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 14, 2012

ST. NILUS OF SINAI - 153 Texts on Prayer (PART I)

In this issue, we will begin a two-part look at St. Nilus of Sinai, a desert father who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.

From a wealthy and well-known family, St. Nilus was apparently a pupil of St. John Chrysostom, and he was married with two children. His spiritual aspirations conflicted with his worldly demands, however, so after reaching agreement with his wife, St. Nilus renounced the world and went to Mount Sinai to life a life of solitude with his son, Theodul. This was in 390 and he was to remain a monk for the next sixty years.

With the help of his son, St. Nilus dug a cave and settled down, subsisting only on bitter wild plants. They spent all their time in prayer, study of Scripture, meditation, and labors. However, St. Nilus did not neglect communication with his fellow man as people from far and wide appealed to him for spiritual council; no one was ever left without direction and advice.

God tested St. Nilus in a very strong and special way. Sinai and the surrounding countryside were invaded by barbarians from Arabia who pillaged everything, slaughtered many innocents, and led others away into captivity, including St. Nilus’s son, Theodul. Two or three days after the raid, he heard that the barbarians were about to sacrifice his son as an offering to Venus, but he was not able to confirm whether the sacrifice had actually taken place.

Eventually he heard that his son was sold in a Christian country where, after lengthy enquiries, St. Nilus learned that the bishop of Elusius had bought Theodulus and other slaves and was preparing him for the service of the Church. When St. Nilus arrived in that town to find his son, the bishop tried to persuade him to enter the priesthood, too, but their love of solitude prevented them from agreeing to stay. The bishop then ordained them both to the priesthood and let them return to their beloved Sinai where they stayed to the end of their lives. St. Nilus went to his eternal reward in about 450. St. Nilus’s main writing is a book of "153 Texts on Prayer," which corresponds to the number of fish that St. Peter caught in John 21:2. We are excerpting the first half of those texts here and will complete the second half next week:

BEGIN: -- Prayer is the speaking of the mind to God. What structure does the mind need so that, not looking back (nor hither and thither), it may rise to the Lord and converse with Him, with no intermediary?

-- If Moses was forbidden to approach the earthly burning bush until he had loosed his sandals from off his feet (Exodus 3:5), how can you not cast away from yourself every passionate thought when you wish to see Him, Who is above all feeling and thought, and to converse with Him?

-- When you shed floods of tears during prayer, do not exalt yourself for this, as though you were above many others. It is that your prayer has received help from above, so that, having zealously confessed your sins, you may incline the almighty to mercy by your tears.

-- Stand patiently and pray steadfastly, brushing off the impacts of worldly cares and all thoughts; for they distract and worry you in order to disturb the impetus of your prayer.

-- When the demons see that someone has the zeal and diligence to pray as he ought, then they suggest to him thoughts about something, supposedly important (and then draw away); but a little later they again call up the memory of this thing, urging his mind to examine it (if it is a problem – to solve it; if it is a thing – to acquire it); and he, not finding what he seeks, feels vexed and grieved. Then, when he stands up to pray, the demons remind him of what he had thought of and sought for, so that his mind should once more be moved to inquiry and his prayer become barren.

-- Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb during prayer; then you will be able to pray as you ought.

-- When you pray as you ought, there may come into your mind things about which it seems right to be angry with your brother. There is absolutely no anger against your brother which could be justified. If you look, you will find that the question can be settled quite well without anger. Therefore do your best not to be moved to anger.

-- Do not pray that things may be according to your desires, for they are not always in keeping with the will of God. Better pray as you were taught, saying: "Thy will be done" on me (Matthew 6:10). And ask thus about all things, for He always desires what is good and profitable for your soul, whereas you do not always seek it.

-- Do not grieve if you do not at once receive from God that which you ask. He wishes to benefit you still more by making you persist longer in your patient prayer before Him. For what can be higher than to address one’s converse to God and be in communion with Him?

-- Pray firstly to be purified of passions, secondly to be freed from ignorance and forgetfulness, and thirdly to be delivered from all temptation and forsaking.

-- Seek in prayer only righteousness and the kingdom, that is virtue and knowledge – and all the rest "shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).

-- When the sly demon, after using many devices, fails to hinder the prayer of the diligent, he desists a little; but when the man has finished his prayer, he takes his revenge. He either fires his anger and thus destroys the fair state produced by prayer, or excites an impulse towards some animal pleasure and thus mocks his mind.

-- Why do demons wish to excite in us gluttony, fornication, greed, anger, rancor and other passions? So that the mind, under their weight, should be unable to pray as it ought; for when the passions of our irrational part begin to act, they prevent the mind from acting rationally.

-- He who prays in spirit and in truth does not borrow from creatures thoughts to glorify the Creator, but draws from the Creator Himself contemplations for His praise.

-- When your mind, inflamed by longing for God, little by little divests itself of flesh, as it were, and turns away from all thoughts engendered by sensory impressions, or from memory, being at the same time full of adoration and rejoicing, then you may conclude that it has approached the boundaries of prayer. END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 127 - 135.