A Life of Evagrius of Pontus

 

(345-399)

 

 

Cappadocia

Evagrius was born in Cappadocia in the year 345. His place of birth was probably Ibora, Pontus, not far from the whereabouts of the famous Cappadocian family that brought forth St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Melania (who is partly responsible for the treatise "On the Soul and the Resurrection"). We know next to nothing of Evagrius' education and his youth.

But it was through his father that Evagrius became familiar with St. Basil, who had appointed evagrius among his clergy. St. Basil consecrated Evagrius Lector, and thereby numbered him among his clergy too. We cannot, however, pinpoint the date of this occasion. But it must have been somewhere in between 370 and 379, because Basil was ordained Bishop of Ceasarea in 370, and died nine years after. 

Evagrius would remain looking at St. Basil as a fountain of orthodox teaching, and since St. Basil was a strong personality, it is very likely he had a deep impact upon the young Evagrius. It is likely Evagrius became familiar with the great Alexandrian theologian, Origen, through St. Basil, who was himself an Origenist. It is not entirely clear whether Evagrius became familiar with St. Gregory Nazianze and St. Gregory of Nyssa at this time. Though it is not unlikely, it can be easily imagined Evagrius met those two theological giants in the circle around St. Basil. It is clear however that Evagrius belonged to the circle around the great Cappadocians, and became quite well known to St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen) in later years. It is within this circle that Evagrius received his strong Nicene theology. Thus Evagrius received both, his familairity with Origen and Nicene Orthodoxy, from the hands of the Cappadocian fathers. Though unlike them, Evagrius' Origenism became much more radical. But he was not at any time involved with Arianism, in fact he cites St. Athanasius and St. Didymus as belonging to his doctrinal authorities. Evagrius teaches an Orthodox Christology and Trinitarianism, and was involved in refuting gnosticism.

 

Constantinopel 

It was January 1st 379, that St. Basil the Great closed his eyes on this side of life, to open them and set them upon the Eternal Glory of God, he was only about fifty years of age. Evagrius was devestated. he had lost his spiritual father, and "ran" for Constantinopel, where he wrote the "Epistula Fideď". St. Gregory the Theologian (Nazianzen) ordained Evagrius a Deacon, and Evagrius served his Bishop well, especially during the Ecumenical Council of 381. From Epistle 21 we can learn that he got to know St. Gregory the Theologian through the monk Eustathius, and that he and St. gregory were close friends. St. Gregory would refer to Evagrius who "stood beside him without being self interrested." The Poet theologian St. Gregory served a small Orthodox community in a Housechurch, in a city filled with Arians who did not shy away from violence. Evagrius stood beside his friend and Bishop (who was now also his spiritual father) in the Maximus controversy, and during the Council of 381, thus Evagrius won the affectionate gratitude of St. Gregory the Theologian. 

Evagrius would remain a pupil of st. Gregory for the rest of his life, always referring to him in the most affectionate words. However, St. Gregory was forced to leave his Bishop's throne and he left Evagrius behind to serve the his successor, Nectarius, as St. Gregory knew how valuable his help had been to him. Nectarius was a layman when he was chosen to serve as Bishop, and did not know the depths of theology as his predecessor had done, thus Evagrius was invaluable to him even more than he was to St. Gregory. Evagrius build up an enormous reputation for himself as a very skilled theologian, a reputation that would become his downfall. He became a pride and arrogant man, and eventually ended up in a romantic affair with the wife of a Roman prefect. Evagrius suffered what appears to have been a nervous breakdown, and his life was in danger because the betrayed husband had planned an ambush on his life. Warned in a dream of this, Evagrius fled to Jerusalem to the monastic community of Rufinus and Melania the Elder. 

 

Jerusalem

The second time Evagrius had fled from his troubles occured in 382, and he arrived at  his second hide out. It is a tell tale sign that Evagrius did not run for his wellknown Cappadocia, apparently he did not consider it a good choice to return to. Whatever, plagued him there when he left, was still there, or perhaps in his mind eating at him still. For he would have found at least one wellknown friend there, his beloved Bishop and spiritual father, St. Gregory the Theologian. In Rufinus and Melania he found new friends, who helped him back on his feet again. But not after he had first taken up his arrogant and sinful lifestyle agian. He lived in this way until his psyche once again broke down, and he became very, very sick. He suffered a burning fever, that threatened to dehydrate him so he would die shortly. The physicians were at a loss, and could not help him. The troubled genius of Evagrius was finally at the end of his powers, and his life was as good as over while he was only thirty-seven years old! Melania perceived in her spirit that this sickness did not come from an ordinary cause, she discerned there was something about it, and she confronted Evagrius concerning this. Evagrius admitted he had fled from Constantinopel due to big trouble, and he had made up his  mind to change his ways, to repent of his sins and live in a true Christian manner. He confessed he had neglected to do this, and Melania prophetically told him that only if he would lay down his life for Christ, and serve Him as a monk, would he survive, and be made whole again. Evagrius did as she had told him, and Melania prayed for his healing. Within a few days he was restored to his health, and became a monk. Evagrius probably received his monks cloth from the hands of Rufinus in 383, and he would later write about it to Rufinus in great gratitude. Besides this, he was also introduced to Origen's works in more depth than before, and would increase in his knowledge of that tradition in Egypt in the circle around the Tall Brothers.

 

Egypt

Evagrius now set out for Egypt, the center of monasticism at that time. In Egypt, Evagrius sat at the feet of Macarius the Great several times to receive training and spiritual advice. It is also quite conceivable Evagrius received training and advice from St. Didymus the Blind, whom he might have gotten to know through Rufinus, who himself sat at St. Didymus' feet for eight years. Whatever the case may be, we find Evagrius in the company of the circle of monks around the Tall Brothers. The Tall Brothers were well trained and well experienced Origenist monks, and Evagrius must have felt quite at home with them. Evagrius settled in the Nitrian desert and would remain there for the remaining fifteen years of his life. While there he became himself a well known abba, and became very popular. Evagrius had an enormous capacity to discern spirits, and was an excellent "psychotherapist". His fame caused him to flee ordination to the office of Bishop which was being prepared for him by Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria. Evagrius fled away from this, and thus escaped ordination. He became a prominent authority in theology and refuted many heresies, especially Arianism and Gnosticism. Also his spiritual advice was put into writing and was greatly valued. It would remain a great influence in Orthodoxy up until this day. He became the hero of the Syrian church, though Origen was rejected by this very same Church! The spiritual classic known as "The Philocalia" still contains several of his works today, and is much used in Eastern Orthodoxy still. In Evagrius spirituality we meet the Egyptian monastic spirituality and in his speculative writings we meet with the than popular Orthodox Origenism of the Egyptian intellectually well versed monks. 

Evagrius severe ascetism, damaged his health, and he was forced to reduce his ascetic standards, but after two years of this, his weakening health collapsed and he died at the age of fifty-four, outliving his first friend and spiritual father with only four years. Right after his death, an enormous controversy broke out concerning Origen and the tradition that looked to him as its father. God graciously spared Evagrius the sight of thus ugly escalation of personal pride, anger and downright deceitfulness. Evagrius did not have to live to see his friends persecuted, and driven from their homes, and condemned. Evagrius died in peace in 399, to close his eyes, that were so accustomed to see into the hearts of man and women and to see the things spiritual, so he could now set his longing eyes upon the glory and beauty of his Lord and God Whom he had sought to serve with all the life energy God granted him.