From Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness
The image of man, as presented by Evagrius, would remain one-sided were one only to present it against the dark background of those vices that pervert it, without also showing its luminous, “angelic” dimensions. Furthermore, hardly anyone could muster the courage and endurance to do battle against a vice such as anger if he did not have an appealing image of real humanness before his eyes – an ideal which perhaps he is not able to develop, but which nevertheless widens the narrow horizon of our Earthly existence. A good deal has already been mentioned in the preceding chapters, but here we shall attempt to form a synthesis.
Patience: the armor of understanding,
judgment over wrath,
sanatorium of the heart,
exhortation of the insolent,
pacification of the agitated,
comfort of the grieved,
kindness toward all.
When slandered, it blesses;
mistreated, it rejoices.
Consolation of the oppressed,
mirror of hoped-for good things,
trophy of the tortured.
The vices are nothing other than the perverted functioning of the soul’s three powers, and this point cannot be repeated often enough. In order to fight effectively against a vice, one must thus practice the opposing virtue. In the case of anger, this is forbearance – one of the manifestations of meek love, as Evagrius outlines above. We have already seen that this meek love is in no way weak. Among all the virtues, it is the one that grants mankind access to God and his mysteries.
“Make me to know thy ways, O Lord; teach me thy paths”: Whoever desires to know the “ways of the Lord” must become meek: for it says, “He will teach the meek his ways.” But the meek are those who have brought to an end the endless struggle of irascibility and desire in the soul, as well as the struggle of the passions caused by these.
That meekness is an “aristocratic virtue,” in the best sense of the term, has already been made clear – according to the witness of scripture, it is a distinguishing mark of the ruling figures of Moses, David, and Christ. This being the case, Evagrius makes use especially of Moses to sketch the figure of his true “Gnostic,” to whom knowledge of God and his creation was granted on account of his meekness. David, on the other hand, is the type of one who is “like the angels.” In both cases, Evagrius naturally proceeds from scripture as he understands it – that is, “intelligibly and spiritually.” In the preceding pages, Moses was more often the topic of discussion. Here, we shall turn to this man who is “like the angels”: David.
“When shall I come and behold the face of God?” If the “angels always behold the face of the Father,” but this one [who prays] desires to behold the face of God, then David consequently desires to become an angel.
Does David thereby desire the impossible? Not in the least, as Evagrius again culls from scripture.
“The light of thy countenance has shone upon us, Lord”: The angels always behold the face of God, but mankind beholds the light of his countenance. The face of the Lord is the spiritual contemplation of everything that has come into being on this Earth, while the light of his countenance is a partial knowledge even of these things, if it is true tha] according to the word of the wise woman from Tekoa, David was like an angel of the Lord, perceiving all things on Earth.
David naturally became such an “angel of God” through his great meekness, “for this is the virtue of the angels!”
Kindness and meekness are the cherubim of the soul.
Consequently, ever since the time of the Old Covenant, it has been an established fact that certain people, thanks to their great “purity of heart,” have the ability to attain an “almost angelic state” and, what is more, to become “equal to the angels” through “true prayer.” This, then, advances them to the level of eating the desired “bread of the angels,” that is, to participate in the God-knowledge of the angels.
“Man ate the bread of angels”: The Redeemer says: “I am the bread which came down from Heaven.” The angels ate this bread first, but now mankind as well. “Eating” here means “to recognize,” for the intellect “eats” what it recognizes, and does not “eat” what it does not recognize.
After all that we have heard up to now, it is clear that this “almost angelic condition” consists in “imitating the angelic mode.” For if man is in himself “like a child that stands between justice and injustice,” neither an angel nor a demon, “until the consummation of the age,” he is, of course, free to share the life of the angels or that of the demons. If he drinks the forbidden “dragon’s wine” (anger with all its consequences), he becomes a “demon,” a “serpent,” already in this present time. Yet if he acquires the angelic virtue of meek love, he becomes “like an angel.” Let us now examine more closely wherein this “angelic resemblance” consists and to whom it is granted.
In the Old Covenant, “some people recognized the reasons of the things on Earth” – for example, Moses and David, as we have already seen. By contrast, in the New Testament this knowledge is in principle open to all who are baptized, especially those “who have believed in Christ,” and received “the spiritual seal” – that is, that “anointing” of the Holy Spirit, who reveals God’s mysteries to them. These are the “sons of the Resurrection,” who Christ said would not die and would become “like angels.”
This “angelic resemblance” is an eschatological good, and Evagrius is naturally also aware of this. However, like all eschatological goods of salvation, this one is already experienced here on Earth by God’s grace – a “guarantee,” so to speak, of the glory to come. As we have already seen, this experience is made in “true prayer” and especially that “true worship of the Father in spirit and in truth,” which Christ describes as now abolishing the cult of the Old Covenant and every way of worshiping God on account of his coming. This is so, since an angel stands in close relationship not only to the “beholding of the face of the Father in Heaven,” but also to the prayer “in spirit and in truth.”
The statement in the Apocalypse that speaks of the angel who takes care of putting incense in the bowl that contains the prayer of the saints refers, in my opinion, to precisely this grace wrought by the angel. He infuses knowledge of true prayer so that for the future the spirit may stand firm, free of all acedia and all negligence.
“That grace” refers back to the preceding chapter where it is said that “when the angel of the Lord visits us, he dispels by his word alone every conflicting force of the demon acting in us, and brings it about that the light of our spirit operates with deception.” In other words, the “light” of his ability to recognize things is now no longer darkened, but can freely develop. Here we learn that this recognition aims at “true prayer” and the “worship of the Father in spirit and truth,” that is, in his Holy Spirit and his Only-Begotten Son.
The angel of the Lord is able to meditate such sublime knowledge to us since he not only “knows all things on Earth” and predicts the future (as in the book of Daniel), but also “always beholds the face of the Father in Heaven.” But through his “true prayer,” man, in his desire to behold this same face, becomes himself “like an angel.”
The next chapter will conclude this thought and will also name the conditions for this exaltation of man.
The phials of perfume are said to be the prayers of the saints, which are offered by the twenty-four elders. These phials are to be understood as the love of God, or rather as the perfect and spiritual charity in which prayer is offered in spirit and truth.