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, October 21, 2012

ST. JOHN OF KARPATHOS - Instructions for the Monks in India (PART II)

For both monks and laypersons struggling to live the Christian life, the thought often comes to us that we should "give up" and stop struggling. Such thoughts are very common and have been faced by all the great ascetics and spiritual warriors over the centuries. In today's newsletter, the second of two parts, we will look at some of the writings of St. John of Karpathos, who wrote 100 texts to some monks in India who were facing this problem. Last week, I quoted the Philokalia edition from which St. John's writings were taken and said that he lived in the seventh century. One of our list members kindly corrected this by pointing out that other scholars have placed St. John in the fifth and sixth centuries, instead. Another member pointed out that some sources credit these texts to Evagrius of Pontus.

Whatever the authorship and the scholarship behind this work, it speaks directly to the heart of the spiritual struggler who feels discouraged and ready to give up.

BEGIN: How can we overcome the sinfulness that is already firmly established within us? We must use force. A man labors and struggles, and so by the use of force he escapes from destruction, always striving to raise his thoughts to holiness.   We are not forbidden to resist force with force. If in any ascetic task we exert force, however slight, then, "remaining in Jerusalem," we can wait for the "power from on high" which will come down upon us (Luke 24:49). In other words, if we persevere in unceasing prayer and the other virtues, there will come upon us a mighty force, infinitely stronger than any we can exert.  This force cannot be described in human language; in its great strength it overcomes our worst faults of character and the malice of the demons, conquering both the sinful inclinations of our soul and the disordered impulses of our body. "There came a sound from heaven as of a rushing violent wind" (Acts 2:2); and this force from  heaven drives out the evil that is always forcing us into sin.

-- The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares, in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible. Prayer, the recitation of psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive listening to the words of Scripture -- all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare.

-- The Law says about a bull which is given to goring other bulls: "If men have protested to the owner and he has not destroyed the animal, he shall pay" (Exodus 21:36). You should apply this to your thoughts and impulses. Sometimes during a meal the impulse of self-esteem springs up inside you, urging you to speak at the wrong moment. Then angelic thoughts protest within you and tell you to destroy this impulse to speak.  If you do not resist the impulse by keeping silent as you should, but allow it to come out into the open because you are puffed up by delusion, then you will have to pay the penalty. As a punishment you will perhaps be tempted to commit some grave sin; alternatively, you may experience severe bodily pain, or be involved in violent conflict with your brethren, or else suffer torment in the age to come. We shall have to give account for every idle and conceited word spoken by our ill-disciplined tongue. Let us guard our tongue, then, with watchfulness.

-- Never form a close friendship with someone who enjoys noisy and drunken feasts, or who likes telling dirty stories, even though he may have been a monk for many years. Do not let his filth defile you; do not fall under the influence of people who are unclean and uncircumcised in heart.

-- If someone launches a fierce and determined attack on the demons through his self-control, prayer or any other form of holiness, they retaliate by inflicting deeper wounds upon him.  Eventually he is reduced to despair, and feels in his soul that he has received a spiritual death-sentence. He is even brought to say: "Who will deliver me from the body of this death? For I am compelled against my will to submit to the laws of my adversary" (Romans 7:23-24).

-- Pharaoh entreated, saying: "May God take away from me this death" (Exodus 10:17), and he was heard. Similarly, when the demons asked the Lord not to cast them into the abyss, their request was granted (Luke 8:31). How much more, then, will a Christian be heard when he prays to be delivered from spiritual death?

-- It may happen that for a certain time a man is illumined and refreshed by God's grace, and then this grace is withdrawn.  This makes him inwardly confused and he starts to grumble; instead of seeking through steadfast prayer to recover his assurance of salvation, he loses patience and gives up. He is like a beggar who receives alms from the palace, and feels put out because he was not asked inside to dine with the king.

-- "Then the devil left Him, and angels came and ministered to Him" (Matthew 4:11). It does not say that the angels were with out Lord during the actual time when He was being tempted. In the same way, when we are being tempted, God's angels for a time withdraw a little. Then, after the departure of those tempting us, they come and minister to us with divine intellections, giving us support, illumination, compunction, encouragement, patient endurance, joyfulness, and everything that saves and strengthens and renews our exhausted soul. As Nathaniel was told, "You will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:51); in other words, the ministry and assistance of the angels will be given generously to mankind.

-- Fire makes iron impossible to touch, and likewise frequent prayer renders the intellect more forceful in its warfare against the enemy. That is why the demons strive with all their strength to make us slothful in attentiveness to prayer, for they know that prayer is the intellect's invincible weapon against them.

-- When David went out from the city ofZiklag to fight the Amalekites, some of the men with him were so exhausted that they stayed behind at the brook Besor and took no part in the battle (Samuel 30:10). Returning after his victory, he heard the rest of his troops saying that no share in the spoils should be given to the men who had stayed behind; and he saw that these themselves were ashamed and kept silent. But David recognized that they had wanted to fight, and so in his kindness he spoke in their defense, saying that they had remained behind to guard the baggage; and on this ground he gave them as large a share in the spoils as he gave to the others who had fought bravely in the battle. You should behave in the same way towards a brother who shows fervor at first, but then grows slack. In the case of this brother and his salvation, the baggage consists of faith and repentance, humility and tears, patience, hope, long-suffering and the like. If in spite of his slackness he yet guards this baggage, waiting expectantly for Christ's coming, he  is rightly given an eternal reward.

-- Blessed is he who, with a hunger that is never satisfied, day and night throughout this present life makes prayer and the psalms his food and drink, and strengthens himself by reading of God's glory in Scripture. Such communion will lead the soul to ever-increasing joy in the age to come.

-- Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God's grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written, "If a righteous man fall seven times" -- that is, repeatedly throughout his life -- seven times "shall he rise again" (Proverbs 24:16). So long as you hold fast, with tears and prayer, to the weapon of the monastic habit, you will be counted among those that stand upright, even though you fall again and again. So long as you remain a monk, you will be like a brave soldier who faces the blows of the enemy; and God will commend you, because even when struck you refused to surrender or run away. But if you give up the monastic life, running away like a coward and a deserter, the enemy will strike you in the back; and you will lose your freedom of communion with God. END

from "The Philokalia: the Complete Text" (volume I), by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. By G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and (Bishop) Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 310 - 321.