sermon. (wait. what? sermon?): evagrius ponticus and the eight deadly thoughts

IMG_1636Scott asked me a while back if I’d like to preach. My answer, like any sane, rational person, was NO WAY. But almost immediately I changed my mind. We are doing a series on saints of the church, so I decided to share on Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century monk who devised a list called the Eight Deadly Thoughts. I’ve been studying about him for awhile, as these thoughts are the subject of a book I’m working on. 

My favorite part of the morning was hearing from some of the church ladies, who told me they were proud of me for being the first pastor’s wife to ever preach. It made my morning. Then they gave me flowers, which made it even more.

We are not very tech-savvy yet at our church so there is no video, but I thought I’d post the manuscript of the sermon here, for anyone interested. 

I am not a preacher, necessarily, so instead I will start with something more familiar to me: I will tell you a story. Six years ago, I was living in Kansas City. I was going to school full-time to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree at the University of Kansas, and, in tandem with that, I was teaching two sections of freshman writing course. Anyway, being a TA paid significantly less than being a public school teacher. Scott and I had recently purchased a house and so, for what we pay here in Santa Monica in monthly preschool fees, we had a mortgage. And, as he was still finishing school, we needed more income.  Thus began what was probably the busiest season of my life. I was working five part-time jobs at once: the college teaching, waitressing at a Mexican food restaurant, taking calls at the front desk of a snow removal company, selling candles as an independent rep, and proctoring college entrance exams. Oh– and remember I was going to school.

When I found out I was pregnant with Miles, my world got a lot slower very quickly. I quit work at the Mexican food restaurant, for fear that I would slip and hurt the baby. I took naps daily. I let Scott be in charge of most of the laundry, because doing laundry meant going up and down our very steep basement steps. And because I hate laundry. It was as if my body were preparing me, via pregnancy, for what I’d experience later.

Soon after Miles was born, I had to get used to living at a toddler’s pace. This, of course, is different from quitting jobs and taking more naps. This is meandering. Straggling. Lolly-gagging.

To say I have been bored and impatient for some of these years is not inaccurate, I’m afraid.  I have had to relearn how to go slow—or perhaps learn it for the first time—and young children are persistent teachers. I struggled, sometimes, with sitting on the floor to play a session of choo-choo trains with my son. Building the track was tolerable, as there are at least a few mental gymnastics involved in making sure the track eventually becomes connected at all the ends; it was what came after that drove me nuts. I couldn’t fathom how he could want to send the trains around the circular track again. We’d been around the track. A lot. I was the green train, he was the blue train. He got the biggest car. I tried injecting some imagination into this play—I came up with overused action movie plots in the quiet of my brain where the trains were transporting drugs or long-lost lovers or bombs or lethal assassins. That helped a little. But the plot always seemed to lag on the seventh or eighth lap. There is only so much excitement that happens in a loop.

Only recently have I begun to realize that the boredom had been teaching me something. It came as a surprise, because I have never given boredom a chance to be a teacher. In fact, I spent a good deal of time angry and frustrated that I was bored at all. It was during this time that I started studying a bit about the desert fathers and mothers, as they are so known (for their tendency to hang out in the desert, seeking solitude and stillness). They thought a lot about the practice of listening to the boredom, learning from it. They call it a “recollection of the self,” and Kathleen Norris describes well the sentiment behind the practice:

“Can’t we just call it a day, and give our overanxious and ironic selves a rest? Might we consider boredom as not only necessary for our life but also as one of its greatest blessings? A gift, pure and simple, a precious chance to be alone with our thoughts and alone with God.”

A recollection of self. We collect ourselves. Again. We remember that we are more than productivity machines; we are spirit and soul and heart and consciousness, too. So, after being kidnapped by the mundane for enough time, I began to discover a fresh desire to care for my inner world a bit. Cut its fingernails, wash its hair. I was spending a great deal of time with myself, so naturally I wanted to make my inner self a little cuter.

It was during this time that I was first introduced to the Eight Deadly Thoughts. A desert father, Evagrius Ponticus, compiled this list in the early 4th Century. He sought to itemize and label the most tempting “bad thoughts” that a monk might encounter. And while they may have been intended for an audience of monks and solitaries, they felt universal to me. I recognized myself in each of them (well, the ones I could define, at least): gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. The list felt even more true as I began to understand that Evagrius was not simply ranking the thoughts he believed were worst, but the ones he felt were part and parcel of every other sort of harmful thought. They were where harmful things might begin to be nurtured. These thoughts were the peat moss. The amniotic fluid.

Evagrius’s emphasis on the mind, and the discipline that goes along with contemplation and stillness, is what made me interested in studying him a bit. He was interested in how we practice our faith, every day, in the particular realm of ours that we think of as our “heads.” For me, though, it is difficult or perhaps impossible to separate the mind from the heart and even the gut. Our inner worlds are so rich and full, always with us, narrating the world for our, making sense of things, giving us complexes. In church, we often talk about actions, which, I think, is right: our outward expressions are of great importance. “Faith without works is dead,” James wrote. But we can’t ignore the mind, either, because how we think about things, and what things we think about, is important and, really, informs the way that we act. One commentator wrote that “For Evagrius, such observation was a form of searching for God,” (p 9) and that’s my desire, too. As I tell you a bit about what Evagrius thought and taught about, I hope that we may all get a little glimpse more of what God is like, what God wants for us, and the value with which He views us, His children.

Let me stop here and give you a little bit of information about Evagrius. He was born in the year 345 AD and, even though we’ve been learning that a “saint” is anyone who follows after Christ, he may be more in line with what you envision a “saint” to be. He had a beard, for instance. And most of the portraits that survive of him are ones that look like this: with the halo-ey thing and the crazy eyes. Right? Or is this only me that pictures a saint in this way?

He started his career in Constantinople, where he was quite a big deal and where he studied with other guys who were also very big deals. (I would give you a list, but most of us probably don’t have a good working knowledge of who was important in the theological world back in the fourth century, so I will skip it and you will just have to trust me.) There was a great deal of temptation in a place like Constantinople, for a person such as Evagrius, and he began to notice himself struggling spiritually. He was garnering lots of high praise from his contemporaries, so he struggled with vanity and pride. He was surrounded by good food and drink and found himself growing gluttonous. The final straw for him, perhaps, was when he fell in love with a married woman. He had a dream in which the woman’s husband had him imprisoned by the governor’s soldiers, and he decided immediately thereafter to high-tail it for Jerusalem. His insides were not matching his outsides, he realized– he had all this potential, was so well-regarded by others, and he felt himself constantly attacked by these vices that he just couldn’t escape. So he left.

I will tell you right now that that’s enough to get my attention. You hear a lot about people who hit rock bottom and then they decide they need God, but Evagrius was at the top of his game. He was at the pinnacle. And he knew that he had to do something because his heart was somehow getting away from him. I admire that quite a bit, and I don’t think it’s easy. Because when everybody likes you, and the food is good, and you have a cushy place to live, and you have everything under control– it’s easy to fall under the impression that, man, you are just awesome at life. But Evagrius knew otherwise.

I think what I like most about Evagrius is his emphasis on practice. Probably his most famous piece of writing is called The Praktikos, and I think, if you look at the way he lived, you get a good idea that when he practiced his faith, it was really more like he practiced and practiced and practiced it. It took a lot of practicing, and it seems to me that Evagrius was not one to just call it good enough. He was never like, “Well, now that I’m friends with Basil of Clement and the people in Constantinople listen to me when it comes to God, I should be a shoe-in for heaven so I can just chill.” No.

When you’ve been at faith a long time, I think it’s pretty easy to achieve a certain comfortableness with it. I think, for me, that was true. After college and getting married and attending church enough time, I felt like I was a pretty good Christian. Not great or anything, but I knew that I knew God, and I was a faithful member of a church and I’d gone on a few mission trips to Mexico and whatnot, and I tried to be nice to people, generally, and I knew the bible stories.  And I think I just stayed there for awhile. I coasted. Maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do? Or maybe I was just content to be “good enough.”

So Evagrius moved to a little monastery near Jerusalem for a bit, and then finally to the desert. He was searching for stillness, I think. He spent the rest of his life in the desert, surrounded by a monastic community of solitaries who were in it for the same reasons. He wrote, and he prayed, and he taught until he died in the last year of the fourth century.

Now. I have a question for you. How many of you, at one time or another, have wished that you could know what someone else is thinking? Raise your hand. OK, most of us, right?  Second question: How many of you have ever wished that everyone else knew exactly what you were thinking? How dreadful would this be? On a first date? Or when you’re in over your head at work? Talking to your boss, maybe? Trying to be patient with your kids? In a conference with your pastor? Oh, Lord have mercy, right? That would not be for me! When you think about it, it is kind of amazing that we all have these personal little worlds that we cultivate in our heads. And the bible has a lot to say about our minds, how we tend to them.

One of my favorite verses regarding the mind is probably one that you’re familiar with:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

I love the word “transform.” There is a certain magic to it, don’t you think? Perhaps that’s because, most of the time, we encounter the word couched in fairy tales: a pumpkin is transformed into a stagecoach with the flick of a wand and a Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo. With a simple kiss, a frog or a beast becomes a prince. A mermaid gains legs, a teacup becomes a little boy, an ice castle springs up where there was just lumps of snow.

Transformed, here, in the Greek is METAMORPHOMAI which means the that the outer form changes into something new because of something that happened inwardly. That’s what the Disney versions never seem to capture in the animation– the changes happen instantaneously and usually involve spinning sparkles, but we don’t hear that the outer newness is the result of some inner change. The pumpkin didn’t think long and hard about its place in the world and decide, instead, to pursue life as a carriage.

It’s a wonder, isn’t it, how people can change? How our minds, by continuous renewal and by the power of the Holy Spirit, can become new? Do you believe this? Have you seen it?

In Ephesians, Paul brings up the same idea again, writing:

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

There’s that word again: “renewed.” The way the Greek word works, or so I’m told, by people who know Greek, which is not me, is that the construction of the word suggests a process. One that is ongoing. Continuous. Our minds are renewed again, and again, and again. This is reinforced by Paul’s use of “put off,” which is a figurative expression much like how one might “put off” their garments every day. We do it again, and again, and again. We practice, knowing that God is also at work in our very hearts.

As I mentioned earlier, Evagrius developed a list of eight thoughts that he believed every single one of us will struggle with. A few hundred years later, someone else tweaked these to become something you’re probably more familiar with– the seven deadly sins– but I happen to believe they are more helpful when you consider them as thoughts. Even more helpful is thinking of them as patterns of thoughts. A way of thinking.

In Romans, Paul talks about this dichotomy between a mind focused on the spirit versus one focused on the flesh. It is a relatively familiar passage, I think, but I want to share here the way The Message bible translates it, because I think it will help us consider it with new ears:

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing.

So I want to delve into these eight deadly thoughts a little bit. I want you to get a feel for them, because I think that part of the way God works in us is by helping us recognize when these temptations occur, and by helping us discover a new way of thinking, of living.

GLUTTONY

This one, we usually think about in terms of food. It is over-eating, overindulging. But it isn’t ALL about food. It’s a bit bigger, and it refers to any time we over-do something that is necessary for us. Another way to think about it: it’s desire without restraint.

LUST

So lust is usually associated with sexual immorality. It has to do with bodies, and especially how we might take advantage of bodies without real concern or care, or how we might put more value in bodies than we do in the people they house. But lust isn’t only about sex. You can also have a lust for power, or blood lust. There’s also wanderlust, but I don’t know that the desire to travel is one to be real concerned about.  No, another way to think about lust is as a desire for something wrong.

AVARICE

Avarice is an unfamiliar word, but it’s definitely not an unfamiliar topic or feeling. Usually, now, it is translated into “greed.” It’s a specific type of greed, though. It is a hoarding, clenching sort of greed. It’s the kind of greed that stores and stores and stores up our things, just in case we might need them later. It is kind of how I think about baby clothes– a sickness that you might easily diagnose if you were ever invited into my garage! So, avarice is the desire for something more.

SADNESS

I had trouble with this one at first. How could sadness lead to sin? Well, it doesn’t always. Evagrius describes this sort of sadness as a wish that things were somehow different. It can trap you, really, into just wishing away your whole life. It is sort of related to envy. So sadness is the desire for something else.

ANGER

Anger. Other words for anger might be indignation or bitterness. It’s when we look at something or someone, or the past, and think that we were right and someone else was wrong and now they have to pay. It’s where the whole idea of revenge comes from. So anger is the desire for something “right.”

ACEDIA

Here’s another familiar word. I will be real honest here and tell you that this is the deadly thought that I struggle with the most. Acedia is what Evagrius calls the “noonday demon.” It’s the one that looks at the hands on the clock, and thinks about how many minutes there are until bedtime. It’s associated with sloth, with laziness, but it’s worse than those two because acedia is really a rejection of the day, of time. Acedia is the desire for something less.

VAINGLORY

Vainglory is a concept that the church needs to think about more, I think. It’s an old word, one that we don’t really use all the time, but I have heard it said that this particular deadly thought is especially associated with the clergy and with religious people in general. Vainglory is smugness, thinking that we are somehow better or more righteous than other people. It’s the idea that comes into your mind, even while I’m describing these eight deadly thoughts, that you know someone who really needs to work on their lust problem or their anger issue. Do you recognize that thought? Oh man, I do. It’s so much easier to diagnose other people’s problems, isn’t it? Vainglory is the desire for superiority.

PRIDE

For Evagrius, pride was the biggest. This one is similar to vainglory, but not the same. It is the belief or the attitude that you can do it on your own. That you don’t need others. That you don’t really even need God. You can handle it. This one sneaks in everywhere, and it is amazing how easy it is for us to not even realize its deadliness. Pride is the desire for independence.

Do you hear it there? In these explanations? Every one of these deadly thoughts is focused on the flesh. On self. On me. On what I get out of life, on how I view life, in how comfortable I am in my life.

But Romans says: “Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us into the open, into a spacious, free life.” It’s not that God wants to give us all of these rules to control our lives, it’s more that freedom, a truly free and beautiful and good life, comes when we learn how to put off these desires of the flesh, when we learn how to put off the old self and put on the new self, the self which is transformed and renewed to look more and more like Christ.

Sometimes, the bible is just great because you have a question, and it just answers you flat out. Sometimes, that’s not the case, and there’s no easy answer, but sometimes, there just IS. And this time, there IS. Philippians 2:5, in one translation, says: “Think as Christ Jesus thought.” Wow. Why, thank you very much, God, for spelling it out this way. Here’s that verse and what follows it:

5 Have this attitude [e]in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be [f]grasped, 7 but [g]emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death[h]on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

There is nothing inherently magic about Evagrius’s list of eight thoughts. You can’t think about them and then work on them, one by one, checking them off like a to-do list. It’s not the be-all, end-all of Christian living, or the trick it takes to move up a level in spirituality. Darn it. In fact, the list is nowhere specifically in the bible– rather, traces of these thoughts show up all over the text. It’s just one way to get closer to what we’re really called to, and that, my friends, is no small thing. We’re called  what we’re called to do is to become more like Christ, in our actions as well as in our thoughts. (You can fake the actions, you know, but it’s a little trickier to fake your thoughts.)

The mind of Christ is humble, it is generous, it is trusting, it puts others ahead. It does not seek the desires that an earthly mind might, but it is transformed by and into love. “In the beginning was the Word.” Not the law. Not the rules. John is not even talking about the bible here. He’s talking about Jesus. “The Word became flesh and walked among us.” The Word of God put on skin. So when we seek to live with a mind focused on the spirit, I can’t help but realize how incredibly blessed we are to have had the example of someone, of God even, who came before us and showed us how to live, how to be, and even, how to think. What a beautiful story to remember, again and again, in the stillness and the boredom. In the quiet.

*I would like to give credit to my new email-friend Frank Murphy, who is the driving force behind a website that has helped me interact with the deadly thoughts. “The desire to…” ideas are his. Visit evagrius.net for more of his work!

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