The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, December 30, 2012

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - The Four Virtues of the Soul


Today's text comes from St. Peter of Damaskos who, after St. Maximos the Confessor, has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks.

***** The Four Virtues of the Soul *****

BEGIN: There are four forms of wisdom: first, moral judgment, or the knowledge of what should and should not be done, combined with watchfulness of the intellect; second, self-restraint, whereby our moral purpose is safeguarded and kept free from all acts, thoughts and words that do not accord with God; third, courage, or strength and endurance in sufferings, trials and temptations encountered on the spiritual path; and fourth, justice, which consists in maintaining a proper balance between the first three. These four general virtues arise from the three powers of the soul in the following manner: from the intelligence, or intellect, come moral judgment and justice, or discrimination; from the desiring power comes self-restraint; and from the incensive power comes courage.

Each virtue lies between the unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed. The four virtues constitute an image of the heavenly man, while the eight unnatural passions constitute an image of the earthly man (see I Corinthians 15:49).

God possesses a perfect knowledge of all these things, just as He knows the past, the present and the future; and they are known to some extent by him who through grace has learned from God about His works, and who through this grace has been enabled to realize in himself that which is according to God's image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26). But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man's intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it. On the level of hearsay, you should speak only of things that you have learned from the Scriptures, and then with circumspection, confessing your faith in the Father of the Logos, as St. Basil the Great puts it, and not imagining that through hearsay you possess spiritual knowledge; for that is to be worse than ignorant. As St. Maximos has said, "To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge." St. John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one knows nothing. In addition, there is a form of ignorance that is worse than any other: not to know that one does not know. Similarly, there is a knowledge that is falsely so called, which occurs when, as St. Paul says, one thinks that one knows but does not know (see I Corinthians 8:2). END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 100 - 101

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

ST. ISAIAH THE SOLITARY - Guarding the Intellect


St. Isaiah the Solitary was a monk in Scetis who lived around 370 and was a contemporary of St. Macarius the Great. He moved to Palestine after 431 and died there in great old age around 491 as a hermit near Gaza. He is known for 27 "texts" on guarding the intellect against demonic deception, some of which we share below. Unfortunately, the full text of St. Isaiah's writing was not available to this author in English, although a much longer text is available in Greek. We will look at some of these texts today and in the next issue:

["GUARDING THE INTELLECT" -- ST. ISAIAH THE SOLITARY]

BEGIN:

-- There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them "dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks" (Job 30:1,4). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

-- Let us stand firm in the fear of God, rigorously practicing the virtues and not giving our conscience cause to stumble. In the fear of God let us keep our attention fixed within ourselves, until our conscience achieves its freedom. Then there will be a union between it and us, and thereafter it will be our guardian, showing us each thing that we must uproot. But if we do not obey our conscience, it will abandon us and we shall fall into the hands of our enemies, who will never let us go. This is what our Lord taught us when He said: "Come to an agreement with your adversary quickly while you are with him in the road, lest he hand you over to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer and you are cast into prison" (Matthew 5:25). The conscience is called an "adversary" because it opposes us when we wish to carry out the desires of our flesh; and if we do not listen to our conscience, it delivers us into the hands of our enemies.

-- The monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.

-- If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you.

-- If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.

-- The demons cunningly withdraw for a time in the hope that we will cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace; then they suddenly attack our unhappy soul and seize it like a sparrow. Gaining possession of it, they drag it down mercilessly into all kinds of sin, worse than those which we have already committed and for which we have asked forgiveness. Let us stand, therefore, with fear of God and keep guard over our heart, practicing the virtues which check the wickedness of our enemies.

-- Unless a man hates all the activity of this world, he cannot worship God. What then is meant by the worship of God? It means that we have nothing extraneous in our intellect when we are praying to Him: neither sensual pleasure as we bless Him, nor malice as we sing His praise, nor hatred as we exalt Him, not jealousy to hinder us as we speak to Him and call Him to mind. For all these things are full of darkness; they are a wall imprisoning our wretched soul, and if the soul has them in itself it cannot worship God with purity. They obstruct its ascent and prevent it from meeting God; they hinder it from blessing Him inwardly and praying to Him with sweetness of heart, and so receiving His illumination. As a result the intellect is always shrouded in darkness and cannot advance in holiness, because it does not make the effort to uproot these thoughts by means of spiritual knowledge.

-- When the intellect rescues the soul's senses from the desires of the flesh and imbues them with dispassion, the passions shamelessly attack the soul, trying to hold its senses fast in sin; but if the intellect then continually calls upon God in secret, He, seeing all this, will send His help and destroy all the passions at once.

-- He who receives no help when at war should feel no confidence when at peace.

-- When a man severs himself from evil, he gains an exact understanding of all the sins he has committed against God; for he does not see his sins unless he severs himself from them with a feeling of revulsion. Those who have reached this level pray to God with tears, and are filled with shame when they recall their evil love of the passions. Let us therefore pursue the spiritual way with all our strength, and God in His great mercy will help us. And if we have not guarded our hearts as our fathers guarded theirs, at least in obedience to God let us do all we can to keep our bodies sinless, trusting that at this time of spiritual dearth He will grant mercy to us together with His saints.

-- Examine yourself daily in the sight of God, and discover which of the passions is in your heart. Cast it out, and so escape His judgment.

-- Be attentive to your heart and watch your enemies, for they are cunning in their malice. In your heart be persuaded of this: it is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means. That is why our Savior told us to be watchful, saying: "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there are that find it" (Matthew 7:14).

-- At the time of prayer, we should expel from our heart the provocation of each evil thought, rebutting it in a spirit of devotion so that we do not prove to be speaking to God with our lips, while pondering wicked thoughts in our heart. God will not accept from the hesychast a prayer that is turbid and careless, for everywhere Scripture tells us to guard the soul's organs of perception. If a monk submits his will to the law of god, then his intellect will govern in accordance with this law all that is subordinate to itself. It will direct as it should all the soul's impulses, especially its incensive power and desire, for these are subordinate to it. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, trans. and eds., "The Philokalia: The Complete Text" (vol. 1), (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 22 - 28

Sunday, December 23, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Obey Not Your Own Will, But God's


In this issue, we will conclude our reading of some of the letters of Abba Ammonas. This collection of letters is a small spiritual treasury of the great desert father's teachings that have been preserved for over 16 centuries. One of our readers kindly supplied some additional information about Abba Ammonas which you may find of interest. Abba Ammonas is mentioned in two works, the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers" and Rufinus's collection on the history of monasticism. From these works we may deduct that Ammonas lived in Scetis, he needed fourteen years to overcome his anger, and he found St. Anthony the Great who predicted his advancement. Furthermore these books also show that Ammonas followed Anthony and succeeded him as hegoumenos (abbot), that he killed a basilisk, and that also on the ferry he continued to work. It appears that he was made a bishop who ruled laymen and monks with the same goodness. Further he maintained a relationship with Abba Poemen.

We know 14 letters he wrote which speak "a fresh unbiased mysticism". He taught that the spirit of contemplation must be the target of the monk, and that he reaches it if he is persevering, believing, and through tears asks for that charisma.

In today's letter from Abba Ammonas, the great teacher discusses the problem following one's own will instead of submitting to God's Will:

BEGIN:

[THE MONKS ARE TEMPTED TO MOVE TO ANOTHER PLACE]

Now my brethren, my beloved in the Lord, whom I love with my whole heart, I hear that temptation is troubling you, and I am afraid it may come from yourselves. For I have heard that you want to leave your place, and I was grieved to hear it, though it is a long time since I have been seized by grief. For I know of a surety that if you go away from your place now, you will make no progress at all. For it is not the will of God, and if you go out acting on your own authority, God will not work together with you nor go out with you, and I fear we shall fall into a multitude of evils.

[TO FOLLOW ONE'S OWN WILL IS TO LOSE GOD'S HELP AND SUPPORT]

If we follow our own will, God no longer sends His power which prospers and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything in which he sets his hand. It is on the pretext of better progress that the believer can go wrong and end up being mocked. For Eve was deceived on no other pretext than that of good and progress. For when she heard, "You shall be as gods" (Genesis 3:5), by failing to discriminate the voice of the speaker, she disobeyed the commandment of God, and thus not only came by no good, but under the curse.

[THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS]

Solomon says in the Proverbs, "There are many ways which appear good unto men: but the end thereof leads to the pit of hell" (Proverbs 14:12). He says this of those who do not understand the will of God, but follow their own will. For such people, not knowing the will of God, at first receive from Satan a fervor which is like joy, but is not joy; and afterwards it turns to gloom and lays them open. But he who follows the will of God endures great labor in the beginning, but afterwards finds rest and gladness. Do nothing therefore on your own, until I have come to talk to you.

[MAN IS MOTIVATED IN THREE WAYS]

There are three motivations which accompany a man everywhere, and most monks are ignorant of them, excepting only those who have become perfect, of whom Scripture says, "Solid food is for the perfect, who by reason of their conscience have their senses exercised to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14). What then are these three? One is introduced by the enemy, another is begotten by the heart, while the third is sown by God in a man. Of these three, God only accepts that which is His own.

Examine yourselves, therefore, which of these three is impelling you to leave your place. Do not go away until God permits you. I am aware what is God's will for you; but it is difficult for you to recognize the will of God. Unless a man denies himself and his own will, and obeys his spiritual parents, he will not be able to recognize God's will; and even if he does recognize it, he needs God's help in giving him strength to carry it out.

[DENY YOUR OWN WILL AND FOLLOW GOD'S]

So you see it is a great matter to recognize the will of God, and an even greater one to do it. But Jacob had these powers, because he obeyed his parents. For when they told him to go to Mesopotamia, to Laban (Genesis 28:2), he obeyed readily, even though he did not want to be separated from his parents. It was because he obeyed that he inherited the blessing. And if I, who am your spiritual father, had not formerly obeyed my spiritual parents, God would not have revealed His will to me. For it is written: "The blessing of a father establishes the houses of children" (Ecclesiastes 3:9). And if I endured great labor in the desert and the mountains, asking God day and night until God revealed His will to me, do you too now listen to your father in this, so that it may be for your rest and progress.

[FOLLOW GOD'S WILL AND HE WILL BLESS YOUR ACTIVITIES]

But I have heard that you have been saying, "Our father does not know our labor, and how Jacob fled from Esau." But we know he did not run away of himself, but was sent away by his parents. Do you therefore imitate Jacob, and remain until your father sends you away, that he may bless you when you go, and then God will prosper your affairs.

Farewell in the Lord. Amen. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 14 - 16

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Why God Answers Some Prayers and Not Others


In today's "thought," we will continue our reading of some of the letters of Abba Ammonas. This collection of letters is a small spiritual treasury of the great desert father's teachings that have been preserved for over 16 centuries. Although we do not have a lot of biographical information on this early teacher and ascetic of the Egyptian desert, bits and pieces have been gathered based on comments made about him in various "sayings" from the early desert fathers. We know, for example, that he visited St. Anthony the Great in his cave after being miraculously guided there, and he eventually became St. Anthony's successor and abbot of the monastery in Pispir. He did not, however, live in the monastery, but directed it from outside as he preferred the hermetic life.

Ammonas's brief letter which we will read today discusses why God answers some prayers and not others and why we must constantly struggle against pride throughout our lives.

BEGIN:

[GOD HEARS THE PRAYERS OF THE RIGHTEOUS]

I write to you as men who love God, and seek Him with all your heart. For God will listen to such men when they pray, and will bless them in all things, and will grant them all the requests of their soul when they entreat Him. But those who come to Him not with their whole heart, but in two minds, who perform their works so as to be glorified by men -- such men will not be listened to by God in anything that they ask Him, but rather He is angry at their works. For it is written, "God has scattered the bones of the man-pleasers." (Psalms 53:5)

[WORK TO PLEASE GOD, NOT TO PLEASE MEN]

You see, then, how God is angry at the works of these men, and gives them none of the requests that they ask of Him, but rather resists them. For they do not their works in faith, but superficially. Therefore, the divine power does not dwell in them, but they are diseased in all their works, in whatever they set their hand to. For this reason they have not known the power of grace, nor its freedom from care, not its joy, but their soul is weighed down with a load in all their works. The greater part of our generation are such: they have not received the divine power that fattens the soul, prepares it to rejoice, and brings it day by day that gladness which makes the heart fervent in God. For the work that they do, they do as if it were for men. This is why this power does not come upon them; for an abomination to the power of God is the man who does his works as though for men's benefit.

[FIGHT AGAINST PRIDE ABOVE ALL ELSE]

Do you therefore, my beloved, whose fruit is reckoned in God, strive in all your works against the spirit of vainglory, that you may conquer it in all things, and that your whole body may be acceptable, and abide living with its Creator, and that you may receive the divine power, which is better than all these things. For I am persuaded, my beloved, that as long as you do all that is in your power in making war on the spirit of vainglory, and strive against it continually, your body will be alive. For this evil spirit attacks man in every work of righteousness to which he sets his hand, wanting to render his fruit useless and destroy it, thus preventing, as far as possible, men from performing works of righteousness; it wrestles with those who want to become faithful, and when any of them are praised by men for being faithful or humble or enduring shame, the evil spirit immediately engages in battle with them, and overcomes some of them, scattering and quenching their body. In so doing it prompts them to leave their virtuous way of life, and involve themselves in pleasing men, thus destroying their "body," though men reckon that they have gained something. This is why He does not give them the power, but leaves them empty, because He has not found their body good; and He deprives them of that great sweetness of grace.

But do you, my beloved, strive against the spirit of vainglory at all times, so that you may conquer it in everything, in order that the divine power may accompany you at all times. And I will pray God for you, that this joy may be given you always, for nothing is more free from care. And if after receiving this joy you see that your fervor withdraws and leaves you, seek it again and it will return. For this fervor is like fire which changes the cold into its own power. And if you see your heart weighed down temporarily, bring your soul before you and question it until it becomes fervent again and is set on fire in God. For the prophet David, too, on seeing his heart weighed down, said, "I have poured out my heart by myself (Psalms 42:4), I have remembered the days of old, and meditated on all your works, I lifted up my hands unto you; my soul thirsts after you as does a thirsty land." (Psalms 143:5-6) This is what David did when he saw his soul grow cold, until he had made it fervent again; and he received the divine sweetness both by day and by night. Do this, then, my beloved, and you will grow, and God will reveal to you great mysteries.

May God keep you in health of spirit and soul and body, till He brings you into the kingdom with your fathers who completed a good life, unto ages of ages, amen. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 3 - 5

Sunday, December 16, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Obedience and Prayer


Today's "thought" is a letter written by Abba Ammonas. Although we do not have a lot of biographical information on this early teacher and ascetic of the Egyptian desert, bits and pieces have been gathered based on comments made about him in various "sayings" from the early desert fathers. We know, for example, that he visited St. Anthony the Great in his cave after being miraculously guided there, and he eventually became St. Anthony's successor and abbot of the monastery in Pispir. He did not, however, live in the monastery, but directed it from outside as he preferred the hermetic life.

Ammonas's brief letter which we will read today discusses the importance of prayer and the relationship of obedience to prayer:

BEGIN:

[BE LIKE YOUR FATHERS IN THE FAITH TO GET THE INHERITANCE]

To my beloved in our Lord, who are counted in the portion of the kingdom of heaven: for in such wise have you sought God, imitating your fathers in the faith, so that you should receive the promises also, because you are reckoned their sons; for sons inherit the blessing of their fathers, because their zeal was like theirs. For this cause, since the blessed Jacob followed all the God- fearing ways of his parents, the blessings of his parents came upon him too. And having been blessed by them, suddenly he saw the Ladder, and angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28).

[THE BLESSINGS OF THE FATHER STRENGTH US IN OUR FAITH]

And so now, as soon as men have been blessed by their fathers and have seen the hosts, nothing is able to move them. For when blessed Paul saw these hosts, he became unshakeable, and cried out and said, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall sword or famine or nakedness? But neither angels nor principalities nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God" (Romans 8:38).

[TO RECEIVE THE BLESSINGS, ONE MUST FIRST ASK]

Now therefore, beloved, ask continually night and day that the blessings of my fathers may come upon you, that the hosts of the angels may thus rejoice over you in all things, and you may complete the rest of your days in all joy of heart. For if a man attains to this measure, the joy of God will be with him continually: henceforth he will not toil in any matter. For it is written, "The light of the righteous is never put out" (Proverbs 13:9).

[OBEY GOD AND RECEIVE HIS BLESSINGS]

But I pray that you too may come to the place of life. And this I do because of your obedience. For when our Lord saw that His disciples obeyed Him, He asked His Father on their behalf saying, "that where I am, there may they be also, because they have obeyed my word" (john 17:24). And again He asked that they might be kept "from the evil one" (John 17:15), until they should attain to the place of rest. This is what I pray and ask of our Lord, that you may be kept from the evil one, and attain to God's place of rest, and be blessed. For after the Ladder, Jacob saw face to face the host of angels, so that he even wrestled with an angel and prevailed. And this God did that He might bless him. And may the God whom I have served from my youth bless you. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 8 - 9

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - On the Order of Acquiring Virtues


In today's "thought," we will conclude our study of a book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In our readings from this book over the past several weeks, we have truly only scratched the surface of this gold mine of teachings! St. Nicodemos has EIGHTY chapters of wisdom in this book, every one of which deals with a spiritual issue in a practical, hands-on matter. Most spiritual fathers would agree, I think, that "Unseen Warfare" is a must for one's spiritual library.

In today's reading, St. Nicodemos advises us "On the Order of Acquiring Virtues."

BEGIN: A true warrior of Christ, filled with a whole-hearted desire to achieve the fullness of perfection, must set no limits to his efforts to gain success in all things. Yet he must moderate and direct excessive transports of his spiritual zeal by good judgment. Particularly in the beginning, such transports surge up suddenly with great vigor and carry us away with irresistible force; but later they gradually grow weaker and weaker, until they die down altogether, leaving us stranded in the middle of our journey. For not only should external, bodily virtues be acquired little by little, by gradually ascending, as by the rungs of a ladder, but in the acquisition of the inner virtues of the soul one should also observe a definite order and sequence, since only then does our little become much and remain with us for ever.

[BEGIN WITH A LOWER DEGREE OF A VIRTUE AND THEN STEP UP]

For example, in the process of acquiring the inner virtue of patience, it is impossible at once to welcome injustice, injuries and all other forms of unpleasantness, to seek them and rejoice in them, although it is possible to endure them with patience when they come. For welcoming them and rejoicing in them are the highest degrees of patience, and before you reach them you should traverse the lower degrees, which are: humble self-depreciation, in which you consider yourself worthy of every insult, overcoming in yourself impulses of revenge, hatred of the least thought of revenge, and so on.

[START WITH ONE VIRTUE AND THEN ACQUIRE MORE]

I advise you, besides: do not at once undertake the practice of all virtues, or even of a number of them, but become first grounded in one and there upon pass to another. In this way every habit of virtue will take root in your soul with greater ease and firmness. For when you are constantly exercising yourself in the virtue above all others, your memory will be almost entirely occupied by this alone, and your mind, thus welded to the thought of it, will acquire more quickly the skill of finding means and occasions for its practice, while your will will cleave to it with greater readiness and desire. All these things help greatly in the work of acquiring habits of virtue, which you will expect in vain if you undertake many virtues at once.

[VIRTUES BUILD ON ONE ANOTHER AS YOU GROW SPIRITUALLY]

On the other hand, since the practice itself of any given virtue remains always the same, it follows from the similarity of this mode of action that it gradually becomes less and less difficult and leads more quickly to another virtue. For one virtue usually stimulates another, akin to it, and helps it by the fact that, once it is established in the heart, it predisposes the heart to receive the like by preparing as it were a seat for it.

This calculation of mine is true and reliable, and we know from experience that if a man exercises himself in one virtue well and wholeheartedly, he not only learns in advance by this very fact how to exercise himself in another, but, as his experience in the first virtue increases, he stimulates too all other virtues and makes them grow and strengthen in himself; for they cannot be divided from one another, as all are rays issuing from the same Divine Light. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 179 - 180

Sunday, December 9, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Aids to Success in Gaining the Habit of Prayer


We are continuing our study from a book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll look at an entire chapter entitled, "Aids to Success in Gaining the Habit of Prayer" --concrete instructions and advice that are practical, easily understood, and doable, even for those of us who live in the world:

BEGIN: If you desire to seek success in the work of prayer, adapt all else to this, lest you destroy with one hand what the other builds.

1) Keep your body strictly disciplined in food, sleep and rest. Do not give it anything simply because it wants it; as the Apostle says: "Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Romans 13:14). Give no respite to the flesh.

2) Reduce your external contacts to the most inevitable. This is for the period of your training in prayer. Later, when prayer begins to act in you, it will itself indicate what can be added without harming it. Especially guard your senses, above all, eyes and ears; also tie your tongue. Without this guarding, you will not make a single step forward in the work of prayer. As a candle cannot burn in wind and rain, so the flame of prayer cannot be lit in a flood of impressions from outside.

3) Use all the time left from prayer in reading and meditation. For reading, choose mainly such books as deal with prayer and generally with inner spiritual life. Meditate exclusively on God and on divine matters, and above all on the incarnated dispensation for our salvation, chiefly on the passion and death of our Lord and Savior. Doing this you will always be immersed in the sea of divine light. In addition, go to church, whenever you have the possibility to do so. Merely to be present in church will envelop you in a cloud of prayer. What then will you receive if you stand throughout the service in a true state of prayer?

4) Know that it is impossible to make progress in prayer without general progress in Christian life. It is absolutely necessary that no sin, not purified by repentance, should burden the soul. If during your work on prayer you do something, which troubles your conscience, hasten to purify yourself by repentance, so that you can look up to the Lord boldly. Keep humble contrition constantly in your heart. Moreover, neglect no opportunity for doing some good, or for manifesting some good disposition, above all humility, obedience and cutting off your own will. It goes without saying that zeal for salvation must always be burning and fill the whole soul; in all things, great or small, it must be the main impelling force, together with fear of God and unshaken trust.

5) Thus established, labor in the work of prayer, praying now with set prayers, now with your own, now with short appeals to the Lord, now with the Jesus Prayer, omitting nothing which can be of help in this work. And you will receive what you seek. I remind you of the words of St. Macarius of Egypt: God will see your work of prayer and that you sincerely wish to succeed in prayer -- and He will give you prayer. For you must know that, although prayer done and achieved with one's own efforts is pleasing to God, yet that real prayer, which comes to dwell in the heart and becomes constant, is the gift of God, an act of Divine grace. Therefore, in your prayer for all other things, do not forget to pray too about prayer.

6) I shall repeat to you what I heard from a God-loving man. "I was not leading a very good life," he said, "but God had mercy on me and sent me the spirit of repentance. This was during preparation for communion. I was trying hard to plant in myself a firm resolve to mend my ways, and especially before confession I prayed for a long time before the Icon of the Mother of God, begging Her to obtain this resolve for me. Then, during confession, I candidly related everything. My Spiritual Father said nothing: but while he was reciting the prayer of absolution over my head, a small sweet flame was lit in my heart. The sensation was like swallowing some delectable food. This little flame remained in the heart, and I felt as though someone was gripping my heart. From that time I prayed continuously, and kept my attention there, where this sensation was, my only care being to preserve it. And God helped me. I had not heard about the Jesus Prayer, and when I did hear of it, I saw that what was within me was precisely that which is sought by this prayer." I mention this story to make you understand what the work of prayer seeks and what are the signs that it is received.

7)I shall also add the following words of St. Gregory of Sinai (from the Philokalia).

"Grace abides in us from the time of our holy baptism; but, through our inattention, vanity and the wrong life we lead it is stifled, or buried. When a man resolves to lead a righteous life and is zealous for salvation, the fruit of his whole labor is, therefore, the restoration in force of this gift of grace. It comes to pass in a two-fold manner: first, this gift becomes revealed through many labors in following the commandments; in so far as a man succeeds in following the commandments, this gift becomes more radiant and brilliant. Secondly, it manifests and reveals itself through constant invocation of the Lord Jesus in prayer. The first method is powerful, but the second is more so, so that even the first method gains power through it. Thus, if we sincerely wish to open the seed of grace concealed in us, let us hasten to train ourselves in this latter exercise of the heart, and let us have only this work of prayer in our heart, without forms, without images, till it warms our heart and makes it burn with ineffable love of the Lord."

-- This extract contains all of which I reminded you earlier in the fourth paragraph. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 218 - 220

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Developing and Maintaining Inner Peace


Our study of "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, will continue with this look at how to develop and maintain "inner peace."  This book is his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. In this reading, we'll look at two chapters of practical advice on making ourselves WANT to please God and then methods for developing and maintaining inner peace:

[SOME REMINDERS THAT CAN IMPEL OUR WILL TOWARDS
DESIRE TO PLEASE GOD IN EVERY ACTIVITY]

BEGIN: In order that you may move your will more easily to to this one desire in everything -- to please God and to work for His glory alone -- remind yourself often, that He has granted you many favors in the past and has shown you His love. He has created you out of nothing in His own likeness and image, and has made all other creatures your servants; He has delivered you from your slavery to the devil, sending down not one of the angels but His Only-Begotten Son to redeem you, not at the price of corruptible gold and silver, but by His priceless blood and His most painful and degrading death. Having done all this He protects you, every hour and every moment, from your enemies; He fights your battles by His divine grace; in His immaculate Mysteries He prepares the Body and Blood of His beloved Son for your food and protection.

All this is a sign of God's great favor and love for you; a favor so great that it is inconceivable how the great Lord of hosts could grant such favors to our nothingness and worthlessness. Judge from this what honor and devotion we must offer to the boundless Majesty of Him, Who has done such wonderful things for us. If we cannot help offering thanks, honor, glory and obedience to earthly kings for their favors, how much more, immeasurably more, must we worthless ones offer to the Almighty Lord of hosts, Who loves us and bestows upon us favors beyond counting.

But more than all we have just said, keep always in your memory the realization that God's greatness is in itself worthy of all honor, worship and wholehearted service acceptable to Him.

[ON THE MEANS OF PRESERVING INNER PEACE]

To preserve inner peace;

(1) First of all keep your outer senses in order and flee all licentiousness in your external conduct -- namely, neither look, speak, gesticulate, walk nor do anything else with agitation, but always quietly and decorously. Accustomed to behave with decorous quietness in your external movements and actions, you will easily and without labor acquire peace within yourself, in the heart; for, according to the testimony of the fathers, the inner man takes his tone from the outer man.

(2) Be disposed to love all men and to live in accord with everyone, as St. Paul instructs: "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18).

(3) Keep your conscience unstained, so that it does not gnaw at you or reproach you in anything, but is at peace in relation to God, to yourself, to your neighbors, and to all external things. If your conscience is thus kept clean, it will produce, deepen, and strengthen inner peace, as David says: "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them" (Psalms 119:165).

(4) Accustom yourself to bear all unpleasantness and insults without perturbation. It is true that before you acquire this habit you will have to grieve and suffer much in your heart, through this lack of experience in controlling yourself in such cases. But once this habit is acquired, your soul will find great comfort in the very troubles you meet with. If you are resolute, you will day by day learn to manage yourself better and better and will soon reach a state when you will know how to preserve the peace of your spirit in all storms, both inner and outer.

If at times you are unable to manage your heart and restore peace in it by driving away all stress and griefs, have recourse to prayer and be persistent, imitating our Lord and Savior, Who prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane, to show you by His example that prayer should be your refuge in every stress and affliction of the heart and that, no matter how faint- hearted and grieved you may be, you should not abandon it until you reach a state when your will is in complete accord with the will of God and, calmed by this, your heart is filled with courageous daring and is joyfully ready to meet, accept and bear the very thing it feared and wished to avoid; just as our Lord felt fear, sorrow and grief, but, regaining peace through prayer, said calmly: "Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me" (Matthew 26:46). END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 99, 258 - 259

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - On Protecting the Mind From Too Much Useless Knowledge and Idle Curiosity


In this issue, we will continue our study from another book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll examine the issue of "On Protecting the Mind from too Much Useless Knowledge and Idle Curiosity"

BEGIN: Just as it is necessary to guard the mind from ignorance, so is it equally necessary to protect it from the opposite, namely from too much knowledge and curiosity. For if we fill it with a quantity of information, ideas and thoughts, not excluding such as are vain, unsuitable and harmful, we deprive it of force, so that it is no longer able to understand clearly what is useful for our true self-correction and perfection. Therefore, in relation to the knowledge of earthly things, which is not indispensable, even if it is permissible, your attitude should be as of one already dead. Always collect your mind within yourself, with all the concentration you can, and keep it free of thoughts about all worldly things.

Let tales of the past and news of the present pass you by, and let all the changes in the world and its kingdoms be for you as though they did not exist at all. If anyone brings you such news, disregard it and turn it away from your heart and imagination. Listen to what St. Basil says: "Let listening to worldly news be bitter food for you, and let the words of saintly men be as combs filled with honey." Listen also to the words of David: "The proud have digged pits for me, which are not after thy law" (Psalms 109:85). Love to hear only of spiritual and heavenly things and to study them, and wish to know nothing in the world save our Lord "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2), save His life and death and what He demands of you. Acting thus, you will act in a way pleasing to God, Who has for His chosen and beloved those who love Him and try to do His will.

All other inquiry and investigation is the offspring and food of self-love and pride. They are the nets and shackles of the devil; he sees the strength and firmness of will of those who pay attention to spiritual life, and strives to conquer their minds by means of such curiosity, in order to gain possession of their mind and will. For this purpose, he is wont to suggest to them thoughts that are lofty, subtle and wondrous, especially to those who are sharp-witted and quick to make lofty speculations. Attracted by the pleasure of possessing and examining such lofty thoughts, they forget to watch over their purity of heart and to pay attention to a humble opinion of themselves and to true self-mortification; and so they are enmeshed in the bonds of pride and conceit; they make an idol of their own mind and thus, little by little, without realizing it, they fall into the thought that they no longer need any advice or admonition from others, since they are accustomed in all cases to hasten to the idol of their own understanding and judgment.

This is a very dangerous thing and not easily cured; pride of mind is much worse than pride of will. For pride of will, being visible to the mind, can sometimes be easily cured by forcing it to submit to the yoke of what is good. But when the mind is firmly grounded in the self-relying thought that its own judgments are better than all others, who can cure it in the end? Can it ever obey anyone, if it feels certain that the judgments of others are not as good as its own? When this eye of the soul -- mind -- with whose help man could see and correct pride of will, is itself blinded by pride and remains uncured, who will cure the will? Then every thing within is so disorganized that there is neither place nor person for applying a healing poultice. This is why you must hasten to oppose this pernicious pride of mind, before it penetrates into the marrow of your bones. Resist it, curb the quickness of your mind and humbly subject your opinion to the opinions of others. Be a fool for the love of God, if you wish to be wiser than Solomon. "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise." (I Corinthians 3:18) END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978),
pp. 92 - 94

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - What is Christian Perfection and How to Achieve It?


We will begin a new study from another book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll examine the question, "What is Christian perfection and how to achieve it?"

BEGIN: . . . I will tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.

There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflections, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all these virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.

[THE GOALS OF ASCETIC PRACTISES]

There is no doubt whatever that they do represent means and effective means for attaining perfection in Christian life. For we see very many virtuous men, who practice these virtues as they should, to acquire strength and power against their own sinful and evil nature, -- to gain, through these practices, courage to withstand the temptations and seductions of our three main enemies: the flesh, the world, and the devil; an din an by these means to obtain the spiritual supports, so necessary to all servants of God and especially to beginners. They fast, to subdue their unruly flesh; they practice vigils to sharpen their inner vision, they sleep on bare earth, lest they become soft through sleep; they bind their tongue by silence and go into solitude to avoid the slightest inducement to offend against the All-Holy God; they recite prayers, attend Church services and perform other acts of devotion, to keep their mind on heavenly things; they read of the life and passion of our Lord, for the sole purpose of realizing more clearly their own deficiency and the merciful loving-kindness of God, -- to learn and to desire to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, bearing their cross with self- denial, and to make more and more ardent their love of God and their dislike of themselves.

[ASCETICISM WITHOUT FAITH LEADS TO SELF-DECEPTION]

On the other hand, these same virtues may do more harm than their open omission, to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope; not from their nature, since they are righteous and holy, but through the fault of those, who use them not as they should be used; that is, when they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues, and leave their heart to be moved by their own volitions and the volitions of the devil. For the latter, seeing that they have left the right path, gleefully refrains from interfering with their physical endeavors and even allows them to increase and multiply their efforts, in obedience to their own vain thought. Experiencing with this certain spiritual stirrings and consolations, such people begin to imagine that they have already reached the state of angels and feel that God Himself is present in them. And at times, engrossed in the contemplation of some abstract and unearthly things, they imagine that they have completely transcended the sphere of this world and have been ravished to the third heaven.

[PRIDE RESULTS FROM ASCETICISM WITHOUT FAITH]

However, anyone can see clearly how sinfully such people behave and how far they are from true perfection, if he looks at their life and character. As a rule they always wish to be preferred to others; they love to live according to their own will and are always stubborn in their decisions; they are blind in everything relating to themselves, but are very clear-sighted and officious in examining the words and actions of others. If another man is held by others in the same esteem, which in their opinion they enjoy, they cannot bear it and become manifestly hostile towards him; if anyone interferes with them in their pious occupations and works of asceticism, especially in the presence of others, -- God forbid! -- they immediately become indignant, boil over with wrath and become quite unlike themselves. . . .

[THE REAL GOAL OF LIFE IS UNION WITH GOD]

Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning. With this is connected a heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with consciousness of our own nothingness and our proneness to every evil; love of God and dislike of ourselves; submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God; renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God; and moreover desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.

[UNION WITH GOD COMES THROUGH SELF-DENIAL]

. . . Therefore, to reach your desired aim, it is first of all necessary to stifle your own wills and finally to extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own wills, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown -- attainment of your desired aim -- is given to none except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers.

But this is the hardest of all wars -- since in fighting against ourselves it is in ourselves that we meet opposition -- victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God. For if, inspired by fervor, you overcome and put to death your unruly passions, your lusts and wills, you will please God more, and will work for Him more beautifully, than if you flog yourself till you draw blood or exhaust yourself by fasts more than any ancient hermit of the desert. Even if you redeem hundreds of Christian slaves from the infidels and give them freedom, it will not save you, if with this you remain yourself a slave to your own passions. And whatever work you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may accomplish it, it will not lead you to your desired aim, if you leave your passions without attention, giving them freedom to live and act in you.

[THE FOUR MEANS FOR FIGHTING "UNSEEN WARFARE"]

Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and realizing that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978),
pp. 77 -  81

Sunday, November 25, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Touch


We have reached in our discussion the fifth sense, which is the sense of touch. Even though the activity of this sense is generally considered to be concentrated in the hands, it actually encompasses the entire surface of the body so that every feeling and every part and every organ of the body both external and internal becomes an instrument of this sense of touch. Guard yourself then with great attention from such tender touches that arouse strong feelings, feelings that are mostly in the body and most vulnerable to sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in interpreting a passage in the Song of Songs, commented that the sense of touch is the subservient sense, the one most likely created by nature for the blind. It is most difficult for one to be free from the power of this sense, once it has been activated. This is why one must be careful to guard it with all his power.

Even though the power of the other senses seems to be active, it nevertheless seems to be far from the enactment of sin. But the sense of touch is the closest to this enactment and certainly the very beginning and the initial action of the deed.

[ONE SHOULD NOT EVEN TOUCH HIS OWN BODY IF IT IS NOT NECESSARY]

Be careful not to bring your hands and your feet close to other bodies, especially of the young. Be especially careful not to stretch your hands to touch anything, unless it is necessary, nor upon members of your body, or even to scratch yourself, as St. Isaac the Syrian and other holy Fathers have taught. Even from such minor activities, the sense of touch becomes accustomed, or to put it more correctly, the devil seeks to arouse us toward sin and at the same time to raise up into our mind improper images of desire that pollute the beauty of prudent thoughts. This is why St. John Climacus wrote: "It so happens that we are polluted bodily through the sense of touch." Even when you go out for the natural needs of your body respect your guardian angel, as St. Isaac has reminded us. Elsewhere this same father has written: "Virgin is not one who has merely preserved one's body from sexual intercourse, but one who is modest unto oneself even when alone."

The pagan Pythagoras taught that even if there were no other spectator of human evils in heaven or earth, man should have a sense of modesty and shame for himself. When someone does evil, he dishonors and degrades himself. The ancient Athenians had a temple dedicated to the goddess of modesty that would act in the place of God upon the true conscience. Now, if these pagans taught this and had such shame for themselves, when alone, how much more should we Christians be ashamed of ourselves when we are alone in a closed room, or in an isolated lonely place or even in the darkness of night? For it is only right that the modesty and reverence we feel when in a holy temple be also felt for ourselves, since we are a temple of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. "For we are the temple of the living God" (II Corinthians 6:16).

Again St. Paul wrote: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?" (I Corinthians 6:19). St. John Chrysostom has taught us also that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple. We are a living and rational temple, while a building- temple is lifeless and irrational. Moreover, Christ died for us and not for temples. Therefore it follows that more shame and modesty should be kept for ourselves and for our bodies than for the temple. For this reason, then, anyone who would dare to degrade the holy temple of his body by committing some sinful deed will in truth be more sinful than those who would desecrate the most famous temple.

Again, our pagan forefathers sought to teach men to avoid shameful deeds by asking them to imagine the presence of some important and revered person. If the imaginary presence of mortal men can avert one from doing evil when found alone, how much more can the true and abiding presence of the true and omnipresent and immortal God, who not only sees the external deeds of men but also knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the heart?

Most foolish then are those who are by themselves alone in an isolated or dark place and who have no self-respect and shame, nor remember the presence of God. They may say: "I am now in this darkness, who can see me?" God condemns such persons as being foolish. "Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah 23:24). "A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, "Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The most High will not take notice of my sins." His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord and ten thousand times brighter than the sun" (Sirach 23:18 - 19).

[THE USE OF LUXURIOUS CLOTHING AND WHAT ITS USE IMPLIES]

The use of soft and fine clothing is another matter that we can relate to the sense of touch. Now, if I may be permitted to be more blunt, I want to emphasize especially to hierarchs and priests that they not fall into the error of fantastic apparel which unfortunately many experience because of their bad habits from childhood and the bad examples of others. St. John Chrysostom, first of all, reminded us that the very custom of covering the body with clothing is a perpetual reminder of our exile from Paradise and our punishment, which we received after our disobedience. We who were previously in Paradise, covered by the divine grace and having no need of clothing, find ourselves now in need of covering and clothing for our bodies. The forefathers were naked before the disobedience but not ashamed; after the disobedience they sewed fig leaves together and coverings for their bodies (Genesis 3:7).

Therefore, what is the reason for this reminder of our sin and punishment to be done with bright and expensive clothing? "The use of clothing has become a perpetual reminder for us of our exile from the good things of Paradise and a lesson of our punishment which the human race received as a consequence of the original sin of disobedience. There are those who are so affected in their vain imaginations that they say to us that they no longer know the clothing that is made by the wool of the sheep and that they now wear only clothes made of silk . . . . Tell me now, for whom do you so clothe your body? Why are you glad over your particular set of clothing? Why don't you heed St. Paul who wrote: "If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (I Timothy 6:8).

[SOFT BEDS SHOULD BE AVOIDED FOR THEY ARE THE CAUSE OF MANY EVILS]

In this sense of touch we must also include the soft and comfortable beds and everything that has to do with our comfort. Inasmuch as these may contribute to our spiritual harm, they must be avoided by all, but especially the young. Such comforts weaken the body; they submerge it into constant sleep; they warm it beyond measure, and therefore kindle the heat of passion. This is why the prophet Amos wrote: "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches" (Amos 6:4). Once a young monk asked an elder (monk) how to guard himself against the carnal passions. The elder replied that he should avoid overeating, avoid slander and all those activities which excite carnal passions. The monk however was unable to find the cure for his passion even after observing carefully all the admonitions of the elder. He would return to the elder again and again for advice until he became a burden for the elder. Finally, the patient elder got up and followed the brother to his cell. Upon seeing the soft bed where he slept, the elder exclaimed: "Here, here, is the cause of your struggle with carnal desire, dear brother!" . . . END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 120 - 131

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Smell


What are some negative results of fragrances?

. . . The hedonistic desire to please the sense of smell can reach such bizarre foolishness. Not far from this particular foolishness is also the habit of those who attempt to please all their senses through the use of fragrances in general. They like to add fragrant substances to everything -- their foods, their drinks, their clothes, their mattresses, and so forth. They do not at all realize, the poor souls, that this living body of ours is a veritable container of smells, but after death it becomes food for worms and foul smelling. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: "Do not allow your sense of smell to be effeminated; do not honor the luxury of perfumes."

[ALL CLERGY WITHOUT EXCEPTION OUGHT NOT TO SMOKE]

Here, dear reader, I want to remind you of a bad habit not only among lay people, but also among the clergy and even the bishops. I am referring to the use of that plant called nicotine, which was discovered in some region of North America known as Anthea and which was introduced to Catherine the Queen of France by the Ambassador of Portugal as a sort of miracle of the new world. This is why it was given the exalted name of a "royal plant."

Of course, this is nothing other than what is commonly known as tobacco. I hope, therefore, that you will never imitate those who wrongfully use this tobacco and that you will never privately or before other persons smoke tobacco or place some of it into your nostrils as snuff. First of all, the use of tobacco is contrary to the virtuous way of life. Secondly, it is inappropriate to the high character of the priesthood. Thirdly, it is contrary to good health habits. The habit of smoking is contrary to the virtuous way of life.

The true boundary of virtuous living, according to the teaching of "Galation" [NOTE: a small book published in Florence that was widely accepted in Italy as a moral guide], is trespassed when we do something that may naturally harm the senses or the imagination of noble persons and call forth an abhorrence. Who then cannot see that the use of tobacco crosses over this boundary of virtuous habits and introduces barbarous habits, rustic habits, habits that are abhorrent to those who see and who hear and imagine what is done by those who use tobacco?

Proper behavior requires that a person turn away when cleaning his nose into his handkerchief. The smoke which is inhaled through the nostrils causes the nose to excrete that abhorrent mucus that is then collected in the handkerchief in the presence of others. Proper manners further direct that when a person has to sneeze before others, he must try to block it, if at all possible, or at least to cover it with his handkerchief so that the nose does not bellow like a horn trumpet and cause alarm and abhorrence.

Now, those who would place and stuff into their nose this tobacco powder only vex the organ of smell and bring upon themselves the need to sneeze. A good sneeze usually creates such a violent and terrible shaking of the head that it invokes from people standing by a call for divine intercession with such expressions as these: "Health to you," "Be saved," "May God help you" ("God bless you").

The most terrible thing, however, is for a person to put into his mouth a pipe made from an animal horn or from some type of wood and from that pipe to inhale the smoke of burning tobacco through his larynx and then to exhale that abhorrent smoke through the mouth and the nostrils like some smoking chimney or like the horses of Diomedes, or the bulls of Jason that exhaled fiery smoke through their mouth and nostrils. Can one find a more abhorrent and abominable habit than this?

Smoking is also an inappropriate habit and unbecoming to the spiritual character of the priesthood. The hierarch is a type of God, an icon of Christ Jesus. Therefore all of his habits must be Christlike, solemn, habits that bring not scandals, but benefits to the people. What solemnity is there in the use of that horrible tobacco plant? Or of what benefit is it? On the contrary, what a scandal it is to the pious Christians, when they see their hierarch or priest holding between his teeth that strange-looking object -- the pipe -- in which the tobacco is burning! Indeed, how scandalous it is to see a clergyman exhaling from his nose and mouth that foul-smelling smoke, and to have his house filled with that dark cloud of unpleasant smoke!

The hierarch and all the clergy are obliged by their very nature to exude a spiritual fragrance from all of their senses so that they may transmit this fragrance upon all those who approach them -- Christians as well as unbelievers, as St. Paul wrote: "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (II Corinthians 2:15).

When the clergy draw into their body both through their mouth and their nose that most foul smelling smoke, that many cannot bear and faint, how can they then be, according to the very nature of their calling, an aroma and a fragrance of Christian life for those who are around them? This is the reason why in that most pious Kingdom of Russia there is an untransgressed law that forbids all the orders of clergy and monks from using publicly tobacco through the nose or the mouth. Anyone so doing is considered by all to be a transgressor worthy of aversion.

Finally, the excessive use of tobacco is also harmful to the health of the body. Many who were chronic users of tobacco were found after death to have their lungs blackened and burned, as well as their brain. Inasmuch as the brain receives continuously the inhaled smoke, it consequently uses up not only the excess fluid but also the natural and essential one. Thus, it is difficult to find even one among those who use tobacco regularly who does not admit that its use is more of an evil than a necessity, and who does not condemn himself for using it. Even the moral philosophers, without exception, condemn the regular use of tobacco in public as something abhorrent and boorish. END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 102 - 106

Sunday, November 18, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Taste and the Tongue


Sumptuous eating is harmful to all without exception, but especially to the young. The natural reason for this is obvious. The natural warmth of the young person is enhanced when it receives the fatty matter of various foods. The heavy foods consumed draw out the heavy excretions of digestion in the stomach. These in turn are converted into substances and blood and eventually into fatty tissue. The abundance of food creates a fat body that is susceptible to the forceful temptations of one's sexuality.

Thus treated and exposed the poor body becomes a flaming fire, a Babylonian furnace. If the young body is a wild and untamed animal even when it lacks essential nourishment, imagine what it is like when it is well fed! All young people know this because they experience these passions on a daily basis. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: "Its own evil is sufficient for the body. Why add to the existing fire any additional fuel, or any more nourishment to the beast? It will only become more difficult to control and more violent (forceful) than the mind." Solomon too said: "It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury" (Proverbs 19:10). In interpreting this passage, St. Basil considered the body of a young person to be "a fool." "What is more senseless than the body of a young person prone to easy temptations?" he asked.

Now if you cannot avoid these fatty foods completely, then set a discipline for yourself to eat only once a day, as many spiritual persons, hierarchs, and even worldly leaders do. In this manner the body is kept lighter and healthier and the mind is clearer and more capable of advancing upon divine thoughts. Even then, it is important not to overeat.

[THE THREE DEGREES OF EATING]

-- According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger" (Luke 6:25).

Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, "Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires."

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: "No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other." Job, too, assuming that one could fall into sin through eating, offered sacrifice to God for his sons who were feasting among themselves. "And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said: "It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts'" (Job 1:5-8).

In interpreting this passage Olympiodoros wrote: "We learn from this that we ought to avoid such feasts which can bring on sinfulness. We must also purify ourselves after they have been concluded, even if these are conducted for the sake of concord and brotherly love as in the case of the sons of Job."

Surely then, if the sons of Job were not at a feast but in prayer or some other spiritual activity, the devil would not have dared to destroy the house and them, as Origen interpreted the passage: "The devil was looking for an opportunity to destroy them. Had he found them reading, he would not have touched the house, having no reason to put them to death. Had he found them in prayer, he would not have had any power to do anything against them. But when he found an opportune time, he was powerful. What was the opportune time? It was the time of feasting and drinking." Do you see then, dear reader, how many evils are brought forth by luxurious foods and feasting in general?

[WHAT ONE MUST DO TO AVOID OVEREATING AND OTHER SINS OF THE TONGUE]

-- When eating and drinking, always remember the Psalm: "What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?" (Psalms 30:9). St. Basil has advised that we recall this verse in order to help us avoid overeating and overdrinking, as he has interpreted it in the following manner:

"What is the need for robustness of flesh and an abundance of blood if their future is to be delivered over to the common corruption of the body? For this reason I constrain and deprive my body, otherwise my blood becomes so robust and overzealous that it makes my flesh to sin. Do not therefore flatter your body with sleep and baths and soft beds, but always recall the saying: "What profit is there for my blood if I go down to the Pit?" Why do you care for the lesser thing that will later become corrupt? Why do you bother to make yourself fat? Do you not know that the fatter you make your body so much heavier will be the soul's prison?"

In this sense of the mouth are also included all those sins which are enacted by the tongue: condemnation, slander, mocking, insults, unreasonable excommunications, curses, reprimands, obscene talk, and all the other idle and vain words. From all these we must guard ourselves as much as possible, for as you know, we must give an account for every vain and idle word, according to the Sacred Scriptures (Matthew 12:36). . . . END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 109 - 113

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Hearing


In this issue we will continue our study of the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers right up to the present day. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

We began our series with an overview of the five senses and then the sense of sight; today will look at the second sense, the sense of hearing.

BEGIN:

[THREE EVILS BORN FROM "HEDONISTIC" MELODIES]

-- The second sense is that of hearing and one must be careful to guard it from corrupt melodies, which are composed for pleasure and which pour out the sweet honey of sound unto the ears. It seems to me that there are three evils that come from such melodies. First, these hedonistic and worldly songs tend to weaken the manly and proud bearing of the soul so that it becomes effeminate and lethargic as it listens to these sweet sounds. Secondly, these sensual songs tend to fill up the mind with the many passionate images which they describe. Thirdly, let us suppose that even if the persons doing the singing are not seen -- and especially when these may be women -- nevertheless the songs themselves are capable of impressing the imagination, moving the desire of the heart and drawing out an asset from the soul. This is why St. Basil taught us: "Do not submit your souls to corrupt melodies that come to us through the ears. Many passions that enslave us have been caused to grow in our natures by this sort of music." St. Gregory the Theologian in one of his paschal homilies said: "Let us not have the flute played to our hearing." And in his Iambic Poetry he wrote, "Block your ears with wax, and foolish words hear not, nor pleasant songs or thrilling melodies. . . . "

[THE PROBLEM OF SLANDER]

-- You must definitely shut your ears to slanderous remarks against other persons, as is commanded by God: "You shall not utter a false report" (Exodus 23:1). You must be especially careful to oppose the slanders leveled against the clergy. St. Paul when writing to Timothy said: "Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses" (I Timothy 5:19).

Open therefore only one of your ears to hear the words of slander according to the example of Alexander the Macedonian. Do not by any means allow yourself to open both ears to the slanderers and to draw your conclusions and decisions on the basis of what they alone have to say, and thereby judging the case 'in absentia' without the presence of the person slandered to defend himself.

Oftentimes many unjust and irrational decisions have followed from such slanderous accusations. St. Basil noted that each slanderer is unjust to three different persons: to himself for lying, to the hearers who may be misled and deceived, and to the person slandered for destroying his good reputation and honor. "For this very reason then I beseech your love in Christ not to accept the slanders presented onesidedly as at all true. For, as it is written, the law does not judge anyone unless the judge listens and finds out what indeed the defendant has done.

It is therefore necessary not to keep silent before such slanders, not that we will avenge ourselves through controversy, but rather because by not conceding (to the slanderer) we do not promote falsehood and do not allow those deceived to fall into harm. He who slanders does harm to three persons at the same time. First of all he is unjust to the person he has slandered; he also harms those persons who have to listen to his slander; finally the slanderer harms himself. . . . "

[USING THE SENSE OF HEARING IN A POSITVE WAY]

It goes without saying, of course, that while one must avoid the many abuses of hearing, one must also be more inclined to utilize this important sense of hearing for the many positive ways available to us in our Christian way of life; to listen to the word of God, to attend and participate in the worship services of the Church, to sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God, to listen with compassion and understanding to the concerns of your fellow human beings, and to do so many other positive things with our wonderful sense of hearing. END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 97 - 100

Sunday, November 11, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Vision


In this issue we will continue our study of the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers right up to the present day. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

In the previous "thought," we began our series with an overview of the five senses; today will look at the first sense, the sense of sight.

BEGIN:

. . . Sight is the most regal of the senses, according to the naturalists; sight is dependent upon the psychic spirit and related to the mind, according to the theologians; sight is the most knowledgeable of the other senses and therefore the most dependable, according to the metaphysicians. According to the popular proverb, "The eyes are more trustworthy than the ears." According to the word of the Lord, "The eye is the lamp of the body" (Matthew 6:23).

According to the astronomers, the eyes are the two stars of the face. According to the moral philosophers the eyes are the two first thieves of sin. A certain wise man has called the eyes two braids of the soul which it spreads out like the tentacles of an octopus to receive from afar whatever is desirable to it. Or, if I may say with St. Basil the Great, the eyes are the two "bodiless arms" with which the soul may reach out and touch from afar the visible things it loves. For whatever we cannot touch with our hands, these we can touch and enjoy with our eyes.

The sense of sight, after all, is a touch more refined than the touch of the hands, but less refined than the touch of the imagination and of the mind. St. Basil wrote: "Vision can deceive the soul toward a certain pleasure through the touch of some object by means of the rays of the eyes that act as bodiless arms. With these the soul can touch from afar whatever it desires. And the things that the hands of the body do not have under their authority to touch, these can nevertheless be embraced by the rays of the eyes passionately. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian also said: "The lamps of the eyes touch the untouchable."

It is from these eyes then that we must cut off the vision of those beautiful bodies which tempt the soul to shameful and inappropriate desires. You have heard the great Father St. Basil, who said: "Do not play host with your eyes to the displays of wonder workers, or to the visions of bodies that place one at the center of passionate pleasure." You have also heard the wise Solomon: "Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you" (Proverbs 4:25). Listen also to Job who said: "I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I look upon a virgin?" (Job 31:1). . . .

-- What must one do when Captivated by the eyes?

If ever this thief comes and captivates you, fight against him and do not allow any idol of Aphrodite, that is, of any shameful desire, to be impressed upon your soul. How? By taking refuge in God through prayer, which is the most secure way. "Deliverance comes only from the Lord" (Psalms 3:8). Another way is to turn your imagination to another spiritual thought so that one imagination wipes out another and one idol destroys another. According to the popular proverb, "One peg drives out the other." This is what St. Gregory the Theologian meant when he wrote: "A vision caught me, but was checked; I set up no image of sin. Was an image set up? Yet, the experience of sin was avoided."

Do you hear what he is saying? The image of sin stood before him but was not impressed upon his imagination. Thus he was directly freed from the experience, that is, from the assent or the act of sin. If then the devil does not cease to tempt you with that image that has been impressed upon your imagination, St. Chrysostom and St. Syngletiki advise you to use this method in order to be delivered from his wiles: with your mind gouge out the eyes of that image, tear its flesh and cut away its lips from the cheeks. Remove, moreover, the beautiful skin that appears externally and meditate on how what is hidden underneath is so disgusting that no man can bear to look upon it without hate and abhorrence. It is after all no more than a skinned skull and an odious bone filled with blood and fearful to behold. Here is what St. Chrysostom said: "Do not therefore pay attention to the external flower here, but proceed further through your mind. Unfold that fine skin with your imagination and consider what lies beneath it."

The most wise St. Syngletik said this:

"If ever by thought an inappropriate fantasy comes to us, it must be expelled by reason. Thus, shut your eyes to this image. Remove from it the flesh of the cheeks, cut away the lips and imagine then a mass of bones which is deformed. Think then what the desired image really is. This way our thought will be relieved of any vain deceits, for the desired image is nothing more than blood mixed with phlegm . . . . From this point on the mind notes nothing about the once desired image, but foul- smelling and decaying ulcers, and soon imagines it lying dead next to the inner eyes. Thus it is possible for one to escape from sensual thought."

Some examples of those who have guarded their eyes

Again I must tell you to guard yourself well against these things, dear friend, for as St. Paul said, "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you" (Philemon 3:1). Guard your deceiving eyes that would steal the pleasures of others. Have great concern for these portals the eyes. Most robbers enter through these portals to overthrow the castle of the soul. Had the forefathers guarded their eyes, they would not have been exiled far from God and Paradise. "The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good . . . " (Genesis 3:6). Do you hear what the text says? She saw, she desired, she received, she ate, she died.

Had the sons of God, that is of Seth, guarded their eyes, they would not have been destroyed by the flood. "The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful and they married any of them they chose" (Genesis 6:2). Again, had the Sodomites guarded their eyes to avoid looking upon the two angels, they would not have been destroyed by fire (Genesis 19:1). When Shechem, son of Hamon the Hivite, saw Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, and desired her, he and all his people were destroyed by her brothers (Genesis 34:2). David saw Bathsheba bathing and he fell into the dual pit of adultery and murder (II Samuel 11:1). After this when he repented and learned to call upon God to turn his eyes away from vain beauty, he wrote: "Turn my eyes away from seeing vain things" (Psalms 118:37). END

from Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 86 - 91

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

ST. NICODEMOS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Battling the Senses


In this issue we will begin a new study on the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

The next several readings will examine "A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel." St. Nicodemos wrote this book at the request of his cousin, Ierotheos, who had recently been made Bishop of Euripos. However, the work is applicable to all Christians -- not just to clergy. His approach is psychological, ethical, and practical -- just what we need in modern times.

Today we will begin a six-part series on the senses. While this book explores other topics, as well, this section on the senses is particularly "unique" to St. Nicodemos's writings and contains much of very practical, daily use. First, though, St. Nicodemos on "Guarding All the Senses in General."

BEGIN: -- Why One Must Struggle to Control One's Senses:

According to St. Gregory the Theologian we must struggle to block our senses and to control them, for they are the easy ways toward evil and entrances of sin. Let us not give in to the easy ways of evil and to the easy entrances of sin. I say to you then, put all your strength forward to protect your senses. I also say to you to be attentive, to struggle, and I insist on this, by using various synonymous words. I wish to prove to you that the devil is always standing before us, observing and studying the condition of our senses. Just as soon as we open even one sense to him, he enters into our soul directly and brings death to us, as St. Isaac has noted: "The enemy is standing and observing day and night directly against our eyes to detect which entrance of our senses will be opened to him to enter. Once he enters through one of our senses because of our lack of vigilance, then this devious shameless dog attacks us further with his own arrows."

We must also struggle to protect our senses because it is not only through curious eyes that we fall into the sin of desire and commit fornication and adultery of the heart, as the Lord noted. There is also the fornication and the adultery of the sense of hearing, the sense of smell, the sense of taste, the sense of touch, and of all the senses together. Therefore, St. Gregory the Theologian has written in his heroic counsel to the virgin: "Virgin, be truly a virgin in the ears, in the eyes and in the tongue! Every sense that wanders with ease sins." St. Gregory of Nyssa also said: "The Lord has spoken, I believe, about all the senses, so that the one who touches and the one who uses every inner power in us to serve pleasure has actually committed the sin in his heart."

-- Those Who Live in the World Must Protect Their Senses More than Those Ascetics in the Desert:

You who are in the world, dear friend, must guard yourself even more than those who are in the desert. St. Basil wrote to someone living in the world the following advice: "Do not relax your efforts because you are in the world. In fact you are in need of greater efforts and more vigilance to achieve salvation. After all you have chosen to live in the midst of all the pitfalls and in the very stronghold of the sinful powers. You have before you constantly the instigations of sins and day and night all of your senses are being attacked by their evil desires." If we are overcome by the desire for food or drink, we do not experience such a strong attack. Being in a desolate place where one does not see or hear anything out of place or experience the other causes of sin, we are thus surrounded by a protective wall that helps to win our battles without wars, as St. Isaac said: "When one does not receive a sense perception, then he can have a victory without a struggle."

In other words, the monks who have removed themselves from the world are fighting behind trenches, but you are fighting an arm- to-arm combat against the enemies. The attacks are coming from all directions. And the causes of sin are all around you. While they stand afar off from the precipice, you are at its very edge. That great luminary of spiritual discretion, St. Poimen, once said: "Those who live far away from the world are like those who are far from a precipice and, whenever they are misled by the devil, before they reach the edge, they call upon God who comes to save them.

Those who live in the world, however, are like those who are near the precipice and when the devil draws them toward it, they have no time to call upon God and be saved but fall directly into the abyss." Therefore, because you are so close to this abyss, you are in immediate danger just as soon as you neglect or open one of your senses. God forbid! This is the reason why you want to use all your energy to protect your senses from coming into contact with sin. As it is impossible for a house not to be darkened by smoke entering from the outside, it is similarly impossible for a man not to let them without restraint, allowing all manner of passionate images to enter the soul. The wise St. Syngletike said, "Even when we do not want it, the thieves will enter through the senses. For how is it possible for a house not to be darkened by the smoke entering from outside through the doors and windows that have been left opened?"

-- It is a Great Victory to Overcome Ourselves:

Do not think for a moment that this victory is small and insignificant. In fact it is a greater victory to overcome one of your passions and a pleasure of your senses than to overcome one hundred of your enemies. It is a more glorious trophy of victory to shed willingly a few drops of perspiration and one drop of blood, for the love of God, in order to overcome one of your evil wills and to spite the devil, than to shed rivers of blood to subdue entire armies. Again it is a greater triumph to subdue your senses and your entire body to your hegemonious mind than to subdue large kingdoms. Once, when King Alexander was praised for having conquered the whole ecumene, he responded with the prudent remark: "All of my victories will prove to be vain, if I do not succeed to conquer myself." Many who have subdued their enemies, cities, and countries have later been subdued miserably by their own improper passions and have shamefully become slaves of their own passions. A certain Father was very correct when he said that "the first victory is the victory of self." St. Isidore Pelousiotes also said: "The true victor is not he who subdues the foreign barbarians, but he who wages spiritual warfare against the evil passions. Many who have conquered barbarians have in turn been shamefully subdued by their own passions." END

from Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 137 - 144

Sunday, November 4, 2012

ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA - The Lord's Prayer


In this reading, we will continue our look at an early Desert Father who is most widely revered in the Western Churches, but who is nevertheless a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, too. Although his "desert" was a mountain in Italy, Abba Benedict lived a life of great asceticism and formulated a monastic rule that is widely followed in the Roman Catholic Church. In today's reading, Abba Benedict explains to us the Lord's Prayer and its deeper meanings. Too often in our worship, we mechanically repeat the words of this wonderful prayer without contemplating its deeper meanings; take these words of Abba Benedict to heart the next time you say this prayer:

BEGIN: "Our Father, who art in heaven." Therefore see, brothers, that if we have now found our mother the Church and have dared to call the Lord in heaven our father, it is right that we should leave our earthly father and our mother according to the flesh, lest being subject to both sets of parents we not only offend those who are citizens but, if we do not abandon the parents according to the flesh, we be considered adulterous offspring. For because of the tree of scandal our race descended from paradise to the womb, from the womb to the world, and from the world to the portals of hell. But we have been born anew through baptism and restored by the tree of the cross. The passion of the Lord effects the resurrection of our race and its readiness by grace to paradise whence it had fallen by sin freely willed. When Christ provided for us the refuge of his cross, the Lord destroyed the sting of death which was reigning over us. After restoring us to the grace of adoption by Him, he has moreover not ceased to invite us to the kingdom of heaven. Hence the voice of the Lord says: "If you keep my commandments, I will be your father and you shall be my sons." So it is that we, though unworthy but aware of our baptism, dare in his prayer to call him father. Therefore it behooves us to share in his sufferings so that we may deserve to be made coheirs of his glory.

So when saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven," brothers, let us show that we are sons such as God wants to have, and may the Divinity rightly grant us the title of sons, seeing our will comformable to his own. For he who resembles his father not only in appearance but also in conduct is a true son.

Since we have now deserved to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven," we continue the prayer saying: "Hallowed be thy name." Not that we want his name to be hallowed anew, since it is most holy from eternity to eternity, but rather that he may himself sanctify it in the good deeds of his sons, so that as Father and Lord he may make his dwelling in our souls and send the Holy Spirit to live in us, giving help to our hearts by his regard and ever keeping watch over them by his presence.

Then we say, "Thy kingdom come." See brothers, how we long for the coming of the Lord's kingdom and ourselves ask that his judgment be hastened, and yet we do not have our account in order. We should therefore conduct ourselves at all times in such a way that, when the time comes, our Lord and Father will receive us and, pleased with our daily good deeds in his presence, will separate us from the goats and place us at his right, admitting us into the eternal kingdom. May we, in the judgment to come, find a propitious judge whom in this world we have dared to call father.

Then we say: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In this statement, brothers, our free will is expressed, and whatever harm the persuasion of the ancient serpent has done us is removed, if we so will, for the will of the Lord heals us. As the apostle says: "You do not always carry out your good intentions." The spirit chooses to have the will of the Lord done in us, so that the soul no longer does what it had been persuaded to do by the concupiscence of corrupt flesh. We therefore pray that the will of the Lord will be done in us. If this His will is always done in us, on the day of judgment there will be no self-will to be condemned after being examined for faults. For the will of the Lord is holy. It knows how to remove fear of judgment. This His will promises that those in whom it is accomplished will judge even angels.

Our Lord and Savior shows us this holy will by giving us the example of its being done in Himself in order to suppress the free will of the flesh in us when He says: "I have come not to do my own will, but to do the will of the One who sent me." And again He says in His holy passion: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by." This voice of fear in the Lord was that of the flesh He had assumed, and shows us that the acts of life must always be well considered if death to come must be feared. . . .

"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." From this, that he said "in heaven," we can well understand, brothers, that just as the will of the Lord is fulfilled in all holiness by the angels in heaven, so should God's command given through the prophets and the apostles be obeyed by carnal men on earth too, so that, as Holy Scripture says, in both spheres (that is, in heaven and on earth) the Lord may reign also in us according to his good pleasure, and there may be one shepherd and one flock.

So also we can understand in a spiritual sense what he says: "Thy will be done as it is in heaven," that is, that the will of the Father be done in the Lord, His Son, because He cane down from heaven, the Lord Himself saying, "I have come, not to do my own will, but to do the will of the One who sent me." Do you therefore see that if our Savior, the Lord Himself, shows that He came not to do His own will but to fulfill the commands of His Father, how can I, a wicked servant, the least of all rightly do my own will? . . .

Then continuing the prayer we say: "Give us this day our daily bread." Therefore, brothers, when the aforesaid will of the Lord has been daily fulfilled by us, excluding blame, and all the commandments have been observed in the fear of the Lord, the petition that He give food to His workmen is worthily made, for He does not refuse the deserving laborer his wages.

Then we say: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Brothers, praying thus, we should very much fear lest the Lord reply to these words of our prayer: "The judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given." And you who ask this, see whether you did to no one what you did not want done to you. Therefore before we hear these words of the Lord, brethren, let us first examine our hearts as to whether we are with justice asking of the Lord what we have not denied to those asking us. We ask that our trespasses be forgiven us. God hears and He wants to forgive us, but only if we first pardon those who ask us to do likewise. . . .

Then we say: "And lead us not into temptation." These words, brothers, are warning enough that we should be on our guard. We must therefore beg the Lord with many sighs, striking our hearts as well as our breasts, never to leave us His servants without His help, lest we be open to the power and access of our enemy the devil, who is constantly prowling around us like a lion, looking for someone of us to eat, and who seeks to poison our hearts with his evil suggestion that he deign, by the protection of his assistance, to surround us with the wall of his grace and by his defence ward off the incursion of temptation in us, so as not to permit the work of his hands to be taken captive and subjected to slavery by the enemy -- provided we do not on our part give our consent to the temptations of this same enemy and do not, so to speak, make ourselves his captives, inclined to desire our enemy rather than flee him.

Then we continue, completing the prayer: "But deliver us from evil." Brothers, most holy, God desires to do this in us before we ask Him, for He is powerful and nothing is difficult for Him, but (he does it) only on condition that we deserve it. He does not want this structure which we are and which He has made with His own hands to collapse. He hastens to free us from the snare, if we do not on our part give consent to the enemy's suggestions, but unceasingly ask the Lord to grant us the assistance of His grace so that we may rightly say: "For with the Lord at our right hand nothing can shake me," and confident in the Lord we say again, "I will fear no evils, for you are with me." Thus may he, who at the beginning of the prayer shows us that we should dare, by His grace, to call the Lord our Father, deign now at the end of the prayer to deliver us from evil. Amen. END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 95 - 101