Dear Donagh,

Evagrius of Pontus teaches that impassibility is the goal of the spiritual journey.  Would you agree? John

Dear John,

I seldom get a technical question like this, so thank you for providing variety.   

I presume you are using the word ‘impassibility’ as a translation of ἀπάθεια, ‘apatheia’.   If so, I would not agree that Evagrius saw it as the goal of the spiritual journey.  That would have been to transform the Christian faith into a cult of tranquillity.  It would be like saying that the whole purpose of a car is to run smoothly.  He wasn’t above using a mechanical image himself.  The mind, he said, is easily moved, it wanders chaotically, and “its speed is like that of a potter’s wheel.”  But through cultivating inner watchfulness and tranquillity, he said, the Christian gradually attains to apatheia.  This condition makes pure prayer possible.  The goal of the spiritual journey is union with God, which is attained in such prayer.  

The word ‘apatheia’ means ‘non-suffering’ (a-: without + pathos: suffering), but we shouldn’t confuse it with the modern use of the word ‘apathy’, which means ‘lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern.’   The best way to know what Evagrius meant by apathein is to see what he meant by pathein: what kind of suffering was he thinking about?  Like all the Desert monks, what he had in mind were the disordered passions, the sicknesses of the soul.  He enumerated eight types of logismoi: trains of thought that stir the passions into disorder.  He has been called “one of the shrewdest psychologists of antiquity,” and his list, though familiar to us as the ‘seven deadly sins’, was first and foremost an analysis of the human soul.  Apatheia does not mean the suppression of any the soul’s powers, but their healthy functioning; it is “stability,” “freedom from turbulence,” and the “orientation of the soul toward God.” 

Your question is a topical one for us today, when we see a bewildering variety of approaches to meditation.  There are some who look askance at this variety and dismiss it as a cult of tranquillity, an escape, an easy option; I have even heard someone say (with the kind of certainty that is attained only through perfect ignorance) that it is a cult of the self. 

Those ancient monks knew what it was to grapple with a human mind.  They had deliberately deprived themselves of external distractions, so they got to know all about the internal ones.  This is what we do in meditation: we go into a quiet place (call it a desert if you will, though it’s just the corner of your bedroom), we don’t suppress the contents of the mind, we look at what arises, and we wait for turbulence to subside. Subside it will, if we don’t keep stirring it.  Evagrius’s list of logismoi doesn’t need a lot of updating.  All the old favourites are there, though some of the detail may be new.   Instead of wandering chaotically after our logismoi – our emotionally loaded trains of thought – we hold our station.  Call that apatheia if you will; but keep to Greek – don’t say it in English, you would certainly be misunderstood! 

All our sick thoughts come from self-love, Evagrius says, and they all involve a false notion of God.  God has no shape or form or complexity, so the mind, to be united to God, must shed all shapes and forms.  Studying our logismoi is clearing the way for the soul’s return to God.  The more clear-eyed we are about ourselves, the more clear-eyed we will be about God.  He says striking things about the translucency of a mind that is undisturbed by unruly passions: it passes beyond itself and becomes “the place of God.”  In pure prayer “the mind is illuminated only by the light of the Holy Trinity.”

I hope these few remarks will be of some help, John.


This is our Question and Answer desk. 
We respond to one question each month. 
If you would like to ask a question, please send it to