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Thinking Out Loud

Mountains of Solitude

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 13, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Mountains of Solitude

"Better the thousandth in love," wrote Evagrius Ponticus, "than one alone with hate in inaccessible caves." His warning was to monks, hermits long ago living in seclusion in desert places, but his proverb deserves our attention today.

Evagrius understood, as he intimates in another of his proverbs, that living in solitude with love will purify a person's heart, but living alone with hatred only corrupts and agitates. To allow our memories to cling to grievances is like covering a fire with a pile of dry wood chips; eventually a conflagration is bound to break out. His advice is both spiritually sound and psychologically astute.*

Evagrius received his theological education from Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus (two of the three theologians of the fourth century known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers; they were largely the source for the third article of the Nicene Creed, on the Holy Spirit). Evagrius served as a deacon under Gregory in Constantinople. He was forced to flee Constantinople under a cloud of scandal involving a woman who is believed to have been connected to the imperial court. Eventually Evagrius became a monk in the deserts of Egypt where he was discipled by both Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria.

Evagrius seems to have fled not only the shipwreck of Byzantine society, but the shipwreck of his own life.** But perhaps in this he demonstrated the fullness of God's providence because Evagrius brought to the desert a first-rate theological mind and the keen analytical intuition of a psychologist. And he turned both of these resources to the service of spiritual direction for the benefit of all those who sought God in solitude.

In some past blogs I have dwelt on specific teachings which Evagrius shared, but in today's essay I would like to consider a larger subject. I want us to reflect on the origins and value of spiritual direction.

One often hears, especially among some Protestant Christians, talk about the recent popularity of spiritual direction, as though it is a new thing. It is also common, in these circles, to hear complaints about the relative poverty in Protestantism of resources related to spiritual direction. Only gradually have Protestants discovered that the history of Christian spiritual direction stretches over some two millennia and always has been, in the largest sense, a catholic issue, that is, a matter of importance throughout the universal church, East and West.

How one explores one's relationship with God, with creation, and with other persons, how one grows and matures in faith, how one engages in practices, corporate and individual, which nourish the life of the Spirit, and how one learns to resist those forces that erode one's spiritual life and one's humanity: these have been matters of spiritual direction since the earliest days of Christianity. And because spiritual direction operates at the junction of the most personal aspects of human life (emotions, thought, behavior, and relationships), it has always drawn upon sources of wisdom that cross all sorts of boundaries: theological and ritual, psychological and philosophical, ethical and political, to mention only a few. The pattern for spiritual direction was set early in the church by Evagrius Ponticus and another theologian who also spent considerable time in the wilderness of Egypt: John Cassian (c. 365-435 AD).

Colm Luibheid, in his preface to the "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of John Cassian's Conferences, sums up the core task of spiritual direction as he introduces readers to Cassian:

"For in his way John Cassian is someone responding as he can to the old problem of what to make of the life one has. And that problem in its turn rests on the deeper one of making sense of whatever reality we have happened to meet. Is reality deeper than the farthest reach of our own perceptual capacities? Is this - what we encounter - all of it? The old question refuses to go away. It nags and worries. ... Can this be all of it?" (Luibheid, Cassian, p. xii)***

Spiritual direction is about learning to live a genuinely human life alongside a wise companion. It concerns the big questions of life's meaning and purpose. That's why it touches on every aspect of human feeling, thought and behavior.

Spiritual living is living with the "whence," the "why" and the "wherefore" of existence clearly in mind. Spiritual living is living mindful of the origins, terminus and ultimate ends of human life. Spiritual living is living with care and compassion. This is why spiritual direction begins not with a set of rules or a template that all must follow but with the person in direction, wherever that person finds herself or himself.

Cassian and Evagrius entered into the way of the desert. They shared in the wilderness and spoke from within the experiences of the hermits and anchorites themselves. They understood that the monastics whom we call Desert Fathers were "located" emotionally, psychologically and theologically in the wilderness, as well as just geographically in a desert. These men and women were wagering with their whole lives that everything one sees in this world is an outward sign of an inward reality, that creation is a sort of vast sacrament through which God communicates life and nourishment and meaning with humanity. They believed that we cannot know this deep reality unless we cut ourselves off from everything that distracts us.

In one of his most moving passages, John Cassian tells us that human beings can see God face-to-face, but only if they go off with him into "the high mountain of solitude." Only in solitude can we be liberated from "the entire swirl of worldly considerations, of worldly disturbances." (Cassian, Conferences, 10:6).

Owen Chadwick, in his Introduction to this same edition, comments of Cassian's "method," if it may be called that. Chadwick writes:

"The soul seeks the ultimate unity or oneness of the world, which is conceived variously as a spiritual or an intellectual entity. The soul seeks this One, which is permanence, unity, foundation of the universe, Being beyond all being, ultimate Mind. Its method of seeking is to strip itself of all distractions that turn the attention to anything lower in the scale of value, that is, everything not the One." (Chadwick, Cassian, p. 3).

One may debate why Cassian felt it necessary to turn attention away from that which is all around us in creation in order to seek the One (if, that is, the One contains all things in its Oneness).**** But we cannot argue, really, with the logic that the various distractions surrounding us do have a way of preventing us from looking more deeply into reality.

We have found so many ways to drown-out whatever we don't wish to bring to consciousness; even the most ordinary facts of life (for instance, death) go largely unacknowledged, ignored, or denied as facts within our personal experiences. Somehow most of us live as though suffering and death are common facts of life for "other people," but we act as though an exception will be made in our case.

Anyone who has dedicated time to solitude and silence attending to one's heart knows the terrors which lie therein - and the potential for grace. In solitude and silence one is confronted with one's failures and flaws. They rise up before us in the forms of regret and guilt. But, surrounded by God's mercy, while encountering our sin, we also can know the freedom that only love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness make possible. In solitude and silence one allows reality's chickens to come home to roost - including the personal consciousness of death - but in a context in which we are able to entrust what we are to the hands of God.

What we find in such solitude and silence is the "space" to sort out our souls in the presence of God. We find space to differentiate between realities, illusions and delusions, to let go of the obsessions and anxieties and the clinging that characterize life unskillfully lived, and to recover compassion for ourselves which, in the secret places of our hearts, is transformed into compassion for others. And it is here, in what Louisville Seminary's own Lewis Sherrill called "the struggle of the soul," that we sense our need for a companion in our spiritual quest.

As Cassian and Evagrius teach us, we need someone to remind us of the truths we know and to make us attentive of the falsehoods that trip us up. We need someone to keep us personally mindful of the realities of which we are only generally aware. We need someone to encourage us when courage is thin on the ground. We need someone we trust to go with us into the wilderness. This is why we need spiritual direction.

The greatest spiritual athletes of all time needed that. Certainly we can do with no less.

*Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-399 AD) has often been compared to the Stoic philosophers because of the austere sanity of his advice. His thought is similar especially to that of Epictetus (c. 50-135 AD). Both taught the value of attaining an equanimity that cannot be shaken by life's inevitable ups and downs. But in several of his monastic proverbs, Evagrius arguably is even more like the Buddha (c. 563 - 483 BC), whose teachings established a psychology and a philosophy that nourish the life of the spirit. One of Buddha's most familiar teachings (though often attributed to more recent thinkers) is very similar to Evagrius' "Ad Monachas" 8-10, cited above. Buddha said: "Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die."

**There is no better starting point for understanding Evagrius than the volume of his writings in the "Ancient Christian Writers" series published by Newman Press (New York, 2003). Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, translates Evagrius for this volume; he also provides an excellent introduction and commentary.

***The "Classics of Western Spirituality" edition of Cassian's Conferences (Paulist Press, 1985) is a joy to read. The combination of Luidheid's translation and his brief but eloquent preface and Owen Chadwick's superb introduction make this one of the most valuable volumes in this respected series. One can easily see why Cassian had such a huge influence on the development of monasticism, and why Christians continue to turn to him for wisdom.

****The Neo-Platonic worldview saturates the mysticism of the theologians of this period, though it is a Neo-Platonism baptized into Christian faith and subtly transformed particularly through the influence of the early Christian theologian, Origen. Hans Urs Von Balthasar observed that, "there is no thinker in the church who is so invisibly all present as Origen." [Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (Crossroad: New York, 1991), p. 130.] This is doubly true of the fourth century, though one can trace Origen's influence throughout the medieval period; and forms of Platonic idealism are stamped even on modern devotional writers like C.S. Lewis, and to some degree on theologians such as Karl Barth. How to conceptualize reality's ultimate oneness in spite of its apparent divisions and oppositions without resorting to Platonic idealism has remained a challenge for Christian theology and spirituality to the present day. But it is possible.

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