… Evagrius and Benedict …

It does not strain the imagination to picture several of Evagrius’ works, worn for wear by frequent use, opened on St. Benedict’s writing desk. But could he in fact have had Evagrius’ works so readily available? The answer to this question is not easy to answer because we have no real evidence to affirm or deny it. We lack a nice clear selfie of St. Benedict where he shows us what he is currently reading, there are no facebook/twitter updates on what he is currently reading, nor do we have a picture on his desk showing what is opened on it and what he is currently working on. How times change!

Translations of some of Evagrius’ works were available early on in the West. Rufinus being responsible for translating Origen as well as Evagrius. The thought of Evagrius is certainly compatible with – if not presumed by –  the Rule itself.  But due consideration must be given to the influence of Jerome whose influence was as widespread and weighty as it was poisonous. By the time Cassian was writing his Conferences the name of Evagrius was already too controversial for openly mentioning it.

It is not unlikely that Jerome was aware of how he was disqualified by his opponents (Rufinus, Palladius, Cassian etc.) from true knowledge of God. The emphasis of the so-called Origenists lay on freedom from anger. To Evagrius, and those following his teaching, anger is what demons predominantly consists off. It is precisely anger that darkens the mind and prevents the mind from communing with God. The mind communes with God exclusively by learning to love. Many things can be said of Jerome, some of them good, but it could not be said that his life and dealings with people stand out by love. It is not too difficult to imagine Jerome being aimed at when an anonymous person consumed by anger is mentioned in the Origenists texts as lacking knowledge of God in the true sense. Jerome, being as intelligent as he was intransigent, most likely understood very well he was being addressed (and therefore called upon to repent and change his ways if he wanted to have true knowledge of God at all). This goes a long way to explain why Jerome still fumes with hatred when he mentions his already dead (in whch Jerome rejoices with similar abusive language) former friend Rufinus (see among others his Epistle 125, 18 where he refers to Rufinus as a “grunter” – a pig – and other such derogatory slurs immediately after he admonishes the addressee of his letter “never to speak ill of anyone”).

By the time St. Benedict composed his Rule he is not likely to have read or advised to read much from the known works of Evagrius – if at all. Benedict insists that reputable, orthodox, and catholic Fathers (RB 9.8) be so used. Jerome’s anti-Origenist campaign in the West has proven to be very successful and it is not strange that Benedict does not in fact mention Origen nor Evagrius (even if it is very much possible he knew them and may have even read them). The closest Benedict gets to Evagrius is when he insists that Basil the Great and John Cassian are – to his mind – representative of the teachings of the holy Fathers.

Basil was in fact Evagrius’ Bishop from his youth and their theology is close enough that Letter 8 of Basil’s corpus is now (after much study) unanimously attributed to Evagrius instead. It would also have been Basil that first introduced Evagrius to orthodox Origenian thought and practice. Now John Cassian is also closely associated with Evagrius. Cassian spent many years in the Egyptian desert and while living and learning there he also met and heard Evagrius. Much of Cassian’s spiritual teaching is saturated with Evagrian doctrine. Evagrius, in his turn, is deeply influenced by Origen. The first encounter with Origen was mediated by the Cappadocians, the second encounter with Origen came through the tradition that looks back to St. Anthony the Great and was mediated by the two great Macarii.

Today the attitude toward Evagrius (and Origen) is changing. It is becoming increasingly clear that the so-called Origenists were probably right. Hatred and anger distort knowledge. Love makes it possible. Ardent students and lovers of the teachings of the holy Fathers (among whom Fr. Henri Crouzel, Mark Edwards, Great Schema Monk Gabriel Bunge, Fr. Luke Dysinger, Fr. Columba Stewart, Augustine Casiday, Ilaria Ramelli etc) have successfully shown that Epiphanius, Jerome, Justinian and such “haters” (as kids today would say) have fundamentally misunderstood and misinterpreted Origen and Evagrius. The erroneous understanding of Origen and Evagrius has sadly become mainstream for many centuries. Even today it can still be found in many lovers of the teachings of the holy Fathers. Change is slow and that is a good thing.

In conclusion: it seems appropriate to me that Evagrius be added to a virtual library of St. Benedict’s. Not merely because of some of his best modern exegetes are themselves Benedictines (Fr. Bunge began his work as a Benedictine, Fr. Luke Dysinger, Colomba Stewart, etc are all Benedictines), but because the tradition the Rule of Benedict is placed in by its author is very much that which is associated with Origen and Evagrius. For as far as I am concerned Evagrius can safely be added to the reputable, orthodox, and catholic Fathersprovided he is understood on his own terms and not those of his later detractors. In fact, via Cassian and Basil, the Rule presumes the Evagrian background. The presence of Evagrius is not “an in your face” kind of thing, but his presence is all encompassing.

Fr. Gregory Wassen


About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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