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. The first week we began this series with ìWar With Passions,î and followed that with "Know Yourself." Much of St. Theophan’s teachings come to us in the form of letters he wrote to lay persons so his advice is very practical and down-to-earth for those who are trying to grow spiritually. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.
BEGIN: -- Once you go into a monastery you have to face solitude. Life in a monastery is hard for anyone who would like to live there in company with many others, as he would in society. In a monastery you must know only one person -ñthe abbot, or else your father confessor and staretz (literally, an “elder”: a monk or occasionally a layperson distinguished for his saintliness, long experience in the spiritual life, and special gift for guiding the soul of others.) Towards the others your attitude should be as though they were not present. Then everything will go well; otherwise the commotion is worse than at a ball in St. Petersburg.
-- This friend, this lady of whom you write to me, does she think that in renouncing the tumult of the world she has already done all that is necessary? Does she not realize that the world can still be with us in the heart, so long as we are simply living as we please, solely to gratify ourselves?
-- You know, of course, that your whole purpose at the moment is to change yourself inwardly. And so, corresponding to these inward changes and obeying the impulse that comes from them, external things must be changed as well. My advice to you in your present position is this. Begin retreating into solitude at your own home, and dedicate these hours of solitude to praying above all for one thing: “Make known to me, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk” (Psalms 143:8). Pray thus not merely in words and thought, but also from your heart. For this time of solitude, set aside certain hours every day, which is the better way; or else certain days of the week. And then observe this time of solitude properly, seeking above all for enlightenment, and to be shown the right way by God. To this add the practice of fasting, which affects the flesh: it will be a good aid to prayer. And during this time try, by way of experiment, to make acts of inward renunciation ñ now of one thing, now another ñ in order to become indifferent to everything; and retreat into seclusion in such a way that nothing can draw you back. The aim is to bring your soul to a state in which it longs to escape from its present way of life as a prisoner seeks to break loose from his fetters.
-- You should devote your moments of solitude exclusively to working for God ñ to prayer and the thought of God. These practices, if followed even reasonably aright, will not allow you to grow bored. For they bring spiritual consolation such as nothing else on earth can give.
-- You say you would like to become a recluse. It is too soon for this; and there is no need. After all, you live alone, and your visitors are few and far between. Going to church does not interrupt your solitude but intensifies it, and gives you the strength to pass your time in prayer at home as well. From time to time you could perhaps stay indoors for a day or two, endeavoring to be with God all the time. But in your case this already happens of itself, so there is no need to make plans about becoming a recluse. When your prayer has gained such stability that it keeps you always face to face with God in your heart, you will have seclusion without being a recluse. For what does it really mean to be a recluse? It means that your mind, enclosed in the heart, stands before God in reverence and feels no desire to leave the heart or to occupy itself with anything else. Seek this kind of seclusion and do not worry about the others. Even behind closed doors one can wander about the world, or let the whole world invade one’s room.
-- To be vexed and annoyed if someone interrupts your solitude is very wrong. This comes of thinking too highly of yourself; it is as if you said, “Do not DARE to hinder ME!” Here the enemy triumphs within you. Make it a rule not to give in to this feeling of annoyance. Exasperation and anger are permissible only when directed against our own evil thoughts and feelings.
-- It is good to withdraw from distractions under the protection of four walls, but it is even better to withdraw into solitude within oneself. The first without the second is nothing, whereas the last is of the utmost value even without the first.
It is an excellent thing to go to church, but if you can accustom yourself to pray at home as if in church, such prayer at home is equally valuable.
Just as a man sees another face to face, try thus to stand before the Lord, so that your soul is face to face with him. This is something so natural that there should have been no need to mention it especially, for by its very nature the soul should strive always toward God. And the Lord is always near. There is no need to arrange an introduction between them for they are old acquaintances.
-- You thirst for a definite seclusion. It would be better to wait. External seclusion will come of itself once inner seclusion is established. God will arrange about that. Yet do not forget that you can be alone amid the noise of the world; and equally you can be surrounded by the hubbub of the world whilst withdrawn in your cell. You will have something better than external seclusion if you retreat in this way within yourself, thus making it impossible for any external turmoil to distract you. Pray that you may be granted this.
From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 250 - 256