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