Book Review: Evagrius Ponticus—The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer
Author: Evagrius Ponticus—Translated by John Eudes Bamberger OCSO
Publisher: Cistercian Publications ISBN: 9780879079048
Why Evagrius Ponticus? Who is Evagrius? And what is the Praktikos?
All good questions… that for me, started when I began my exploration into Benedictine spirituality. Several years ago now, I was introduced to the Rule of St. Benedict. As I have adopted the Rule of Benedict as a model for my personal rule of life, I have continued to study, read, and explore the foundations of Benedictine spirituality with the hope of understanding this sacred pathway and model of spiritual formation and development. What I have found is that Benedict of Nursia was deeply influenced by the writings of John Cassian and Cassian was a translator and interpreter of the writings of Evagrius Ponticus, and subsequently, influenced by them. To this degree, Evagrius becomes part of the history and underpinnings of the Benedictine tradition. This explains the “why” Evagrius question.
Evagrius also called Evagrius the Solitary (345-399 AD) was a Christian monk and ascetic. One of the rising stars in the late fourth century church, he was well-known as a keen thinker, a polished speaker, and a gifted writer. He left a promising ecclesiastical career in Constantinople, traveled to Jerusalem, and there in 383 became a monk at the monastery of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. He then went to Egypt and spent the remaining years of his life in Nitria and Kellia, marked by years of asceticism and writing. He was a disciple of several influential contemporary church leaders, including Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Macarius of Egypt. He was teacher of others, including John Cassian and Palladius.
The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer is a wonderful translation for two of Evagrius’ most important writings. The Praktikos is Evagrius’ best known work on the ascetic life. In it he sets forth more completely than anywhere else his doctrine of ascesis. Ascesis describes a lifestyle characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals. Many religious traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, the Christian desert fathers) include practices that involve restraint with respect to actions of body, speech, and mind. The founders and earliest practitioners of these religions lived extremely austere lifestyles, refraining from sensual pleasures and the accumulation of material wealth. They practiced asceticism not as a rejection of the enjoyment of life, or because the practices themselves are virtuous, but as an aid in the pursuit of salvation or liberation.
In the work Chapters on Prayer, the central focus is the theology of prayer and to its practice. Evagrius stresses the relationship between the purest forms of prayer and highest summits of contemplation as the heart of Evagrian theology of prayer. Much more could be said on this topic, but the notes, introduction, and analysis of the life of Evagrius by John Bamberger are a much better source for that information than this brief review.
I found this work and translation of Evagrius’ teaching fascinating. I think it necessary to say, with consideration to my fascination, that this is not necessarily an easy read. The original writings are over sixteen centuries old and this is supposedly an accurate representation of those original thoughts. It should be noted that not every thought translates over the hundreds of years and the gaping chasm of culture. The fourth century of humanity was a very different time than the twenty-first century. This really needs to be taken into account by the reader. With this cautionary consideration, there is much to glean from these ancient treatises. Not only do we get at some of the foundational thoughts that have shaped our doctrines today, we can glean practices that we can employ even today. I enjoyed this book very much.