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. 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: -- The abiding of our soul with the Lord, which is the whole essence of inner work, is not something that depends upon us. The Lord visits the soul, and the soul dwells with Him; the soul rejoices before Him and He fills it with spiritual warmth. Then the Lord withdraws and at once the soul is empty, nor does it lie at all within its power to make the Good Visitor of souls return. The Lord withdraws to put the soul to the test, or sometimes to punish it, not so much for external trespasses but for some inner evil to which the soul has granted admission. When the Lord withdraws to put the soul to the test, He quickly returns once more when it begins to call out to Him. But when He withdraws as a punishment, He does not soon return ñ not until the soul has realized the sin it has committed, has repented, has wept over it and done penance.
-- Above all, watch carefully when the soul grows cool. This is a bitter and dangerous state. The Lord uses it as one of His means of guidance, instruction, and correction. But it can also be a kind of punishment. The reason is usually an open sin, but since in your case no such sin is in evidence, the cause should be sought in inner feelings and dispositions. It may be that a high opinion of yourself has stolen into you, and you think that you are not like the others? Maybe you are planning to tread the path of salvation by yourself and to ascend on high by your own efforts?
-- You undertake different tasks, so you tell me, “in most cases unwillingly and without any eagerness I have to force myself.” But this, after all, is a basic principle in the spiritual life to set yourself in opposition to what is bad and to force yourself to do what is good. This is the meaning of the Lord’s words, “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). This is why following the Lord is a yoke. If all were done eagerly, where would be the yoke? Yet in the end it so comes about that everything is done easily and willingly. . . .
-- As soon as you turn away, however slightly, from God, and no longer place your trust in Him, things go awry; for then the Lord withdraws, as though saying, “You have put your trust in something else; very well, rely on that instead.” And whatever it may be it proves utterly worthless.
-- You see how cold it is without grace, and how listless and inert the soul is towards anything spiritual. This is the state of good pagans, of Jews faithful to the Law, and of Christians who lead blameless lives but do not think about their inner life and its relation to God. Yet they do not feel an ache like yours, because (unlike you) they know nothing of the effects of grace. Since from time to time it falls to their lot to experience a kind of spiritual consolation - natural, not grace-given - they remain at peace.
What keeps grace in the soul more than anything else? Humility. What makes it withdraw more than anything else? Feelings of pride, a high opinion of oneself, self-reliance. Grace departs as soon as it senses this evil stench of inner pride.
-- We grow cold within when our heart is distracted, when it cleaves to something other than God, worrying about different things, getting angry and blaming someone when we are discontented and pander to the flesh, wallowing in luxury and wandering thoughts. Guard against these things, and the coldness will diminish.
As to the heart - where else is life if not in the heart?
-- How many times already have you been made aware of the duty which your conscience dictates to you - the duty to remain with the Lord, not preferring anything else to Him? Perhaps your awareness of this duty no longer ever leaves you. May the actual practice of it likewise prevail constantly within you; for this, after all, is our true aim. When we are with the Lord, the Lord too is with us; and everything is bright. When the window curtains are drawn apart in a room and the sun shines, the room is full of light. If you draw the curtain over one window it will be darker, and when you draw them all the room will be in total darkness. It is the same with the soul. When it is turned towards God with all its powers and feelings, everything in it is bright, joyful, and calm. But when it turns its attention and feeling to something else this brightness diminishes. The greater the number of things that occupy the soul, the greater the darkness that invades it; and then complete darkness may result. It is not so much thoughts that bring this darkness, as feelings; while a single instance of being carried away by the feelings is less likely to bring darkness than is a continued passionate attachment to some object. The greatest darkness of all comes from external acts of sin. END
From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 257 - 261