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)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

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

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 this issue, the first 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. St. John, as best the historians can figure, was bishop of the island of Karpathos which is situated between Crete and Rhodes. He lived in the seventh century. The "monks in India" may, in fact, have been living in Ethiopia although the record is not clear.

BEGIN: The moon as it waxes and wanes illustrates the condition of man; sometimes he does what is right, sometimes he sins and then through repentance returns to a holy life. The intellect of one who sins is not destroyed (as some of you think), just as the physical size of the moon does not diminish, but only its light. Through repentance a man regains his true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light. If a man believes in Christ, "even though he dies, he shall live" (John 11:25): he shall know that "I the Lord have spoken, and will do it" (Ezekiel 17:24).

-- The demons in their malice revive and rekindle the unclean passions within us, causing them to increase and multiply. But the visitation of the divine Logos, especially when accompanied by our tears, dissolves and kills the passions, even those that are inveterate. It gradually reduces to nothing the destructive and sinful impulses of soul and body, provided we do not grow listless but cling to the Lord with prayer and with hope that is unremitting and unashamed.

-- If someone is figuratively speaking an abortion, misshapen by sin, it is said that half his flesh is devoured in this life and half in the life to come (Numbers 12:12). For each of us will certainly experience the consequences of his own actions.

-- A monk should practice the virtue of fasting, avoid ensnarement by the passions, and at all times cultivate intense stillness.

-- In their hatred of our souls, the demons sometimes promptly others to pay us empty compliments, and thus cause us to grow slack because we are praised. If as a result we give way to conceit and self-esteem, our enemies have no difficulty in taking us prisoner.

-- The enemy knows that prayer is our invincible weapon against him, and so he tries to keep us from praying. He fills us with a desire for secular learning, and encourages us to spend our time on studies that we have already renounced. Let us resist his suggestions; otherwise, if we neglect our own fields and go wandering elsewhere, we shall harvest thorns and thistles instead of figs and grapes. "For the wisdom of this world is folly in God's sight" (I Corinthians 3:19).

-- Some hold that the practice of the virtues constitutes the truest form of spiritual knowledge. In that case, we should make every effort to manifest our faith and knowledge throughout our actions. Whoever trusts blindly to knowledge alone should call to mind the words: "They claim to know God, but in their actions they deny Him" (Titus 1:16).

-- Nothing so readily obliterates virtue as frivolous talk and making fun of things. On the other hand, nothing so readily renews the decrepit soul, and enables it to approach the Lord, as fear of God, attentiveness, constant meditation on the words of Scripture, the arming of oneself with prayer, and spiritual progress through the keeping of vigils.

-- Imagine that the Lord is saying to you: "For a time I have taken away from you this or that gift of grace, in which you expected your intellect to find fulfillment, and so to be at peace. To make up for this, I have given you instead some other gift. Yet you think only about what has been taken away, not noticing what has been given you in its place; and so you feel dejected, pained and full of gloom. Nevertheless, I am glad because of this gloom which I have brought on you. I make you dejected for your own good. My purpose is not to destroy but to save you, since I regard you as My son."

-- Suppose you have ordered yourself not to eat fish; you will find that the enemy continually makes you long to eat it. You are filled with an uncontrollable desire for the thing that is forbidden. In this way you can see how Adam's fall typifies what happens to all of us. Because he was told not to eat from a particular tree, he felt irresistibly attracted to the one thing that was forbidden him.

-- We should on no account wear ourselves out with anxiety over our bodily needs. With our whole soul let us trust in God: as one of the Fathers said, "Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you." "Show restraint and moderation," writes the Apostle Peter, "and be watchful in prayer . . . casting all your care upon God, since He cares for you" (I Peter 4:7 and 5:7). But if you still feel uncertainty, doubting whether He really cares about providing for you, think of the spider and compare it with a human being. Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect: "If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work -- nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord "who dwells on high but sees what is lowly" (Psalms 113:5-6), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

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. 298 - 309.