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, November 28, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - What is Christian Perfection and How to Achieve It?

We will begin a new study from another book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll examine the question, "What is Christian perfection and how to achieve it?"

BEGIN: . . . I will tell you plainly: the greatest and most perfect thing a man may desire to attain is to come near to God and dwell in union with Him.

There are many who say that the perfection of Christian life consists in fasts, vigils, genuflections, sleeping on bare earth and other similar austerities of the body. Others say that it consists in saying many prayers at home and in attending long services in Church. And there are others who think that our perfection consists entirely in mental prayer, solitude, seclusion and silence. But the majority limit perfection to a strict observance of all the rules and practices laid down by the statutes, falling into no excess or deficiency, but preserving a golden moderation. Yet all these virtues do not by themselves constitute the Christian perfection we are seeking, but are only means and methods for acquiring it.


There is no doubt whatever that they do represent means and effective means for attaining perfection in Christian life. For we see very many virtuous men, who practice these virtues as they should, to acquire strength and power against their own sinful and evil nature, -- to gain, through these practices, courage to withstand the temptations and seductions of our three main enemies: the flesh, the world, and the devil; an din an by these means to obtain the spiritual supports, so necessary to all servants of God and especially to beginners. They fast, to subdue their unruly flesh; they practice vigils to sharpen their inner vision, they sleep on bare earth, lest they become soft through sleep; they bind their tongue by silence and go into solitude to avoid the slightest inducement to offend against the All-Holy God; they recite prayers, attend Church services and perform other acts of devotion, to keep their mind on heavenly things; they read of the life and passion of our Lord, for the sole purpose of realizing more clearly their own deficiency and the merciful loving-kindness of God, -- to learn and to desire to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, bearing their cross with self- denial, and to make more and more ardent their love of God and their dislike of themselves.


On the other hand, these same virtues may do more harm than their open omission, to those who take them as the sole basis of their life and their hope; not from their nature, since they are righteous and holy, but through the fault of those, who use them not as they should be used; that is, when they pay attention only to the external practice of those virtues, and leave their heart to be moved by their own volitions and the volitions of the devil. For the latter, seeing that they have left the right path, gleefully refrains from interfering with their physical endeavors and even allows them to increase and multiply their efforts, in obedience to their own vain thought. Experiencing with this certain spiritual stirrings and consolations, such people begin to imagine that they have already reached the state of angels and feel that God Himself is present in them. And at times, engrossed in the contemplation of some abstract and unearthly things, they imagine that they have completely transcended the sphere of this world and have been ravished to the third heaven.


However, anyone can see clearly how sinfully such people behave and how far they are from true perfection, if he looks at their life and character. As a rule they always wish to be preferred to others; they love to live according to their own will and are always stubborn in their decisions; they are blind in everything relating to themselves, but are very clear-sighted and officious in examining the words and actions of others. If another man is held by others in the same esteem, which in their opinion they enjoy, they cannot bear it and become manifestly hostile towards him; if anyone interferes with them in their pious occupations and works of asceticism, especially in the presence of others, -- God forbid! -- they immediately become indignant, boil over with wrath and become quite unlike themselves. . . .


Now, having seen clearly and definitely that spiritual life and perfection do not only consist in these visible virtues, of which we have spoken, you must also learn that it consists in nothing but coming near to God and union with Him, as was said in the beginning. With this is connected a heartfelt realization of the goodness and greatness of God, together with consciousness of our own nothingness and our proneness to every evil; love of God and dislike of ourselves; submission not only to God but also to all creatures, for the sake of our love of God; renunciation of all will of our own and perfect obedience to the will of God; and moreover desire for all this and its practice with a pure heart to the glory of God (I Corinthians 10:31), from sheer desire to please God and only because He Himself wishes it and because we should so love Him and work for Him.


. . . Therefore, to reach your desired aim, it is first of all necessary to stifle your own wills and finally to extinguish and kill them altogether. And in order to succeed in this, you must constantly oppose all evil in yourself and urge yourself towards good. In other words, you must ceaselessly fight against yourself and against everything that panders to your own wills, that incites and supports them. So prepare yourself for this struggle and this warfare and know that the crown -- attainment of your desired aim -- is given to none except to the valiant among warriors and wrestlers.

But this is the hardest of all wars -- since in fighting against ourselves it is in ourselves that we meet opposition -- victory in it is the most glorious of all; and, what is the main thing, it is most pleasing to God. For if, inspired by fervor, you overcome and put to death your unruly passions, your lusts and wills, you will please God more, and will work for Him more beautifully, than if you flog yourself till you draw blood or exhaust yourself by fasts more than any ancient hermit of the desert. Even if you redeem hundreds of Christian slaves from the infidels and give them freedom, it will not save you, if with this you remain yourself a slave to your own passions. And whatever work you may undertake, however glorious, and with whatever effort and sacrifice you may accomplish it, it will not lead you to your desired aim, if you leave your passions without attention, giving them freedom to live and act in you.


Finally, after learning what constitutes Christian perfection and realizing that to achieve it you must wage a constant cruel war with yourself, if you really desire to be victorious in this unseen warfare and be rewarded with a crown, you must plant in your heart the following four dispositions and spiritual activities, as it were arming yourself with invisible weapons, the most trustworthy and unconquerable of all, namely: (a) never rely on yourself in anything; (b) bear always in your heart a perfect and all-daring trust in God alone; (c) strive without ceasing; and (d) remain constantly in prayer. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978),
pp. 77 -  81

Sunday, November 25, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Touch

We have reached in our discussion the fifth sense, which is the sense of touch. Even though the activity of this sense is generally considered to be concentrated in the hands, it actually encompasses the entire surface of the body so that every feeling and every part and every organ of the body both external and internal becomes an instrument of this sense of touch. Guard yourself then with great attention from such tender touches that arouse strong feelings, feelings that are mostly in the body and most vulnerable to sin. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in interpreting a passage in the Song of Songs, commented that the sense of touch is the subservient sense, the one most likely created by nature for the blind. It is most difficult for one to be free from the power of this sense, once it has been activated. This is why one must be careful to guard it with all his power.

Even though the power of the other senses seems to be active, it nevertheless seems to be far from the enactment of sin. But the sense of touch is the closest to this enactment and certainly the very beginning and the initial action of the deed.


Be careful not to bring your hands and your feet close to other bodies, especially of the young. Be especially careful not to stretch your hands to touch anything, unless it is necessary, nor upon members of your body, or even to scratch yourself, as St. Isaac the Syrian and other holy Fathers have taught. Even from such minor activities, the sense of touch becomes accustomed, or to put it more correctly, the devil seeks to arouse us toward sin and at the same time to raise up into our mind improper images of desire that pollute the beauty of prudent thoughts. This is why St. John Climacus wrote: "It so happens that we are polluted bodily through the sense of touch." Even when you go out for the natural needs of your body respect your guardian angel, as St. Isaac has reminded us. Elsewhere this same father has written: "Virgin is not one who has merely preserved one's body from sexual intercourse, but one who is modest unto oneself even when alone."

The pagan Pythagoras taught that even if there were no other spectator of human evils in heaven or earth, man should have a sense of modesty and shame for himself. When someone does evil, he dishonors and degrades himself. The ancient Athenians had a temple dedicated to the goddess of modesty that would act in the place of God upon the true conscience. Now, if these pagans taught this and had such shame for themselves, when alone, how much more should we Christians be ashamed of ourselves when we are alone in a closed room, or in an isolated lonely place or even in the darkness of night? For it is only right that the modesty and reverence we feel when in a holy temple be also felt for ourselves, since we are a temple of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit. "For we are the temple of the living God" (II Corinthians 6:16).

Again St. Paul wrote: "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God?" (I Corinthians 6:19). St. John Chrysostom has taught us also that our bodies are even more honorable and more revered than a temple. We are a living and rational temple, while a building- temple is lifeless and irrational. Moreover, Christ died for us and not for temples. Therefore it follows that more shame and modesty should be kept for ourselves and for our bodies than for the temple. For this reason, then, anyone who would dare to degrade the holy temple of his body by committing some sinful deed will in truth be more sinful than those who would desecrate the most famous temple.

Again, our pagan forefathers sought to teach men to avoid shameful deeds by asking them to imagine the presence of some important and revered person. If the imaginary presence of mortal men can avert one from doing evil when found alone, how much more can the true and abiding presence of the true and omnipresent and immortal God, who not only sees the external deeds of men but also knows the inner thoughts and feelings of the heart?

Most foolish then are those who are by themselves alone in an isolated or dark place and who have no self-respect and shame, nor remember the presence of God. They may say: "I am now in this darkness, who can see me?" God condemns such persons as being foolish. "Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? . . . Do I not fill heaven and earth?" (Jeremiah 23:24). "A man who breaks his marriage vows says to himself, "Who sees me? Darkness surrounds me, and the walls hide me, and no one sees me. Why should I fear? The most High will not take notice of my sins." His fear is confined to the eyes of men, and he does not realize that the eyes of the Lord and ten thousand times brighter than the sun" (Sirach 23:18 - 19).


The use of soft and fine clothing is another matter that we can relate to the sense of touch. Now, if I may be permitted to be more blunt, I want to emphasize especially to hierarchs and priests that they not fall into the error of fantastic apparel which unfortunately many experience because of their bad habits from childhood and the bad examples of others. St. John Chrysostom, first of all, reminded us that the very custom of covering the body with clothing is a perpetual reminder of our exile from Paradise and our punishment, which we received after our disobedience. We who were previously in Paradise, covered by the divine grace and having no need of clothing, find ourselves now in need of covering and clothing for our bodies. The forefathers were naked before the disobedience but not ashamed; after the disobedience they sewed fig leaves together and coverings for their bodies (Genesis 3:7).

Therefore, what is the reason for this reminder of our sin and punishment to be done with bright and expensive clothing? "The use of clothing has become a perpetual reminder for us of our exile from the good things of Paradise and a lesson of our punishment which the human race received as a consequence of the original sin of disobedience. There are those who are so affected in their vain imaginations that they say to us that they no longer know the clothing that is made by the wool of the sheep and that they now wear only clothes made of silk . . . . Tell me now, for whom do you so clothe your body? Why are you glad over your particular set of clothing? Why don't you heed St. Paul who wrote: "If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content" (I Timothy 6:8).


In this sense of touch we must also include the soft and comfortable beds and everything that has to do with our comfort. Inasmuch as these may contribute to our spiritual harm, they must be avoided by all, but especially the young. Such comforts weaken the body; they submerge it into constant sleep; they warm it beyond measure, and therefore kindle the heat of passion. This is why the prophet Amos wrote: "Woe to those who lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon their couches" (Amos 6:4). Once a young monk asked an elder (monk) how to guard himself against the carnal passions. The elder replied that he should avoid overeating, avoid slander and all those activities which excite carnal passions. The monk however was unable to find the cure for his passion even after observing carefully all the admonitions of the elder. He would return to the elder again and again for advice until he became a burden for the elder. Finally, the patient elder got up and followed the brother to his cell. Upon seeing the soft bed where he slept, the elder exclaimed: "Here, here, is the cause of your struggle with carnal desire, dear brother!" . . . END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 120 - 131

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Smell

What are some negative results of fragrances?

. . . The hedonistic desire to please the sense of smell can reach such bizarre foolishness. Not far from this particular foolishness is also the habit of those who attempt to please all their senses through the use of fragrances in general. They like to add fragrant substances to everything -- their foods, their drinks, their clothes, their mattresses, and so forth. They do not at all realize, the poor souls, that this living body of ours is a veritable container of smells, but after death it becomes food for worms and foul smelling. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: "Do not allow your sense of smell to be effeminated; do not honor the luxury of perfumes."


Here, dear reader, I want to remind you of a bad habit not only among lay people, but also among the clergy and even the bishops. I am referring to the use of that plant called nicotine, which was discovered in some region of North America known as Anthea and which was introduced to Catherine the Queen of France by the Ambassador of Portugal as a sort of miracle of the new world. This is why it was given the exalted name of a "royal plant."

Of course, this is nothing other than what is commonly known as tobacco. I hope, therefore, that you will never imitate those who wrongfully use this tobacco and that you will never privately or before other persons smoke tobacco or place some of it into your nostrils as snuff. First of all, the use of tobacco is contrary to the virtuous way of life. Secondly, it is inappropriate to the high character of the priesthood. Thirdly, it is contrary to good health habits. The habit of smoking is contrary to the virtuous way of life.

The true boundary of virtuous living, according to the teaching of "Galation" [NOTE: a small book published in Florence that was widely accepted in Italy as a moral guide], is trespassed when we do something that may naturally harm the senses or the imagination of noble persons and call forth an abhorrence. Who then cannot see that the use of tobacco crosses over this boundary of virtuous habits and introduces barbarous habits, rustic habits, habits that are abhorrent to those who see and who hear and imagine what is done by those who use tobacco?

Proper behavior requires that a person turn away when cleaning his nose into his handkerchief. The smoke which is inhaled through the nostrils causes the nose to excrete that abhorrent mucus that is then collected in the handkerchief in the presence of others. Proper manners further direct that when a person has to sneeze before others, he must try to block it, if at all possible, or at least to cover it with his handkerchief so that the nose does not bellow like a horn trumpet and cause alarm and abhorrence.

Now, those who would place and stuff into their nose this tobacco powder only vex the organ of smell and bring upon themselves the need to sneeze. A good sneeze usually creates such a violent and terrible shaking of the head that it invokes from people standing by a call for divine intercession with such expressions as these: "Health to you," "Be saved," "May God help you" ("God bless you").

The most terrible thing, however, is for a person to put into his mouth a pipe made from an animal horn or from some type of wood and from that pipe to inhale the smoke of burning tobacco through his larynx and then to exhale that abhorrent smoke through the mouth and the nostrils like some smoking chimney or like the horses of Diomedes, or the bulls of Jason that exhaled fiery smoke through their mouth and nostrils. Can one find a more abhorrent and abominable habit than this?

Smoking is also an inappropriate habit and unbecoming to the spiritual character of the priesthood. The hierarch is a type of God, an icon of Christ Jesus. Therefore all of his habits must be Christlike, solemn, habits that bring not scandals, but benefits to the people. What solemnity is there in the use of that horrible tobacco plant? Or of what benefit is it? On the contrary, what a scandal it is to the pious Christians, when they see their hierarch or priest holding between his teeth that strange-looking object -- the pipe -- in which the tobacco is burning! Indeed, how scandalous it is to see a clergyman exhaling from his nose and mouth that foul-smelling smoke, and to have his house filled with that dark cloud of unpleasant smoke!

The hierarch and all the clergy are obliged by their very nature to exude a spiritual fragrance from all of their senses so that they may transmit this fragrance upon all those who approach them -- Christians as well as unbelievers, as St. Paul wrote: "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (II Corinthians 2:15).

When the clergy draw into their body both through their mouth and their nose that most foul smelling smoke, that many cannot bear and faint, how can they then be, according to the very nature of their calling, an aroma and a fragrance of Christian life for those who are around them? This is the reason why in that most pious Kingdom of Russia there is an untransgressed law that forbids all the orders of clergy and monks from using publicly tobacco through the nose or the mouth. Anyone so doing is considered by all to be a transgressor worthy of aversion.

Finally, the excessive use of tobacco is also harmful to the health of the body. Many who were chronic users of tobacco were found after death to have their lungs blackened and burned, as well as their brain. Inasmuch as the brain receives continuously the inhaled smoke, it consequently uses up not only the excess fluid but also the natural and essential one. Thus, it is difficult to find even one among those who use tobacco regularly who does not admit that its use is more of an evil than a necessity, and who does not condemn himself for using it. Even the moral philosophers, without exception, condemn the regular use of tobacco in public as something abhorrent and boorish. END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 102 - 106

Sunday, November 18, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Taste and the Tongue

Sumptuous eating is harmful to all without exception, but especially to the young. The natural reason for this is obvious. The natural warmth of the young person is enhanced when it receives the fatty matter of various foods. The heavy foods consumed draw out the heavy excretions of digestion in the stomach. These in turn are converted into substances and blood and eventually into fatty tissue. The abundance of food creates a fat body that is susceptible to the forceful temptations of one's sexuality.

Thus treated and exposed the poor body becomes a flaming fire, a Babylonian furnace. If the young body is a wild and untamed animal even when it lacks essential nourishment, imagine what it is like when it is well fed! All young people know this because they experience these passions on a daily basis. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian said: "Its own evil is sufficient for the body. Why add to the existing fire any additional fuel, or any more nourishment to the beast? It will only become more difficult to control and more violent (forceful) than the mind." Solomon too said: "It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury" (Proverbs 19:10). In interpreting this passage, St. Basil considered the body of a young person to be "a fool." "What is more senseless than the body of a young person prone to easy temptations?" he asked.

Now if you cannot avoid these fatty foods completely, then set a discipline for yourself to eat only once a day, as many spiritual persons, hierarchs, and even worldly leaders do. In this manner the body is kept lighter and healthier and the mind is clearer and more capable of advancing upon divine thoughts. Even then, it is important not to overeat.


-- According to St. Gregory the Sinaite there are three degrees in eating: temperance, sufficiency, and satiety. Temperance is when someone wants to eat some more food but abstains, rising from the table still somewhat hungry. Sufficiency is when someone eats what is needed and sufficient for normal nourishment. Satiety is when someone eats more than enough and is more than satisfied. Now if you cannot keep the first two degrees and you proceed to the third, then, at least, do not become a glutton, remembering the words of the Lord: "Woe to you that are full now, for you shall hunger" (Luke 6:25).

Remember also that rich man who ate in this present life sumptuously every day, but who was deprived of the desired bosom of Abraham in the next life, simply because of this sumptuous eating. Remember how he longed to refresh his tongue with a drop of water. St. Basil not only did not forgive the young people who ate to satiety but also those who ate until satisfied; he preferred that all eat temperately. He said, "Nothing subdues and controls the body as does the practice of temperance. It is this temperance that serves as a control to those youthful passions and desires."

St. Gregory the Theologian has also noted in his poetry: "No satiety has brought forth prudent behavior; for it is in the nature of fire to consume matter. And a filled stomach expels refined thoughts; it is the tendency of opposites to oppose each other." Job, too, assuming that one could fall into sin through eating, offered sacrifice to God for his sons who were feasting among themselves. "And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said: "It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts'" (Job 1:5-8).

In interpreting this passage Olympiodoros wrote: "We learn from this that we ought to avoid such feasts which can bring on sinfulness. We must also purify ourselves after they have been concluded, even if these are conducted for the sake of concord and brotherly love as in the case of the sons of Job."

Surely then, if the sons of Job were not at a feast but in prayer or some other spiritual activity, the devil would not have dared to destroy the house and them, as Origen interpreted the passage: "The devil was looking for an opportunity to destroy them. Had he found them reading, he would not have touched the house, having no reason to put them to death. Had he found them in prayer, he would not have had any power to do anything against them. But when he found an opportune time, he was powerful. What was the opportune time? It was the time of feasting and drinking." Do you see then, dear reader, how many evils are brought forth by luxurious foods and feasting in general?


-- When eating and drinking, always remember the Psalm: "What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?" (Psalms 30:9). St. Basil has advised that we recall this verse in order to help us avoid overeating and overdrinking, as he has interpreted it in the following manner:

"What is the need for robustness of flesh and an abundance of blood if their future is to be delivered over to the common corruption of the body? For this reason I constrain and deprive my body, otherwise my blood becomes so robust and overzealous that it makes my flesh to sin. Do not therefore flatter your body with sleep and baths and soft beds, but always recall the saying: "What profit is there for my blood if I go down to the Pit?" Why do you care for the lesser thing that will later become corrupt? Why do you bother to make yourself fat? Do you not know that the fatter you make your body so much heavier will be the soul's prison?"

In this sense of the mouth are also included all those sins which are enacted by the tongue: condemnation, slander, mocking, insults, unreasonable excommunications, curses, reprimands, obscene talk, and all the other idle and vain words. From all these we must guard ourselves as much as possible, for as you know, we must give an account for every vain and idle word, according to the Sacred Scriptures (Matthew 12:36). . . . END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 109 - 113

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Hearing

In this issue we will continue our study of the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers right up to the present day. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

We began our series with an overview of the five senses and then the sense of sight; today will look at the second sense, the sense of hearing.



-- The second sense is that of hearing and one must be careful to guard it from corrupt melodies, which are composed for pleasure and which pour out the sweet honey of sound unto the ears. It seems to me that there are three evils that come from such melodies. First, these hedonistic and worldly songs tend to weaken the manly and proud bearing of the soul so that it becomes effeminate and lethargic as it listens to these sweet sounds. Secondly, these sensual songs tend to fill up the mind with the many passionate images which they describe. Thirdly, let us suppose that even if the persons doing the singing are not seen -- and especially when these may be women -- nevertheless the songs themselves are capable of impressing the imagination, moving the desire of the heart and drawing out an asset from the soul. This is why St. Basil taught us: "Do not submit your souls to corrupt melodies that come to us through the ears. Many passions that enslave us have been caused to grow in our natures by this sort of music." St. Gregory the Theologian in one of his paschal homilies said: "Let us not have the flute played to our hearing." And in his Iambic Poetry he wrote, "Block your ears with wax, and foolish words hear not, nor pleasant songs or thrilling melodies. . . . "


-- You must definitely shut your ears to slanderous remarks against other persons, as is commanded by God: "You shall not utter a false report" (Exodus 23:1). You must be especially careful to oppose the slanders leveled against the clergy. St. Paul when writing to Timothy said: "Never admit any charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses" (I Timothy 5:19).

Open therefore only one of your ears to hear the words of slander according to the example of Alexander the Macedonian. Do not by any means allow yourself to open both ears to the slanderers and to draw your conclusions and decisions on the basis of what they alone have to say, and thereby judging the case 'in absentia' without the presence of the person slandered to defend himself.

Oftentimes many unjust and irrational decisions have followed from such slanderous accusations. St. Basil noted that each slanderer is unjust to three different persons: to himself for lying, to the hearers who may be misled and deceived, and to the person slandered for destroying his good reputation and honor. "For this very reason then I beseech your love in Christ not to accept the slanders presented onesidedly as at all true. For, as it is written, the law does not judge anyone unless the judge listens and finds out what indeed the defendant has done.

It is therefore necessary not to keep silent before such slanders, not that we will avenge ourselves through controversy, but rather because by not conceding (to the slanderer) we do not promote falsehood and do not allow those deceived to fall into harm. He who slanders does harm to three persons at the same time. First of all he is unjust to the person he has slandered; he also harms those persons who have to listen to his slander; finally the slanderer harms himself. . . . "


It goes without saying, of course, that while one must avoid the many abuses of hearing, one must also be more inclined to utilize this important sense of hearing for the many positive ways available to us in our Christian way of life; to listen to the word of God, to attend and participate in the worship services of the Church, to sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God, to listen with compassion and understanding to the concerns of your fellow human beings, and to do so many other positive things with our wonderful sense of hearing. END

From Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 97 - 100

Sunday, November 11, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Guarding the Sense of Vision

In this issue we will continue our study of the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers right up to the present day. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

In the previous "thought," we began our series with an overview of the five senses; today will look at the first sense, the sense of sight.


. . . Sight is the most regal of the senses, according to the naturalists; sight is dependent upon the psychic spirit and related to the mind, according to the theologians; sight is the most knowledgeable of the other senses and therefore the most dependable, according to the metaphysicians. According to the popular proverb, "The eyes are more trustworthy than the ears." According to the word of the Lord, "The eye is the lamp of the body" (Matthew 6:23).

According to the astronomers, the eyes are the two stars of the face. According to the moral philosophers the eyes are the two first thieves of sin. A certain wise man has called the eyes two braids of the soul which it spreads out like the tentacles of an octopus to receive from afar whatever is desirable to it. Or, if I may say with St. Basil the Great, the eyes are the two "bodiless arms" with which the soul may reach out and touch from afar the visible things it loves. For whatever we cannot touch with our hands, these we can touch and enjoy with our eyes.

The sense of sight, after all, is a touch more refined than the touch of the hands, but less refined than the touch of the imagination and of the mind. St. Basil wrote: "Vision can deceive the soul toward a certain pleasure through the touch of some object by means of the rays of the eyes that act as bodiless arms. With these the soul can touch from afar whatever it desires. And the things that the hands of the body do not have under their authority to touch, these can nevertheless be embraced by the rays of the eyes passionately. This is why St. Gregory the Theologian also said: "The lamps of the eyes touch the untouchable."

It is from these eyes then that we must cut off the vision of those beautiful bodies which tempt the soul to shameful and inappropriate desires. You have heard the great Father St. Basil, who said: "Do not play host with your eyes to the displays of wonder workers, or to the visions of bodies that place one at the center of passionate pleasure." You have also heard the wise Solomon: "Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you" (Proverbs 4:25). Listen also to Job who said: "I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I look upon a virgin?" (Job 31:1). . . .

-- What must one do when Captivated by the eyes?

If ever this thief comes and captivates you, fight against him and do not allow any idol of Aphrodite, that is, of any shameful desire, to be impressed upon your soul. How? By taking refuge in God through prayer, which is the most secure way. "Deliverance comes only from the Lord" (Psalms 3:8). Another way is to turn your imagination to another spiritual thought so that one imagination wipes out another and one idol destroys another. According to the popular proverb, "One peg drives out the other." This is what St. Gregory the Theologian meant when he wrote: "A vision caught me, but was checked; I set up no image of sin. Was an image set up? Yet, the experience of sin was avoided."

Do you hear what he is saying? The image of sin stood before him but was not impressed upon his imagination. Thus he was directly freed from the experience, that is, from the assent or the act of sin. If then the devil does not cease to tempt you with that image that has been impressed upon your imagination, St. Chrysostom and St. Syngletiki advise you to use this method in order to be delivered from his wiles: with your mind gouge out the eyes of that image, tear its flesh and cut away its lips from the cheeks. Remove, moreover, the beautiful skin that appears externally and meditate on how what is hidden underneath is so disgusting that no man can bear to look upon it without hate and abhorrence. It is after all no more than a skinned skull and an odious bone filled with blood and fearful to behold. Here is what St. Chrysostom said: "Do not therefore pay attention to the external flower here, but proceed further through your mind. Unfold that fine skin with your imagination and consider what lies beneath it."

The most wise St. Syngletik said this:

"If ever by thought an inappropriate fantasy comes to us, it must be expelled by reason. Thus, shut your eyes to this image. Remove from it the flesh of the cheeks, cut away the lips and imagine then a mass of bones which is deformed. Think then what the desired image really is. This way our thought will be relieved of any vain deceits, for the desired image is nothing more than blood mixed with phlegm . . . . From this point on the mind notes nothing about the once desired image, but foul- smelling and decaying ulcers, and soon imagines it lying dead next to the inner eyes. Thus it is possible for one to escape from sensual thought."

Some examples of those who have guarded their eyes

Again I must tell you to guard yourself well against these things, dear friend, for as St. Paul said, "It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you" (Philemon 3:1). Guard your deceiving eyes that would steal the pleasures of others. Have great concern for these portals the eyes. Most robbers enter through these portals to overthrow the castle of the soul. Had the forefathers guarded their eyes, they would not have been exiled far from God and Paradise. "The woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good . . . " (Genesis 3:6). Do you hear what the text says? She saw, she desired, she received, she ate, she died.

Had the sons of God, that is of Seth, guarded their eyes, they would not have been destroyed by the flood. "The sons of God saw that the daughters of men were beautiful and they married any of them they chose" (Genesis 6:2). Again, had the Sodomites guarded their eyes to avoid looking upon the two angels, they would not have been destroyed by fire (Genesis 19:1). When Shechem, son of Hamon the Hivite, saw Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, and desired her, he and all his people were destroyed by her brothers (Genesis 34:2). David saw Bathsheba bathing and he fell into the dual pit of adultery and murder (II Samuel 11:1). After this when he repented and learned to call upon God to turn his eyes away from vain beauty, he wrote: "Turn my eyes away from seeing vain things" (Psalms 118:37). END

from Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 86 - 91

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


In this issue we will begin a new study on the teachings of a more contemporary "Desert Father," St. Nicodemos (1749 - 1809) of the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos). St. Nicodemos compiled "The Philokalia" which contains the treasured teachings of many of the ancient Desert Fathers. As a contemporary father of the 18th and early 19th centuries, St. Nicodemus's writings (over 200 in all!) have inspired generations of monastics and spiritual strugglers. His writings are steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers and he is in large part responsible for the revival of interest in the Fathers over the past two hundred years.

The next several readings will examine "A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel." St. Nicodemos wrote this book at the request of his cousin, Ierotheos, who had recently been made Bishop of Euripos. However, the work is applicable to all Christians -- not just to clergy. His approach is psychological, ethical, and practical -- just what we need in modern times.

Today we will begin a six-part series on the senses. While this book explores other topics, as well, this section on the senses is particularly "unique" to St. Nicodemos's writings and contains much of very practical, daily use. First, though, St. Nicodemos on "Guarding All the Senses in General."

BEGIN: -- Why One Must Struggle to Control One's Senses:

According to St. Gregory the Theologian we must struggle to block our senses and to control them, for they are the easy ways toward evil and entrances of sin. Let us not give in to the easy ways of evil and to the easy entrances of sin. I say to you then, put all your strength forward to protect your senses. I also say to you to be attentive, to struggle, and I insist on this, by using various synonymous words. I wish to prove to you that the devil is always standing before us, observing and studying the condition of our senses. Just as soon as we open even one sense to him, he enters into our soul directly and brings death to us, as St. Isaac has noted: "The enemy is standing and observing day and night directly against our eyes to detect which entrance of our senses will be opened to him to enter. Once he enters through one of our senses because of our lack of vigilance, then this devious shameless dog attacks us further with his own arrows."

We must also struggle to protect our senses because it is not only through curious eyes that we fall into the sin of desire and commit fornication and adultery of the heart, as the Lord noted. There is also the fornication and the adultery of the sense of hearing, the sense of smell, the sense of taste, the sense of touch, and of all the senses together. Therefore, St. Gregory the Theologian has written in his heroic counsel to the virgin: "Virgin, be truly a virgin in the ears, in the eyes and in the tongue! Every sense that wanders with ease sins." St. Gregory of Nyssa also said: "The Lord has spoken, I believe, about all the senses, so that the one who touches and the one who uses every inner power in us to serve pleasure has actually committed the sin in his heart."

-- Those Who Live in the World Must Protect Their Senses More than Those Ascetics in the Desert:

You who are in the world, dear friend, must guard yourself even more than those who are in the desert. St. Basil wrote to someone living in the world the following advice: "Do not relax your efforts because you are in the world. In fact you are in need of greater efforts and more vigilance to achieve salvation. After all you have chosen to live in the midst of all the pitfalls and in the very stronghold of the sinful powers. You have before you constantly the instigations of sins and day and night all of your senses are being attacked by their evil desires." If we are overcome by the desire for food or drink, we do not experience such a strong attack. Being in a desolate place where one does not see or hear anything out of place or experience the other causes of sin, we are thus surrounded by a protective wall that helps to win our battles without wars, as St. Isaac said: "When one does not receive a sense perception, then he can have a victory without a struggle."

In other words, the monks who have removed themselves from the world are fighting behind trenches, but you are fighting an arm- to-arm combat against the enemies. The attacks are coming from all directions. And the causes of sin are all around you. While they stand afar off from the precipice, you are at its very edge. That great luminary of spiritual discretion, St. Poimen, once said: "Those who live far away from the world are like those who are far from a precipice and, whenever they are misled by the devil, before they reach the edge, they call upon God who comes to save them.

Those who live in the world, however, are like those who are near the precipice and when the devil draws them toward it, they have no time to call upon God and be saved but fall directly into the abyss." Therefore, because you are so close to this abyss, you are in immediate danger just as soon as you neglect or open one of your senses. God forbid! This is the reason why you want to use all your energy to protect your senses from coming into contact with sin. As it is impossible for a house not to be darkened by smoke entering from the outside, it is similarly impossible for a man not to let them without restraint, allowing all manner of passionate images to enter the soul. The wise St. Syngletike said, "Even when we do not want it, the thieves will enter through the senses. For how is it possible for a house not to be darkened by the smoke entering from outside through the doors and windows that have been left opened?"

-- It is a Great Victory to Overcome Ourselves:

Do not think for a moment that this victory is small and insignificant. In fact it is a greater victory to overcome one of your passions and a pleasure of your senses than to overcome one hundred of your enemies. It is a more glorious trophy of victory to shed willingly a few drops of perspiration and one drop of blood, for the love of God, in order to overcome one of your evil wills and to spite the devil, than to shed rivers of blood to subdue entire armies. Again it is a greater triumph to subdue your senses and your entire body to your hegemonious mind than to subdue large kingdoms. Once, when King Alexander was praised for having conquered the whole ecumene, he responded with the prudent remark: "All of my victories will prove to be vain, if I do not succeed to conquer myself." Many who have subdued their enemies, cities, and countries have later been subdued miserably by their own improper passions and have shamefully become slaves of their own passions. A certain Father was very correct when he said that "the first victory is the victory of self." St. Isidore Pelousiotes also said: "The true victor is not he who subdues the foreign barbarians, but he who wages spiritual warfare against the evil passions. Many who have conquered barbarians have in turn been shamefully subdued by their own passions." END

from Chamberas, Peter A. (trans.), "Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain: A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel," (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), pp. 137 - 144

Sunday, November 4, 2012

ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA - The Lord's Prayer

In this reading, we will continue our look at an early Desert Father who is most widely revered in the Western Churches, but who is nevertheless a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, too. Although his "desert" was a mountain in Italy, Abba Benedict lived a life of great asceticism and formulated a monastic rule that is widely followed in the Roman Catholic Church. In today's reading, Abba Benedict explains to us the Lord's Prayer and its deeper meanings. Too often in our worship, we mechanically repeat the words of this wonderful prayer without contemplating its deeper meanings; take these words of Abba Benedict to heart the next time you say this prayer:

BEGIN: "Our Father, who art in heaven." Therefore see, brothers, that if we have now found our mother the Church and have dared to call the Lord in heaven our father, it is right that we should leave our earthly father and our mother according to the flesh, lest being subject to both sets of parents we not only offend those who are citizens but, if we do not abandon the parents according to the flesh, we be considered adulterous offspring. For because of the tree of scandal our race descended from paradise to the womb, from the womb to the world, and from the world to the portals of hell. But we have been born anew through baptism and restored by the tree of the cross. The passion of the Lord effects the resurrection of our race and its readiness by grace to paradise whence it had fallen by sin freely willed. When Christ provided for us the refuge of his cross, the Lord destroyed the sting of death which was reigning over us. After restoring us to the grace of adoption by Him, he has moreover not ceased to invite us to the kingdom of heaven. Hence the voice of the Lord says: "If you keep my commandments, I will be your father and you shall be my sons." So it is that we, though unworthy but aware of our baptism, dare in his prayer to call him father. Therefore it behooves us to share in his sufferings so that we may deserve to be made coheirs of his glory.

So when saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven," brothers, let us show that we are sons such as God wants to have, and may the Divinity rightly grant us the title of sons, seeing our will comformable to his own. For he who resembles his father not only in appearance but also in conduct is a true son.

Since we have now deserved to say, "Our Father, who art in heaven," we continue the prayer saying: "Hallowed be thy name." Not that we want his name to be hallowed anew, since it is most holy from eternity to eternity, but rather that he may himself sanctify it in the good deeds of his sons, so that as Father and Lord he may make his dwelling in our souls and send the Holy Spirit to live in us, giving help to our hearts by his regard and ever keeping watch over them by his presence.

Then we say, "Thy kingdom come." See brothers, how we long for the coming of the Lord's kingdom and ourselves ask that his judgment be hastened, and yet we do not have our account in order. We should therefore conduct ourselves at all times in such a way that, when the time comes, our Lord and Father will receive us and, pleased with our daily good deeds in his presence, will separate us from the goats and place us at his right, admitting us into the eternal kingdom. May we, in the judgment to come, find a propitious judge whom in this world we have dared to call father.

Then we say: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." In this statement, brothers, our free will is expressed, and whatever harm the persuasion of the ancient serpent has done us is removed, if we so will, for the will of the Lord heals us. As the apostle says: "You do not always carry out your good intentions." The spirit chooses to have the will of the Lord done in us, so that the soul no longer does what it had been persuaded to do by the concupiscence of corrupt flesh. We therefore pray that the will of the Lord will be done in us. If this His will is always done in us, on the day of judgment there will be no self-will to be condemned after being examined for faults. For the will of the Lord is holy. It knows how to remove fear of judgment. This His will promises that those in whom it is accomplished will judge even angels.

Our Lord and Savior shows us this holy will by giving us the example of its being done in Himself in order to suppress the free will of the flesh in us when He says: "I have come not to do my own will, but to do the will of the One who sent me." And again He says in His holy passion: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by." This voice of fear in the Lord was that of the flesh He had assumed, and shows us that the acts of life must always be well considered if death to come must be feared. . . .

"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." From this, that he said "in heaven," we can well understand, brothers, that just as the will of the Lord is fulfilled in all holiness by the angels in heaven, so should God's command given through the prophets and the apostles be obeyed by carnal men on earth too, so that, as Holy Scripture says, in both spheres (that is, in heaven and on earth) the Lord may reign also in us according to his good pleasure, and there may be one shepherd and one flock.

So also we can understand in a spiritual sense what he says: "Thy will be done as it is in heaven," that is, that the will of the Father be done in the Lord, His Son, because He cane down from heaven, the Lord Himself saying, "I have come, not to do my own will, but to do the will of the One who sent me." Do you therefore see that if our Savior, the Lord Himself, shows that He came not to do His own will but to fulfill the commands of His Father, how can I, a wicked servant, the least of all rightly do my own will? . . .

Then continuing the prayer we say: "Give us this day our daily bread." Therefore, brothers, when the aforesaid will of the Lord has been daily fulfilled by us, excluding blame, and all the commandments have been observed in the fear of the Lord, the petition that He give food to His workmen is worthily made, for He does not refuse the deserving laborer his wages.

Then we say: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Brothers, praying thus, we should very much fear lest the Lord reply to these words of our prayer: "The judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given." And you who ask this, see whether you did to no one what you did not want done to you. Therefore before we hear these words of the Lord, brethren, let us first examine our hearts as to whether we are with justice asking of the Lord what we have not denied to those asking us. We ask that our trespasses be forgiven us. God hears and He wants to forgive us, but only if we first pardon those who ask us to do likewise. . . .

Then we say: "And lead us not into temptation." These words, brothers, are warning enough that we should be on our guard. We must therefore beg the Lord with many sighs, striking our hearts as well as our breasts, never to leave us His servants without His help, lest we be open to the power and access of our enemy the devil, who is constantly prowling around us like a lion, looking for someone of us to eat, and who seeks to poison our hearts with his evil suggestion that he deign, by the protection of his assistance, to surround us with the wall of his grace and by his defence ward off the incursion of temptation in us, so as not to permit the work of his hands to be taken captive and subjected to slavery by the enemy -- provided we do not on our part give our consent to the temptations of this same enemy and do not, so to speak, make ourselves his captives, inclined to desire our enemy rather than flee him.

Then we continue, completing the prayer: "But deliver us from evil." Brothers, most holy, God desires to do this in us before we ask Him, for He is powerful and nothing is difficult for Him, but (he does it) only on condition that we deserve it. He does not want this structure which we are and which He has made with His own hands to collapse. He hastens to free us from the snare, if we do not on our part give consent to the enemy's suggestions, but unceasingly ask the Lord to grant us the assistance of His grace so that we may rightly say: "For with the Lord at our right hand nothing can shake me," and confident in the Lord we say again, "I will fear no evils, for you are with me." Thus may he, who at the beginning of the prayer shows us that we should dare, by His grace, to call the Lord our Father, deign now at the end of the prayer to deliver us from evil. Amen. END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 95 - 101