I TEND to read theology in trains; the rumbling movements seem to aid concentration.
I have given over several journeys recently to a new collection of essays about the pervading influence on Christian spirituality of the barely known fourth-century hermit Evagrius of Pontus.
Among the essays was one by the scholar Julia Konstantinovsky, whom I knew slightly at Christ Church, Oxford. Her analysis of Evagrius’s spiritual method not only intrigued me, but prepared me for Lent this year.
She begins by pointing out that the ancient world was deeply concerned about issues of personal identity and authenticity. Evagrius, like other early Christian theologians, believed that all rational beings were called to reach a fulfilment beyond themselves, becoming what God intended them to be.
To reach this goal, we need to employ a form of what we might call cognitive therapy: a deliberate focusing of the whole self towards the end for which we were made. The root of all that prevents our making progress lies in our hearts.
The symptoms of our sickness can be discerned in the spontaneous thoughts and feelings that bubble up into awareness as we go about our everyday lives. These random thoughts reveal how fragmented and disconnected from our ultimate goal we really are. They also remind us that, without a focus on our eternal destiny, the traditional spiritual disciplines of fasting, silence, and prayer can achieve little.
The belief that true fulfilment comes from outside the self has consequences not just for individuals, but for the whole of society. We help or harm those around us by what goes on in our hearts. Our desires, attractions, revulsions, and hates reach out beyond ourselves. Our thoughts can kill. Hate produces division, murder, and, finally, war. To stir up hate deliberately is nothing short of demonic.
We live at a strange moment when, on the one hand, society legislates against “hate crimes”, but, on the other, hate spills over in all kinds of ways: on the internet, in political rhetoric, and even among those who are most vehement in censuring the hate crimes of others.
The most disturbing part of this is that the hating self has no impetus to seek true insight, but presents its hate in the guise of wounded righteousness. So many world leaders capitalise on this: they appeal to pride, promise future glory, and stir up anxiety about other nations, neighbouring peoples, and minorities within.
When wars and rumours of wars are in the atmosphere, we need to attend to the state of our hearts. We know where hate leads. No one can say that we have not been warned.
The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.