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