The Holy Spirit, out of compassion for our weakness, comes to us even when we are impure. And if only He finds our intellect truly praying to Him, He enters it and puts to flight the whole array of thoughts and ideas circling within it, and He arouses it to a longing for spiritual prayer.
~ Evagrios, On Prayer
This reminds me of Jesus’s words to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it is going. So with everyone who is born from spirit” (John 3:8).
Evargios seems at once broader and narrower in his meaning, however. He’s not clearly talking about baptism, whereas, in context, that is how Jesus’s words have traditionally been understood. Those who are baptized are “born again” or “born from above” (the Greek could mean either). We are born of the flesh from our mothers, but spiritually born again through baptism.
Evagrios, however, can only be taken to mean this implicitly. That is, he would have assumed his readers are Christians and would have assumed them to be baptized.
On Sunday, we Orthodox Christians celebrated the feast of Pentecost, commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the first Christians, marking the incarnation of the Church on earth.
But the book of Acts, whence the story comes, records many stories in which the Holy Spirit moves someone or comes upon them before they are baptized. St. Peter’s admonition may be normative—“repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)—and certainly we believe that baptism and especially chrismation impart the presence of the Holy Spirit in a uniquely abiding way. But like the wind, the Spirit of God “goes” wherever he wants.
That includes, to Abba Evagrios at least, the “impure.” There are many ways to understand that word, but I’ll just focus on one.
“Impure” can be synonymous with “unclean.” In the ceremonial categories of the Old Testament, all things were either unclean, clean, or holy—the holy being a subset of the clean.
“Unclean” doesn’t necessarily mean “sinful,” though it certainly includes that. But a person who touched a dead body would be “unclean,” even though one must touch a dead body to bury it, which was and is a righteous thing to do. The unclean had to be kept outside of the camp. In Christian terms, it would be like becoming unbaptized. And, indeed, the unclean would often need to ceremonially wash to become clean once again.
From an Old Testament perspective, “unclean” was something that could be externally judged. But the ancient Christian perspective on these ceremonial rules was that they pointed beyond themselves to more pressing matters of the heart. They believed that in Christ, the ceremonial side had served its purpose, but the matters of the heart remained.
Thus, while not doing away with all liturgy and in many ways amplifying its importance with the sacraments (like baptism), ancient Christians internalized what was formerly a matter of external observance. The Church even affirmed at Constantinople that one cannot become unbaptized. The Creed states, “I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Rather, I’m reminded of Jesus’s warning to the teachers in his day that they washed the outside of the cup but not the inside, that they were whitewashed tombs, containing only death within them beneath a veneer of living piety.
So from this New Testament perspective we may think of impurity in a subjective sense. Again, that does not mean it has no relation to an objective moral standard. It often is the subjective state of being a sinner, one who has violated just such an objective standard. However, Evagrios at least hints at a broader application.
Impurity and weakness are closely related in Evagrios’s saying. Certainly, again, it is not a sin to be weak, though sin does weaken us. But it may be circling “thoughts and ideas” of a different sort that make us impure and embody our weakness.
We might recall the common image of gold that was considered pure only when the dross had been purged by the refiner’s fire. So too, when we long for true prayer, when we aspire to it, when we stutter back toward unceasing prayer, again and again, though we may be unworthy or distracted, yet so often, though impure, we find God there. Or, at least, I do.
I suppose that is part of the draw to the fathers for me. I see in them the same spirituality I experience daily, however impurely and imperfectly. Yes, I am and always will be a student of theology. I have a degree or two in the subject even. But it is the experience that keeps me coming back. The experience is prior to any reflection on it. As Evagrios put it in the same classic text: “The true theologian is the one who prays.”
I do not know how to explain even the lightly mystical experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Some days I kick myself at night, wondering (often, upon reflection, unfoundedly) whether my evening prayer is the first time I’ve prayed all day since my morning prayer. Whether justly or not, thoughts and ideas can circle about, planting doubts as to my piety and tainting the purity of my mind and heart. But yet, I pray anyway, and he’s there. He’s always there.
In fact, my morning and evening prayers begin with the invocation of the Holy Spirit: “O heavenly king, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art in all places and fillest all things….” I may understand this theologically, in the academic sense, i.e. that to be immaterial means being unbound by space or time, like the laws of logic or math that have no material reality and yet are not for that unreal. But I also experience this. Everywhere I go, he “fillest all things.” Perhaps that’s a mystical function of my baptism—I’m sure it doesn’t hurt—but perhaps that’s something anyone can find, something that could lead them someday to baptism.
Evagrios is right in another way, too. That little gust of wind upon my soul lifts my heart with longing for spiritual prayer—prayer that is singly focused, pure like baptismal waters, like gold.
And if he’s right, it shows me, however subjective and incomplete the knowledge, something of what true compassion really is. Perhaps there, then, is a social kernel here: To view oneself as outcast, even for a passing moment, and yet to find the presence of divine compassion, ought to give us compassion for the outcast among us as well. As St. Seraphim of Sarov put it, “Acquire the Spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.”
That’s something to aspire to, something worth longing for, at least…. Though perhaps it also means that longing for true prayer is enough on its own.