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, 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