“If you have friends, avoid constant meetings with them. For if you meet only on rare occasions, you will be of more help to them. And if you find that harm comes through meeting them, do not see them at all. The friends that you do have should be of benefit to you and contribute to your way of life. . . . Do not have relationships with too many people, lest your intellect becomes distracted and so disturbs the way of stillness.” – Evagrios the Solitary, “On Asceticism and Stillness”, pp. 34-35 of The Philokalia
A few of the holy people who wrote The Philokalia have titles appended to their names. For example, St. Mark is the Ascetic, and St. Hesychios is the Priest. Notice that Evagrius bears the title the Solitary. He’s not “Evagrius the Lonely.” He had relationships, as evidenced by his practical wisdom and sharing of these teachings. But Evagrius also sought solitude because time alone and time with others both served for him the same solitary purpose: the pursuit of stillness.
Stillness, for the writers of The Philokalia, refers to the inner quietness or mental peace which is produced through prayer and watchfulness. This state of peace and nearness to God is so desirable that Evagrius urges his reader to “Be like an astute business man: make stillness your criterion for testing the value of everything; and choose always what contributes to it” (p. 33). This principle led Evagrius to advise that we be calculating in every relational encounter, testing the value of interactions with other people based on their effect on our pursuit of stillness.
I am neither a monk or a hermit, but I long to apply this teaching from Evagrius in my life. I deeply desire simplicity of relationships. A shift at the cafe where I work leaves my head spinning after literally hundreds of interactions with customers whom I casually know. I deeply love my church, but I find it challenging to keep up with the ever-expanding community of people who worship with us. With a baby on the way, I find myself wanting more and more to invest my relational energy in my family, rather than scattering it about in conversations in which my “intellect becomes distracted.”
As a married man and pastor of a church, Evagrius’ words surely require translation for my present context. But I think all of the principles behind Evagrius’ advice apply just as much to my life in the world and can be practiced in ways that support and enable healthy relationships at work and in the Church. These principles, as I would summarize them, are (1) seek simplicity in relationships, (2) avoid relationships which entice us to sin, (3) seek relationships that serve the purpose of growth in sanctification, (4) seek saintly friendships.
(1) Seek simplicity in relationships: “If you have friends, avoid constant meetings with them,” writes Evagrius. More is not always better. “Quality time” with others is like a fine meal. The right amount is delicious and nourishing. But gluttony leads to sickness and distraction. Recognizing this, I’ve started managing my schedule in such a way that I avoid unnecessary meetings or communications. I prepare more deliberately for time that I spend with others, seeking fewer but richer encounters, so that even “rare occasions” of getting together benefit all involved. The challenge goes beyond scheduled meetings, though. In our context, though, technology provides the greatest challenge to simplicity in relationships. With computers or smartphones we can engage in relationships with anyone, anywhere, at any time. This has potential both for tremendous good and tremendous ill. Though they are beneficial tools for communication and fellowship, the randomness and intensity of posts appearing one’s Facebook home page or Twitter feed lend themselves to relational dissipation. So, I’m disciplining my use of social media in order to see fewer posts which distract me from Christ and more that propel me toward Him.
(2) Avoid relationships which harm us spiritually: Evagrius’s words regarding this lesson are fairly straightforward. He uses verbs like avoid and shun. It’s important to note that this is different, though, from running away from people who bother us. John Cassian wrote that “When we are angry with others we should not seek solitude on the grounds that there, at least, no one will provoke us to anger. . . Self-reform and peace are not acheived through the patience which others show us, but through our own long-suffering towards our neighbour” (The Philokalia, “On the Eight Vices,” p. 85). Difficult relationships are opportunities for practicing the virtues. It is more spiritually beneficial to remain present with someone and learn forgiveness or forbearance than to run to solitude only to seethe with bitterness. This leads to the next principle.
(3) See all relationships as opportunities for growth in sanctification: The challenge for those of us in the world, I’ve realized, is to recognize every relationship as an opportunity for sanctification. So, to be like an astute business person in every relational encounter, I’m learning to constantly ask, How might God use the time I spend with this person to shape each of us more into the likeness of Christ? Perhaps its someone who will teach me directly about life spent seeking the Kingdom. More likely, this person will create situations which God can use to each us indirectly: opportunities to grow in patience, forgiveness, gentleness, and love. A mind shaped by the pursuit of stillness to recognized these opportunities when they come and a heart of constant prayer will recognize them and offer them up to God for Him to consecrate and do with as He pleases.
(4) Seek saintly friendships: Evagrius advises his readers to “Let the labour and longing of your heart be for the faithful of the earth, to become like them in mourning. For ‘my eyes will be on the faithful of the land, that they may dwell with me’ (Ps. 101:6).” The “faithful of the land” include not just the present friends and leaders who guide us deeper into the life of Christ, but the great saints of the history of the Church as well. We set our eyes on the faithful of the land as much when we read the words of works like The Philokalia as when we sit in the presence of a brother or sister in Christ who verbally speaks God’s Word to us. Accordingly, I’m learning to do the same: to truly treasure the relationships I presently have in my family, in my church, in the House of St. Michael, while also seeking fellowship with saints like St. Mark the Ascetic and the blessed Charles de Foucauld. Knowing how these friendships with those who “walk in the blameless way” (Ps. 101:6b) have already been of benefit to me, I trust that they will be of benefit not just to me, but to all the friends the Lord places in my life.