Been Down to the Crossroads: Evagrius’ Bad Thoughts

There is a story about two men who needed to make a journey though the desert, as they had the misfortunate to live in the fourth century there were no planes, trains, or automobiles, and so he set off on foot, alone. As the journey took more time than they had planned, their supplies of food ran out. Now he stood among the dunes with no food, and rapidly diminishing strength. The men cried out to God to hear his cry and help him. Soon they arrived at a crossroads where 2 loaves of bread set. The hungry men each picked up a loaf, ate, and continued their journey. Later one of the men would sit down with a friend and mentor, the great monk Evagrius, and relate the story about finding bread near the crossroads leading to the monk’s commune. Evagrius surprised the man by relating a story of a similar finding, and the day he had spent looking for the owner of a dropped bag of coins. Being a man of considerable concern to do good and prove himself a worthwhile man, our boy asked, “Who do you think dropped the bread and gold,” the man asked, “Was it an angel or a demon?” The wise Evagrius answered:

“As for you and me, whether what happened in our cases occurred on account of an angel or on account of a demon, let us give glory to God, for occurrences like these do not profit the soul, but purify it. Nevertheless, I give glory to you for receiving food from an angel. Yes it is possible for demons to steal some loaves of bread and bring them to someone, but such loaves will not nourish the body because things that belong to demons stink, and if something comes from demons the soul is confused when it sees it. If however, it comes from the angels, the soul is not confused but remains steadfast and at peace at that time. The person who is worthy to receive food from the angels first of all possesses discipline in thinking about the saying of the Apostle who says, “Solid food is for the perfect for those who faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish evil from good.’”[1]

Though it may seem odd to our modern ears to hear all this talk about good and evil, angel and demons, or if someone questioning who would leave food on desert trails, the question come out of a culture and time that cared greatly about, and discussed at length what they called virtue and vice. The monk Evagrius would spend his weeks alone mediating on such topics, then would gather with a group of like men and women and discuss his findings throughout the weekend. And in many ways he and his time was not so much unlike our own. The area in which he lived had entered into a pronounced depression. Years of poor harvests, as well as the ever weakening state of his nation left many poor and out of work. The Christian religion of his father offered little support, as concerns about poor morals, poorer teaching, and mass apathy threatened to swamp the faith.

And so men and women like Evagrius of Pontus, Basil of Ceasarea, and Gregory of Nanzianus came together to seek the true faith, and a truer way to live their lives. It is this metaphor of the journey that these monks would repeatedly turn. For them life was a journey and the most important thing was to choose wisely the path one wanted to traverse. As you read the writings of these men, and the following thinkers influenced by them, you notice what I have taken to the call the railroad tracks. A thought strikes the mind, works its way into the heart, and proceeds out of body by way of the feet, hands, or mouth. A course of action is taken, and soon followed by another, and another. Soon a habit has been formed. Then a way of life, and before one knows it this way of life has become normal and unthinkable otherwise. All of this is well and good if that first thought was well, good. Yet if that first thought was not so good, then everything that has come since is tainted and quite possibly worthless.

In modern times we talk about gateway drugs, those drugs that users start with before moving on to heavier substances (this is the major reason for keeping something like marijuana illegal). And these early church fathers were onto something very similar here. For this reason Evagrius created and distributed his list of eight bad thoughts. “Watch for these, and head them off at the path,” he seemed to be saying in his discussion of them. Evagrius says, “to speak to this point, no one can fall to a demon unless he has been wounded by these demons of the front line.”[2]

To follow along these lines and on this path, though broad and occasionally enjoyable, was to travel along the way to ruin and destruction. Yet following the words of our Savior on the mountain, they called each other to that other path, the narrower one. Here one started by Keeping the commandments, the practice of the virtues, and the shunning of these bad thoughts, moved on to a fuller understanding of the world and the way it worked, and last arrived at that great moment in life, the beatific vision, that is a vision of God as He truly is. This journey which lasts longer than a lifetime leads through death to life. Writing to friends, Evagrius would say:

“Abiding in us, [Christ] is perfected according to our power and wishes to be seen in us through the hidden works of our virtues…. There is no one who works iniquity, yet seeks righteousness; no one who hates her companion, yet seeks love; no one who lies, yet seeks the truth. So now this is seeking the Lord: to keep the commandments with true faith and genuine knowledge. The model of these things is the writing we have sent to teach you; it has expounded to you ‘the strait and narrow path that nevertheless leads to the kingdom of heaven.” [3]

Over time, two of Evagrius’ bad thoughts (sloth and acedia) would be merged, and inside the rapidly professionalized confines of the confessional would become known as the Seven Deadly Sins, the sins that lead inexorably to other sins.  And the overworked Bishops of the Catholic Church would seek to destroy these sins by encouraging the works of another way, the seven virtues.

Much of this thought would be lost during the Reformation; yet as the 20th century has turned into the 21st, there have been some who have looked back at the writings of this strange monk, and wondered if Evagrius might not have appreciated the words of the great bluesman Robert Johnson: “I went down to the crossroad / fell down on my knees  / Asked the lord above “Have mercy now / save poor Bob if you please.”[4] It’s a prayer that has been prayed before, and most likely will be prayed again.

[1] Story as told by Palladius in his Lausiac History as translated by Tim Vivian in Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt, and Macarius of Alexandria. (St Vladimir’s Press: Crestwood, NY, 2004).

[2] Evagrius. “On Thoughts.”  Evagrius Pontus. Trans. A.M. Cassidy. (Routledge: New York, 2006), 93.

[3] Evagrius. “On the Faith.” Evagrius Pontus. Trans. A.M. Cassidy. (Routledge: New York, 2006), 61.

[4] Robert Johnson. “Crossroad Blues.” RCA, 1931-34.


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