After a talk I gave to a group of young adults at a recent Theology on Tap meeting in Asheville, North Carolina, I was asked this question, which I paraphrase:
How can the kind of suffering endured by the desert fathers be virtuous?
The young adult who asked this question was interested in particular in the example I had given from the life of Evagrius.
During my talk, I had read a quotation from John Eudes Bamberger’s introduction to his translation of Evagrius’ The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer about the great feats of asceticism undertaken by Evagrius to defeat his “disordered passions and thoughts.”
Bamberger writes: “He [Evagrius] underwent the most severe trials against chastity and met them with heroic efforts, such as passing the night exposed to the winter cold standing in a well.”
What the young adult actually wanted to know was this: How can standing in a well in the cold all night be considered virtuous? Isn’t this excessive?
I gave a simple answer, and again I paraphrase (more precisely and
succinctly). Evagrius wanted to emulate Our Lord’s suffering because Our Lord had endured far greater suffering for him, for us. Our Lord’s suffering is virtuous and Evagrius’ suffering is virtuous because he keeps Our Lord at the center of all he does.
As sometimes happens with a thoughtful question, I found myself reflecting on it.
I had opened my talk with some thoughts on Matthew 4:1-11, Our Lord’s temptation in the desert, to establish the point that living a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience is obligatory for all Christians.
As I reflected on the young adult’s question, I concluded that next to Our Lord’s time in the desert, Evagrius’ night in a well in the cold, and similar activities, seems tame.
I then began to think of another question: Could Our Lord’s fasting for forty days and forty nights in the desert be considered excessive?
I came up with two answers: For some, particularly in our times, without a doubt; for the true Christian, absolutely not.
Another question then came to mind: What are we to learn from the example of Our Lord’s time in the desert?
In part, I had addressed this question in my talk.
The story of Our Lord’s temptation in the desert, the Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov tells us in The Ages of the Spiritual Life, contains what the Church Fathers consider the ultimate words of Scripture.
In these ultimate words, the Church Fathers tell us, the Word of God shows us how to live. The life of a Christian, therefore, should be one free of the love of pleasure, glory, and money; or, to cast this differently, a Christian chooses, as Our Lord did, God over Satan and rejects love of the flesh and the world.
I can trust that Our Lord’s fasting was not excessive not only because he is the God-man but because all of his actions in his human life emerged from his love of the Father and his prayer life.
I can trust that Evagrius’ ascetical acts were not excessive, because he was a master of prayer, a brilliant reader of Scripture, a beloved teacher of monks, and a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
In his writings, Evagrius teaches us how to defeat temptation. He also clearly teaches that committing a sin in seeking to defeat the temptation to sin is not an option.
Evagrius’ reflection on Our Lord’s temptation in the desert led him to define the thoughts of gluttony, avarice, and vainglory as the three foundational evil thoughts.
In “On Thoughts,” Evagrius tells us that the first demons we encounter
when we seriously commit our lives to Christ are the demons that incite us to commit these three sins. All the rest follow. Gluttony, for example, opens the way to fornication. Avarice and vainglory, he says, open the door to sadness when one does not attain the possessions or the adulation one seeks.
Our Lord taught us how to live a truly human life. He taught us that a proper human life is ordered toward God, not man, and that such a life requires self-discipline and self-denial that is sometimes arduous.
What the holy men and women of the desert understood is that we run the race to heaven in this life and must constantly train, just as athletes train, if we are to attain our goal.
In modeling their lives on Our Lord’s, they teach us that attaining virtue and heaven is impossible without ascesis as practiced by the Lord himself.