Evagrius the Solitary vs. Euphrosyne

We hope you had a restful couple of days away from the saintly electoral process, because we're back for another full week of exciting Lent Madness action. On Friday, just to catch you up, Theodora the Empress roundly defeated Theodora of Alexandria 75% to 25% to advance to the Saintly Sixteen, where she'll face Albert the Great.

Sometimes the Saintly Smackdown involves well-known saints. The kind of familiar names and images you may see embedded in stained glass or molded into statuary in your own parish church. And at other times, Lent Madness features Evagrius the Solitary vs. Euphrosyne. Today is one of the latter days and, as always, we enjoy introducing lesser-known saintly souls to the Lent Madness faithful. Whether or not you've heard of today's competitors, enjoy the ride!

Oh, and go vote.

Evagrius the Solitary 
Evagrius the Solitary (345-399), also known as Evagrius Ponticus, was born to a country bishop in the region of Pontus in Asia Minor. His life intersected with and impacted many of “the greats” we know today. Evagrius was ordained a lector by Basil the Great. He traveled to Constantinople and was ordained a deacon by Gregory of Nazianzus around 380. He became a protégé of Gregory when he went the way of the Jerry Falwell Jrs. of the world and became embroiled in scandal.

In Constantinople, the handsome Evagrius had an affair with a married woman and had to flee when he was warned in a vision of her husband’s impending revenge. Evagrius sauntered the streets of the Holy City until he had a mental and physical breakdown, ultimately finding refuge and the restoration of his health in a monastery in Jerusalem in 383.

It is only then, around the age of thirty-eight, that Evagrius left the monastery in Jerusalem to become a semi-eremetical monk in Nitria and later Kellia in Egypt. In this monastic arrangement, monks lived in individual residences under the supervision of an abba. Over the next sixteen years, Evagrius became a renowned spiritual teacher to this community of monks. His writings and teachings had significant influence on the development of western monasticism through translations from Greek to Latin and through his ardent admirer John Cassian, who, in turn, would significantly shape the Rule of Benedict of Nursia.

While Evagrius left many works, one of the most interesting (to me, anyway) is Talking Back, a treatise on the tactics needed to defeat the eight demons that undermine monastic life: gluttony, fornication, love of money, sadness, anger, listlessness, vainglory, and pride. This book is a collection of 498 biblical passages that a monk can use to “talk back” and cut off the demon. Evagrius is especially pointed on the demon called Love of Money. He argues that monks shouldn’t confuse sufficiency with economic security and that they should live on the edge of poverty, giving any surplus to the poor.

Evagrius was rigorous and relentless in his thought and practice. Indeed, his bodily regimen proved to be so harsh that he exhausted his health within a span of just a few years. He died on the feast of Epiphany in 399 just sixteen years after arriving at the monastery in Nitria and Kellia.

Collect for Evagrius the Solitary
O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that, inspired by the devotion of your servant Evagrius, we may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

—Miguel Escobar


Many saints are born into wealthy families. It goes without saying that they are devout followers of Christ. It is also common for them to leave their wealthy, privileged lives when their families arrange a marriage that is distasteful. These saints all seem to be strong-willed, have a clear calling for God in their lives, and deeply want to serve rather than be served.

Saint Euphrosyne of Alexandria is no different. Born in fifth-century Alexandria, Egypt, Euphrosyne’s parents were an older, wealthy couple who had been unable to have children. They called on the abbot of the local monastery to pray over their infertility. Shortly after that, Euphrosyne was welcomed with joy and awe and as a sign of a miracle from God. However, her mother died shortly thereafter, and she was brought up by her pious father, who took her to the local monastery for reading, writing, and theology.

Like many other girls of her time, she was promised to another family of equal social station in Alexandria, and her dad began planning the wedding festivities. Euphrosyne was not pleased. And so she prayed. Her prayers led her to a decision to run away to the local monastery (the same one that prayed for her birth), dress as a male, take on the tonsure, take on a new name of Smaragdus, and proceed to perfect an ascetic life. The word “Smaragdus” means emerald, and Euphrosyne is also known as “The Emerald of God.”

People would pilgrimage from all over to learn from Smaragdus how to pray and center their lives solely on God. One of those individuals that traveled to the monastery to learn at the feet of Smaragdus was a man called Paphnutius. He was Euphrosyne’s father but did not recognize Smaragdus in the habit and tonsure.

This deception weighed on Smaragdus’s soul, and nearing death, Smaragdus told Paphnutius their identity. This commitment to Christ and willingness to serve God touched Paphnutius’s heart, and he, too, was called to take up the tonsure and habit and live out the rest of his days in the same monastery.

In honor of this ministry and witness, the church recognizes the feast of Saint Euphrosyne of Alexandria on September 25.

Collect for Euphrosyne
Merciful God, who looks not with outward eyes but discerns the heart of each: we confess that those whom we love the most are often strangers to us. Give to all parents and children, we pray, the grace to see one another as they truly are and as you have called them to be. All this we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate. Amen.

—Anna Fitch Courie


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Evagrius the Solitary: (Leuven: Peeters, 1997). / Public domain
Euphrosyne: Wolfymoza / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)


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119 comments on “Evagrius the Solitary vs. Euphrosyne”

      1. Has there been research into the number of pious women who assumed the identity of a man so they could hide out in a monastery to serve God in peace? This makes me so sad, and yet the phenomenon produced enduring examples of godly devotion.
        Anyhoo, I voted for Evagrius today, and it’s official - my bracket is busted.
        I’m won over because he seemed to initiate the concept of the 7 Deadly Sins in his book, Talking Back. One in particular, listlessness, is of interest. That melancholy sin a monastic experiences in the heat of the late afternoon (we’re in a desert hovel), and it feels like life in God is just a bore and going nowhere. Is this man NOT a perfect saint for pandemic quarantine life?

        1. That’s what led me to my first losing vote. Well put. I like a reformed sinner. Always wonder about stories in which a young woman is able to pass as male in a cloistered environment. Did she do all the laundry?

    1. Today there's another contender
      Who is famed for disguising her gender;
      Euphrosyne showed us,
      Disguised as Smaragdus,
      That women should never surrender.

  1. I hope that Evagrius the Solitary has left some writings helpful in the casting out of the demon of “listlessness

  2. The Collect for Euphrosyne did it for me.... Yes, true, and may we indeed receive the grace to see our loved ones as they are, and not as we wish they would be.

    1. Yes! I copied this prayer into my Lenten journal modified to refer to my friends whose choices I cannot control.

  3. Two matchups in a row featuring Alexandrians and their haircuts, hmmm. My choice Theodora of A didn’t make the cut; let’s see if Euphrosyne can.

  4. I'm not sure how to say the other than, I'm so tired of all these women being held in high regard for joining a monastery as an alternative to marriage. Why was it more acceptable and noble to join a monastery than a house of nuns? You never hear about men escaping their alleged fate by growing out their hair and becoming a nun. I understand it had to do with an extreme patriarchal society, but it is very sad all the same.

    1. I had not thought of this, but you are correct. Perhaps there were fewer houses of nuns?

    2. Two somewhat related possibilities: First, the saint may have wanted to live as a man, as an early expression of what we would today recognize as transgender. He chose a new name for himself, Smaragdus, which I wish we would respect and use. Second, life in a monastery would offer more opportunities for an ambitious and/or scholarly person. Smaragdus lived as a respected teacher in his monastery.

    3. Quite possibly there were fewer monastic opportunities for women, but also I read elsewhere that Euphrosyne thought her father would think to look for her in a convent, but not in a monastery. More thoughts further down.

    4. There is also the issue of facial hair. And deeper voices, making it more difficult for a man to disguise himself as a woman.

  5. I am left unimpressed with the deception of Euphrosyne. Though her reasoning may have been pure, her actions do not follow. I may not judge her, but her story is a bit unseemly. Redemption came in the presence of her father and in her confession. Thanks be for the grace of God to see her heart and grant her fulfillment.

  6. This one was tough! I like the scandal ridden drama of Evagrius's life being turned to righteous purpose but I also love the single-minded courage of Euphrosyne. I voted for Euphrosyne in the end because I found her deathbed peace-making inspiring but both of them are impressive.

  7. I love the story of The Emerald of God. But I appreciate the legacy of the writings of Evagrius

  8. I will vote for Euphrosyne. I very much like the portrayal of her relationship with her father, and the collect's prayer for parental relationship, And - Evagrius disobeyed the command to honor the temple of one's body, showing very poor stewardship in his [lack of] care of his body.

  9. After googling I read the Gifford lecture on EEvagrius. Very helpful. I was tempted to vote for her because she’s a saint but reading more I have to go for Evagrius.

  10. Ok, it's time to give our transgender, gender non binary brothers, sisters and them encouragement. I think Euphrosyne would have wanted to be their patron saint -maybe they are.

  11. I voted for Euphrosyne. Women being forced into marriage had to either submit or resort to extreme measures. I love it that she didn’t torture her body like Evagrius did, I can’t support that; and that she gave her full devotion to being a monk. I also love it that she reconciled with her father in the end.

  12. " the handsome Evagrius had an affair with a married woman and had to flee "...and then after a breakdown entered the monastery. I don't know if this should be counted for or against Evagrius who then wrote "a treatise on the tactics needed to defeat the eight demons that undermine monastic life." I left the Southern Baptist Convention because of things like the "way(s) 0f the Jerry Falwell(s)" only to have the parish I currently attend be hurt by two similar leadership indiscretions.
    I pray for them and that I can move on, remembering that G-d can use all of us redeemed sinners to do G-d's work. But today I just can't. Euphrosyne for me.

    2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; the Epistle appointed for Ash Wednesday

    1. Chose, but under non-ideal circumstances while on the run and needing to stay hidden. Not necessarily a desired state of affairs. Good question but to me either name works.

  13. At first I criticized Euphrosyme's deception pretending to be a male, but I recall Paul's "I become all things to all men, that by all means I may save some." I do not know why she did not flee to a convent, but perhaps God directed so that her teaching would be heeded. Evagrius is truly saintly having repented of his sins. This was a tough choice.

  14. Read the comments before voting, and if they changed me from Evagrius to Euphrosyne. I had been drawn by his significant role in shaping monastic spirituality, but the comments helped me see her choices in a wider frame then I previously had.

  15. As I considered the two contenders, a thought kept running through my head:

    Which of you is Smaragdus?
    I am Smaragdus!
    I am Smaragdus!
    I am Smaragdus!

      1. "Spartacus "– 1960 American epic historical drama film. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo. Based on the 1951 novel of the same title by Howard Fast. It is inspired by the life story of Spartacus, the leader of a slave revolt in antiquity, and the events of the Third Servile War.

  16. I vote for Euphrosyne, who early made her choice to devote her life to God and to leave behind the trappings of wealth. She was humble, devout, but with a strong sense of what she needed to do to be true to herself. I am glad that she was able to reconcile with her father at last.

  17. A difficult choice, as is so often the case. But I decided to go with Evagrius on account of his views on money. In a day when materialism and consumerism run rampant, when the quest for security and material comfort often dominates public discourse, when "greed is good"became a slogan, his teachings are badly needed.
    Benjamin Franklin was not the first to say the love of money is the root of all evil.

  18. Voted for Evagrius, whose work "Talking Back" might be re-titled "Talk to the Hand" these days. And what the heck is vainglory???

  19. HUGE shoutout to Miguel Escobar for a highly entertaining bio of Evagrius. I like how he slipped in that Evagrius was "born to a country bishop." Clearly chastity was either not required of clergy in the fourth century or not enforced. And I laughed when the rogue was "warned in a vision" that his adulterous affair was going to end in bloody revenge. As Horatio says to Hamlet, "My lord, it takes no ghost returned from the dead to tell us that." I almost voted for Evagrius, but I have trouble with saints so ascetic that their bodily self-mortification leads to early death. Anorexia is not a practice pleasing to God. We saw this with St. Clare of Assisi a year or so ago. Starving oneself into an early grave robs God of a faithful servant and steals the time of the brothers and sisters around one who have to tend to a weakened member of the community. Shoutout as well to Anna Fitch Courie for the wonderful collect for Euphrosyne. "Those whom we love the most are often strangers to us." Anna has captured the pathos of the human condition. And yes, special prayers for older parents and for all struggling with infertility. Still, I cannot distinguish Euphrosyne from all the other "saintly" legendary (as in mythical) women who entered monasteries disguised as men and then converted some man yada yada yada. Perhaps these stories were inspiration for Shakespeare's cross-dressing women such as Portia, but that's a slender reed on which to hang the weight of a vote. Emeralds versus an early self-help book on defeating monkey mind? Sigh. I don't know what to do today: toss a denarius?

    1. Although I wouldn’t call anorexia a “practice”... “Asceticism” instead maybe?

  20. My vote goes to Euphrosyne/Smaragdus. The writeup is eloquent -- Anna Fitch Courie, I see what you are doing here, and celebrate it. We cannot know whether Euphrosyne was escaping a particular marriage matchup, the state of marriage in favor of a life in Christ of prayer, study, and contemplation, or a life lived out in a gender that was not a fit for Euphrosyne/Smaragdus. The subtle change to gender-neutral pronouns toward the end of the bio is masterful...
    ...and the Collect moved me to tears, and had me Googling Gibran's "Your children are not your children" poem. May we all strive to love others as Christ loves us, seeing and loving people for who they really are.

    1. Yes, I also had thoughts that Euphrosyne might be a saint for all our trans kids who see opportunities in gender that those born to it are sometimes blind.

    2. Dear Lisa, I do not know if you will ever see this, but I have been looking for your posts daily and do not find any recent ones from you. I enjoy your posts and very much hope you will gift the pilgrim community with another limerick. I also hope you will return to commenting! It would be a loss to the group if you didn't.

  21. Thank you thoughtful readers for your insight and commentary. I was in a coin toss quandary until I decided to check the comments. Melanie made the points that turned my vote to St. Smaragdus. It was important to realize that there were greater opportunities for education and for teaching via a monastic life rather than life in a nunnery. The concept of early transgender connection also made great sense and seems a realistic possibility and positive response to an inner need. Bravo for Lent Madness opening our hearts and minds to new pathways to love and unity.

  22. Voting for St. Smaragdus, and gently cautioning my cis siblings on this thread to avoid words like "deception" when discussing someone who switched gender presentations, whether or not the saint was genuinely male-identified (as we would understand that term now) or doing it for pragmatic reasons.

  23. This was a hard choice for me because I wasn't particularly attracted to either. Euphrosyne is the second woman-escaping-to-become-a-monk we've had this year, and there was another one last year (or recently). But I didn't find the biography of Evagrius inspiring. I finally voted for him for his influence on the monastic life, which is something I find inspiring. And, of course, he's losing. Nine contests so far and my choice has only won three times. Ah well. I am enjoying learning about all these new saints I had never heard of before.

    1. I'm also having a tough time with this match-up (and getting my brackets busted - oh well). Getting judgy in my old age, with concerns about eating disorders being sanctified and family divisions as well. The Lord's use of our frailties to His greater glory is the grace I need to hold to. With that, I've talked myself into Evagrius for his writings that live on to help all of us in our frailties.
      Thanks, everyone, for your comments!