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, July 29, 2012

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - PART IV (Choosing Between Right and Wrong)

Today we will continue our look at the teachings of two Desert Fathers of sixth century Palestine, Sts. Barsanuphius and John.  This series will continue over several issues as much of what they have to teach us goes right to the heart of the questions each of us faces in our own individual pilgrimages. Today’s questions focus on choosing between right and wrong:

BEGIN: Q: If before the soul there are two harmful things, and it is absolutely impossible to avoid one of them, what should one do?

A: Of two harmful things, one should choose the less harmful.  In the stories of the Fathers it is written: Someone came to ask of another a dinar, and the other did not give it, saying: “I have nothing to give you.”  When he was asked why he did not give it to him, he replied: “If I had given him one, it would have caused harm to his soul, and therefore I preferred to violate one commandment rather than allow something ruinous for the soul.”

-- Q: I was sent on business to the Holy City (Jerusalem), and from there I went down to pray at the Jordan, without asking permission for this from the Abba.  Did I do well or not?

A: Without being commanded, one should not go anywhere.  That which we do according to our own thoughts, even if it seems good to us, is not pleasing to God.  But in keeping the commandment of your Abba who sent you is both prayer and pleasing to God, Who said: “I came down not to do My own will, but the will of the Father Who sent Me” (John 6:38).

-- If it happens (in some case) that you do not have at hand one from whom to ask counsel, then, naming your Elder, pray thus: “God of ______ (Elder)!  Do not allow me to incline away from Thy will and the counsel of Thy slave, but instruct me how to act.”  And what God shall inform you, that do.

-- Q: My Master!  How many times should one pray so that one’s thoughts might receive assurance about this?

A: When you cannot ask the Elder, one should pray three times about every matter, and after this look to see where the heart is inclined, even though it might be fallen, and act in this way.  For (this) assurance is noticeable and in every understandable to the heart.

-- Q: How should one pray these three times - at different times, or all at the same time?  For it also happens that one cannot put off some matters.

A: If you have free time, pray three times in the course of three days; but if there is extreme need, when there is a difficulty, as at the time of the Savior’s betrayal ├▒ then take as your example that He went away three times for prayer and prayed pronouncing the same words three times (Matthew 26:44).  Even though, as it seemed, He was not heard, for it was absolutely essential that that dispensation should be fulfilled, still by this example He instructs us also not to become sorrowful when we pray and are not heard at that time; for He knows better than we what is profitable for us.  But in any case let us not leave off giving thanks.

-- Q: And if after prayer I do not quickly receive assurance, what should I do?  And when this happens by my own fault, but is hidden from me, how can I understand this?

A: If after the third prayer you do not receive assurance, know that you yourself are to blame for this; and if you do not recognize your transgression, reproach yourself, and God will have mercy on you.

-- Q: A thought instigates me not to ask the Saints so as to understand what is profitable, lest, having disdained this in my infirmity, I should sin.

A: This thought is very harmful; in no way listen to it.  For one who, having understood what is profitable, sins, condemns himself in every way; but he who sins without having understood what is profitable, never condemns himself, and his passions remain unhealed.  And this is why the devil instils in him (such a thought), so that his passions will remain unhealed.  But when the thought instils into you that you cannot fulfill the answer (of the Elder) out of infirmity, then ask in this way: “My Father!  I desire to do such and such; tell me what is profitable, although I know that even if you tell me I cannot fulfill and keep what is said; but I wish to learn only so as to condemn myself for having disdained what is profitable.”  This will lead you to humility.  May the Lord preserve your heart by the prayers of the Saints.  Amen.  END

from “Saints Barsanuphius and John: Guidance Toward Spiritual Life,” trans. by Fr. Seraphim Rose, (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1990), pp. 94 - 96 (selections).