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 17, 2012

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

In this issue, we will conclude our 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 inquiries, 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 second half of those texts here:

BEGIN: -- If you pray truly, you will receive assurances of many things, and angels will come to you as they came to Daniel, and will enlighten you with understanding of causes, the wherefore of all things.

-- Pray in peace and serenity, sing intelligently and in a good state – and you will be like a young eagle soaring high in the sky.

-- Prayer is an activity becoming to the dignity of the mind, or rather, is its real use.

-- Knowledge is an excellent thing; it helps prayer, inciting the power of the mind to the contemplation of Divine knowledge.

-- If you have not yet received the gift of prayer or psalmody, ask persistently, and you will receive.

-- Do not wish what concerns you to be as seems (best) to you, but as God wishes; and you will be free from cares and thankful in your prayer.

-- Even if you already appear to be with God, beware the demon of fornication; for it has great fascination and is full of cunning, constantly trying to overcome the transport of your sober mind and to draw it away from God, even when it stands before God with reverence and fear.

-- He who endures distress, will be granted joys; and he who bears with unpleasant things, will not be deprived of the pleasant.

-- You should also know the following subterfuge of the demons: at times they divide themselves into groups. Some come with a temptation; and when you ask for help others come in the guise of angels and chase away the first, to make you believe that they are true angels, and fall into vainglory, through having been granted such a thing.

-- As bread is food for the body and virtue is food for the soul, so spiritual prayer is food for the mind.

-- Strive not to pray against someone in your prayer, lest you destroy what you are building, by making your prayer an abomination (before God).

-- While another God-loving monk was practicing inner prayer walking in the wilderness, two angels appeared and walked along on either side of him. But he never turned his attention to them for a moment, lest he should lose something better, for he remembered the words of the Apostle, neither "angels, no principalities, nor powers . . . shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38, 39).

-- Never desire nor seek to see any face or image during prayer.

-- Blessed is the mind which, praying without distraction, acquires ever greater longing for God.

-- Blessed is the mind which, during prayer, is drawn neither to the material nor to possessions.

-- Blessed is the mind which, during prayer, is insensible to all things.

-- Do not shun poverty and afflictions, these wings of buoyant prayer.

-- It happens sometimes that the demons suggest some thoughts to you and then urge you to pray against them, to oppose them, and then quickly withdraw to make you fall into delusion, imagining that you have already begun to conquer thoughts and to intimidate the demons.

-- It happens sometimes that in doing good to one man you suffer harm from another, so that, meeting with injustice, you may say or do something unseemly and thus lose what you have gained. This is precisely the aim of the evil demons. So pay intelligent heed to yourself.

-- He who remains in sin and continues to anger God, and who shamelessly strives to understand Divine things and to acquire transubstantial prayer, should remember the warning of the Apostle that it is not without danger for him to pray with head uncovered. In the words of the Apostle, such a soul ought "to have power on her head because of the angels" (I Corinthians 11:10), having clothed itself in modesty and suitable humility for the sake of those present.

-- Just as long and persistent staring at the sun in its noonday brilliance will bring no good to weak eyes, so imagination about the awesome and transubstantial prayer in spirit and in truth will bring no good to a passionate and impure mind. On the contrary, the Godhead will rise against it in wrath.

-- Prayer is to be praised not merely for quantity but also for quality. This is shown by the "two men (who) went up into the temple to pray" (Luke 18:10), and also by the words, "But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions" and so on (Matthew 6:7).

-- When, standing at prayer, you are above all other joy, know that you have truly attained 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. 137 - 143.