Practicing the Monastic Disciplines | Samuel Cocar & Sam Hamstra Jr.

Practicing the Monastic Disciplines

The following is an excerpt from Practicing the Monastic Disciplines by Samuel Cocar & Sam Hamstra Jr.. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

If as a devoted Christ-follower you are serious about personal spiritual transformation, you will want to know more about the desert tradition, in general, and about Evagrius the Solitary, in particular. While relatively unknown in American Protestant circles, Evagrius of Pontus (345–399) is one the more important names in the history of Christian spirituality and his writings are among the more interesting works of Christian antiquity.

For the past few years, I have done a deep dive into Evagrius and the broader desert tradition. Thankfully, I have been aided in my journey by some outstanding Christians who, with scholarly precision and spiritual passion, introduced me to a mostly forgotten stream of Christian devotion. There are reasons for this amnesia, most notably the accusation of heresy. True or false, the accusation alone will stick with you for centuries. Sixth-century councils condemned the teachings of Origen and his pupil, Evagrius (though not by name). Then there is the supposed disconnect between a Christian living in a desert and a Christian living in a twenty-first-century American city. How can an ancient desert monk help me face and defeat the temptations I face each day?

As I reflected on this question of modern relevance, several thoughts came to my mind. I share them hoping they are not generated by the thought of vainglory. First, even though I am a Christ-follower and a temple of the Holy Spirit, I remain a sinner. In fact, my default is sin. Daily I engage in both inner and outer spiritual warfare. Internally, I wrestle with “the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Externally, I wrestle with both personal and systemic evil. Individuals attack me and those I love. Systems flaunt themselves before my eyes even as I drive my car down the highway, where billboards invite me to detour from my destination for a supposedly meaningless rendezvous with strip clubs, gambling, or other forms of mindless consumption. Plus, Satan himself roams my streets, even my church, seeking those whom he can devour.

Furthermore, while the Lord has been and will be my refuge and strength as I battle with temptation, I still don’t trust myself. This wariness of the self, of the ego, should apply to all apprentices of Jesus. In that well-worn passage from Jeremiah, we learn that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9, ESV). We indeed ought to fear entering the spiritual battlefield empty handed, without the spiritual arsenal by which to defeat temptation. So, I am looking for ways to rest in the gracious provision of the Lord while cooperating with the Holy Spirit so that I can grow in Christlikeness—that is, experience continuous spiritual transformation.

Those thoughts intersected with my study of the ancient desert monk named Evagrius. As Jean Leclercq predicted, “Simple men of God recognize in his writings a description of their own problems and difficulties and also discover solutions to them.”2 Consequently, lay men and women, even Evangelicals like me, may draw as much profit from Evagrius as monks and nuns, historians and scholars. Most significantly for me, Evagrius hammers home the point that sinful behavior begins with thoughts in our minds. These thoughts function as suggestions or temptations. Hence, victory over sin requires engaging and attacking our thoughts—talking back to our thoughts—before they lead us to sin.

This means that the mind represents the front line of the spiritual battle. Surely, we can win many external battles through behavioral modification. Take, for example, a noteworthy practice from the legendary Billy Graham. The story has been told repeatedly that the venerable evangelist refused to meet alone with a woman other than one of his family members. On the surface, this practice looks good, one that surely minimizes the possibility of many forms of sin. It reminds me of the practice of curfew back when I was a teen. I can still hear my parents saying, “Nothing good happens after midnight.” Or more to the point, “Keep your pants on.” Such forms of behavioral modification surely have their place, especially for the young in the faith—but are they loving? Back to Graham: Does the Christian man love both the Lord and his female neighbor by refusing to meet her alone? Or does such a practice, in effect, represent a sin of omission or, more practically, hinder the spiritual or professional influence and advancement of women? Perhaps more importantly, does such a practice deprive men of edifying conversations or providential appointments with women, especially sisters in Christ?

I have discovered, however, that victories in outer spiritual warfare only get me so far in my goal of Christlikeness. In fact, they have led to legalism, a spiritually immature place fitting for infants and adolescents in the faith but far from the spiritual freedom I have been promised by Christ through the Spirit. They also led me to a pharisaic preoccupation with position and posture, and to a neglect of my interior person. In other words, I found it easier to do Christianity than to be Christlike. This explains, in part, why I found the teaching of Evagrius so helpful. In short, he identifies eight categories of thoughts or suggestions—he calls them logismoi—which tempt us away from love for God and neighbor. He then offers a weapon by which to combat these suggestions: antirrhêtikos or talking back. More specifically, he encourages Christians to talk back to specific temptations with specific passages of Scripture. Evagrius even provides a catalog of Scripture passages for us by Christ-followers.

Personally, I have found this weapon to be a great addition to the arsenal. I like that it harkens back to Jesus’ impressive victory over Satan in the wilderness, where he talked back and defeated each temptation with the Word of God. It finds support among spiritual directors and counselors as an effective form of cognitive behavioral therapy, a prescription for healing from anxiety, eating disorders, and much more. It encourages immersion into and memorization of the Scriptures so we are ready to face the logismoi as they arise. Plus, it is best done in small groups where Christ-followers may discern their thoughts together and offer one another biblical talking-back points. Finally, it harmonizes well with other spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, giving, service, silence, and solitude.

I hope you, the reader, find relevance in Evagrius, as well as the broader desert tradition. While we are separated by thousands of years, the desert abbas and ammas (fathers and mothers) wrestled with many of the same issues we wrestle with. Like us, they struggled with temptation from within and without. They battled both inner and external forces in their attempt to more often choose virtue rather than vice. They did not do so to “earn their salvation,” the generic critique by Protestants of anything remotely Catholic (or Orthodox). Instead, motivated by love for God and neighbor, as well as empowered by the Holy Spirit, they worked out their salvation in response to the invitation of Jesus to “Follow me.” While they worked out their faith in the desert, the spiritual practices they employed towards spiritual transformation transfer easily into the modern context.

One final note: This book has been written and rewritten amid massive tumult and transformation in the social and political landscape of the United States, including such movements as #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, the COVID-19 pandemic, and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests. While this modest work does not address American politics as such, the insights of the desert fathers remain relevant. Why? Because as we make progress in discipleship and more fully order our interior lives, we likewise can grow in our capacity to recognize and disentangle ourselves from the durable systems and scripts of sin in society—including gender, class, and racial inequalities.

Praise for Practicing the Monastic Disciplines

“I recommend Practicing the Monastic Disciplines for all of us ‘looking for ways to rest in the gracious provision of the Lord.’ Carefully, with much patience, Hamstra and Cocar lead us through desert spirituality and all it has to offer for such a time as ours. In the process, we learn how to follow Jesus all over again, from within and from without.”
David Fitch, author of Faithful Presence

About the Authors

Samuel Cocar & Sam Hamstra Jr

Samuel Cocar (MDiv, Northern Seminary) was born in Chicago and has served in various settings as a pastor, chaplain, and educator. His academic interests include ancient history, spiritual formation, and the intersection of politics and religion. Samuel currently resides in southeastern Wisconsin with his wife, Valerie, and two daughters.

Sam Hamstra Jr. is a retired pastor and professor of church history. He is also the author of several books, including What’s Love Got to Do with It?, and editor of One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Tome 1: John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1844-1849) and One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Tome 2: John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1851-1858).


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