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 13, 2012

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

Today we will continue with 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.  Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine.  Last week we began this series with ìWar With Passions.î  In Part II of our series, we will look today at ìKnow Yourself.î Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.

BEGIN: -- A soul untried by sorrows is good for nothing.

-- There is but one road to the kingdom of God; a cross, voluntary or involuntary.

-- Until the soul is established with the mind in the heart, it does not see itself, nor is it properly aware of itself.

-- True self-knowledge is to see one’s own defects and weaknesses so clearly that they fill our whole view.  And mark this ñ the more you see yourself at fault and deserving of every censure, the more you will advance.

-- A sense of our own righteousness does us great harm.  Keep firmly in mind the point that the moment this feeling arises, however feebly, it is a sure sign that our efforts have gone wrong.  The greater your conviction that you are a sinner, the more certain it is that you are traveling on the right path.  But this feeling of sinfulness should spring from the depths of the soul in a natural way, instead of being suggested from without by our own reflections, or by some remark from another person.

There are many good feelings, but the feeling of worthlessness is the most fundamental; and when it is absent everything else is of no use.  Commit this carefully to your memory.

-- (The Nun Magdalina) Why do we criticize others?  Because we do not try to know ourselves.  Whoever is busy trying to know himself has no time to notice the faults of others.  Judge yourself and you will stop judging others.  Regard every man as better than you are, for without this thought a man is far from God, even though he performs miracles.

-- Examine yourself to see whether you have within you a strong sense of your own importance, or, negatively, whether you have failed to realize that you are nothing.  This feeling of self-importance is deeply hidden, but it controls the whole of our life.  Its first demand is that everything should be as we wish it, and as soon as this is not so we complain to God and are annoyed with people.

The high value we set on ourselves, in consequence of this feeling of importance, not only upsets our relationship with other men but also our attitude to God.  Self-importance is as wily as the devil and cleverly conceals itself behind humble words, settling itself firmly in the heart so that we swing between self-depreciation and self-praise.

-- It must be understood that a man struggling towards perfection is not himself aware of the progress which he makes on his path.  He toils with the sweat of his brow, but (so far as he can see) his labor bears no fruit.  This is because grace works secretly.  The eye of human vision does not discern the good which he is doing.  The way to perfection is through the realization that we are blind, poor, and naked.  This sense of nakedness is closely linked with contrition of the spirit, when in unceasing repentance we pour out before God our grief and sorrow at our impurity.  Penitent feelings are an essential element of true spiritual progress, and whoever evades them is deviating from the right way.  Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.  On reaching spiritual maturity man becomes acutely conscious of his sinfulness and corruption, and his sense of contrition and repentance grows ever more profound.  Tears are the measure of progress, and unceasing tears are a sign of coming purification.

-- Do not let the eye of the mind turn away from the heart; and when anything comes forth from there, at once catch it and examine it.  If it is good, let it be; if it is not good, it must be killed at once.  In this way, learn to know yourself.  If some thought emerges more often than others, it signifies a passion stronger than the rest.  This means that you must combat it with greater energy.  Yet do not place any reliance on yourself and do not expect to achieve anything by your own efforts.  All means of healing and all remedies are sent by the Lord.  So give yourself up to Him ñ- and this at all times.  Strive and go on striving; but expect all good to come only from the Lord.

-- Look to yourself, and have more concern with the heart.  To discriminate between movements of the heart, read and reflect on the writings of Sts. John of the Ladder, Isaac of Syria, Barsanouphios and John, also of Diadochos, Philotheos, Abba Isaias, Evagrios, Cassian, and Neilos in the “Philokalia”; and apply what they say to yourself.  When you read, do not just leave impressed on your mind a general idea of the author’s argument, but always turn what he says into a personal rule to be applied to yourself.  When you do this, the general idea you have formed always undergoes some shades of change.

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 222 - 231