The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA - The "Ladder of Humility"


In this issue, 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. We will be looking at various aspects of St. Benedict's life and rule over the next several issues. Today's thought is a little long, but it gives us an excellent overview of "humility" and how to obtain it.

BEGIN: QUESTION: (What is) the nature of the brother's humility, how is it acquired, and how once acquired is it maintained?

ANSWER: The Lord has replied through the master:

Holy Scripture cries out to us, brothers, saying: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the man who humbles himself will be exalted." In saying this, therefore, it makes clear to us that all exaltation is a kind of pride. The prophet shows that he was on his guard against this, saying: "O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty." And he continues in the same vein: "I do not busy myself with great things, nor with things too sublime for me." But what "if I was not humble minded, if I exalted my soul? Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so will you requite my soul." So, brothers, if we wish to reach the summit of supreme humility and if we would arrive swiftly at that heavenly exaltation to which one rises by the humility of the present life, we must, by our deeds mounting up, erect that ladder which, raised to heaven, appeared to Jacob in a dream and on which angels descending and ascending were shown to him. We do not doubt that this going down and up has no other purpose than to show that exaltation descends and humility ascends. Now, this ladder set up is our life in the world, and with heart and head made humble in this, its present time, it lifts up to heaven its last end, death, exalted by the Lord. We hold as absolutely certain that the sides of this ladder are our body and soul, into which sides God's call has inserted various rungs of humility and discipline which must be climbed.

The disciple, then, mounts the first rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, having the fear of God always before his eyes, he at all times shuns forgetfulness and is ever mindful of all that God has commanded, thus constantly pondering in his mind how hell burns because of their sins those who despise the Lord, and what eternal life has in store for those who fear God. And at all times keeping himself from sins and vices, of thought, tongue, hands, feet and self-will, as also from the desires of the flesh, let the disciple be sure that God is always, at every moment, looking at him from heaven and that his deeds are everywhere kept in view by the Divinity and are all reported day after day by the angels. . . .

And as to our own will, we are forbidden to do it in the Lord's presence, for Scripture tells us: "Keep your desires in check" (Matthew 6:10). And we also ask the Lord in the Our Father that His will be done in us. So we are properly taught not to do our own will, when we take heed of what Holy Scripture says. . . .

Then the disciple mounts the second rung of humility on the heavenly ladder if, not loving his own will, he does not delight in fulfilling his own desires, but by his deeds he conforms to what the Lord says: "I have come not to do my own will, but to do the will of the one who sent me." And it is likewise written: "The will gets its own punishment, but constraint provides a crown."

Then the disciple mounts the third rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, having taken nothing on himself by his own judgment, he chooses what may not be to his advantage. As Scripture says, "There are ways which men think right, but whose end plunges into the depth of hell." . . . The apostle too says: "For me there are no forbidden things," perhaps not, but not everything does good. I agree there are no forbidden things for me, but I am not going to let anything dominate me. Therefore the disciple must not only be on his guard against such things, but must submit in complete obedience to the superior, imitating the Lord, about whom the apostle says, "He became obedient unto death." So too the voice of the Lord praises the gentiles for such obedience, saying: "No sooner do they hear than they obey me." The Lord as well shows that we obey him when we are subject to the abbot, for he says to our teachers: "Anyone who listens to you listens to me, and anyone who rejects you rejects me."

Then the disciple mounts the fourth rung of humility on the heavenly ladder if, in this obedience, even though difficulties and contradictions and all kinds of wrongs are inflicted upon him, he clings in silence to the steadfastness of patience and in his endurance neither grows weary nor runs away. As Scripture says: "The man who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Psalms 44:22). . . .

Then the disciple mounts the fifth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if, making humble vocal confession, he does not conceal from his abbot any evil thoughts that come into his heart or sins that he has secretly committed. Scripture exhorts us in this regard, saying: "Commit your way to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever." So also the prophet says to the Lord: "I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I did not cover. I said: 'I will confess my faults to the Lord,' and immediately you took away the guilt of my heart" (Psalm 32:5).

Then the disciple mounts the sixth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he is content with the meanest and worst of everything and considers himself a bad workman, unworthy of anything offered to him, telling himself with the prophet: "I was stupid and did not understand. I was like a brute beast in your presence. Yet I shall always be with you."

Then the disciple mounts the seventh rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he not only declares aloud that he is lower and more worthless than everyone else, but also believes this in the depths of his heart, humbling himself and saying: "But I am a worm, not a man; the scorn of men, despised by the people. I was exalted, only to be humbled and confounded" (Psalm 119:71). And a brother such as this should always say to the Lord: "It is good for me, Lord, that you have humbled me, that I may learn your commandments."

Then the disciple mounts the eighth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he does nothing except what is sanctioned by the common rule of the monastery and the example of the superiors, saying with the Scripture: "For I meditate on your law," and "When he asks his father, he will teach him and his elders will speak to him," which means the abbot by his teaching.

Then the disciple mounts the ninth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he forbids his tongue to speak and keeps silence, saying nothing until he is asked. For Scripture shows that "where words are many, sin is not wanting," and that "a man full of words will not prosper on earth."

Then the disciple mounts the tenth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if he does not easily and quickly laugh, for it is written: "A fool laughs at the top of his voice," and "Like the crackling of thorns under a cauldron is the laughter of man."

Then the disciple mounts the eleventh rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if when he speaks he does it softly and without laughter, humbly, with dignity, saying few and holy words, and not in a loud voice. It is written: "The wise man is known by the fewness of his words."

Then the disciple goes up the twelfth rung of humility on the ladder of heaven if his humility is no longer only in his heart but always manifest even in his body to those who see him, that is to say, at the Word of God, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on the road, in the fields and any place whatever, whether he is sitting, walking or standing still, with head always bowed, his gaze fixed on the ground, at all times conscious that he is guilty because of his sins, imagining that he is already appearing at the fearful judgment. Let him constantly say to himself in his heart what the publican, standing before the temple with his eyes fixed on the ground, said: "Lord, I, a sinner, am not worthy to raise my eyes to heaven" (Psalm 38:6). And let a disciple such as this likewise tell himself with the prophet: "I am bowed down and utterly humiliated."

Therefore when the disciple completes the ascent of all these rungs of humility he will, in the fear of God, successfully scale the ladder of his life and soon come to that love of the Lord which, when perfect, casts out fear, whereby all that he previously observed not without fear, he will begin to keep without any effort, as though naturally out of habit, no longer because of fear of hell, but out of very love for this good habit and because of delight in virtue. The Lord will be pleased to make this manifest in his workman now cleansed by the Holy Spirit from vices and sins. . . . END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 131 - 139


Sunday, October 28, 2012

ST. BENEDICT OF NURSIA - The "Holy Art"


In this issue, we are going to 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. We will be looking at various aspects of St. Benedict's life and rule over the next several issues.

Abba Benedict was born in Nursia, Italy, in 480, the son of rich parents. He came to the conclusion early in his school years that formal education might interfere with his salvation; he left school to join a monastery as an "understanding ignoramus." Abba Benedict soon withdrew to a remote, craggy mountain where he lived for more than three years in asceticism and spiritual struggle. As an example of his asceticism, he once stripped off all his clothing and rolled around among thorns and nettles to combat thoughts of lust which were assaulting him. He had the gifts of insight, healing, driving out evil spirits, raising the dead, and appearing to others in dreams and visions. Abba Benedict founded twelve monasteries, each with twelve monks at first, although they grew to be much larger in time. He left this world for a better one in 550 after predicting his death and preparing the brotherhoods for his leaving. St. Benedict is commemorated on March 14. The "Benedictine Rule" which he left for his disciples is a marvelous collection of teachings on the spiritual life which guide all aspects of both the communal and the private lives of those living the monastic way.

BEGIN:

QUESTION: What is the "holy art" that the Abbot must teach his disciples in the monastery?

ANSWER: This is the holy art: first to believe in, to confess and to fear God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God in Trinity, and three in one, three in the one divine nature and one in the threefold power of his majesty. Therefore, to love him with all one's heart and all one's soul. Then, in second place to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Then not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to covet, not to give false testimony, to honor father and mother, and not to do to another what one would not want done to oneself.

To deny oneself in order to follow Christ. To chastise the body for the sake of the soul, to flee pleasures, to love fasting. To relieve the poor, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick, to bury the dead, to help the afflicted, to console the sorrowing, to make loans, to give to the needy.

To make oneself a stranger to worldly activities, to prefer nothing to the love of Christ. Not to give effect to anger, not to await an opportunity for wrath. Not to shelter deceit in one's heart, not to make a consciously feigned peace, to keep faith with a confrere, not to love detraction, to do what has been promised and not to deceive, not to forsake charity. Not to love taking oaths, for fear of perjury. To speak the truth in heart and mouth.

Not to return evil for evil, to do no wrongs but to bear patiently those done to oneself, to love enemies more than friends. Not only to refrain from cursing those by whom one has been cursed but instead to bless them. To bear persecution for the sake of justice.

Not to be proud, not given to wine, not a great eater, not a lover of sleep, not lazy, not a murmurer.

To place one's hope in God. When one sees anything good in oneself, to be aware that it is the work of God and not of oneself; to regard evil as one's own doing and to ascribe it to oneself and to the devil. To want one's desires be fulfilled by God. To hope for one's sustenance not from the work of one's hands alone, but rather from God.

To fear the day of judgment, to dread hell, to desire eternal life and the holy Jerusalem, ever to keep death before one's eyes. To be watchful over the activities of one's life, to be convinced that one is everywhere seen by God. Immediately to shatter on Christ the evil thoughts which come into one's heart, to keep one's mouth from evil and depraved speech, not to love much talking, entirely to avoid vain words or such as cause laughter, not to love excessive or guffawing laughter.

To listen willingly to holy reading, to give oneself to frequent prayer, in daily prayer with tears and sighs to confess to God one's sins of the past, furthermore to correct these failings.

Not to yield to the desires of the flesh, to hate self-will, to be obedient to the admonitions of the abbot.

Not to wish to be called holy before one is so, but first to be holy so that one may and ought to be truly so called. To fulfill God's precepts daily by one's deeds, to love chastity, to hate no one, not to be jealous, not to do anything out of envy, not to love strife. To be reconciled to an enemy before the setting of the sun, to obey all good persons with all one's heart.

And never to despair of God.

Behold, this is the holy art which we must exercise with spiritual instruments.

QUESTION: What are the spiritual instruments which we can use to practice the Divine Art?

ANSWER: What are they? Faith, hope, charity; peace, joy mildness; humility, obedience, silence; above all, chastity of the body; a sincere conscience; abstinence, purity, simplicity; kindness, goodness, compassion; above all piety; temperance, vigilance, sobriety; justice, equity, truth; love, measure, moderation, and perseverance. END

from "The Rule of the Master," (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1977), pp. 115 - 118

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

ST. JOHN OF KARPATHOS - Instructions for the Monks in India (PART I)


For both monks and laypersons struggling to live the Christian life, the thought often comes to us that we should "give up" and stop struggling. Such thoughts are very common and have been faced by all the great ascetics and spiritual warriors over the centuries. In this issue, the first of two parts, we will look at some of the writings of St. John of Karpathos, who wrote 100 texts to some monks in India who were facing this problem. St. John, as best the historians can figure, was bishop of the island of Karpathos which is situated between Crete and Rhodes. He lived in the seventh century. The "monks in India" may, in fact, have been living in Ethiopia although the record is not clear.

BEGIN: The moon as it waxes and wanes illustrates the condition of man; sometimes he does what is right, sometimes he sins and then through repentance returns to a holy life. The intellect of one who sins is not destroyed (as some of you think), just as the physical size of the moon does not diminish, but only its light. Through repentance a man regains his true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light. If a man believes in Christ, "even though he dies, he shall live" (John 11:25): he shall know that "I the Lord have spoken, and will do it" (Ezekiel 17:24).

-- The demons in their malice revive and rekindle the unclean passions within us, causing them to increase and multiply. But the visitation of the divine Logos, especially when accompanied by our tears, dissolves and kills the passions, even those that are inveterate. It gradually reduces to nothing the destructive and sinful impulses of soul and body, provided we do not grow listless but cling to the Lord with prayer and with hope that is unremitting and unashamed.

-- If someone is figuratively speaking an abortion, misshapen by sin, it is said that half his flesh is devoured in this life and half in the life to come (Numbers 12:12). For each of us will certainly experience the consequences of his own actions.

-- A monk should practice the virtue of fasting, avoid ensnarement by the passions, and at all times cultivate intense stillness.

-- In their hatred of our souls, the demons sometimes promptly others to pay us empty compliments, and thus cause us to grow slack because we are praised. If as a result we give way to conceit and self-esteem, our enemies have no difficulty in taking us prisoner.

-- The enemy knows that prayer is our invincible weapon against him, and so he tries to keep us from praying. He fills us with a desire for secular learning, and encourages us to spend our time on studies that we have already renounced. Let us resist his suggestions; otherwise, if we neglect our own fields and go wandering elsewhere, we shall harvest thorns and thistles instead of figs and grapes. "For the wisdom of this world is folly in God's sight" (I Corinthians 3:19).

-- Some hold that the practice of the virtues constitutes the truest form of spiritual knowledge. In that case, we should make every effort to manifest our faith and knowledge throughout our actions. Whoever trusts blindly to knowledge alone should call to mind the words: "They claim to know God, but in their actions they deny Him" (Titus 1:16).

-- Nothing so readily obliterates virtue as frivolous talk and making fun of things. On the other hand, nothing so readily renews the decrepit soul, and enables it to approach the Lord, as fear of God, attentiveness, constant meditation on the words of Scripture, the arming of oneself with prayer, and spiritual progress through the keeping of vigils.

-- Imagine that the Lord is saying to you: "For a time I have taken away from you this or that gift of grace, in which you expected your intellect to find fulfillment, and so to be at peace. To make up for this, I have given you instead some other gift. Yet you think only about what has been taken away, not noticing what has been given you in its place; and so you feel dejected, pained and full of gloom. Nevertheless, I am glad because of this gloom which I have brought on you. I make you dejected for your own good. My purpose is not to destroy but to save you, since I regard you as My son."

-- Suppose you have ordered yourself not to eat fish; you will find that the enemy continually makes you long to eat it. You are filled with an uncontrollable desire for the thing that is forbidden. In this way you can see how Adam's fall typifies what happens to all of us. Because he was told not to eat from a particular tree, he felt irresistibly attracted to the one thing that was forbidden him.

-- We should on no account wear ourselves out with anxiety over our bodily needs. With our whole soul let us trust in God: as one of the Fathers said, "Entrust yourself to the Lord, and all will be entrusted to you." "Show restraint and moderation," writes the Apostle Peter, "and be watchful in prayer . . . casting all your care upon God, since He cares for you" (I Peter 4:7 and 5:7). But if you still feel uncertainty, doubting whether He really cares about providing for you, think of the spider and compare it with a human being. Nothing is more weak and powerless than a spider. It has no possessions, makes no journeys overseas, does not engage in litigation, does not grow angry, and amasses no savings. Its life is marked by complete gentleness, self-restraint and extreme stillness. It does not meddle in the affairs of others, but minds its own business; calmly and quietly it gets on with its own work. To those who love idleness it says, in effect: "If anyone refuses to work, he should have nothing to eat" (II Thessalonians 3:10). The spider is far more silent than Pythagoras, whom the ancient Greeks admired more than any other philosopher because of the control that he exercised over his tongue. Although Pythagoras did not talk with everyone, yet he did speak occasionally in secret with his closest friends; and often he lavished nonsensical remarks on oxen and eagles. He abstained altogether from wine and drank only water. The spider, however, achieves more than Pythagoras: it never utters a single word, and abstains from water as well as from wine. Living in this quiet fashion, humble and weak, never going outside or wandering about according to its fancy, always hard at work -- nothing could be more lowly than the spider. Nevertheless the Lord "who dwells on high but sees what is lowly" (Psalms 113:5-6), extends His providence even to the spider, sending it food every day, and causing tiny insects to fall into its web.

From "The Philokalia: the Complete Text" (volume I), by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. By G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and (Bishop) Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 298 - 309.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

ST. JOHN OF KARPATHOS - Instructions for the Monks in India (PART II)


For both monks and laypersons struggling to live the Christian life, the thought often comes to us that we should "give up" and stop struggling. Such thoughts are very common and have been faced by all the great ascetics and spiritual warriors over the centuries. In today's newsletter, the second of two parts, we will look at some of the writings of St. John of Karpathos, who wrote 100 texts to some monks in India who were facing this problem. Last week, I quoted the Philokalia edition from which St. John's writings were taken and said that he lived in the seventh century. One of our list members kindly corrected this by pointing out that other scholars have placed St. John in the fifth and sixth centuries, instead. Another member pointed out that some sources credit these texts to Evagrius of Pontus.

Whatever the authorship and the scholarship behind this work, it speaks directly to the heart of the spiritual struggler who feels discouraged and ready to give up.

BEGIN: How can we overcome the sinfulness that is already firmly established within us? We must use force. A man labors and struggles, and so by the use of force he escapes from destruction, always striving to raise his thoughts to holiness.   We are not forbidden to resist force with force. If in any ascetic task we exert force, however slight, then, "remaining in Jerusalem," we can wait for the "power from on high" which will come down upon us (Luke 24:49). In other words, if we persevere in unceasing prayer and the other virtues, there will come upon us a mighty force, infinitely stronger than any we can exert.  This force cannot be described in human language; in its great strength it overcomes our worst faults of character and the malice of the demons, conquering both the sinful inclinations of our soul and the disordered impulses of our body. "There came a sound from heaven as of a rushing violent wind" (Acts 2:2); and this force from  heaven drives out the evil that is always forcing us into sin.

-- The enemy lurks like a lion in his den; he lays in our path hidden traps and snares, in the form of impure and blasphemous thoughts. But if we continue wakeful, we can lay for him traps and snares and ambuscades that are far more effective and terrible. Prayer, the recitation of psalms and the keeping of vigils, humility, service to others and acts of compassion, thankfulness, attentive listening to the words of Scripture -- all these are a trap for the enemy, an ambuscade, a pitfall, a noose, a lash and a snare.

-- The Law says about a bull which is given to goring other bulls: "If men have protested to the owner and he has not destroyed the animal, he shall pay" (Exodus 21:36). You should apply this to your thoughts and impulses. Sometimes during a meal the impulse of self-esteem springs up inside you, urging you to speak at the wrong moment. Then angelic thoughts protest within you and tell you to destroy this impulse to speak.  If you do not resist the impulse by keeping silent as you should, but allow it to come out into the open because you are puffed up by delusion, then you will have to pay the penalty. As a punishment you will perhaps be tempted to commit some grave sin; alternatively, you may experience severe bodily pain, or be involved in violent conflict with your brethren, or else suffer torment in the age to come. We shall have to give account for every idle and conceited word spoken by our ill-disciplined tongue. Let us guard our tongue, then, with watchfulness.

-- Never form a close friendship with someone who enjoys noisy and drunken feasts, or who likes telling dirty stories, even though he may have been a monk for many years. Do not let his filth defile you; do not fall under the influence of people who are unclean and uncircumcised in heart.

-- If someone launches a fierce and determined attack on the demons through his self-control, prayer or any other form of holiness, they retaliate by inflicting deeper wounds upon him.  Eventually he is reduced to despair, and feels in his soul that he has received a spiritual death-sentence. He is even brought to say: "Who will deliver me from the body of this death? For I am compelled against my will to submit to the laws of my adversary" (Romans 7:23-24).

-- Pharaoh entreated, saying: "May God take away from me this death" (Exodus 10:17), and he was heard. Similarly, when the demons asked the Lord not to cast them into the abyss, their request was granted (Luke 8:31). How much more, then, will a Christian be heard when he prays to be delivered from spiritual death?

-- It may happen that for a certain time a man is illumined and refreshed by God's grace, and then this grace is withdrawn.  This makes him inwardly confused and he starts to grumble; instead of seeking through steadfast prayer to recover his assurance of salvation, he loses patience and gives up. He is like a beggar who receives alms from the palace, and feels put out because he was not asked inside to dine with the king.

-- "Then the devil left Him, and angels came and ministered to Him" (Matthew 4:11). It does not say that the angels were with out Lord during the actual time when He was being tempted. In the same way, when we are being tempted, God's angels for a time withdraw a little. Then, after the departure of those tempting us, they come and minister to us with divine intellections, giving us support, illumination, compunction, encouragement, patient endurance, joyfulness, and everything that saves and strengthens and renews our exhausted soul. As Nathaniel was told, "You will see the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of man" (John 1:51); in other words, the ministry and assistance of the angels will be given generously to mankind.

-- Fire makes iron impossible to touch, and likewise frequent prayer renders the intellect more forceful in its warfare against the enemy. That is why the demons strive with all their strength to make us slothful in attentiveness to prayer, for they know that prayer is the intellect's invincible weapon against them.

-- When David went out from the city ofZiklag to fight the Amalekites, some of the men with him were so exhausted that they stayed behind at the brook Besor and took no part in the battle (Samuel 30:10). Returning after his victory, he heard the rest of his troops saying that no share in the spoils should be given to the men who had stayed behind; and he saw that these themselves were ashamed and kept silent. But David recognized that they had wanted to fight, and so in his kindness he spoke in their defense, saying that they had remained behind to guard the baggage; and on this ground he gave them as large a share in the spoils as he gave to the others who had fought bravely in the battle. You should behave in the same way towards a brother who shows fervor at first, but then grows slack. In the case of this brother and his salvation, the baggage consists of faith and repentance, humility and tears, patience, hope, long-suffering and the like. If in spite of his slackness he yet guards this baggage, waiting expectantly for Christ's coming, he  is rightly given an eternal reward.

-- Blessed is he who, with a hunger that is never satisfied, day and night throughout this present life makes prayer and the psalms his food and drink, and strengthens himself by reading of God's glory in Scripture. Such communion will lead the soul to ever-increasing joy in the age to come.

-- Do all in your power not to fall, for the strong athlete should not fall. But if you do fall, get up again at once and continue the contest. Even if you fall a thousand times because of the withdrawal of God's grace, rise up again each time, and keep on doing so until the day of your death. For it is written, "If a righteous man fall seven times" -- that is, repeatedly throughout his life -- seven times "shall he rise again" (Proverbs 24:16). So long as you hold fast, with tears and prayer, to the weapon of the monastic habit, you will be counted among those that stand upright, even though you fall again and again. So long as you remain a monk, you will be like a brave soldier who faces the blows of the enemy; and God will commend you, because even when struck you refused to surrender or run away. But if you give up the monastic life, running away like a coward and a deserter, the enemy will strike you in the back; and you will lose your freedom of communion with God. END

from "The Philokalia: the Complete Text" (volume I), by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. By G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and (Bishop) Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 310 - 321.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

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


In this issue, we will conclude our two-part look at St. Nilus of Sinai, a desert father who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.

From a wealthy and well-known family, St. Nilus was apparently a pupil of St. John Chrysostom, and he was married with two children. His spiritual aspirations conflicted with his worldly demands, however, so after reaching agreement with his wife, St. Nilus renounced the world and went to Mount Sinai to life a life of solitude with his son, Theodul. This was in 390 and he was to remain a monk for the next sixty years.

With the help of his son, St. Nilus dug a cave and settled down, subsisting only on bitter wild plants. They spent all their time in prayer, study of Scripture, meditation, and labors. However, St. Nilus did not neglect communication with his fellow man as people from far and wide appealed to him for spiritual council; no one was ever left without direction and advice.

God tested St. Nilus in a very strong and special way. Sinai and the surrounding countryside were invaded by barbarians from Arabia who pillaged everything, slaughtered many innocents, and led others away into captivity, including St. Nilus’s son, Theodul. Two or three days after the raid, he heard that the barbarians were about to sacrifice his son as an offering to Venus, but he was not able to confirm whether the sacrifice had actually taken place.

Eventually he heard that his son was sold in a Christian country where, after lengthy inquiries, St. Nilus learned that the bishop of Elusius had bought Theodulus and other slaves and was preparing him for the service of the Church. When St. Nilus arrived in that town to find his son, the bishop tried to persuade him to enter the priesthood, too, but their love of solitude prevented them from agreeing to stay. The bishop then ordained them both to the priesthood and let them return to their beloved Sinai where they stayed to the end of their lives. St. Nilus went to his eternal reward in about 450.

St. Nilus’s main writing is a book of "153 Texts on Prayer," which corresponds to the number of fish that St. Peter caught in John 21:2. We are excerpting the second half of those texts here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 137 - 143.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

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


In this issue, we will begin a two-part look at St. Nilus of Sinai, a desert father who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries.

From a wealthy and well-known family, St. Nilus was apparently a pupil of St. John Chrysostom, and he was married with two children. His spiritual aspirations conflicted with his worldly demands, however, so after reaching agreement with his wife, St. Nilus renounced the world and went to Mount Sinai to life a life of solitude with his son, Theodul. This was in 390 and he was to remain a monk for the next sixty years.

With the help of his son, St. Nilus dug a cave and settled down, subsisting only on bitter wild plants. They spent all their time in prayer, study of Scripture, meditation, and labors. However, St. Nilus did not neglect communication with his fellow man as people from far and wide appealed to him for spiritual council; no one was ever left without direction and advice.

God tested St. Nilus in a very strong and special way. Sinai and the surrounding countryside were invaded by barbarians from Arabia who pillaged everything, slaughtered many innocents, and led others away into captivity, including St. Nilus’s son, Theodul. Two or three days after the raid, he heard that the barbarians were about to sacrifice his son as an offering to Venus, but he was not able to confirm whether the sacrifice had actually taken place.

Eventually he heard that his son was sold in a Christian country where, after lengthy enquiries, St. Nilus learned that the bishop of Elusius had bought Theodulus and other slaves and was preparing him for the service of the Church. When St. Nilus arrived in that town to find his son, the bishop tried to persuade him to enter the priesthood, too, but their love of solitude prevented them from agreeing to stay. The bishop then ordained them both to the priesthood and let them return to their beloved Sinai where they stayed to the end of their lives. St. Nilus went to his eternal reward in about 450. St. Nilus’s main writing is a book of "153 Texts on Prayer," which corresponds to the number of fish that St. Peter caught in John 21:2. We are excerpting the first half of those texts here and will complete the second half next week:

BEGIN: -- Prayer is the speaking of the mind to God. What structure does the mind need so that, not looking back (nor hither and thither), it may rise to the Lord and converse with Him, with no intermediary?

-- If Moses was forbidden to approach the earthly burning bush until he had loosed his sandals from off his feet (Exodus 3:5), how can you not cast away from yourself every passionate thought when you wish to see Him, Who is above all feeling and thought, and to converse with Him?

-- When you shed floods of tears during prayer, do not exalt yourself for this, as though you were above many others. It is that your prayer has received help from above, so that, having zealously confessed your sins, you may incline the almighty to mercy by your tears.

-- Stand patiently and pray steadfastly, brushing off the impacts of worldly cares and all thoughts; for they distract and worry you in order to disturb the impetus of your prayer.

-- When the demons see that someone has the zeal and diligence to pray as he ought, then they suggest to him thoughts about something, supposedly important (and then draw away); but a little later they again call up the memory of this thing, urging his mind to examine it (if it is a problem – to solve it; if it is a thing – to acquire it); and he, not finding what he seeks, feels vexed and grieved. Then, when he stands up to pray, the demons remind him of what he had thought of and sought for, so that his mind should once more be moved to inquiry and his prayer become barren.

-- Strive to render your mind deaf and dumb during prayer; then you will be able to pray as you ought.

-- When you pray as you ought, there may come into your mind things about which it seems right to be angry with your brother. There is absolutely no anger against your brother which could be justified. If you look, you will find that the question can be settled quite well without anger. Therefore do your best not to be moved to anger.

-- Do not pray that things may be according to your desires, for they are not always in keeping with the will of God. Better pray as you were taught, saying: "Thy will be done" on me (Matthew 6:10). And ask thus about all things, for He always desires what is good and profitable for your soul, whereas you do not always seek it.

-- Do not grieve if you do not at once receive from God that which you ask. He wishes to benefit you still more by making you persist longer in your patient prayer before Him. For what can be higher than to address one’s converse to God and be in communion with Him?

-- Pray firstly to be purified of passions, secondly to be freed from ignorance and forgetfulness, and thirdly to be delivered from all temptation and forsaking.

-- Seek in prayer only righteousness and the kingdom, that is virtue and knowledge – and all the rest "shall be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33).

-- When the sly demon, after using many devices, fails to hinder the prayer of the diligent, he desists a little; but when the man has finished his prayer, he takes his revenge. He either fires his anger and thus destroys the fair state produced by prayer, or excites an impulse towards some animal pleasure and thus mocks his mind.

-- Why do demons wish to excite in us gluttony, fornication, greed, anger, rancor and other passions? So that the mind, under their weight, should be unable to pray as it ought; for when the passions of our irrational part begin to act, they prevent the mind from acting rationally.

-- He who prays in spirit and in truth does not borrow from creatures thoughts to glorify the Creator, but draws from the Creator Himself contemplations for His praise.

-- When your mind, inflamed by longing for God, little by little divests itself of flesh, as it were, and turns away from all thoughts engendered by sensory impressions, or from memory, being at the same time full of adoration and rejoicing, then you may conclude that it has approached the boundaries of prayer. END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 127 - 135.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

ST. GREGORY PALAMAS - Every Christian Should Pray Unceasingly


Today's text is from the life of St. Gregory Palamas (1296 – 1359). While St. Gregory Palamas is not strictly one of the "Ancient Desert Fathers," he is undoubtedly steeped in their traditions and built on their work in teaching the concept of "unceasing prayer." This beautiful text tells us why "unceasing prayer" is the task of EVERY Christian, and not just monastics and clerics: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" -- St. Seraphim of Sarov

BEGIN: Let no one think, my brother-Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer. For look what the most holy Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus, writes in his life of St. Gregory of Thessalonica. This saint had a beloved friend by the name of Job, a very simple but most virtuous man. Once, while conversing with him, His Eminence said of prayer that every Christian in general should strive to pray always, and to pray without ceasing, as Apostle Paul commands all Christians, "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17), and as the prophet David says of himself, although he was a king and had to concern himself with his whole kingdom: "I foresaw the Lord always before my face" (Psalms 15:8), that is, in my prayer I always mentally see the Lord before me.

Gregory the Theologian also teaches all Christians to say God’s name in prayer more often than to breathe . . . . So, my Christian brethren, I too implore you, together also with St. Chrysostom, for the sake of saving your souls, do not neglect the practice of this prayer. Imitate those I have mentioned and follow in their footsteps as far as you can.

At first it may appear very difficult to you, but be assured, as it were from Almighty God, that this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time you will become used to this practice and will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. Then you will learn by experience that this practice is not impossible and not difficult, but both possible and easy. This is why St. Paul, who knew better than we the great good which such prayer would bring, commanded us to pray without ceasing. He would not have imposed this obligation upon us if it were extremely difficult and impossible, for he knew beforehand that in such case, having no possibility of fulfilling it, we would inevitably prove to be disobedient and would transgress his commandment, thus incurring blame and condemnation. The Apostle could have had no such intention.

Moreover, bear in mind the method of prayer – how it is possible to pray without ceasing, namely by praying in the mind. And this we can always do if we so wish. For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray mentally and practice this mental prayer – the true prayer pleasing to God.

Let us work with the body and pray with the soul. Let our outer man perform his bodily tasks, and let the inner man be entirely dedicated to the service of God, never abandoning this spiritual practice of mental prayer, as Jesus, God and Man, commanded us, saying: "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matthew 6:6).

The closet of the soul is the body; our doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its closet when the mind does not wander hither and thither, roaming among things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our heart. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be attached to external sensory things, and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God its Father. "And thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly," adds the Lord. God who knows all secret things sees mental prayer and rewards it openly with great gifts. For that prayer is true and perfect which fills the soul with Divine grace and spiritual gifts. As chrism perfumes the jar the more strongly the tighter it is closed, so prayer, the more fast it is imprisoned in the heart, abounds the more in Divine grace.

Blessed are those who acquire the habit of this heavenly practice, for by it they overcome every temptation of the evil demons, as David overcame the proud Goliath. It extinguishes the unruly lusts of the flesh, as the three men extinguished the flames of the furnace. This practice of inner prayer tames passions as Daniel tamed the wild beasts. By it the dew of the Holy spirit is brought down upon the heart, as Elijah brought down rain on Mount Carmel.

This mental prayer reaches to the very throne of God and is preserved in golden vials, sending forth their odors before the Lord, as John the Divine saw in the Revelation, "Four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8).

This mental prayer is the light which illumines man’s soul and inflames his heart with the fire of love of God. It is the chain linking God with man and man with God. Oh the incomparable blessing of mental prayer! It allows a man constantly to converse with God. Oh truly wonderful and more than wonderful – to be with one’s body among men while in one’s mind conversing with God. Angels have no physical voice, but mentally never cease to sing glory to God. This is their sole occupation and all their life is dedicated to this.

So, brother, when you enter your closet and close your door, that is, when your mind is not darting hither and thither but enters within your heart, and your senses are confined and barred against things of this world, and when you pray thus always, you too are then like the holy angels, and your Father, Who sees your prayer in secret, which you bring Him in the hidden depths of your heart, will reward you openly by great spiritual gifts.

But what other and greater rewards can you wish from this when, as I said, you are mentally always before the face of God and are constantly conversing with Him – conversing with God, without Whom no man can ever be blessed either here or in another life?

Finally, my brother, whoever you may be, when you take up this book and, having read it, wish to test in practice the profit which mental prayer brings to the soul, I beg you, when you begin to pray thus, pray God with one invocation, "Lord have mercy," for the soul of him who has worked on compiling this book and of him who helped to give it to the public. For they have great need of your prayer to receive God’s mercy for their soul, as you for yours. May it be so! May it be so! END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 412 - 415.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

ABBA EVAGRIUS - Instructions to Cenobites and Others


In this issue, we will look at more of Abba Evagrius's teachings, this time his "Instructions to Cenobites and Others":

BEGIN:  Faith is the beginning of love; the end of love is knowledge of God.

-- Man's patience gives birth to hope; good hope will glorify him.

-- He who keeps his flesh in strict subjection will reach passionlessness. He who feeds it will suffer from it.

-- Solitude with love purifies the heart. Withdrawal from others with anger agitates it.

-- It is better to be among thousands with love, than to hide alone in caves with hatred.

-- He dishonors God who transgresses His law. But he who obeys it glorifies his Creator.

-- Where sin enters, there too enters ignorance; but the hearts of the righteous are filled with knowledge.

-- Better poverty with knowledge than riches with ignorance.

-- The highest adornment of the head is the crown; the highest adornment of the heart is knowledge of God.

-- He who prays often will escape temptation; but thoughts will trouble the heart of the careless.

-- If the spirit of despondency attacks you, do not leave your cell, and do not turn aside in time of discontent. For as silver is purified (by friction), so will your heart be made bright if you stand firm.

-- The spirit of despondency takes away tears, and the spirit of discontent stifles prayer.

-- Love is preceded by passionlessness; knowledge is preceded by love.

-- Honor God and you will know the incorporeal; serve Him and He will show you the understanding of the ages.

-- The body of Christ is active virtues; he who tastes them will be free from passions.

-- The blood of Christ is discrimination of actions; he who drinks it will be illumined.

-- The bosom of the Lord is knowledge of God; he who rests therein will be a theologian.

-- When he who is filled with knowledge and he who practices good meet one another, the Lord is between them.  END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 115 - 116.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ABBA EVAGRIUS - Reflections on the "Eight Thoughts"


In today's text, we will begin a new series from another classic of spiritual literature -- "Early Fathers From the Philokalia."  The Philokalia is a massive treatise on prayer first published in Greek in the eighteenth century.  Running over 1200 pages in length, it was subsequently translated into Russian (and expanded) in the nineteenth century.  This version was published in five volumes and contained almost 3,000 pages!  Most of this is now available in English (and can be found in our "Inner Light's Bookstore" by clicking on the link to the left.  The book we will begin studying today focuses on those spiritual teachers from the third to the seventh centuries.  As we approach a new year, I believe it especially appropriate that we conclude this year with a study of prayer.

Let us look now at the teachings of Abba Evagrius the Monk who lived in Scetis in the fourth century. Abba Evagrius's books were well-known to spiritual strugglers and the general public as noted by Jeronimus who said, "Books by Evagrius are being read not only the Greeks throughout the East, but also in the West by the Latins, translated by Rufinus, his disciple."

BEGIN: "Reflections on the Eight Thoughts"

-- There are five occupations which help to gain God's benevolence.  The first is pure prayer; the second, psalmody; the third, reading the Holy Scriptures; the fourth, contrite remembrance of one's sins, of death and the terrible judgment; the fifth, work with one's hands.

-- If while still in your body you wish to serve God like the incorporeal beings, strive to have in your heart a secret unceasing prayer.  For in this way your soul will come near to resembling the angels even before death.

-- As our body becomes dead and full of stench when the soul leaves it, so a soul in which prayer is not active is dead and stenches.  That to be deprived of prayer should be counted worse than death is clearly shown us by Prophet Daniel, who was ready to die rather than be deprived of prayer at any hour.  One should remember God more often than one breathes.

-- Join to every breath a sober invocation of the name of Jesus and the thought of death with humility.  Both these practices bring great profit to the soul.

-- Do you wish to be known by God?  Try as much as possible to be less known to men.  If you will always remember that God is the Seer of all you do with soul or body, you will not sin in any action, and will have God as your Companion.

-- Nothing so makes a man resemble God as doing good to others. But in doing good to them, one should take great care not to transform these good deeds into a thought.

-- In the end you will become worthy of God by the fact tht you do nothing unworthy of Him.

-- You will pay glorious homage to God if, through virtues, you imprint His likeness on your soul.

-- Men become better as they come nearer to God.

-- A wise man who offers to God honor and worship is known by Him.  So he is in no way troubled if he remains unknown to all men.  The task of good judgment is to incite the part of the soul where anger lies to the waging of inner warfare.  The task of wisdom is to urge the mind to constant attentive watchfulness.  The task of righteousness is to direct the part, in which lies lust, towards virtue and towards God.  Finally, the task of courage is to govern the five senses and not let our inner man, that is the spirit, or our outer man, that is the body, be defiled through them.

-- The soul is a living substance, simple, incorporeal, invisible to the physical eye, immortal and endowed with mind and reason.  What the eye is to the body, that the mind is to the soul.

-- Evil is not an actual substance, but absence of good; just as darkness is nothing but absence of light.

-- Occupy yourself with reading with a calm spirit, so that your mind may be constantly raised up to contemplation of the wondrous acts of God, lifted, as it were, by some hand outstretched to it.

-- Every soul, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and by its own work and diligence, can conjoin and combine in itself the following qualities: word with mind, action with contemplation, virtue with science, faith with knowledge free of all forgetfulness, in such a way, moreover, that none of these qualities would be greater or less than another.  For then it will be united with God, Who is good and true, and with Him alone.  END

from "Early Fathers From the Philokalia," translated from the Russian text, "Dobrotolubiye," by E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, eighth edition, (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1981), pp. 113 - 114.