Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia
Posted by Raphael Fiedler on 19th Nov 2020
It has become plainly obvious that, in current years, amidst wars, rumors of wars, disease, distraction, and the seemingly forced uprooting of nuclear family life in the secular west, we are being assailed, individually, by one of the oldest demons known to us as Orthodox Christians. Despondency, that “demon of noonday” that the holy psalmist speaks of, the blight of monastics and arch nemesis of the holy and righteous desert fathers, is no less of a foe to us here and now. It is with this in mind that author Father Gabriel Bunge attempts to discern the teachings of Evagrius for us in the world today
In his own time, Evagrius, spiritual son of Macarius of Alexandria, could boast a proud lineage, being third removed from Anthony the Great. Having learned not only from Macarius but also from Saint Basil and Saint Gregory Nazianzus, by the time he fled to the desert at the age of thirty-seven he was likely well prepared for the struggles of cenobitic and anchoritic life. In seventeen short years he produced numerous works for his brothers and sisters, before proposing in the Lord on Epiphany in AD 399.
Now, having framed Evagrius in the context of age and experience, Father Gabriel breaks down in much detail, and with surgical precision, how acedia is viewed, confronted, and can be overcome, based on the desert fathers’ works. He begins by setting up the differences between monastic and worldly struggles, which are, in essence, material and mental. For the modern struggler, emphasis is put on the modern world’s disbelief in demons and Satan, going so far as to cite Baudelaire. Also of note is the modern and misguided notion that monasticism would be an escape from struggle, rather than its true purpose: to stand with Christ and face the demons and temptations head on (a lesson I myself learned the hard way in my own monastic discernment).
From here we are shown the symptoms and ills that lead to acedia and despondency; that man is missing God, and evil is, at its core, a personal power. Thanks to the depersonalization of self, this has been rooted in us, and with the loss of awareness of the personhood of God and our own being, this nameless anxiety, or “anonymous evil”, takes hold. What follows is an in-depth study of all of despondency's manifestations, its features (hard to peg as they are), and finally, its remedies.
Do you feel teased? Good. Though the book reads like a script from a lecture series (this blog could have easily been a dissertation had I spent any more time on it, and I can probably thank my reliance on easy access to talks and lectures for making actual reading difficult), its insight into the finer points of our spiritual psyche are, dare I say, near indispensable in an age where depression and the godless secular attitude is being force-fed to each of us from every angle.
Review by Raphael Fiedler of Orthodox Review