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Thinking Out Loud

Serenity

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 23, 2015

TOLImage022415Modern life assaults us on many fronts. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

The local news lifts its headlines directly from the police blotter, the national and international news reports confront us with perils and tragedies. The media captures our attention with sensational teasers crafted to worry us into watching. Even the office water cooler offers little consolation with the latest reports of illnesses and losses from our coworkers.

No wonder the most popular prayer in much of the English-speaking world remains the so-called “Serenity Prayer” written by Reinhold Niebuhr half a century ago:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
1

Evening prayers and vespers have always touched upon this theme because peace of mind is hardest to possess when the skies darken and the busy world is hushed. Of this I was reminded recently praying through the new revised edition of John Baillie's classic, A Diary of Private Prayer. I was particularly moved by the prayer which reads:

Give me freedom from restless dreams;
Give me control of my thoughts, if I lie awake; Give me wisdom to remember that the night was made for sleeping
and not for harboring anxious or distressing thoughts.
Give me grace, if I lie awake thinking, to think of you.
2

Some time ago, a friend whom I have mentioned before, John Wimmer, suggested I take a look at Evagrius Ponticus (345 - 399 AD), a father of the early church. Evagrius, he said, relied on Stoic philosophy for some of his key insights. And one of the greatest scholars on Evagrius, John Eudes Bamberger, OCSO, had once been a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in New Haven, Kentucky. Indeed, Father Bamberger did study under Thomas Merton and is described by Jean Leclercq as "a master of the monastic life and spiritual teaching who was one of the geniuses of our time."3 (xxi) I decided that during my next silent retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, I would meditate on Evagrius's two greatest works, his Chapters On Prayer (often referred to simply as "De Oratione," i.e., "On Prayer") and The Praktikos.

What I discovered in Evagrius was a spiritual contemporary, a person of astonishing theological depth and psychological subtlety, who understands both the root causes of our restlessness and anxiety and the sources of serenity. This week's blog is devoted to "Serenity"; next week's to "Pandaemonium." Both themes reflect on the teachings of Evagrius of Ponticus.

"The state of prayer," writes Evagrius, "can be aptly described as a habitual state of imperturbable calm." The Greek word he uses meaning "imperturbable calm" is apatheia, a term drawn directly from the Stoic lexicon. This apatheia he continues, "snatches to the heights of intelligible reality the spirit which loves wisdom and which is truly spiritualized by the most intense love." [On Prayer, 52]

Apatheia is not to be confused with today's English word "apathy" any more than the classical terms "apology" and "apologetics" should be confused with saying "I'm sorry." Rather apatheia, as Evagrius uses the term, is similar to "the fear of The Lord." It is grounded in a due sense of proportion (creatures in contrast to the Creator) and an appropriate sense of justice (sinners in relationship to a righteous God). Saints, it seems, have a greater sense of the distinction between God and humans than most mortals. And saints possess apatheia by the bushel. This is why saints know how to love. As Father Bamberger explains, apatheia represents a state of calm "arising from the full and harmonious integration of the emotional life, under the influence of love." (lxxxiv) "Apatheia is not a leveling out of the human emotions to an equal degree of indifference towards all [people]. No, it is a state where all [people] can be loved! at least to the extent that one loves peacefully and without resentment towards others." (lxxxv) For Evagrius, then, "perfect love casts out fear" and the banishment of fear invites perfect love.

There is no quick fix for our restlessness and anxiety, in Evagrius's thought. There are no easy-to-apply techniques that deliver us to lasting calm. What is required, if we wish to know Serenity, is not a set of relaxation breathing exercises, but a whole new orientation on life. This new orientation is grounded in a life of "unceasing prayer" even in the midst of activity, a rendering of our lives to God and a committing of all outcomes to God's providence. Serenity is not an escape from the world we live in, but a way of living in this world in grateful openness to God.

Pray not to this end, that your own desires be fulfilled. You can be sure they do not fully accord with the will of God. Once you have learned to accept this point, pray instead that 'thy will be done' in me. In every matter ask [God] in this way for what is good and for what confers profit on your soul, for you yourself do not seek this so completely as [God] does. [On Prayer, 31]

God seeks to give us better things than we can ask or imagine, as the Book of Common Prayer teaches us.

Evagrius confesses, in the next chapter, his own struggle to place his life entirely in God's hands, writing: "Many times while I was at prayer, I would keep asking for what seemed good to me. I kept insisting on my own request. …" [On Prayer, 33] With wry humor, he observes that God sometimes even allowed him to receive what he requested, just so he would see the folly of his mistaken understanding of his own needs. His comments remind us of that old saying, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers."

Evagrius removes us from the driver's seat, relinquishes control of the steering wheel, but will not surrender us to the wheel of fate. Rather, he asks us to entrust ourselves to God alone.

What else is there that is good besides God alone? Therefore let us cast all our concerns upon [God] and it will be well with us. Certainly, [the God] who is wholly good is necessarily the kind of person who gives only good gifts. [On Prayer, 33]

Do not be over-anxious and strain yourself so as to gain an immediate hearing for your request. The Lord wishes to confer greater favors than those you ask for, in reward for your perseverance in praying to him. For what greater thing is there than to converse intimately with God and to be preoccupied with his company. Undistracted prayer is the highest act of the intellect. [On Prayer, 34]

For Evagrius, the goal of life is love. For him, this means a full participation in the life which God shares within God's own eternal being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God uses all the tools at God's disposal in this world to draw us into that love. Even now, even in this world, we can enjoy eternal life.

Thus Evagrius can say, "Renounce all things. You then will become heir to all." [On Prayer, 36] Which is another way of saying, "Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33) The renunciation of all things is at the heart of the doctrine of apatheia which Evagrius borrows from the Stoics, but into it he breathes the gospel of Jesus. He calls us to do that "one needful thing" and leave off the distractions that trouble us. This is the source of Serenity, as Jesus himself teaches. Only when we seek the reign of God above all else can we take the next step with Christ: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for the day is its own evil." (Matthew 6:34)

The proof of apatheia is had when the spirit begins to see its own light, when it remains in a state of tranquility in the presence of the images it has during sleep and when it maintains its calm as it beholds the affairs of life. … The soul which has apatheia is not simply the one which is not disturbed by changing events but the one which remains unmoved at the memory of them as well. [Praktikos, chapters 64, 67]

Serenity, we learn, may be a habitual state of imperturbable calm, but it does not come without some discipline and practice. And the gift of prayer.


1While there are various popular versions of the “Serenity Prayer,” as it was originally authored by Reinhold Niebuhr and published in a column in 1951, it read: "God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed; Give us the courage to change what should be changed; Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from the other." Richard Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 290.
2John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, updated and revised by Susanna Wright (New York: Scribner, 2014). Originally published in 1936.
3Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters On Prayer, translated with an introduction and notes by John Eudes Bamberger (Trappist, Kentucky: Cistercian Publications, 1972). Numbered references in brackets refer to "Chapters" not pages; those in parentheses refer to page numbers.

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