Christian Meditation in the Fourth Century

If there is any monk who wishes to take the measure of some of the more fierce demons so as to gain experience in his monastic art, then let him keep careful watch over his thoughts. Let him observe their intensity, their periods of decline and follow them as they rise and fall. Let him note well the complexity of his thoughts, their periodicity, the demons which cause them, with the order of their succession and the nature of their associations. Then let him ask from Christ the explanations of these data he has observed. For the demons become thoroughly infuriated with those who practice active virtue in a manner that is increasingly contemplative.

— Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer

Evagrius Ponticus, who lived in the fourth century, was one of the Desert Fathers. Here in the 21st century, we tend to assign the turbulence of our minds to subconscious forces rather then demonic forces. But whether we are trying to take the measure of “some of the more fierce demons” or simply trying to become more centered in Christ, Evagrius’ advice is well worth heeding. Indeed, I stumbled on this quotation in B. Alan Wallace’s wonderful book Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity, where he quotes Evagrius as an example of a Christian teacher who advocates a discipline of calmly and non-graspingly observing the mind: a basic meditative technique that, in our day, is far more commonly practiced among Buddhists than Christians. But Wallace’s point is that such an exercise has deep roots in the Christian tradition; indeed, the Desert Fathers and Mothers are the headwaters of post-Constantinian Christian spirituality.

As an interesting aside: anti-mystical Christians who attack meditation often do so because of a groundless metaphysical argument: that if we “clear our mind” we are leaving ourselves open to demonic attack. This is ridiculous for two reasons: first, it is as impossible to clear one’s mind as it is to consciously stop one’s heart from beating: the point behind meditation is to relax and slow down the mind, so that we can become conscious of the luminous space between our thoughts. And secondly, as Evagrius makes it clear: if a demon is going to attack us, he’ll attack us through our thoughts, not through the silence between them. With that in mind, meditation, far from being a vulnerable practice, actually is a powerful tool that any spiritual warrior would want to use; for it enables us to calmly observe our thoughts, learn to practice non-attachment in relation to our thoughts, and — again, as Evagrius points out — empowers us to gently turn our thoughts over to Christ, for the purpose of discerning which thoughts are truly worthy to act on. Indeed, if more of us could learn to submit all our thoughts to the light of love, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Sue

    Great post Mr M and as is the funny way of these sorts of things, I have been thinking much about Mr Evagrius Ponticus recently, having come across him via Kathleen Norris’s “Acedia and Me”. I didn’t even know what acedia was until I read this book and now … well, I’m seeing the tentacles everywhere.

    The space between the thoughts … yes. The natural state of things. Unutterably beautiful that you would never wnat to leave and then the next minute … oops, you’re off over here, devastating yourself over a couple of thoughts that lead to a giant plank and wham, you’re flailing in the ocean, LOL.

    It’s funny and it’s bloody annoying, I have to say. I am tired sometimes of having to live with all this crud. And yet as always, God is leading me up and over and the discovery of this wise man Mr P is going to be helping me on, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for the link to Mind in the Balance. Looks worthy of adding to the burgeoning list :)

  • Joe Rawls

    Sue, you beat me to the punch. Norris’ book is probably the best “popular” introduction to Evagrius I’m aware of. It certainly got me interested.

  • john nair

    Yoga is a way of life, a conscious act, not a set or series of learning principles. The dexterity, grace, and poise you cultivate, as a matter of course, is the natural outcome of regular practice. You require no major effort. In fact trying hard will turn your practices into a humdrum, painful, even injurious routine and will eventually slow down your progress. Subsequently, and interestingly, the therapeutic effect of Yoga is the direct result of involving the mind totally in inspiring (breathing) the body to awaken. Yoga is probably the only form of physical activity that massages each and every one of the body’s glands and organs. This includes the prostate, a gland that seldom, if ever, gets externally stimulated in one’s whole life.

    Meditation Techniques Yoga