A Holy Selfishness: On Using Evagrios to Read Evagrios and Why I’m Not Called to be a Solitary

The Fathers of the Philokalia and I have not been the best of friends. You may recall my incessant – nigh panicked — questions the last time we read these texts about how I was supposed to incorporate intense fasting and vigil keeping and extreme poverty into my already exhausting life as a nursing assistant. Work twelve hours shifts without eating and then stay up all night? How was I going to manage it? Did refusing to try to manage it mean that I was rejecting the path to communion with God?

This time through, however, I think the story might be different. Not because I have suddenly developed a penchant for staying up late into the night in prayer between my days of nursing school. But because it has occurred to me that it is possible for Evagrios to be speaking to me without necessarily speaking about me. There is a lovely bit toward the end of Evagrios’ injunction to the solitaries that they must not take servants:

Even if you have the idea that taking a servant would be for the servant’s benefit, do not accept it. For this is not our work; it is the work of others, of the holy Fathers who live in communities and not as solitaries. Think only of what is best for yourself, and safeguard the way of stillness.

“This is not our work; it is the work of others.” There is work to be done in the Church that is outside the scope of Evagrios’ own practice and teaching. There are people in the church whom Evagrios recognizes as called and faithful who do not practice the life of ascetical solitude.

There are people to whom Evagrios’ words about cities do not apply:

If possible, do not visit a town at all. For you will find there nothing of benefit, nothing useful, nothing profitable for your way of life.

I live in a city. We all here, I think, live in the city. And while we are free to interpret Evagrios’ words allegorically and to try to avoid participating in the evil, worldly, invisible and spiritual city while still living inPittsburgh, I don’t think we’re obliged to turn to that sort of allegorical interpretation. I think, that were Evagrios here, he would leave us free to look at that particular teaching and say, “No, that’s not for me.”

Because to say of a certain kind of discipline, “No, that’s not for me,” is to bring one’s heart in line with a teaching he cherishes more deeply.

Think only of what is best for yourself, and safeguard the way of stillness.

And again,

Be like an astute business man: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything, and choose always what contributes to it.

What leads your heart to stillness?

I do not believe that I could find stillness by spending my life in the exile of the desert, although it may be helpful for me to retreat there from time to time. The callings that God has placed on my life are to use my hands to serve those in need and to use my mind and lips to teach. I find stillness through those labors – not necessarily ease, for those of us who are called to live in communities have our own battles to fight – but a sort of wholeness and rest that I am not certain could exist for me elsewhere. I, like Evagrios and the psalmist, have seen violence and strife in the city. But my calling is to move toward that strife in love, not to flee from it.

What leads your heart to stillness?

For Lauren, I think that having a servant is a real and legitimate part of what leads her to stillness. I work for her, for a few hours a week, taking care of her children so that she can be more free to pursue her work as a spiritual director. When Lauren reads the injunction not to take a servant for the sake of bodily ease, I think she’s free to say, “No, that’s not for me.” Because being free of the bodily responsibility of caring for her children for a period of time frees her to pursue a higher calling than mere physical self discipline.

What leads your heart to stillness?

Our real calling through our disciplines, whatever they may be, is to freedom – that we may be, as Evagrios puts it, unhindered on our chosen path. Our deepest calling is to unhindered devotion to Jesus.

It doesn’t do the Father’s justice to get so tied up in their description of ascetical tools that we miss their efforts to point us toward the higher goal of communion with God. To reduce them to being teachers of a certain pattern of life – although they are teachers of a very specific pattern of life – makes them less wise than they are.

As I was reading in preparation to write this reflection, I saw a picture in my mind of people walking toward a city. Evagrios came to them, catching their wrists with his hands, stepping in front of them, trying to prevent them from leaving the desert to go. I was also walking with the people, and when Evagrios turned to look at me he said, “Sister, go in peace.” And bowed.

Thank you, wise teacher. I look forward to our next meeting.


  1. Lisa this is great and am going to read it to our WCD participants tonight as we begin our journey with the Fathers and the Philokalia!

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