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 20, 2012

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

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.  In Part III of our series, we will look today at “Inner and External Work.” Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.

BEGIN: (from “Paradise of the Fathers”)  A brother asked Abba Agathon: “Tell me, Abba, which is greater, physical work or guarding what lies within?”  The Abba replied: “Man is like a tree; physical work is the leaves and guarding what lies within is the fruit.  Now it says in the Gospel, ‘Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire’ (Matthew 3:10): clearly, then, all our care should be about the fruit, that is, about guarding the mind.  But we also need the protection and adornment of leaves, that is, physical work.”

-- The chief enemy of life in God is a profusion of worldly cares.  This profusion of cares impels a man into an endless round of secular activities.  Every day, from morning till night, it drives him from one job to another, not giving him a moment’s rest, leaving him no time to turn to God and to remain for a while uplifted in prayer to Him.

This profusion of cares has no place among monks.  Those who understand this enter a monastery simply in order to free themselves from this torture of cares.  And they are freed.  When the multitude of cares subsides, the mind and heart are left completely free and there is nothing to hinder them from remaining in God and taking their joy in Him.  Those who practise the monastic life in an intelligent way, quickly gain
success in this and become firmly established in their purpose.  All that remains thereafter is to maintain this treasure of freedom from cares; and such people do in fact manage to maintain it.  Every monk or nun has a task to carry out in the course of the twenty-four hours.  Since these tasks are a matter of routine, they do not demand any special attention; and so the hands can be at work while the mind converses with God and thus feeds the heart.  This norm for the inner order of things was long ago recommended by St. Anthony the Great.  So you see that even monks have an active life, similar to the active life of laymen.  Only their activities are not accompanied by the multitude of cares which gnaw at the minds of laymen.  It is this freedom from anxiety, resulting from the ordered sequence of the monastic life, that enables them to hold fast to their aim ñ in other words, to remain constantly with God and in God.

-- Do not overlook the fact that health does not depend on food alone, but above all on inner peace.  Life in God, cutting us off from worldly turmoil, brings peace to the heart and, through this, keeps the body also in good health.

Activities are not the main thing in life.  The most important thing is to have the heart directed and attuned to God.

-- There are two ways to become one with God: the active way and the contemplative way.  The first is for Christians who live in the world, the second for those who have abandoned all worldly things.  But in practice neither way can exist in total isolation from the other.  Those who live in the world must also keep to the contemplative way in some measure.  As I told you before, you should accustom yourself to remember the Lord always and to walk always before His face.  That is what is meant by the contemplative way.

The question arises: how can we hold the Lord in our attention while busy with various activities?  This is how it can be done.  Whatever your occupation, great or small, reflect that it is the omnipresent Lord Himself who orders you to perform it and who watches to see how you are carrying it out.  If you keep this thought constantly in mind you will fulfil attentively all the duties assigned to you and at the same time you will remember the Lord.  In this lies the whole secret of Christian conduct for one in your position, if you are to succeed in your chief aim.  Please think it over carefully and adjust yourself to this practice.  When you have done this your thoughts will cease to wander hither and thither.

Why is it that things are not going well with you just now?  I think it is because you wish to remember the Lord, forgetting worldly affairs.  But worldly affairs intrude into your consciousness and push out the remembrance of the Lord.  What you should do is just the reverse: you should busy yourself with worldly affairs, but think of them as a commission from the Lord, as something done in His presence.  As things are now, you fail both on the spiritual and on the material level.  But if you act as I have explained, things will go well in both spheres.

-- Learn to perform everything you do in such a way that it warms the heart instead of cooling it.  Whether reading or praying, working or talking with others, you should hold fast to this one aim ñ not to let your heart grow cool.  Keep your inner stove always hot by reciting a short prayer, and watch over your feelings in case they dissipate this warmth.  External impressions are very rarely in harmony with inner work.

-- Each man, then, must train himself, and instill into himself the truths contained in the words of Christ, so that they enter and dwell within him.  With this purpose in view he should read them and reflect on them, and commit them to memory; he should learn to be in inward sympathy with them, feeling a deep love for them, and then he should put them into practice.  This last is the whole aim of self-education.  So long as this is lacking we cannot say of a man that he has taught himself, even if he knows the words of Christ by heart and is good at reasoning.  It is precisely for their lack of this that St. Paul reproached the Jews in his Epistle to the Romans: “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” (Romans 2:21).  If a man preaches Christ but does not himself live in Him, then the word of Christ has not entered him.

It is clear that any kind of education by others only brings fruit when combined with a man’s own teaching of himself.  Each must make himself realize the sense of what he is taught, so that after hearing or reading something he persuades himself not only to think exactly like that, but also to feel and to act so.  For the word of Christ enters a man to dwell in him, only if he succeeds in persuading himself to believe and to live according to it.

A man is indeed unwise if he reads diligently the words of God but fails to ponder over them, not making himself feel their meaning and not practising them in actual life.  For then the word of God flows through him like water in a gutter, without entering him or leaving a trace.  We can know all the Gospels and Epistles by heart and yet not have the word of Christ dwelling within, because we have not studied them in the right way.  Thus a man acts foolishly if he feeds only his mind with the word of Christ, but does not bother to bring his heart and his life into correspondence with it.  And so it stays in him like sand poured into his head and memory, which lies there dead instead of living.  The word of Christ lives only when it passes into feeling and life; but in such a man this does not happen, and so we cannot say that the word of Christ dwells in him.  END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 231 - 247