“If you pray truly, you are a theologian.” -Evagrius Ponticus

A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH)

A monk at prayer, Bebenhausen, Germany (photo by MJH)

One goal of the Witness Cloud is for us members to restructure our lives around prayer. Our primary means of doing this is joining the great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12) who have prayed the regular structure of the daily (or divine) office, 2 to 4 times a day. Rather than the structure and rhythm of our lives being dictated by television times or solely by the work/school routine or by nothing at all, they are to be increasingly ordered through prayer —

True prayer, of course.

Merely reading the words of the liturgy and barely comprehending them to be able to say, ‘I prayed the office,’ is not true prayer. These thoughts come inspired by Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399), one of the most influential (and simultaneously controversial) mystical/ascetical theologians of the Egyptian desert; my brother (the other who blogs here) and I are working through some of his writings in an ambitious plan to read The Philokalia (Volume one, at least).1

The quotation of inspiration is Chapter 61 of his 153 Chapters on Prayer:

If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

The goal of our structured prayer — the BCP or Celebrating Common Prayer or the BAS or Common Worship or what-have-you — is to pray truly.

To be a theologian, then.

Evagrius does not mean a modern, academic theologian, mind you. He means a theologos, someone practised in true theologia, which is more than simply memorising or conceptualising doctrines about God. One of the great things about the Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware translation of the Philokalia is its glossary at the back. Theology:

denotes in these texts far more than the learning about God and religious doctrine acquired through academic study. It signifies active and conscious participation in or perception of the realities of the divine world — in other words, the realization of spiritual knowledge. To be a theologian in the full sense, therefore, presupposes the attainment of the state of stillness and dispassion, itself the concomitant of pure and undistracted prayer, and so requires gifts bestowed on but extremely few persons. (P. 367)

Theologia and being a theologos is a high calling. And as one reads the depths of insight and exreme ascetic vision of Evagrius and the monks of the Philokalia, it sometimes seems unattainable. Yet it is a gift; it comes by grace. Two chapters above, Evagrius writes:

If you wish to pray, you have need of God, ‘who gives prayer to him who prays (1 Sam. 2:9 LXX). Invoke Him, then, saying: ‘Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come’ (Matt. 6:9-10) — that is, the Holy Spirit and Thy only-begotten Son. For so He taught us, saying: ‘Worship the Father in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:24). (Ch. 59, Chapters on Prayer)

I believe that conscious, regular prayer, whether with the office or otherwise (but particularly with the office) is a step towards opening ourselves up to the gifts of grace that God gives.

And so, for those of us who pray the office with its rounds of Psalmody, here is a final quotation from Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer to close:

Psalmody calms the passions and curbs the uncontrolled impulses in the body; and prayer enables the intellect to activate its own energy. (Ch. 83)

~ MJH ~

Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer is available in three translations, all with good supplementary material: The Philokalia, vol. 1, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. London: Faber, 1979; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 55-71; Evagrius Ponticus: The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger. Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1972, pp. 45-80. And Robert E. Sinkewicz, Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic CorpusOxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 183-209.
1. The Philokalia is a five-volume set of Greek Orthodox ascetic/mystical writings, chiefly on prayer and the pursuit of stillness (hesychasm), running from the fourth to the fifteenth century. It was compiled in 1782 by St Nikidimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and St Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805). It has had a profound effect on Eastern Orthodox spirituality ever since, and many of us from the West have profited from its wisdom as well. Currently, the first four volumes have been translated by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. The fifth is still being translated. Finally, there are some selected anthologies of material from the Philokalia for those who find the size of the collection daunting.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s