Here’s a surprising bit of advice from a desert theologian I came to appreciate in writing Time and Despondency:
When you are tempted, do not fall immediately to prayer. First utter some angry words against the [demon] who afflicts you.
Evagrius, The Praktikos 42
The quotation is found nestled into the middle pages of his treatise called The Praktikos, a practical work intended particularly for monks in the middle of their monastic journey. These were ascetics who one the one hand had already done the hard task of leaving home and family and entering the desert, but on the other had not yet endured long and patiently enough to attain apatheia, or tranquility of soul in the face of temptations.
This “middle stage” of the monastic journey, I think, is somehow symbolic of our own spiritual path, or perhaps the human condition in general, stretched as we perpetually are between intention and attainment.
I’ve been re-reading The Praktikos lately in preparation for a talk I’m giving tomorrow at the Mt. Andrey Sheptystky Institute, and I might just camp out in it as Lent nears. Composed of short numbered sayings and advisements that revolve around such topics as the passions, apatheia, and prayer, it’s one of those highly useful pastoral works that cuts right to the heart of universal spiritual battles.
Back to the quotation above. One of the things I love about Evagrius is his knack for giving highly nuanced, situation-specific counsel. He doesn’t just resort to cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all advice (“just pray,” “go to church more,” “just try harder”). Instead, he takes the time to observe each stumbling block in the monastic life in all its uniqueness before offering strategies to deal with it. As a result, you often encounter surprising suggestions, pieces of advice that run counter to our expectations, but which in the end up helping a lot.
The context of the quotation I mention was the temptation of anger. Evagrius recognizes that praying while intoxicated by anger can actually just intensify our rage. It is often helpful to first work the anger out of our system. His rationale recalls’ Christ’s words to first reconcile conflicts with others before offering your gifts to God (Mt. 5:24).
Instead of going directly to the person who has offended us, however, Evagrius recommends taking our anger out on the very demon who tempts us with the allure of anger. (How does he distinguish between external demon and internal thought? Evagrius’ demonology is interesting and others have analyzed it at greater depth than I have, but in a sense the distinction doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, Evagrius believes we have some degree of freedom in how we respond to demons as well as to our own thoughts. In Praktikos as elsewhere, he uses the two terms–demon and thoughts–almost interchangeably.)
In any case. Uttering angry words at demons. Perhaps this was a necessary allowance, since the monks he was primarily writing for often lived at a distance from others, making prompt interpersonal reconciliation unfeasible.
But perhaps his suggestion to dispell your anger on the demon was also his way of signal just how trivial and meaningless our offenses often are. How many of our personal slights are really worth bringing to other peoples’ attention? And even when anger is tied to legitimate concerns, it seems wise to wait until that volatile, intense anger subsides before trying to have a productive conversation about it.
I don’t think anger is the only category of temptation in which resorting immediately to prayer may not be beneficial. I often find that, when I am deep in the trenches of some intense thought pattern, it’s best to get some distance between myself and the temptation before calling out to God. So I’ll go for a walk, or wash the dishes, or drink some tea, or knit a few rows. The hard edge of my thinking will start to dull, the temptation will recede a bit, and that is a good time to pray.
It’s not that I don’t think God can’t take my prayers sooner, the ones that are all mixed in with my less-than-prayerful pettiness. It’s not that I think it will damage Him, but it might damage me a little. I don’t like who I am when I care more about my sadness or despondency or pride or anger than God. I don’t like how quickly my thoughts race in those moods, how everything becomes bound up with my own grievances, even prayer. It’s better, for a few moments, to step away from myself in those instances. Not for too long, but enough for some semblance of clarity to return.
And it’s usually in the stepping away that prayer finds me–quietly, gently, like an old friend who knows just what not to say.