their love of God was genuine, not based on self-deception or evasion, ... Once the obstacles are removed through intelligent, ascetic effort, directed where insight leads, the grace of Christ will flower fully into a love of God that is ineffable." (Introduction to Praktikos, p. 10)
A large part of Evagrius' teachings on the ascetic life includes his teachings on the controlling of passionate thoughts. From his own experiences of inner struggle and the experience of the monks around him, he developed an elaborate psychology of thoughts and passions. He is credited as the first to classify passions into an ordered series of eight types of passionate thoughts: gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride. He gives a short description of each as well as their damaging effects on the life of the monk. He sought to understand and articulate the dynamic relations among the passions and their operations as the most useful weapon to recognize and combat these thoughts. It is clear that his greatest concern with regard to these passionate thoughts is their negative effects on prayer. When writing about the damaging effects of anger, Evagrius says "it constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one's eyes." (Praktikos, 11, p. 18) The greatest danger of these vices for Evagrius is that they become a stumbling block to prayer.
Evagrius lists many ways to combat these passionate thoughts including, prayer, singing psalms, hunger, toil, solitude, reading, and developing the virtues. He most often says to resort to prayer to fend off thoughts, but he also shows the importance of developing the virtue that is the opposite of the vice. To instill humility for example, Evagrius says "Remember your former life and your past sins and how, though you were subject to the passions, you have been brought into 'apatheia' by the mercy of Christ." (Praktikos, 33, p. 25)
His description of eight kinds of passionate thoughts is surely the most original and interesting in Evagrius' work. He gives the classic descriptions, and his insights into the workings of passions is the basis of his reputation for learning and brilliance. (Introduction to Praktikos, p. 7)
While Evagrius is seen as the consummate psychologist, his chapters dealing with passionate thoughts are important for his theology of prayer. For Evagrius, pure prayer is impossible without a pure heart.
A monk must always be on guard to protect the purity of heart that he has attained. For Evagrius, the best way to guard against this loss is to have knowledge of the passionate thoughts. He must also have intimate knowledge of demons who tempt us through these thoughts. (Praktikos, 34, p. 25)
It must be remembered that Evagrius's teachings on passions is only part of his teachings on asceticism. For Evagrius, prayer and contemplation are the most important things a monk can do to achieve perfection.
"The effects of keeping the commandments (ie. apatheia) do not suffice to heal the powers of the soul completely. They must be complemented by a contemplative activity appropriate to these faculties and this activity must penetrate the spirit. (Praktikos, 79, p. 36)
Evagrius begins The Praktikos by writing "Christianity is the dogma of Christ our Savior. It is composed of praktike, of the contemplation of the physical world and of the contemplation of God." (Praktikos, 1, p. 15)
Prayer and Contemplation
The central focus of Evagrius' thought is the relationship between prayer and contemplation. "If you are a theologian you truly pray, if you truly pray you are a theologian." (Chapters on Prayer, 60, p. 65) Bamberger quotes Hausherr as saying that the deepest significance of Evagrius' thought is that the highest form of contemplation is identified with the state of pure prayer. But not only do prayer and contemplation coincide at their highest points, but they also coincide each step of the way. For Evagrius prayer and contemplation are two aspects of a single whole. He identifies prayer and contemplation with the monastic life, even with the spiritual life itself. (Introduction to Evagrius, pp. xcii-xciii)
For Evagrius, the soul is the mirror of God, that man is the image of God who is capable of receiving knowledge of the Blessed Trinity. (Praktikos, 3, p. 16) Thus he establishes man in terms of his contemplation. But Evagrius has a deep respect for all men and reminds the monk that "it is a part of justice that you should pray not only for your own purification but also for that of every man." (Chapters on Prayer, 39, p. 61) This concept is theologically founded on the doctrine of man as made according to the Image of God. For this reason Evagrius teaches that progress in pure prayer should lead the monk to progress in love for all men. "Happy is the monk who considers all men as god - after God." (Chapters on Prayer, 123, p. 75)
So for Evagrius, attaining 'apatheia' is the first step. Once 'apatheia' is achieved, with its attendant charity, contemplative activity becomes dominant. Evagrius makes a distinction between levels of contemplation. The first phase is contemplation of nature, by which we know God through his creation. "The Kingdom of Heaven is 'apatheia' of the soul along with true knowledge of existing things." (Praktikos, 2, p. 15) This type of contemplation comes with effort, struggle, and at times frustration. Higher contemplation is marked by a great peace and calm. One feels no frustration, only tranquility. One gains experimental knowledge of God. It is an exalted state, beyond the capacity of man.
The highest point for Evagrius, is the Blessed Trinity, a vision beyond all form, totally simple. "The Kingdom of God is knowledge of the Holy Trinity coextensive with the capacity of the intelligence and giving it a surpassing incorruptibility." (Praktikos, 3, p. 16) Evagrius uses the metaphor of light to describe the states of the soul that accompany this elevated form of contemplation.
Maloney divides the history of hesychasm prior to Nil Sorski into three divisions. First is the Sinaite School of the hesychast tradition. Thinkers such as Climacus, Hesychius of Sinai emphasized the solitary life, on 'guarding the heart' and on the mental prayer of 'theoria'. Evagrius did make some contribution to the development of hesychasm. These first teachers of hesychasm transmit from Evagrius the synthesis he made from Origen and the Desert Fathers. The Desert Fathers stressed ascetical practices designed to develop 'hesychia' or tranquility, both exterior and interior. This is accomplished by separating themselves from society and others, silence both of the lips and the heart by reducing all cares to one, seeking only the Kingdom of God. Finally, through complete attention, when the mind or heart possessed 'hesychia' or rest from passionate thoughts, it was then able to contemplate God unceasingly. (Maloney, pp. 103-104)
To this 'practica', Evagrius adds his notion of 'theoria'. The mind, which he called the mirror of God, once purified would be able to contemplate the Trinity through its own divinization through grace. 'Apatheia' is a necessary condition to allow the possibility of continual contemplation of God. (Maloney, p. 104)
The Sinaite hesychasts make an important change in the thought of Evagrius that they assimilate. They substitute 'man as intellect' with 'man as heart.' (Maloney, p. 104) The ascetical practices are still performed with the purpose of attaining 'apatheia', as they are for Evagrius. But man is to be free to contemplate God in his heart. The presence of God is to be guarded in the heart by 'penthos', abiding sorrow for one's sins. Also, the Sinaite hesychasts add a new element found among earlier Fathers, but not in Evagrius, is a personal devotion to Jesus. (Maloney, p. 104)
With Simeon the New Theologian's doctrine of supernatural conscious awareness of the operations of the Holy Spirit working on the human soul, contemplation was opened to every Christian. Gregory of Sinai brought the Hesychast Fathers to Mt. Athos at the end of the 13th century starting a hesychast renaissance stressing mysticism, 'practica', virtues, and mental prayer or 'theoria'.
"He insisted greatly on the purification of the soul and the fight against the passions, on the necessity of arriving at Evagrius' 'apatheia', the infusion of divine light and supernatural knowledge of the created world with intimate union of the soul with God." (Maloney, p. 106)
Thus the hesychasts stressed the 'prayer of Jesus': "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner" linked with the rhythm of controlled breathing, aligned with the beating of the heart so that thoughts could be controlled and the heart would pray always. (Maloney, pp. 106-107)
Gregory Palamas defended the thought and practice of the hesychasts by formulating a theological and metaphysical explanation of what the Hesychast Fathers had been teaching through the centuries. Hesychasm was affirmed by a series of councils in 1347. (Meyendorff, p. 103)
Thus Nil Sorski learned all this spirituality when he arrived on Mt. Athos in the second half of the fifteen century through these writings as well as living successors of this hesychast renaissance.
PRAYER IN NIL SORSKI
Little is known of the life of Nil Sorski, since there is no surviving biography. What we do know of his spirituality comes from two main writings, Predanie and Ustav, as well as many letters of correspondence he had written. In these two main writings Nil gives his followers "a monastic ideal, principles which would lead a monk to obtain his ascetical ideal: union with God in this life as far as grace and the individual's cooperation will allow, and life hereafter." (Maloney, p. 51)
For Nil, all of men's efforts must be directed toward purifying our minds and hearts to allow attentive, uninterrupted prayer. "Thinking of God, that is, mental prayer, is above all other actions and is the chief of all the virtues, for it is the love of God." (Ustav, p. 82) The mind must be fully involved in order for prayer to be pleasing to God.
All the rest of the
The ascetic ideal for Nil included: knowing the purpose of life, self-scrutiny, knowledge of Divine Writings, and understanding the psychology of thoughts and the eight sources of passions. All of life for Nil is a return to God, a life lived according to God's commands and God's will. Men must be continually "probing our thoughts and feelings so that all our actions be in harmony with God's will. Shun what is human." (Ustav, p. 55) The first step on this long journey back to God is to detach oneself from the cares of the world and then to attach oneself to God.
"Full activity in our chosen way of life should consist in this, that always and in every detail, in every undertaking, in soul and body, word and deed and thought, as far as there is in us the strength, to remain in the work of God, with God, and in God." (Ustav, p. 35)
Nil emphasized that in order to follow all of God's commandments, you first need to know all of God's commandments. Thus it was important that one read Scriptures, or Divine Writings. Nil included the Holy Fathers in these Divine Writings. "We have but one Teacher, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave us the Holy Scriptures and sent His Holy Apostles and Venerable Fathers to teach the way of salvation to the human race." (Predanie, p. 2) Nil felt that because the Holy Fathers were united to the Holy Spirit in their holy lives, they were also inspired by the Holy Spirit in their writings. (Maloney, p. 56) They show us the way to salvation begins by putting off their own will to follow the will of God.
Nil discusses the five steps in the psychology of thoughts of how a thought develops from its entrance into our minds to consciousness, consent, slavery and finally passion. What Nil is most concerned with is how thoughts interrupt our prayer. "During prayer the mind should be all turned to God and attentive to the prayer, quick to turn away any other thought." (Ustav, pp. 18-19) Even a good thought must not be allowed to interrupt our prayer.
Nil gives a long analysis of the eight sources of passion which he takes from Evagrius through the work of Cassian. While it is not necessary to summarize these sources of passion, their importance in the life of prayer of Nil Sorski is necessary. The monk must turn away all advances of the devil, control the heart and purify it for the continual remembrance of God. Only when the heart is freed from these thoughts can it begin its ascent to God, to union with him, which is the goal of all spiritual efforts for Nil. Once the monk has quieted his passions and purified his heart, he acquires 'apatheia' (from Evagrius, again through Cassian), only then can he occupy his mind and heart with the continual presence of God. "Bodily activity and external prayer are the leaves while internal, mental prayer is the fruit." (Ustav, pp. 11-12) It is the mental activity that is pleasing to God. Whatever holds our minds attention is what we truly love, whether it be God or the things of this world. We should choose the better of the two.
An important point that distinguishes Nil's spirituality is the great freedom that he gives the monks to follow their own paths. He exempts his monks from blind observance to exterior rituals to follow their interior prudence guided by inspiration from God. To combat these passionate thoughts, he gives only advice not hard and fast rules. All these means are subject to the final end in Nil's teaching. The final end is what is important. Nil never loses sight of his goal. Fast not for fasting sake, pray not for praying sake. It is the quality of prayer that is important not the quantity. What is important is the proper engagement of the mind in prayer, not the utterance of words. (Maloney, p. 86)
He lists nearly the same methods as Evagrius for driving out these passionate thoughts from us including fear of God, prayer, acquiring the opposite virtue.
Hesychasm of Nil
The hesychasm of Nil involves four things: purity of heart, 'nepsis' or vigilance, 'penthos' or abiding sorrow for one's sins, and the Jesus Prayer. To reach the highest degree of prayer, which is direct and joyful union with God, a monk must attain purity of heart and then, through 'nepsis' or vigilance, guard what has been attained. To do this, Nil stresses solitude and silence, control of thoughts, 'hesychia', and vigilance. (Maloney, p. 111)
Nil encourages his disciples to follow him in solitude and silence. He recommends the monastic life as the best way to ensure an intimate union with God in grace and prayer. He preferred and recommended the skete life to the Russian monasticism of that time. The skete life, living with one or two brothers in silence, was the middle way between life as a hermit and cenobic life with many brothers. He was the first to introduce the skete life to Russia. (De Grunwald, p. 92)
This silence was to be interior as well as exterior, not only flight from the world, but also the controlling of thoughts. "Strive with active concentration on the task of God alone." (Ustav, p. 81) Nil follows the tradition begun by Evagrius in his asceticism to attain 'hesychia' or tranquility. The mind, in order to reach true contemplation, must begin by emptying itself of all thoughts, whether good or bad. (Maloney, p. 113) This teaching is an important one in both Nil and Evagrius.
"They must practice silence, abundant prayer and contemplation, for such souls are united with God and should not detach their mind from Him and permit it to be troubled; for the mind which turns away from the thought of God and busies itself with inferior matters commits adultery." (Ustav, p. 27)
'Hesychia', a term Nil translates as "bezmolvie", which means without disturbance, is an inner state of the soul. It is arrived at by ascetical practices, silence and solitude, and emptying the mind and heart of all thoughts disturbing the soul during prayer, and the desire for anything other than God Himself. It is the necessary condition for persevering in prayer which is maintained through continuous prayer and ultimately resulting in intimate union with God. (Maloney, p. 117)
Once this state of tranquility is attained, Nil begins his doctrine of 'nepsis' or vigilance, by which the mind holds itself alert and guards the heart to keep from losing that which it has already attained. This guarding of the heart also allows the monk to remain ever open to hear and cooperate with the will of God through inspiration from the Holy Spirit which leads the soul to ever greater perfection. (Maloney, p. 119)
Another important concept in the prayer life of Nil Sorski is 'penthos', abiding sorrow for one's sins. He devotes pages to the thought of death and last judgement, and the necessity of obtaining the gift of tears to retain the spirit of compunction. Nil relies heavily on the previous works of the Fathers so show that thoughts of death and last judgement were important to help us overcome temptations and remain faithful to mental activity. (Maloney, p. 125) Nil felt that one would never sin if these thoughts were always present in our minds. These thoughts would also be a reminder that this present world will pass away, and we will be left with nothing but God and our good works. "Have this only before your eyes (to repent and to seek God with great love and fear) and obey His commandments, living constantly in prayer." (Ustav, p. 32)
Nil felt that it was especially important to prayer that the monk fight off any thoughts of anger, through his own kenosis, becoming humble of heart, and showing loving forgiveness. Before you pray, you must forgive. This command comes directly from Gospels. Pray for those who offend, show brotherly love and mercy, ask God for mercy for our sins through the prayers of this brother, take care not to offend. A monk must show humility and mercy. (Maloney, pp. 92-93)
When the Russian Church was fighting heresies, Nil took the position of showing mercy to the heretics, even to the point of accepting back into the Church those who repented. He was certainly in the minority, since most other monks and Church hierarchy pushed for heavy prison sentences or even death to the heretics. (Maloney, p. 208)
Nil emphasizes the living nature of the Holy Spirit within man, and the importance of inspiration.
"In seeking to do ever God's will by performing as perfectly as possible all God's known commandments, a monk gradually prepares himself through purification that comes from such praxis to listen to promptings of Holy spirit within and perform all 'in harmony with the mind of God.'" (Maloney, pp. 133-134)
Nil, like Evagrius, also speaks of higher and higher levels of prayer and contemplation. Nil suggests that the beginner use the Jesus Prayer to drive away temptation and help the monk concentrate the mind in the heart on God alone. Continued use of this prayer brings about 'hesychia', where passionate thoughts no longer control the attention of the mind. Once the mind becomes absorbed completely with God, the monk is ready for higher prayer. "Where there is peace in the soul, the prayer of the heart will begin to work." (Maloney, p. 141)
Nil speaks of contemplation no longer as prayer, but as a higher good: a rapturous union with God.
"When the soul undergoes such spiritual activity and subjects itself to God and through direct union approaches the Divinity, it is enlightened in its movements by an intense light and the mind experiences a feeling of joy of the happiness that awaits us in the life to come... " (Ustav, p. 28)
Nil's Thought Related to Evagrius
For Nil, the spiritual life is a battle, a constant struggle against the demons. During this battle, one must not only defeat the demons, but develop virtues in the process. Nil says that "many do good actions, but neglect the mind; they know nothing of the spiritual contests, the victories and defeats. They neglect the mind which is the eye of the soul." (Ustav, p. 12) Here Nil is quoting from Evagrius: "What the eye is to the body, that the mind is to the soul." This battle is a struggle to win control of the heart so that God may be the only object of its love.
For Nil, borrowing the thought of Evagrius, the monastic state was none other than assuming the form of angels. (Ustav, p. 44) The monk was to participate in the life of angels who look continually on God and sing his praises.
Maloney also points out that Nil's 'nepsis' is synonymous with Evagrius's praxis, or practice of virtue. Nil defines his nepsis as "mental activity which consists in preserving the disposition of fear and trust and love of God." (Ustav, p. 37) Evagrius made his praxis synonymous with keeping the commandments of God.
Nil concludes his Ustav with a prayer that sums up his entire spiritual life:
"Let us do only what is pleasing to God, singing, praying, reading, studying spiritual things, doing manual work or any other labors. And so little by little let us approach God in the interior man, adding by our good works to the glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one in the Blessed Trinity. Amen." (Ustav, p. 90)
There are many teachings that both of these writers have in common. The most important being the central importance of prayer and contemplation in the life of the monk. Both men saw the need for strict asceticism to control the passions and to free the mind from all thoughts in order to focus their minds only on God. Both men saw the need to pray for the gift of tears to instill a spirit of compunction. Both recognized the need for silence and solitude, and for guarding the advances the monk had already attained. Both saw their lives as a battle against the demons who would lead men astray, away from contemplation of God. Both men felt that a monk could become like an angel by turning every thought and action toward the throne of God.
And both men realized their total dependence on God and the need for His grace for any advances that they might make. Evagrius says that "if you wish to pray then it is God whom you need. He it is who gives prayer to the man who prays." (Chapters on Prayer, 58, p. 64) And again, "you have been brought into 'apatheia' by the mercy of Christ." (Praktikos, 33, p. 25) Nil Sorski says nearly the same thing when he writes "for it is not your own doing that you stand in virtue, but the result of grace which holds you in God's hand and preserves you from all your enemies." (Ustav, p. 35)
Nil's description of the higher stages of contemplation is compiled from hesychast mystics, like Isaac the Syrian, who was profoundly influenced by Evagrius. These Sinaite Hesychasts formed a synthesis between the intellectual mysticism of Evagrius and the conscious sentimentalism of Macarius. The description of mystical contemplation by Nil is very much reminiscent of Evagrius' intellectual "nudity." (Maloney, p. 142)
Evagrius may have been the intellectual forebearer of the hesychast tradition, with his emphasis on pure intellectual contemplation and strict asceticism aimed at freeing the monk from passions to attain 'apatheia'. But Nil Sorski took these elements of Evagrius and added a heartfelt element of personal devotion to Jesus. He used the Jesus Prayer as a means to attain purity of heart and also as a preparation for purer contemplation. (Maloney, p. 145) In his appraisal of Nil as a hesychast, Maloney says that Nil is faithful to the best tradition of hesychasts and is the first important hesychast writer in Russia. (Maloney, p. 144)
While Evagrius has been accused of making too few allusions to Scripture and references to Jesus Christ, that charge certainly cannot be made against Nil Sorski. His constant use of the Jesus Prayer with an attentive mind would seem to ensure a very personal devotion to Jesus. Nil is very clear to ground his teachings and lifestyle on Jesus Christ and Scripture. "We have but one teacher our Lord Jesus Christ who gave us the Holy Scriptures." (Predanie, p. 2)
A point on which these two monks are in complete agreement is the condition of the mind at the time of prayer. In his presentation of the Jesus Prayer, Nil states,
"A wise and excellent way of battling against these temptations, the Fathers tell us, is to uproot the thought at the very first suggestion ... And further in the time of prayer it is necessary to bring one's mind to that condition where it is deaf and dumb." (Ustav, p. 21)
This last phrase is taken directly from Evagrius. (Chapters on Prayer, 11, p. 57)
Relevance For Today
From Evagrius we can relearn the importance of the mind in our spiritual lives. So often we let ourselves slide into simply the external practices of saying memorized prayers and fulfilling our weekly duty of attending Mass, sometimes showing up merely in body while our minds and thoughts are elsewhere. Evagrius shows us that engaging the mind in our prayer and spiritual life is the most important part of praying. The more we direct our minds and attention toward God, the closer we become to being in communion with him.
A very relevant point that can be drawn from the life and teachings of Nil Sorski involves his stance against the abuses of the Church of his time. He shows us by his example that no matter what time period or circumstance you are living in, and despite the current abuses you see in the Church and the world around you, you can always turn to Jesus and the Gospels and the writings of the Church Fathers to direct your thoughts and actions. By arming yourself with the teachings of the Gospels and the Fathers you can work to correct the abuses by living true to the teachings of Christ even when you are in direct contrast to the rest of the world.
Nil also teaches that we must search for the truth in the Gospels and other divine writings. We must search not merely with our own agenda in mind, twisting the truth and the spirit of God to fit our own needs, as is done in much of theology today, but with a true spirit of discernment with minds and hearts open to God as shown to us by the example of Nil.
Nil opposed the excesses of the Russian Church concerning the ownership of land because he felt that it was the right thing to do according to the teachings of Christ. He tried to remain as true as possible to Christ. Evagrius would have agreed with Nil, for he wrote, "Just as death and life cannot be shared in at the same time, so also is it an impossibility for charity to exist in anyone along with money." (Praktikos, 18, p.21)
Nil also kept prayer in mind in choosing his form of manual labor. Instead of the usual manual labor performed by the monk in order to earn his keep, Nil and his companions copied and translated Greek manuscripts. This type of work was important for many reasons. First of all, Nil felt that work done indoors was less distracting to mental activity than work performed outside. But also the work itself helped the spread of the writings of the Holy Fathers to Russia. Nil not only translated and copied these manuscripts, but he also corrected any errors that he found in the texts. Nil shows the importance of developing a spirit of criticism, of discerning the true from the false writings. He also taught of course that this freedom to investigate sacred writings does not extend to the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. (Maloney, pp. 158-160)
Nil also worked to keep his disciples and future generations true by his writings and also by correcting the errors in the manuscripts that he copied. He worked diligently to prevent errors from continuing by purifying the writings of others from translation errors.
Nil also opposed the harsh sentences other monks and Church hierarchy sought to impose on the heretics once their heresy was exposed. Nil believed in forgiveness for those who repented.
In a country such as ours that is so filled with materiality and vainglory, the teachings and examples of Nil and Evagrius show us the passing nature of the things of this world as well as the damage they can cause to our relationship with God. Both of these men show us not only the damage these vices cause, but they also show us concrete ways to combat them and rid ourselves of these vices. They also show us how to develop the opposing virtues and show us the benefits of obtaining them.
Any person who made progress toward God and spiritual perfection is relevant for us today. The example of the sanctity of the life of Nil Sorski, his writings, and the direct influence he had on his followers who handed down his tradition even to this day all helped to strengthen the Church and build up the Kingdom of God on earth. In a book on the Russian Church, it is written of Nil and his companion that "they were partisans of strict moral discipline rather than of rules of abstinence and physical asceticism. Their influence over the people was always great and wholesome." (Brian-Chaninov, p. 101)
Both of these monks give us a Christian perspective to psycho-analysis. Their observations are sound and are even backed by Freud and modern day psychoanalysts, but are given a completely Christian orientation. An orientation that is almost completely missing from modern day psychology and maybe should be rediscovered.
Since Evagrius was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, for his Origenist thought and some of his more speculative writings, many people fail to recognize the influence of Evagrian spirituality on the more Orthodox theologians that followed. Thanks in great part to John Cassian who re-worked some of Evagrius' thought and thus preserved and passed on some of his best teachings in a form that better conformed to Orthodox Church teaching. Only in this last century has the influence of Evagrian spirituality been re-evaluated. It is to our advantage to take a look at the better points of his theology, especially concerning aceticism, and most especially concerning prayer. He made lasting contributions to monasticism, asceticism and holiness.
History remembers Nil Sorski best for the part that he played in the controversy over monastic property in Russia. It is too bad because his stance favoring monastic poverty was merely a small part, a logical conclusion of his greater vision of monastic holiness. He certainly did not wish to involve himself in such political turmoil. His only concern was for the spiritual growth of the Church, and monasticism in Russia in particular.
What was most important for both of these men, Evagrius Ponticus and Nil Sorski was the centrality of prayer in their lives and their belief that only through prayer could one come to meet God. Both men saw God as all important. Union with God was the only goal worth pursuing. They both had an overall vision of holiness that encompassed every thought, word, and deed, with God as the ultimate goal of every action and thought. All Christians can learn this lesson from these two, and to re-evaluate all of our own lives in the light of their teachings. We all must establish virtue and knowledge of God within us, and worship God in Spirit and in Truth.
Borovkova-Majkova, M. A. Nila Sorskago Predanie i Ustav s
vstupitel'noj statej. in PDP, no. 179(St. Pet. 1912).
- critical edition and text that Maloney used for all
citations from the Ustav and Praedanie.
Brian-Chaninov, Nicholas. The Russian Church. (Burnes, Cates & Washbourne LTD., London, 1931).
Brock, Sebastian. Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life. (Cistercian Publications, Inc., Kalamazoo, MI, 1981).
De Grunwald, Constantin. Saints of Russia. (MacMillan Co., New York, 1960).
Evagrius Ponticus. The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer.
Translated by John Bamburger. (Cistercian Publications,
Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1978).
Fedotov, George. The Russian Religious Mind II: The Middle Ages 13th - 15th Centuries. (Nordland Publishing Company, Belmont, Mass., 1975).
Maloney, George A., S.J. Russian Hesychasm: The Spirituality of Nil Sorskij. (Mouton & Co. N.V.,Publishers, Netherlands, 1973).
Meyendorff, John. St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1974)
Tsirpanlis, Constantine N. Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology.