From Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread
The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness
From everything that we have heard up to now, it is clear that anger is an odious vice. It “animalizes” man and turns him into a “demon.” Furthermore, whoever allows himself to be dominated by this vice becomes a plaything of the demons, who terrorize such bold person through frightful nocturnal visions. Had Evagrius nothing more to say on this subject, studying his writings would hardly be worthwhile. But we stand only at the beginning!
The man who stores up [grounds for] injuries and resentments and yet fancies that he prays might as well draw water from a well and pour it into a cask that is full of holes.
This surpassing importance Evagrius ascribes to anger in all his writings is based on its utterly negative relation to prayer, as several preceding texts have already indicated. “Prayer” is understood here as the quintessence of the spiritual life or of “mysticism,” as we say today.
Every war fought between us and the impure spirits is engaged in for no other cause than that of spiritual prayer. This is an activity that is intolerable to them; they find it hostile and oppressive. To us, on the other hand, it is both pleasant in its highest degree and spiritually profitable.
In support of his strong conviction that anger and prayer – like fire and water – are mutually exclusive, Evagrius can appeal not only to Holy Scripture, but also to the “hidden and ancient custom of people”:
Tell me, why do you plunge into battle so quickly if you have renounced food, honor, and possessions? Why do you feed the dog [i.e., anger] if you profess to possess nothing? When it barks and attacks people, it is clear that it has something in the house and wants to keep it. Such a [man], I am convinced, is far from pure prayer, for I know that anger destroys such prayer.
Moreover, I am surprised that he has even forgotten the saints: David, who exhorts us, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath!”; and Ecclesiastes, who urges us, “Remove anger form your heart, and put away evil from your flesh”; while the Apostle commands that always and everywhere, men should “lift holy hands [to the Lord] without anger or quarreling.
And why do we not learn from the hidden and ancient custom of people driving dogs out of the house during prayer? This indicates allegorically that those who pray should be free from anger. And further, “the anger of dragons is their wine.” But Nazirites (i.e., those consecrated to God) are to abstain from wine.
The gall bladder and the haunch were inedible for the gods, as one of the wise pagans unwittingly said, I surmise. I mean that the first is a symbol of anger, while the second is that or irrational desire.
The negative effects of an inflamed irascibility on the one who prays are at first glance once again of a purely psychological nature.
All demonic thoughts introduce into the soul mental representations of sensory objects, and the intellect, marked by them, then carries the forms of these objects around with itself. The approaching demon is then recognized by means of the objects themselves.
For example, if the face of one who has done me some harm or has dishonored me arises in my mind, then the approaching thought of resentment is thus transferred.
Thus it is with reason that the Holy Spirit convicts us: “You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.” You have opened the door to thoughts of resentment and have confused the intellect at the time of prayer by constantly imagining the face of your enemy and by making him into a “God,” for what the intellect sees when it prays can justly be called a “God.”
Evagrius describes here an experience which no doubt everyone has had once: the almost obsessive fixation on an object – or worse, on a particular person who has actually or allegedly insulted us and away from whom one cannot tear one’s thoughts precisely during prayer. Under such circumstances, prayer becomes a caricature; we will return to this point.
How do the demons actually know by which passion we are being assailed at any given moment? Evagrius spoke of mere “mental images” (νοήματα) that the demons supply to us. The demons do not know our “heart,” that is, our intellect or inmost being; this statement is of great significance for Evagrius. This inner sanctum is inaccessible to them. Only God, who has created it, knows our heart. Still, the demons are first-rate, experienced observers of our behavior on account of their long presence in creation: even the smallest and to us completely unconscious movement does not elude them. From these “signs” (σύμβολα) they recognize what is hidden in our hearts, from whence proceed our good or evil intentions. From these treacherous signs, they create the material of their temptations, by stimulating, for example, our memory during prayer and furnishing us with the image of the one who has offended us. We then hold this image before our eyes like an “idol” in order to converse with it instead of with God.
All material things make an “imprint” on our mind, of course; that is they leave behind in it an “image” (είδολον) or an impression (τύπος), which we mentally regard as though it were the actual object itself. Only God, who is altogether “immaterial” and “formless” (since he is “bodiless”) leaves the intellect – in person or also in the guide of his “thought” – “without impress.” He is “without intermediary” (μηδενύς μεσιτεύοντος) – personal, we would say – present, and accordingly also working without an intermediary.
Now, if we have a falling out with a fellow human being – whether we are the cause or not – and have “passionately” reacted to this incident, then, as a demonic thought, the “image” (εικών) of a perceptible human being is imprinted in our mind, with which we then “speak or interact secretly in a lawless way,” as though the corresponding person were present. This converse with images has catastrophic effects above all “at the time of prayer,” when the intellect should be “free of images” precisely because it is then holding converse with the immaterial and formless God.
Whoever “desires to pray ‘as we ought’ and grieves someone ‘runs in vain.'” His supposed prayer is nothing else but a “mimicry” (ανατύπωσις) of reality that now provokes God’s anger. Hence the warning:
Whatever you might do by way of avenging yourself on a brother who has done you some injustice will turn into a stumbling block for you at the time of prayer.
The same, of course, is also true for the brother whom we have offended and to whom we have not then been reconciled.
Be very attentive lest ever you cause some brother to become a fugitive through your anger. For if this should happen, your whole life long you will yourself not be able to flee from the demon of sadness. At the time of prayer this will be a constant stumbling block to you.
With full justification one can say then that in prayer, a type of “tribunal” on our inner condition is held.
When you find yourself tempted or contradicted; or when you get irritated or when you grow angry through encountering some opposition or feel the urge to utter some kind of invective – then is the time to put yourself in mind of prayer and of the judgement to be passed on such doings. You will find that the disordered movement will immediately be stilled.
Do not give yourself over to your angry thoughts so as to fight in your mind with the one who has vexed you. Nor again to thoughts of fornication, imagining the pleasure vividly. The one darkens the soul; the other invites to the burning of passion. Both cause your mind to be defiled and while you indulge these fancies at the time of prayer, and thus do not offer pure prayer to God, the demon of acedia falls upon you without delay. He falls above all upon souls in this state and dog-like, snatches away the soul as if it were a fawn.
Once more, this text discloses quite beautifully how the various “thoughts” arise from one another. The one who is to blame for an enduring estrangement from a fellow brother no longer escapes from the demon of sadness during his lifetime because he cannot possibly undo what has happened. The pangs of conscience that arise sooner or later remain fruitless. But sadness is the twin brother of boredom, which at the time of prayer plunges us into this peculiar condition of acedia (soul-weariness), which Evagrius has so aptly described.
The goal of the practical life (πρακτική) is to bring as an offering to God a prayer that is “pure” of all passionate “thoughts” and “images,” and, finally, in general, of mental representations of created things. This also means that nothing distracts or “scatters” our intellect. Such “undistracted prayer” is a great thing; indeed, it is the “highest act of the intellect.” One can also say – in an Evagrian sense – that man is fully himself only in prayer, since in this immediate and personal “intercourse of the spirit with God,” the created “image” finds its way back to the uncreated “archetype” which is its end goal. Satan, who disturbed this relationship already at the beginning, does not cease even now to frustrate this dialogue in every conceivable way.
When the spirit begins to be free from all distractions as it makes its prayer, then there commences an all-out battle day and night against the irascible part.
It would be an error to think that this struggle diminishes to the extent that one makes progress in the spiritual life. The opposite is the case! The demon of anger attacks most fiercely not the beginners, but the “elders” in knowledge, that is, the “spiritual fathers” who “have already received the gift of the Spirit.” For with the “contemplatives,” the “ones who see,” the sins of anger have the most devastating consequences: they blind the intellect’s “eyes,” with which it beholds God and perceives his creation.
By night the demons demand the spiritual master for themselves – to harass him. By day they surround him with pressures from men – with calumnies and with dangers.
Accordingly, Evagrius forcefully warns those who “are still held by sin and still subject to fits of anger” not to “strive shamelessly after knowledge of more divine things or to rise up to the level of immaterial prayer.” Their supposed “prayer in spirit and in truth” would then be, of course, nothing but a grotesque caricature of “true prayer.” God would not leave such an outrage unpunished.
Just as it hardly is of benefit to a man with bad eyes to stand gazing at the midday sun, when it is hottest, with fixed attention and uncovered eyes, so also is it of no avail at all for an impure spirit, still subject to passions, to counterfeit that awesome and surpassing prayer in spirit and truth. On the contrary, it stirs up the resentment of God against itself.
Evagrius then was already well aware of what we today call “self-induced states,” which one only “spuriously” feels without actually experiencing them. It is significant that primarily those who “are still held by sin and still subject to fits of anger” incline to such “imitations” (ανατυπώσεις). It is pride, hiding behind this anger, that drives them not to wait to be called (as was Moses by God from the Burning Bush), but rather daringly to set foot in “the place of prayer.” “True prayer” is indeed a “bestowal of grace” (χάρισμα), a gift (δωρον) God gives “to the man who prays,” and of which one must be “deemed worthy.” So should the one inflamed with anger not pray at all? By no means! But instead of reaching for what is unattainable and even dangerous on account of his passionate condition, he should resort to those “short and intense” invocations of Christ, mentioned everywhere in the early monastic literature: those “short prayers” (as Augustine calls them), out of which the well-known “Jesus Prayer” developed.
If you want to put the enemy to flight, pray without ceasing.
These “concise,” “terse,” “repeated,” indeed “ceaseless” short prayers are the daily bread of whoever is tempted – even of him who is tempted directly by the demon of anger. They are offered with tears, because nothing better softens “the inherent crudeness of the soul” – which is indeed of demonic origin. But on this point, we have already arrived at the remedies for the inflamed irascibility.