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, May 30, 2012

ABBA POEMEN - Of What Does the 'Spiritual Search' Consist?


Today's selection is from Abba Poemen:

BEGIN: A brother from Abba Poemen's neighborhood left to go to another country one day. There he met an anchorite. The latter was very charitable and many came to see him. The brother told him about Abba Poemen. When he heard of his virtue, the anchorite wanted to see him. Some times afterwards when the brother had returned to Egypt the anchorite went there to see the brother who had formerly paid him a visit. He had told him where he lived.

When he saw him, the brother was astonished and very pleased. The anchorite said to him, "Please, will you be so kind as to take me to Abba Poemen?" So he brought him to the old man and presented him, saying, "This is a great man, full of charity, who is held in high estimation in his district. I have spoken to him about you, and he has come because he wants to see you." So Abba Poemen received him with joy. They greeted one another and sat down.

The visitor began to speak of the Scriptures, of spiritual and of heavenly things. But Abba Poemen turned his face away and answered nothing. Seeing that he did not speak to him, the other went away deeply grieved and said to the brother who had brought him, "I have made this long journey in vain. For I have come to see the old man, and he does not wish to speak to me."

Then the brother went inside to Abba Poemen and said to him, "Abba, this great man who has so great a reputation in his own country has come here because of you. Why did you not speak to him?" The old man said, "He is great and speaks of heavenly things and I am lowly and speak of earthly things. If he had spoken of the passions of the soul, I should have replied, but he speaks to me of spiritual things and I know nothing about that."

Then the brother came outside and said to the visitor, "The old man does not readily speak of the Scriptures, but if anyone consults him about the passions of the soul, he replies." Filled with compunction, the visitor returned to the old man and said to him, "What should I do, Abba, for the passions of the soul master me?"

The old man turned towards him and replied joyfully, "This time, you come as you should. Now open your mouth concerning this and I will fill it with good things." Greatly edified, the other said to him, "Truly, this is the right way!"

He returned to his own country giving thanks to God that he had been counted worthy to meet so great a saint. END

from "The Desert Christian," by Benedicta Ward, (New York: MacMillan, 1975), p. 167

Sunday, May 27, 2012

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - War With Passions, Part IV


Today we will continue with the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north.  Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine. The first week we began this series with ìWar With Passions,î and followed that with "Know Yourself."   Much of St. Theophan’s teachings come to us in the form of letters he wrote to lay persons so his advice is very practical and down-to-earth for those who are trying to grow spiritually.  Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.

BEGIN: -- Once you go into a monastery you have to face solitude.  Life in a monastery is hard for anyone who would like to live there in company with many others, as he would in society.  In a monastery you must know only one person -ñthe abbot, or else your father confessor and staretz (literally, an “elder”: a monk or occasionally a layperson distinguished for his saintliness, long experience in the spiritual life, and special gift for guiding the soul of others.)  Towards the others your attitude should be as though they were not present.  Then everything will go well; otherwise the commotion is worse than at a ball in St. Petersburg.

--  This friend, this lady of whom you write to me, does she think that in renouncing the tumult of the world she has already done all that is necessary?  Does she not realize that the world can still be with us in the heart, so long as we are simply living as we please, solely to gratify ourselves?

-- You know, of course, that your whole purpose at the moment is to change yourself inwardly.  And so, corresponding to these inward changes and obeying the impulse that comes from them, external things must be changed as well.  My advice to you in your present position is this.  Begin retreating into solitude at your own home, and dedicate these hours of solitude to praying above all for one thing: “Make known to me, O Lord, the way wherein I should walk” (Psalms 143:8).  Pray thus not merely in words and thought, but also from your heart.  For this time of solitude, set aside certain hours every day, which is the better way; or else certain days of the week.  And then observe this time of solitude properly, seeking above all for enlightenment, and to be shown the right way by God.  To this add the practice of fasting, which affects the flesh: it will be a good aid to prayer.  And during this time try, by way of experiment, to make acts of inward renunciation ñ now of one thing, now another ñ in order to become indifferent to everything; and retreat into seclusion in such a way that nothing can draw you back.  The aim is to bring your soul to a state in which it longs to escape from its present way of life as a prisoner seeks to break loose from his fetters.

-- You should devote your moments of solitude exclusively to working for God ñ to prayer and the thought of God.  These practices, if followed even reasonably aright, will not allow you to grow bored.  For they bring spiritual consolation such as nothing else on earth can give.

-- You say you would like to become a recluse.  It is too soon for this; and there is no need.  After all, you live alone, and your visitors are few and far between.  Going to church does not interrupt your solitude but intensifies it, and gives you the strength to pass your time in prayer at home as well.  From time to time you could perhaps stay indoors for a day or two, endeavoring to be with God all the time.  But in your case this already happens of itself, so there is no need to make plans about becoming a recluse.  When your prayer has gained such stability that it keeps you always face to face with God in your heart, you will have seclusion without being a recluse.  For what does it really mean to be a recluse?  It means that your mind, enclosed in the heart, stands before God in reverence and feels no desire to leave the heart or to occupy itself with anything else.  Seek this kind of seclusion and do not worry about the others.  Even behind closed doors one can wander about the world, or let the whole world invade one’s room.

-- To be vexed and annoyed if someone interrupts your solitude is very wrong.  This comes of thinking too highly of yourself; it is as if you said, “Do not DARE to hinder ME!” Here the enemy triumphs within you.  Make it a rule not to give in to this feeling of annoyance.  Exasperation and anger are permissible only when directed against our own evil thoughts and feelings.

-- It is good to withdraw from distractions under the protection of four walls, but it is even better to withdraw into solitude within oneself.  The first without the second is nothing, whereas the last is of the utmost value even without the first.

It is an excellent thing to go to church, but if you can accustom yourself to pray at home as if in church, such prayer at home is equally valuable.

Just as a man sees another face to face, try thus to stand before the Lord, so that your soul is face to face with him.  This is something so natural that there should have been no need to mention it especially, for by its very nature the soul should strive always toward God.  And the Lord is always near.  There is no need to arrange an introduction between them for they are old acquaintances.

-- You thirst for a definite seclusion.  It would be better to wait.  External seclusion will come of itself once inner seclusion is established.  God will arrange about that.  Yet do not forget that you can be alone amid the noise of the world; and equally you can be surrounded by the hubbub of the world whilst withdrawn in your cell.  You will have something better than external seclusion if you retreat in this way within yourself, thus making it impossible for any external turmoil to distract you.  Pray that you may be granted this.

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 250 - 256

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

ANONYMOUS DESERT FATHERS - How Do We Pray?


Today's selection is from anonymous fathers of the desert. Two selections are offered this week, both on the subject of prayer:

BEGIN: The brothers said, "What kind of prayer is that which is not acceptable before God?" The old man said, "The prayer for the destruction of enemies. When we ask that evil things may come upon those who do harm to us, and for bodily health, and abundance of possessions, and fertility in respect of children, these requests are not acceptable before God. If God beareth with us, who are sinners and who offend Him, how much more is it right that we should bear each with the other? It is, then, not meet that we should ask for the things which concern the body, for the wisdom of God provideth everything necessary." END

And this thought on what IS acceptable to God in prayer:

BEGIN: The brothers said, "In what way ought we to pray before God?" The old man said, "For the repentance of sinners, the finding of the lost, the drawing near of those who are far off, friendliness toward those who do us harm, love towards those who persecute us, and sorrowful care for those who provoke God to wrath. And if a man doeth these things truly and with a penitent mind, the sinners will often gain life, and the living soul will be redeemed.

Now the prayer which our lord delivered to us as to the needs of the body, is one which applieth to the whole community, and it was not uttered for the sake of those who are strangers to the world, and with whom the pleasures of the body are held in contempt. He in whose life the kingdom of God and His righteousness are found lacks nothing, even when he asks not." END

from "The Paradise of the Holy Fathers," vol. II, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), p. 332-333.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - War With Passions, Part III


Today we will continue with the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north.  Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine.  In Part III of our series, we will look today at “Inner and External Work.” Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.

BEGIN: (from “Paradise of the Fathers”)  A brother asked Abba Agathon: “Tell me, Abba, which is greater, physical work or guarding what lies within?”  The Abba replied: “Man is like a tree; physical work is the leaves and guarding what lies within is the fruit.  Now it says in the Gospel, ‘Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire’ (Matthew 3:10): clearly, then, all our care should be about the fruit, that is, about guarding the mind.  But we also need the protection and adornment of leaves, that is, physical work.”

-- The chief enemy of life in God is a profusion of worldly cares.  This profusion of cares impels a man into an endless round of secular activities.  Every day, from morning till night, it drives him from one job to another, not giving him a moment’s rest, leaving him no time to turn to God and to remain for a while uplifted in prayer to Him.

This profusion of cares has no place among monks.  Those who understand this enter a monastery simply in order to free themselves from this torture of cares.  And they are freed.  When the multitude of cares subsides, the mind and heart are left completely free and there is nothing to hinder them from remaining in God and taking their joy in Him.  Those who practise the monastic life in an intelligent way, quickly gain
success in this and become firmly established in their purpose.  All that remains thereafter is to maintain this treasure of freedom from cares; and such people do in fact manage to maintain it.  Every monk or nun has a task to carry out in the course of the twenty-four hours.  Since these tasks are a matter of routine, they do not demand any special attention; and so the hands can be at work while the mind converses with God and thus feeds the heart.  This norm for the inner order of things was long ago recommended by St. Anthony the Great.  So you see that even monks have an active life, similar to the active life of laymen.  Only their activities are not accompanied by the multitude of cares which gnaw at the minds of laymen.  It is this freedom from anxiety, resulting from the ordered sequence of the monastic life, that enables them to hold fast to their aim ñ in other words, to remain constantly with God and in God.

-- Do not overlook the fact that health does not depend on food alone, but above all on inner peace.  Life in God, cutting us off from worldly turmoil, brings peace to the heart and, through this, keeps the body also in good health.

Activities are not the main thing in life.  The most important thing is to have the heart directed and attuned to God.

-- There are two ways to become one with God: the active way and the contemplative way.  The first is for Christians who live in the world, the second for those who have abandoned all worldly things.  But in practice neither way can exist in total isolation from the other.  Those who live in the world must also keep to the contemplative way in some measure.  As I told you before, you should accustom yourself to remember the Lord always and to walk always before His face.  That is what is meant by the contemplative way.

The question arises: how can we hold the Lord in our attention while busy with various activities?  This is how it can be done.  Whatever your occupation, great or small, reflect that it is the omnipresent Lord Himself who orders you to perform it and who watches to see how you are carrying it out.  If you keep this thought constantly in mind you will fulfil attentively all the duties assigned to you and at the same time you will remember the Lord.  In this lies the whole secret of Christian conduct for one in your position, if you are to succeed in your chief aim.  Please think it over carefully and adjust yourself to this practice.  When you have done this your thoughts will cease to wander hither and thither.

Why is it that things are not going well with you just now?  I think it is because you wish to remember the Lord, forgetting worldly affairs.  But worldly affairs intrude into your consciousness and push out the remembrance of the Lord.  What you should do is just the reverse: you should busy yourself with worldly affairs, but think of them as a commission from the Lord, as something done in His presence.  As things are now, you fail both on the spiritual and on the material level.  But if you act as I have explained, things will go well in both spheres.

-- Learn to perform everything you do in such a way that it warms the heart instead of cooling it.  Whether reading or praying, working or talking with others, you should hold fast to this one aim ñ not to let your heart grow cool.  Keep your inner stove always hot by reciting a short prayer, and watch over your feelings in case they dissipate this warmth.  External impressions are very rarely in harmony with inner work.

-- Each man, then, must train himself, and instill into himself the truths contained in the words of Christ, so that they enter and dwell within him.  With this purpose in view he should read them and reflect on them, and commit them to memory; he should learn to be in inward sympathy with them, feeling a deep love for them, and then he should put them into practice.  This last is the whole aim of self-education.  So long as this is lacking we cannot say of a man that he has taught himself, even if he knows the words of Christ by heart and is good at reasoning.  It is precisely for their lack of this that St. Paul reproached the Jews in his Epistle to the Romans: “Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself?” (Romans 2:21).  If a man preaches Christ but does not himself live in Him, then the word of Christ has not entered him.

It is clear that any kind of education by others only brings fruit when combined with a man’s own teaching of himself.  Each must make himself realize the sense of what he is taught, so that after hearing or reading something he persuades himself not only to think exactly like that, but also to feel and to act so.  For the word of Christ enters a man to dwell in him, only if he succeeds in persuading himself to believe and to live according to it.

A man is indeed unwise if he reads diligently the words of God but fails to ponder over them, not making himself feel their meaning and not practising them in actual life.  For then the word of God flows through him like water in a gutter, without entering him or leaving a trace.  We can know all the Gospels and Epistles by heart and yet not have the word of Christ dwelling within, because we have not studied them in the right way.  Thus a man acts foolishly if he feeds only his mind with the word of Christ, but does not bother to bring his heart and his life into correspondence with it.  And so it stays in him like sand poured into his head and memory, which lies there dead instead of living.  The word of Christ lives only when it passes into feeling and life; but in such a man this does not happen, and so we cannot say that the word of Christ dwells in him.  END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 231 - 247

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

ANONYMOUS DESERT FATHERS - Studying and Practicing Spiritual Wisdom


This week's selection is from an anonymous father of the desert. Forgive me for its brevity, but it is very strong and speaks well to all of us today.

BEGIN: An old man said, "The prophets wrote books, then came our Fathers who put them into practice. Those who came after them learnt them by heart. Then came the present generation, who have written them out and put them into their window seats without using them." END

And from the life of another father,

BEGIN: The old man said, "Spiritual work is essential; it is for this we have come to the desert. It is very hard to teach with the mouth that which one does not practice in the body." END

both selections are from "The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (Oxford: SLG Press, 1986), p. 31 and p. 33

Sunday, May 13, 2012

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - War With Passions, Part II


Today we will continue with the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north.  Although he is a modern saint in chronological terms, he is spiritually at one with the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine.  Last week we began this series with ìWar With Passions.î  In Part II of our series, we will look today at ìKnow Yourself.î Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from St. Theophan.

BEGIN: -- A soul untried by sorrows is good for nothing.

-- There is but one road to the kingdom of God; a cross, voluntary or involuntary.

-- Until the soul is established with the mind in the heart, it does not see itself, nor is it properly aware of itself.

-- True self-knowledge is to see one’s own defects and weaknesses so clearly that they fill our whole view.  And mark this ñ the more you see yourself at fault and deserving of every censure, the more you will advance.

-- A sense of our own righteousness does us great harm.  Keep firmly in mind the point that the moment this feeling arises, however feebly, it is a sure sign that our efforts have gone wrong.  The greater your conviction that you are a sinner, the more certain it is that you are traveling on the right path.  But this feeling of sinfulness should spring from the depths of the soul in a natural way, instead of being suggested from without by our own reflections, or by some remark from another person.

There are many good feelings, but the feeling of worthlessness is the most fundamental; and when it is absent everything else is of no use.  Commit this carefully to your memory.

-- (The Nun Magdalina) Why do we criticize others?  Because we do not try to know ourselves.  Whoever is busy trying to know himself has no time to notice the faults of others.  Judge yourself and you will stop judging others.  Regard every man as better than you are, for without this thought a man is far from God, even though he performs miracles.

-- Examine yourself to see whether you have within you a strong sense of your own importance, or, negatively, whether you have failed to realize that you are nothing.  This feeling of self-importance is deeply hidden, but it controls the whole of our life.  Its first demand is that everything should be as we wish it, and as soon as this is not so we complain to God and are annoyed with people.

The high value we set on ourselves, in consequence of this feeling of importance, not only upsets our relationship with other men but also our attitude to God.  Self-importance is as wily as the devil and cleverly conceals itself behind humble words, settling itself firmly in the heart so that we swing between self-depreciation and self-praise.

-- It must be understood that a man struggling towards perfection is not himself aware of the progress which he makes on his path.  He toils with the sweat of his brow, but (so far as he can see) his labor bears no fruit.  This is because grace works secretly.  The eye of human vision does not discern the good which he is doing.  The way to perfection is through the realization that we are blind, poor, and naked.  This sense of nakedness is closely linked with contrition of the spirit, when in unceasing repentance we pour out before God our grief and sorrow at our impurity.  Penitent feelings are an essential element of true spiritual progress, and whoever evades them is deviating from the right way.  Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.  On reaching spiritual maturity man becomes acutely conscious of his sinfulness and corruption, and his sense of contrition and repentance grows ever more profound.  Tears are the measure of progress, and unceasing tears are a sign of coming purification.

-- Do not let the eye of the mind turn away from the heart; and when anything comes forth from there, at once catch it and examine it.  If it is good, let it be; if it is not good, it must be killed at once.  In this way, learn to know yourself.  If some thought emerges more often than others, it signifies a passion stronger than the rest.  This means that you must combat it with greater energy.  Yet do not place any reliance on yourself and do not expect to achieve anything by your own efforts.  All means of healing and all remedies are sent by the Lord.  So give yourself up to Him ñ- and this at all times.  Strive and go on striving; but expect all good to come only from the Lord.

-- Look to yourself, and have more concern with the heart.  To discriminate between movements of the heart, read and reflect on the writings of Sts. John of the Ladder, Isaac of Syria, Barsanouphios and John, also of Diadochos, Philotheos, Abba Isaias, Evagrios, Cassian, and Neilos in the “Philokalia”; and apply what they say to yourself.  When you read, do not just leave impressed on your mind a general idea of the author’s argument, but always turn what he says into a personal rule to be applied to yourself.  When you do this, the general idea you have formed always undergoes some shades of change.


From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 222 - 231

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Teampall Bheanain - A Celtic Monastic Outpost on the Western Edge of Ireland


At the southeastern tip of Inis Mor, the largest of the three Aran Islands, stands the tiny Church of St. Benignus, or "Teampall Bhenain," as it is known in Irish, the everyday language to this day of this westernmost outpost of the Republic of Ireland.  St. Benignus was a disciple of St. Patrick and his successor as the Bishop of Armagh.  Unlike virtually every other church of the early Celtic period, this church is oriented in a north-south direction, but its sole window does look east.  The church is tiny, intimate even, with a floor space of roughly seven by ten feet.  Extremely solid in its construction, the walls are easily 18 to 24 inches thick with many of the stones weighing hundreds of pounds. The only door is barely shoulder wide and most people have to duck when entering. It is not known if St. Benignus himself founded this monastery, but it was clearly built during the early years of the Celtic Church and is one of the oldest in the Aran Islands.

As the probable church of a hermit and perhaps a few disciples, it is unmatched in its beauty and austerity.

Situated on a high, rocky plateau near the end of the island, the temple offers commanding views of the bay in front, the distant shores of Connemara, and the Atlantic expanse behind.  As the highest point on this part of the island, the winds are merciless and the storms that frequent this area throughout the year can be terrifying.  The surface of the plateau is striated rock, typical of the Aran islands and The Burren on Ireland's west coast.  Deep fissures rend the limestone, making walking difficult as there are deep trenches between the rocks, loose rocks that can shift underfoot, and sharp points that can easily cut the feet and hands.  Soil up here is rare as the wind is constantly tearing any loose soil out and tossing it downwind.  No water is to be found here, either, other than small pools that may catch the frequent rains.  In short, this area is desert, almost devoid of life, unable to sustain crops or animals, with no water close by.

Just steps away from the church's door are the remains of a clochan, the small "beehive" cell that is typical of the monastic abodes in this part of Ireland. Even smaller than the church, it could house only one hermit.  Nearby are the ruins of other structures, perhaps indicating this may have been a small "skete" in which a few hermits may have lived in proximity to one another.  The church's interior, however, could scarcely have accommodated more than five or six men at once.

In a straight line from the church, going down the hillside, are two other ruins. The base of a round tower can still be seen, indicated that a full tower once stood watch over this holy place.  A little past it, is the lower part, perhaps a couple of meters tall, of a well-carved high cross that probably marked the easternmost edge of the monastery's grounds.  Further down, at the base of the hill, is an old well that may have served as the monastery's water supply.  In the tradition of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, it would have been quite "normal" for the monks to choose a water supply some distance away so that they would have to labor to get their water and would thus not waste it by over-indulging themselves with baths, excessive cleanliness, or drinking too much.

Sitting on one of the countless rocks near the church, I reflected on the life these early hermits must have led in this desolate outpost.  There are many other areas on Inishmor where the monks could have settled that would have enabled a much gentler life with good soil and abundant water, as well as greater protection from the elements. Yet, the founder-hermit chose a place that forced hardship on them.  Inishmore now -and then - is devoid of trees and turf.  Fuel for fires has to be brought from the mainland so the nights were very cold in the little stone huts where the monks sheltered.  During the days, the sun shines relentlessly with no trees in sight to offer shade.  From the temple mount, though, the monk would certainly feel close to God. The sky seems close, the only sounds to be heard even today are the sounds of nature - birds, perhaps a few cattle or other livestock in the vicinity, the sound of the waves below, and the wind - an endless wind that blows night and day, without ceasing.

Walking south away from the church, perhaps a half mile distant over sharp rocks that require very carefully stepping, is the other side of the island.  From the edge, the cliff drops at a 90 degree angle, perhaps a hundred feet or more.  There is a small cove, an especially beautiful cove, with crystal-clear waters and waves that pound the circular cove's cliff faces leaving behind a glowing mass of white and green mosses and other plant matter that make the dark limestone cliffs come alive in a symphony of light and color as the sun's rays play with the ocean spray and the vegetation.  Beyond the cove, the Atlantic Ocean reaches out to infinity where, as the islanders used to say, "the next parish is Boston."

As a place of contemplation, it is spectacular; one can easily imagine the monk who would pass some of his time here regularly in silent contemplation of the Creator, his thoughts lost in the wonder of Creation, his heart and soul aching for oneness with the God he chose to follow and worship in this splendid isolation.

There is no other place on earth quite like Teampall Bheanain.  While Ireland's coastal islands are dotted with the holy remnants of Celtic monasticism, the Aran Islands with their monastic riches are especially unique in the history of Christian monasticism.  Standing here, one can feel the spirituality of the Egyptian Desert as it continues to course through this spiritual vein.  Teampall Bheanain is just one of the many holy places still found today in the three islands that make up the Aran chain, but it is surely the most special and most redolent of the ancient monasticism of the Desert Fathers that inspired generations of Irish hermits and holy men and women to find their spiritual deserts on the edge of the world as they knew it at that time.  To visit it today is not just to visit a place of archaeological or historical interest, but to reach back in time and feel in some small way that rich Celtic spirituality that was transplanted here from the dry sands of Egypt.

To see a larger version of this photo of Teampall Bheanain, go to our website at: http://www.michaelmcclellan.com/photo_9533778.html and while you're there, be sure to look at the other photos of Celtic monastic sites!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

ABBA SYLVANUS - The Virtue of Obedience


Today's selection is from the life of Abba Sylvanus.

BEGIN: They used to say that Abba Sylvanus had in Scete a disciple whose name was Mark, and that he possessed to a great degree the faculty of obedience; he was a scribe, and the old man loved him greatly for his obedience. Now Sylvanus had eleven other disciples, and they were disturbed because they saw that the old man loved Mark more than them, and when the old men who were in Scete heard of this they were also troubled about it.

One day when they came to him to reprove him about this, Sylvanus took them, and went forth, and passing by the cells of the brethren, he knocked at the door of each cell, and said, "O brother, come forth, for I have need of thee." And he passed by all their cells, and not one of the obeyed him quickly.

But when they went to the cell of Mark, he knocked at the door and said, "Brother Mark," and as soon as Mark heard the voice of the old man, he jumped up straightway and came out and Sylvanus sent him off on some business.

Then Sylvanus said to the old men, "My fathers, where are the other brethren?" And they went into Mark's cell, and looked at the quire of the book which he was writing, and they saw that he had begun to write one side of the Greek letter "omega" (o) and that as soon as he heard the voice of his master, he ran out and did not stay to complete the other side of the letter. Now when the old men perceived these things, they answered and said unto Sylvanus, "Verily, old man, we also love the brother whom thou lovest, for God also loveth him." END

from "Paradise of the Fathers," vol. II, p. 53, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - War With Passions, Part I

For the next several weeks, we are going to look at the writings of a more recent "Desert Father," namely St. Theophan the Recluse, a Russian father of the 19th century who lived in the frozen deserts of the Russian north.  St. Theophan served in the Russian Spiritual Mission in Palestine and the Near East from 1847 - 1854; during that time, he mastered Greek and studied the ancient Desert Fathers.  Shortly after his return to Russia, he was ordained bishop, but resigned that post after seven years to assume a life of prayer and seclusion in a small monastery where he remained until his death 28 years later.  St. Theophan took a well-stocked library on the Desert Fathers with him when he went into seclusion.  During his almost three decades in seclusion, St. Theophan produced a substantial body of writings on the spiritual life, all of them deeply steeped in the traditions and teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt and Palestine.

We will begin this series on the "War With Passions" which is broken down into seven parts: 1) war with passions; 2) know yourself; 3) work, inner and external; 4) solitude; 5) times of desolation; 6) illusion; 7) humility and love.  We will begin todaywith Part I.  All the quotations are from St. Theophan unless otherwise noted.

BEGIN: Remember the wise teaching of St. John of the Ladder.  He describes the way of our ascension to God in the form of a ladder with four steps.  Some people, he says, tame their passions; others sing, that is, pray with their lips; the third practice inner prayers; finally the fourth rise to seeing visions.  Those who want to ascend these four steps cannot begin from the top, but must start from the bottom; they must step onto the first rung and so ascend to the second, then to the third, and finally to the fourth.  By this ladder everyone can ascend to heaven.  First you must work on taming and reducing passions; then practice psalmody -- in other words, attain the habit of oral prayer; after this, practice inner prayer; and so at last reach the step from which it is possible to ascend to visions.  The first is the work of the novice; the second one is the work of those who are progressing; the third, of those who have progressed to the end; and the fourth is reserved for those who have achieved perfection.

-- There is only one way to begin: and that is by taming passions.  These cannot be brought under control in the soul except by guarding the heart and by attention.  Those, therefore, who pass through all these stages in due order, each in its own time, can, when the heart is cleansed from passions, devote themselves entirely and wholly to psalmody, and to fighting against thoughts; and they can look up towards heaven with their physical eyes or contemplate it with the spiritual eyes of the soul, praying aright in purity and truth.

-- (St. Makarios of Egypt): The most important work that a spiritual wrestler can do, is to enter within the heart, there to fight Satan; to hate and repel the thoughts that he inspires and to wage war upon him.

-- If our spirit should sever itself from God, then the power of self-determination given to man by God will be also taken away from us.  Then a man can no longer master either the inclinations of the soul, or the needs of the body, or outside contacts.  Then he will be torn asunder by the desires of his soul and body and by the vanity of exterior life, although all these things on the superficial level seem to contribute to his own pleasure and happiness.  Compare these two states of life and you will see that in the first man lives wholly within himself before God, and that in the second man is wholly outside himself, forgetting God.  This second state of life is made much worse by the entering in of passions which take root in the ego and penetrate all the soul and body, and give an evil direction to all that is there, a direction that is not constructive but destructive, turning a man away from the path of the Spirit and the fear of God, setting him against his conscience.  In this way the man becomes still more superficial than before.

-- Giving yourself in prayerful surrender to God and His grace, call out each of the things that incite you to sin and try to turn your heart away from them, directing it towards their opposite.  In this way they will be uprooted from the heart and their violence will subside.  In this task give free scope to your power of discernment and lead your heart in its wake.

This struggle against the forces of evil is absolutely essential if we are to break our own will.  It is necessary to go on working on ourselves in this way until, instead of self-pity, there is born in us mercilessness and ruthlessness towards ourselves, a desire to suffer, to torture ourselves, to tire out our soul and body.  This must be continued until, instead of trying to please men, we form a feeling of repulsion against all bad habits and connections -- until we form a hostile and fierce resistance against them, at the same time submitting ourselves to all the wrongs and disparagements which men inflict upon us.  It is necessary to go on working until our appetite exclusively for things material, sensory, and visible disappears completely, and is replaced by a feeling of disgust for such things; and instead we begin to thirst and to search only for what is spiritual, pure, and divine.  Instead of earthliness -- the limitation of life and happiness solely to this earth -- the heart comes to be filled with a sense of being but a pilgrim on earth, whose whole longing is for his heavenly home.

-- After the initial awakening by grace, the first step belongs to man's free will.  Exercising this free will, he journeys into himself in three ways.  First, his will inclines towards good and chooses it.  Secondly, it removes obstacles: in order to disrupt the ties which bind him to sin, it banishes from his heart self-pity, the desire to please men, the inclination towards things sensory and earthy, and in their stead it stirs up mercilessness to himself, absence of desire for things of the senses, acceptance of every kind of disgrace.  It makes him feel that his true home lies in the world to come, whereas here he is but a wanderer and an exile.  Thirdly, free will is inspired to start at once on the right path, permitting no self-indulgence, and making man hold himself constantly on the alert.

In this way everything calms down in the soul.  Incited by grace, the man is freed from all shackles, and with complete readiness says to himself: I will rise up and go forth.

From this moment another movement starts in the soul -- movement towards God.  Having mastered himself by understanding the motives of all his inclinations, thus regaining inner freedom, he must now sacrifice the whole of himself to God.  Yet only half of the work so far has been achieved.

-- From the moment when your heart starts to be kindled with divine warmth your inner transformation will properly begin.  This slight flame will in time consume and melt everything within you, it will begin and continue to spiritualize your being to the full.  Indeed, until this flame starts to burn, there will be no spiritualization, in spite of all your strivings to achieve it.  Thus the engendering of its first flicker is all that matters at this moment, and to this end be sure to direct all your efforts.

But while you must realize that this kindling cannot take place in you while the passions are still strong and vigorous, even though they may not in fact be indulged.  Passions are the dampness in the fuel of your being, and damp wood does not burn.  There is nothing else to be done except to bring in dry wood from outside and light this, allowing the flames from it to dry out the damp wood, until this in its turn is dry enough to begin slowly to catch alight.  And so little by little the burning of the dry wood will disperse the dampness and will spread, until all the wood is enveloped in flames.

All the powers of the soul and activities of the body are the fuel of our being, but so long as man does not pay heed to himself these are all saturated and rendered ineffective by the soggy dampness of his passions.  Until the passions are driven out, they obstinately resist spiritual fire.  Passions penetrate into both the soul and the body, and overpower even man's spirit itself, his consciousness and freedom; and in this manner they come to dominate him entirely.  As they are in league with devils, through them the devils also dominate man, although he falsely imagines that he is his own master.

Delivered by the grace of God, the spirit is the first to tear itself out of these fetters.  Filled with the fear of God and under the influence of grace, the spirit breaks every bond with passion, and repenting of the past, firmly resolves henceforward to please God alone in everything, to live only for Him, to walk according to His commandments.  With the help of the grace of God, the spirit is able to stand firm in this resolution, banishing passions from the soul and body, and spiritualizing all within itself.

And now in you too, the spirit has been liberated from the bonds which held it.  You are standing on the side of God, consciously and by deliberate choice.  Your desire is to belong to God and to please him alone, and this is the mainstay of your spiritual activity.  But while your spirit has been re-established in its rightful freedom, the soul and body are still under the sway of passions and suffer violence from them.  You have now to arm yourself against your passions and to conquer them.  Drive them out of your soul and body.  This struggle against the passions is unavoidable, for they will not willingly yield up their
illegal possession of your being.

Recollection of God is the life of the spirit.  It fires your zeal to please God, and makes unshakeable your decision to belong to Him.  It is, I repeat, the mainstay of the spiritual life; and it is, I will add, the base for your campaign against every passion that invades the heart.  END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 200 - 206

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

ABBA CRONIUS - Fleeing Glory and the Praises of Men


Today's selection is from the life of Abba Cronius who was born about 285 AD. Although he lived in a monastery at first, he left it to live with St. Anthony the Great in the Red Sea Desert of Egypt where he acted as St. Anthony's interpreter. Later, he moved to Nitria (near present-day Alexandria) where he was ordained priest. He had many disciples and died around 386 AD.

BEGIN: Abba Cronius said that Abba Joseph of Pelusia told him the following story, "When I was living in Sinai, there was a brother who was good, ascetic and handsome. He came to church for the Synaxis (the liturgical office said by monks in common, usually on Saturday or Sunday) dressed in an old robe darned all over. Once when I saw him coming to the Synaxis, I said to him, 'Brother, do you not see the brothers, looking like angels for the Synaxis in church? How can you always come here in that garb?' He said to me, 'Forgive me, abba, but I have nothing else.' So I took him in to my cell and gave him a tunic and whatever else he needed. After that he wore them like the other brethren and was like an angel to look at.

Now once it was necessary for the Fathers to send ten brethren to the emperor about something or other and he was chosen as one of the group to go. When he heard this, he made a prostration before his Father saying, 'In the Lord's name, excuse me, for I am the slave of a great man down there and if he recognizes me, he will deprive me of my habit and force me to serve him again.' The brothers were convinced and left him behind. But later, they learned from someone who had known him well when he was in the world that he had been head of the administration and that he had spoken as he did as a ruse, so that no one should know this or bother him about it. So great, amongst the Fathers, was their concern to flee from glory and the peace of this world!" END

from "The Desert Christian," by Sr. Benedicta Ward, (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 116