Tag Archives: desert fathers

On Evagrius, the Desert Fathers, and the seven deadly sins: An afternoon with William Harmless


A couple of days ago, on Day 4 of the Calvin Seven Deadly Sins Seminar that I’m currently attending, we were treated to a visit from William Harmless, author of the superlative guide Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Bill spoke with us about the context and habits of the desert fathers, their therapeutic methods for dealing with sin and holiness, and the development of Evagrius’s early version of the seven deadly sins: the “Eight Thoughts.”

Bill’s presentation, accompanied with a slide show, was captivating. We also had the pleasure of hanging out with him in Bob Kruschwitz’s rooms afterwards for a pizza party. Wish I’d had my digital audio recorder on for that one! Here are my notes on the formal presentation. You’ll find the usual bits where I got a little behind the conversation and missed something, but since the presentation was very well-structured, I think you’ll get the gist of it. I’ve included the free-flowing Q&A as well, since he continued to fill in fascinating details of his portrait of the desert fathers during that time.

He started by telling us a story from Macarius of a monk being told by his abba to go to a cemetery and praise the dead. The monk did so, then returned to the abba. “What did the dead respond?” said the abba. Why, nothing of course, said the monk. They were dead! “Then go back and curse the dead,” said the abba. Same thing. The monk returned. “What did the dead respond?” Still nothing. They’re dead! Concluded the abba: “I want you to be like those dead, giving no response to praise or blame.”

That’s a diagnosis of the soul. That’s how to read these things. You’re getting a graced insight. Macarius’s nickname was “spirit-bearer”—reading people’s souls as if they were open books. That captures what was going on in the desert. This was Evagrius’s story. Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Gregory the Great


Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of Gregory the Great. He mentions all of them in only one place, in the Moralia on Job. But other mentions are scattered throughout. Bob Kruschwitz mentioned between sessions today that Aquinas, in “On Evil,” his own most thorough treatment of the capital vices, cites Gregory 500 times, mostly from all over his Moralia. It is Gregory who reduces Evagrius’s & Cassian’s eight down to seven, and sets a number of the ways that thinkers thereafter (including Aquinas) will talk about the seven. I was getting sleepy (and recording the session with my digital audio recorder for later review) and less was said about Gregory than Evagrius and Cassian, but what I scribbled down is here:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Gregory’s Moralia In Iob

There is one big 19th-century translation, being scanned in sections onto the computer. Google Books has a searchable version.

The Moralia on Job is a medieval commentary. Strange bird. Baptists preaching verse by verse—even the most dedicated don’t preach some verses. But Gregory always has a clue for every verse. He always does a moral interpretation, five pages on each one! Not anagogical. But moral, about how you’re supposed to live. So the capital vice stuff is scattered all over this big honkin’ commentary on Job.But the section Aquinas refers to almost half the time when he quotes Gregory is the one in our pack (Moralia Book XXI, 84-91).

This’ll preach!

Job is whining. God shows up: doesn’t say “I’m OK, you’re OK.” Gets in his face, says “I created the world. Do you have any idea what you’re doing.” And goes several more verses: I made Leviathan for fun. Take the war-horse.” And Job says Gotcha: you made the horse. But we made the war-horse, culturally.

And God replies: here’s what’s important about the warhorse–it’s things you humans can’t do, Job! Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Cassian


Here’s another sample of what we’re doing here at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? , on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices”) in the thought of John Cassian:

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Cassian, Conferences 5

Is this stuff weird, or what? (Bob’s words)

Hard to know about Cassian: Apparently Greek his first language. Yet he also has Latin, with such mastery that people think it might have been a first language as well. So locating where he’s from is often for scholars taking bits and pieces of his story and triangulating where in the ancient world you could have learned both of these language as a child. Romania? Greek speaking, but Latin military presence, schools.

His writings have been described as the first modern writings. They are quite amazing. No parallel in the ancient world. Sometimes you get that story about Augustine, who connects thoughts in chapters, but then he launches into four chapters on genesis. But Cassian: it’s a book, with a plan. He tells us at the front: someone knew he’d been in Egypt. After he’d left with a controversy, went to Rome, sent from there to Constantinople, then back to Rome. Now at mature age, living in Southern France. Pope Castor he’s called in Institutes: bishop, says “You know how to get Christian intentional communities going, do it for me. Write it down before you die.” Then he says “some more guys came to me, wanted some more stories. And you get more conferences. There are three books of Conferences. Very thick volume. The fifth conference, with Serapion, is in the middle of the first set: a featured spot. So you have the Institutes, then the three sets of Conferences, then he quits. Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Evagrius


Here I am at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? Here’s a sample, on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices,” that is, dispositions from which a bunch of other nasty dispositions and sins flow) in the thought of Evagrius Pontus, whose list included eight of the suckers:

Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar Day 2

A survey of the seven deadly sins (capital vices) in Evagrius’s Praktikus, Gregory the Great’s Moralia, and John Cassian’s  Conferences, conference 5

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Evagrius (345 – 399; died as Origenist controversy breaking out) inherited and joined well-established desert tradition. Showed up in late 300s. Not an innovator re inventing the desert experience.

What he did do was try to gather, systematize, innovate a bit, but right down what was going on already. Compiler in a creative way.

Cassian (365 – 435?) joined him out in the desert for around 2 decades. When Evagrius died, he set out for Southern France, set up a monastic version of the desert tradition out in France. Continue reading

Potpourri of the day: Civil War evangelists, Pool of Siloam and ancient monks’ cells discovered, the sublime Angelico, Christianity & European culture, and “the abbot and the pendulum”


Here’s another one of those “candy bowls” containing brief news items on Christian-historical topics. I compiled this one for issue 88 (on C. S. Lewis) of Christian History & Biography:

Living History
Compiled by Chris Armstrong

The War for Souls

With its own national association (www.cwreenactors.com) and magazine (www.campchase.com) serving an estimated 50,000 re–enactors in the U.S., Civil War re–enactment thrives today. However, until a few years ago, the re–enactors who worked so painstakingly to replicate each detail accurately often overlooked an entire group of participants. On the battlefields and in the camps, these men fought a different war—the war for souls—and some paid the ultimate price. They were the roughly 1,200 to 1,400 Confederate chaplains, 3,000 Union chaplains, and 5,000 Christian Commission volunteers.

Alan Farley won’t let reenactors forget the chaplains or the faith that animated them. Farley, an evangelist who began attending these events as a child in 1984, now portrays General Lee’s chaplain—and presents the gospel—at Virginia reenactments. Continue reading

The first Christian celebrity: Desert father Antony of Egypt


Bishop Athanasius, fresh from his triumphs in the Nicene attack against Arianism and his defeats and exiles at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors, just wanted to write a biography of his friend Antony. What he actually did was to invent the genre of hagiography and help spark the worldwide movement of Christian monasticism.

Fighting Demons In The Desert
How a book about one man’s radical quest for God helped to redefine Christian discipleship and launch the monastic movement.
Chris Armstrong

The man acclaimed as “the father of monasticism” never dreamed of the huge impact he would have. But the new mode of discipleship he helped bring to birth in Egypt in the early 300s A.D. turned out to be one of the most momentous innovations in the church’s first thousand years.

The book that started it all

Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (298-373) was exiled five times from his beloved church at the hands of Arian-sympathizing emperors. In one of these exiles, the staunchly orthodox, diminutive firebrand fulfilled a long-time dream by traveling to the desert to share the life of the hermits there. During what became a lengthy ascetic sojourn, he wrote what historian Derwas Chitty correctly calls “the first great manifesto of the monastic ideal.” This was not some tidy, orderly rule of life, but rather a biography of the most gripping sort—of the best-known early monk and first “desert father,” Antony of Egypt (251-356). Continue reading

The original desert father


Another of my entries for the Zondervan Dictionary of Spirituality,this one features “the original desert father,” Antony of Egypt. Antony, too, features in my Patron Saints for Postmoderns.

Antony of Egypt (251-356). Egyptian monastic pioneer. He is often (though incorrectly) called the first monk and founder of monasticism: he himself imitated a tradition of “holy solitaries”—men who lived ascetic lives at the edges of Egyptian towns. His innovation was that when he heard the word of the Gospels preached—“Sell all you have, give to the poor, and come, follow me”—he sold his belongings, gave away the proceeds, and moved out into the desert to live as a hermit. This he did decades before Constantine’s legalization of Christianity—so spiritual declension of the church under state sponsorship was not the initial impetus for Christian monasticism. Athanasius’s Life of Antony is our only source on the Egyptian monk’s life, aside from a few “sayings” and a small set of letters. Athanasius’s book paints a prototypical holy man. Continue reading