Change cannot happen without hard work. Many Christians seem to miss this point, just as the people of Israel missed it throughout the history recorded in the Old Testament.
Time and again the Lord tells us “to keep His testament and remember His commandments to do them,” as Psalm 102 reminds us (Holy Transfiguration Monastery Septuagint translation).
Too often, though, we do not remember the commandments, so how can we keep them? Too often we want to leave it to the Lord to act, forgetting that we must reciprocate, that we must act for the Lord.
Too often we plead ignorance or simply blame others, a much easier course of action than making the hard climb up the inner mountain.
At the end of his great poem,“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Rainer Maria Rilke describes the 15th century headless statue, Apollo Belvedere, housed in the Vatican Museum, “suffused with brilliance from inside.” Rilke feels some kind of spiritual imperative contained in in the luminosity that gives life to the mere torso of a man carved in marble. Apollo’s beauty commands the poet’s aspiration.
“Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”
Many make a great effort to change their lives in every way except in their faith. Some even seem committed to avoiding the hard work it takes to live the Christian life authentically.
When we read the Church Fathers, we find that whether married, monk, or hermit they took to heart the words of St. Paul about enduring to the end, winning the race; they made a commitment to living their lives as ascetics, athletes for Christ.
And they understood clearly that you cannot run a race, let alone win it, if you do not train.
No one understood this better than the fourth century Egyptian monk and writer Evagrius Ponticus, who defined and elucidated the eight kinds of evil thoughts that cause us to stumble in the race to heaven.
The Praktikos, the best known work of Evagrius, is a concise book of only thirty pages about how to live as an ascetic.
This small book of 100 short chapters of no more than a paragraph each, originally written for monks, has attracted readers throughout the centuries who seek to learn about how to live a disciplined, holy life.
In The Praktikos, Evagrius defines the eight evil thoughts as gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride (Chapter 6). Later, in the west, they are transformed into the seven deadly sins.
It is a book filled with advice for defeating the eight evil thoughts, and the demons who stir them up:
“Do not give yourself over to your angry thoughts so as to fight in your mind with the one who has vexed you. Nor again to thoughts of fornication, imagining the pleasures vividly. The one darkens the soul; the other invites to the burning of the passion. Both cause your mind to be defiled and while you indulge these fancies at the time of prayer, and thus do not offer pure prayer to God, the demon of acedia falls upon you without delay…snatches away the soul as if it were a fawn” (Chapter 23).
Pride leads to anger, sadness, and “derangement of mind, associated with wild ravings and hallucinations of whole multitudes of demons in the sky” (Chapter 14).
Only prayer, spiritual reading, and vigils “lend stability to the wandering mind” (Chapter 15).
Prayer, he teaches, is both an ascent to God (Chapter 35) and an anecdote for sadness and despondency (Chapter 16), and “nourishment for the intelligence” (Chapter 101).
Evagrius teaches us that the work of the ascetic is truly the work of every Christian, regardless of state in life. Without knowledge of the writings of Evagrius, a Christian wages spiritual warfare with hands tied, or does not even fight at all.
We cannot decide whether or not we will be attacked by the eight evil thoughts, Evagrius writes, “but it is up to us to decide if they linger within us or not and whether or not they stir up our passions” (Praktikos, Chapter 6).
Evagrius is a steady guide for the Christian life, one who helps us know the true obstacles to our attaining the peace of Christ in this life and the next.
With the wisdom of Evagrius, we are less likely to fall prey to the eight evil thoughts and demons. And when we do, we know how to fight.
Quotations are from Evagrius Ponticus, The Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, trans. John Eudes Bamberger (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1981).