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, May 6, 2012

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - War With Passions, Part I

For the next several weeks, we are going to look at the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north.  St. Theophan served in the Russian Spiritual Mission in Palestine and the Near East from 1847 - 1854; during that time, he mastered Greek and studied the ancient Desert Fathers.  Shortly after his return to Russia, he was ordained bishop, but resigned that post after seven years to assume a life of prayer and seclusion in a small monastery where he remained until his death 28 years later.  St. Theophan took a well-stocked library on the Desert Fathers with him when he went into seclusion.  During his almost three decades in seclusion, St. Theophan produced a substantial body of writings on the spiritual life, all of them deeply steeped in the traditions and teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine.

We will begin this series on the "War With Passions" which is broken down into seven parts: 1) war with passions; 2) know yourself; 3) work, inner and external; 4) solitude; 5) times of desolation; 6) illusion; 7) humility and love.  We will begin todaywith Part I.  All the quotations are from St. Theophan unless otherwise noted.

BEGIN: Remember the wise teaching of St. John of the Ladder.  He describes the way of our ascension to God in the form of a ladder with four steps.  Some people, he says, tame their passions; others sing, that is, pray with their lips; the third practice inner prayers; finally the fourth rise to seeing visions.  Those who want to ascend these four steps cannot begin from the top, but must start from the bottom; they must step onto the first rung and so ascend to the second, then to the third, and finally to the fourth.  By this ladder everyone can ascend to heaven.  First you must work on taming and reducing passions; then practice psalmody -- in other words, attain the habit of oral prayer; after this, practice inner prayer; and so at last reach the step from which it is possible to ascend to visions.  The first is the work of the novice; the second one is the work of those who are progressing; the third, of those who have progressed to the end; and the fourth is reserved for those who have achieved perfection.

-- There is only one way to begin: and that is by taming passions.  These cannot be brought under control in the soul except by guarding the heart and by attention.  Those, therefore, who pass through all these stages in due order, each in its own time, can, when the heart is cleansed from passions, devote themselves entirely and wholly to psalmody, and to fighting against thoughts; and they can look up towards heaven with their physical eyes or contemplate it with the spiritual eyes of the soul, praying aright in purity and truth.

-- (St. Makarios of Egypt): The most important work that a spiritual wrestler can do, is to enter within the heart, there to fight Satan; to hate and repel the thoughts that he inspires and to wage war upon him.

-- If our spirit should sever itself from God, then the power of self-determination given to man by God will be also taken away from us.  Then a man can no longer master either the inclinations of the soul, or the needs of the body, or outside contacts.  Then he will be torn asunder by the desires of his soul and body and by the vanity of exterior life, although all these things on the superficial level seem to contribute to his own pleasure and happiness.  Compare these two states of life and you will see that in the first man lives wholly within himself before God, and that in the second man is wholly outside himself, forgetting God.  This second state of life is made much worse by the entering in of passions which take root in the ego and penetrate all the soul and body, and give an evil direction to all that is there, a direction that is not constructive but destructive, turning a man away from the path of the Spirit and the fear of God, setting him against his conscience.  In this way the man becomes still more superficial than before.

-- Giving yourself in prayerful surrender to God and His grace, call out each of the things that incite you to sin and try to turn your heart away from them, directing it towards their opposite.  In this way they will be uprooted from the heart and their violence will subside.  In this task give free scope to your power of discernment and lead your heart in its wake.

This struggle against the forces of evil is absolutely essential if we are to break our own will.  It is necessary to go on working on ourselves in this way until, instead of self-pity, there is born in us mercilessness and ruthlessness towards ourselves, a desire to suffer, to torture ourselves, to tire out our soul and body.  This must be continued until, instead of trying to please men, we form a feeling of repulsion against all bad habits and connections -- until we form a hostile and fierce resistance against them, at the same time submitting ourselves to all the wrongs and disparagements which men inflict upon us.  It is necessary to go on working until our appetite exclusively for things material, sensory, and visible disappears completely, and is replaced by a feeling of disgust for such things; and instead we begin to thirst and to search only for what is spiritual, pure, and divine.  Instead of earthliness -- the limitation of life and happiness solely to this earth -- the heart comes to be filled with a sense of being but a pilgrim on earth, whose whole longing is for his heavenly home.

-- After the initial awakening by grace, the first step belongs to man's free will.  Exercising this free will, he journeys into himself in three ways.  First, his will inclines towards good and chooses it.  Secondly, it removes obstacles: in order to disrupt the ties which bind him to sin, it banishes from his heart self-pity, the desire to please men, the inclination towards things sensory and earthy, and in their stead it stirs up mercilessness to himself, absence of desire for things of the senses, acceptance of every kind of disgrace.  It makes him feel that his true home lies in the world to come, whereas here he is but a wanderer and an exile.  Thirdly, free will is inspired to start at once on the right path, permitting no self-indulgence, and making man hold himself constantly on the alert.

In this way everything calms down in the soul.  Incited by grace, the man is freed from all shackles, and with complete readiness says to himself: I will rise up and go forth.

From this moment another movement starts in the soul -- movement towards God.  Having mastered himself by understanding the motives of all his inclinations, thus regaining inner freedom, he must now sacrifice the whole of himself to God.  Yet only half of the work so far has been achieved.

-- From the moment when your heart starts to be kindled with divine warmth your inner transformation will properly begin.  This slight flame will in time consume and melt everything within you, it will begin and continue to spiritualize your being to the full.  Indeed, until this flame starts to burn, there will be no spiritualization, in spite of all your strivings to achieve it.  Thus the engendering of its first flicker is all that matters at this moment, and to this end be sure to direct all your efforts.

But while you must realize that this kindling cannot take place in you while the passions are still strong and vigorous, even though they may not in fact be indulged.  Passions are the dampness in the fuel of your being, and damp wood does not burn.  There is nothing else to be done except to bring in dry wood from outside and light this, allowing the flames from it to dry out the damp wood, until this in its turn is dry enough to begin slowly to catch alight.  And so little by little the burning of the dry wood will disperse the dampness and will spread, until all the wood is enveloped in flames.

All the powers of the soul and activities of the body are the fuel of our being, but so long as man does not pay heed to himself these are all saturated and rendered ineffective by the soggy dampness of his passions.  Until the passions are driven out, they obstinately resist spiritual fire.  Passions penetrate into both the soul and the body, and overpower even man's spirit itself, his consciousness and freedom; and in this manner they come to dominate him entirely.  As they are in league with devils, through them the devils also dominate man, although he falsely imagines that he is his own master.

Delivered by the grace of God, the spirit is the first to tear itself out of these fetters.  Filled with the fear of God and under the influence of grace, the spirit breaks every bond with passion, and repenting of the past, firmly resolves henceforward to please God alone in everything, to live only for Him, to walk according to His commandments.  With the help of the grace of God, the spirit is able to stand firm in this resolution, banishing passions from the soul and body, and spiritualizing all within itself.

And now in you too, the spirit has been liberated from the bonds which held it.  You are standing on the side of God, consciously and by deliberate choice.  Your desire is to belong to God and to please him alone, and this is the mainstay of your spiritual activity.  But while your spirit has been re-established in its rightful freedom, the soul and body are still under the sway of passions and suffer violence from them.  You have now to arm yourself against your passions and to conquer them.  Drive them out of your soul and body.  This struggle against the passions is unavoidable, for they will not willingly yield up their
illegal possession of your being.

Recollection of God is the life of the spirit.  It fires your zeal to please God, and makes unshakeable your decision to belong to Him.  It is, I repeat, the mainstay of the spiritual life; and it is, I will add, the base for your campaign against every passion that invades the heart.  END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 200 - 206