The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - The Four Virtues of the Soul


Today's text comes from St. Peter of Damaskos who, after St. Maximos the Confessor, has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks.

***** The Four Virtues of the Soul *****

BEGIN: There are four forms of wisdom: first, moral judgment, or the knowledge of what should and should not be done, combined with watchfulness of the intellect; second, self-restraint, whereby our moral purpose is safeguarded and kept free from all acts, thoughts and words that do not accord with God; third, courage, or strength and endurance in sufferings, trials and temptations encountered on the spiritual path; and fourth, justice, which consists in maintaining a proper balance between the first three. These four general virtues arise from the three powers of the soul in the following manner: from the intelligence, or intellect, come moral judgment and justice, or discrimination; from the desiring power comes self-restraint; and from the incensive power comes courage.

Each virtue lies between the unnatural passions. Moral judgment lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between obduracy and licentiousness; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice between over-frugality and greed. The four virtues constitute an image of the heavenly man, while the eight unnatural passions constitute an image of the earthly man (see I Corinthians 15:49).

God possesses a perfect knowledge of all these things, just as He knows the past, the present and the future; and they are known to some extent by him who through grace has learned from God about His works, and who through this grace has been enabled to realize in himself that which is according to God's image and likeness (see Genesis 1:26). But if someone claims that, simply by hearing about these things, he knows them as he should, he is a liar. Man's intellect can never rise to heaven without God as a guide; and it cannot speak of what it has not seen, but must first ascend and see it. On the level of hearsay, you should speak only of things that you have learned from the Scriptures, and then with circumspection, confessing your faith in the Father of the Logos, as St. Basil the Great puts it, and not imagining that through hearsay you possess spiritual knowledge; for that is to be worse than ignorant. As St. Maximos has said, "To think that one knows prevents one from advancing in knowledge." St. John Chrysostom points out that there is an ignorance which is praiseworthy: it consists in knowing consciously that one knows nothing. In addition, there is a form of ignorance that is worse than any other: not to know that one does not know. Similarly, there is a knowledge that is falsely so called, which occurs when, as St. Paul says, one thinks that one knows but does not know (see I Corinthians 8:2). END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 100 - 101

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

ST. ISAIAH THE SOLITARY - Guarding the Intellect


St. Isaiah the Solitary was a monk in Scetis who lived around 370 and was a contemporary of St. Macarius the Great. He moved to Palestine after 431 and died there in great old age around 491 as a hermit near Gaza. He is known for 27 "texts" on guarding the intellect against demonic deception, some of which we share below. Unfortunately, the full text of St. Isaiah's writing was not available to this author in English, although a much longer text is available in Greek. We will look at some of these texts today and in the next issue:

["GUARDING THE INTELLECT" -- ST. ISAIAH THE SOLITARY]

BEGIN:

-- There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity: he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them "dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to live with the dogs that guard my flocks" (Job 30:1,4). He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.

-- Let us stand firm in the fear of God, rigorously practicing the virtues and not giving our conscience cause to stumble. In the fear of God let us keep our attention fixed within ourselves, until our conscience achieves its freedom. Then there will be a union between it and us, and thereafter it will be our guardian, showing us each thing that we must uproot. But if we do not obey our conscience, it will abandon us and we shall fall into the hands of our enemies, who will never let us go. This is what our Lord taught us when He said: "Come to an agreement with your adversary quickly while you are with him in the road, lest he hand you over to the judge, and the judge deliver you to the officer and you are cast into prison" (Matthew 5:25). The conscience is called an "adversary" because it opposes us when we wish to carry out the desires of our flesh; and if we do not listen to our conscience, it delivers us into the hands of our enemies.

-- The monk should shut all the gates of his soul, that is, the senses, so that he is not lured astray. When the intellect sees that it is not dominated by anything, it prepares itself for immortality, gathering its senses together and forming them into one body.

-- If your intellect is freed from all hope in things visible, this is a sign that sin has died in you.

-- If your intellect is freed, the breach between it and God is eliminated.

-- The demons cunningly withdraw for a time in the hope that we will cease to guard our heart, thinking we have now attained peace; then they suddenly attack our unhappy soul and seize it like a sparrow. Gaining possession of it, they drag it down mercilessly into all kinds of sin, worse than those which we have already committed and for which we have asked forgiveness. Let us stand, therefore, with fear of God and keep guard over our heart, practicing the virtues which check the wickedness of our enemies.

-- Unless a man hates all the activity of this world, he cannot worship God. What then is meant by the worship of God? It means that we have nothing extraneous in our intellect when we are praying to Him: neither sensual pleasure as we bless Him, nor malice as we sing His praise, nor hatred as we exalt Him, not jealousy to hinder us as we speak to Him and call Him to mind. For all these things are full of darkness; they are a wall imprisoning our wretched soul, and if the soul has them in itself it cannot worship God with purity. They obstruct its ascent and prevent it from meeting God; they hinder it from blessing Him inwardly and praying to Him with sweetness of heart, and so receiving His illumination. As a result the intellect is always shrouded in darkness and cannot advance in holiness, because it does not make the effort to uproot these thoughts by means of spiritual knowledge.

-- When the intellect rescues the soul's senses from the desires of the flesh and imbues them with dispassion, the passions shamelessly attack the soul, trying to hold its senses fast in sin; but if the intellect then continually calls upon God in secret, He, seeing all this, will send His help and destroy all the passions at once.

-- He who receives no help when at war should feel no confidence when at peace.

-- When a man severs himself from evil, he gains an exact understanding of all the sins he has committed against God; for he does not see his sins unless he severs himself from them with a feeling of revulsion. Those who have reached this level pray to God with tears, and are filled with shame when they recall their evil love of the passions. Let us therefore pursue the spiritual way with all our strength, and God in His great mercy will help us. And if we have not guarded our hearts as our fathers guarded theirs, at least in obedience to God let us do all we can to keep our bodies sinless, trusting that at this time of spiritual dearth He will grant mercy to us together with His saints.

-- Examine yourself daily in the sight of God, and discover which of the passions is in your heart. Cast it out, and so escape His judgment.

-- Be attentive to your heart and watch your enemies, for they are cunning in their malice. In your heart be persuaded of this: it is impossible for a man to achieve good through evil means. That is why our Savior told us to be watchful, saying: "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there are that find it" (Matthew 7:14).

-- At the time of prayer, we should expel from our heart the provocation of each evil thought, rebutting it in a spirit of devotion so that we do not prove to be speaking to God with our lips, while pondering wicked thoughts in our heart. God will not accept from the hesychast a prayer that is turbid and careless, for everywhere Scripture tells us to guard the soul's organs of perception. If a monk submits his will to the law of god, then his intellect will govern in accordance with this law all that is subordinate to itself. It will direct as it should all the soul's impulses, especially its incensive power and desire, for these are subordinate to it. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, trans. and eds., "The Philokalia: The Complete Text" (vol. 1), (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), pp. 22 - 28

Sunday, December 23, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Obey Not Your Own Will, But God's


In this issue, we will conclude our reading of some of the letters of Abba Ammonas. This collection of letters is a small spiritual treasury of the great desert father's teachings that have been preserved for over 16 centuries. One of our readers kindly supplied some additional information about Abba Ammonas which you may find of interest. Abba Ammonas is mentioned in two works, the "Sayings of the Desert Fathers" and Rufinus's collection on the history of monasticism. From these works we may deduct that Ammonas lived in Scetis, he needed fourteen years to overcome his anger, and he found St. Anthony the Great who predicted his advancement. Furthermore these books also show that Ammonas followed Anthony and succeeded him as hegoumenos (abbot), that he killed a basilisk, and that also on the ferry he continued to work. It appears that he was made a bishop who ruled laymen and monks with the same goodness. Further he maintained a relationship with Abba Poemen.

We know 14 letters he wrote which speak "a fresh unbiased mysticism". He taught that the spirit of contemplation must be the target of the monk, and that he reaches it if he is persevering, believing, and through tears asks for that charisma.

In today's letter from Abba Ammonas, the great teacher discusses the problem following one's own will instead of submitting to God's Will:

BEGIN:

[THE MONKS ARE TEMPTED TO MOVE TO ANOTHER PLACE]

Now my brethren, my beloved in the Lord, whom I love with my whole heart, I hear that temptation is troubling you, and I am afraid it may come from yourselves. For I have heard that you want to leave your place, and I was grieved to hear it, though it is a long time since I have been seized by grief. For I know of a surety that if you go away from your place now, you will make no progress at all. For it is not the will of God, and if you go out acting on your own authority, God will not work together with you nor go out with you, and I fear we shall fall into a multitude of evils.

[TO FOLLOW ONE'S OWN WILL IS TO LOSE GOD'S HELP AND SUPPORT]

If we follow our own will, God no longer sends His power which prospers and establishes all the ways of men. For if a man does something, imagining that it comes from God, when really his own will is involved in it, then God does not help him and you will find his heart embittered and feeble in everything in which he sets his hand. It is on the pretext of better progress that the believer can go wrong and end up being mocked. For Eve was deceived on no other pretext than that of good and progress. For when she heard, "You shall be as gods" (Genesis 3:5), by failing to discriminate the voice of the speaker, she disobeyed the commandment of God, and thus not only came by no good, but under the curse.

[THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS]

Solomon says in the Proverbs, "There are many ways which appear good unto men: but the end thereof leads to the pit of hell" (Proverbs 14:12). He says this of those who do not understand the will of God, but follow their own will. For such people, not knowing the will of God, at first receive from Satan a fervor which is like joy, but is not joy; and afterwards it turns to gloom and lays them open. But he who follows the will of God endures great labor in the beginning, but afterwards finds rest and gladness. Do nothing therefore on your own, until I have come to talk to you.

[MAN IS MOTIVATED IN THREE WAYS]

There are three motivations which accompany a man everywhere, and most monks are ignorant of them, excepting only those who have become perfect, of whom Scripture says, "Solid food is for the perfect, who by reason of their conscience have their senses exercised to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14). What then are these three? One is introduced by the enemy, another is begotten by the heart, while the third is sown by God in a man. Of these three, God only accepts that which is His own.

Examine yourselves, therefore, which of these three is impelling you to leave your place. Do not go away until God permits you. I am aware what is God's will for you; but it is difficult for you to recognize the will of God. Unless a man denies himself and his own will, and obeys his spiritual parents, he will not be able to recognize God's will; and even if he does recognize it, he needs God's help in giving him strength to carry it out.

[DENY YOUR OWN WILL AND FOLLOW GOD'S]

So you see it is a great matter to recognize the will of God, and an even greater one to do it. But Jacob had these powers, because he obeyed his parents. For when they told him to go to Mesopotamia, to Laban (Genesis 28:2), he obeyed readily, even though he did not want to be separated from his parents. It was because he obeyed that he inherited the blessing. And if I, who am your spiritual father, had not formerly obeyed my spiritual parents, God would not have revealed His will to me. For it is written: "The blessing of a father establishes the houses of children" (Ecclesiastes 3:9). And if I endured great labor in the desert and the mountains, asking God day and night until God revealed His will to me, do you too now listen to your father in this, so that it may be for your rest and progress.

[FOLLOW GOD'S WILL AND HE WILL BLESS YOUR ACTIVITIES]

But I have heard that you have been saying, "Our father does not know our labor, and how Jacob fled from Esau." But we know he did not run away of himself, but was sent away by his parents. Do you therefore imitate Jacob, and remain until your father sends you away, that he may bless you when you go, and then God will prosper your affairs.

Farewell in the Lord. Amen. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 14 - 16

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Why God Answers Some Prayers and Not Others


In today's "thought," we will continue our reading of some of the letters of Abba Ammonas. This collection of letters is a small spiritual treasury of the great desert father's teachings that have been preserved for over 16 centuries. Although we do not have a lot of biographical information on this early teacher and ascetic of the Egyptian desert, bits and pieces have been gathered based on comments made about him in various "sayings" from the early desert fathers. We know, for example, that he visited St. Anthony the Great in his cave after being miraculously guided there, and he eventually became St. Anthony's successor and abbot of the monastery in Pispir. He did not, however, live in the monastery, but directed it from outside as he preferred the hermetic life.

Ammonas's brief letter which we will read today discusses why God answers some prayers and not others and why we must constantly struggle against pride throughout our lives.

BEGIN:

[GOD HEARS THE PRAYERS OF THE RIGHTEOUS]

I write to you as men who love God, and seek Him with all your heart. For God will listen to such men when they pray, and will bless them in all things, and will grant them all the requests of their soul when they entreat Him. But those who come to Him not with their whole heart, but in two minds, who perform their works so as to be glorified by men -- such men will not be listened to by God in anything that they ask Him, but rather He is angry at their works. For it is written, "God has scattered the bones of the man-pleasers." (Psalms 53:5)

[WORK TO PLEASE GOD, NOT TO PLEASE MEN]

You see, then, how God is angry at the works of these men, and gives them none of the requests that they ask of Him, but rather resists them. For they do not their works in faith, but superficially. Therefore, the divine power does not dwell in them, but they are diseased in all their works, in whatever they set their hand to. For this reason they have not known the power of grace, nor its freedom from care, not its joy, but their soul is weighed down with a load in all their works. The greater part of our generation are such: they have not received the divine power that fattens the soul, prepares it to rejoice, and brings it day by day that gladness which makes the heart fervent in God. For the work that they do, they do as if it were for men. This is why this power does not come upon them; for an abomination to the power of God is the man who does his works as though for men's benefit.

[FIGHT AGAINST PRIDE ABOVE ALL ELSE]

Do you therefore, my beloved, whose fruit is reckoned in God, strive in all your works against the spirit of vainglory, that you may conquer it in all things, and that your whole body may be acceptable, and abide living with its Creator, and that you may receive the divine power, which is better than all these things. For I am persuaded, my beloved, that as long as you do all that is in your power in making war on the spirit of vainglory, and strive against it continually, your body will be alive. For this evil spirit attacks man in every work of righteousness to which he sets his hand, wanting to render his fruit useless and destroy it, thus preventing, as far as possible, men from performing works of righteousness; it wrestles with those who want to become faithful, and when any of them are praised by men for being faithful or humble or enduring shame, the evil spirit immediately engages in battle with them, and overcomes some of them, scattering and quenching their body. In so doing it prompts them to leave their virtuous way of life, and involve themselves in pleasing men, thus destroying their "body," though men reckon that they have gained something. This is why He does not give them the power, but leaves them empty, because He has not found their body good; and He deprives them of that great sweetness of grace.

But do you, my beloved, strive against the spirit of vainglory at all times, so that you may conquer it in everything, in order that the divine power may accompany you at all times. And I will pray God for you, that this joy may be given you always, for nothing is more free from care. And if after receiving this joy you see that your fervor withdraws and leaves you, seek it again and it will return. For this fervor is like fire which changes the cold into its own power. And if you see your heart weighed down temporarily, bring your soul before you and question it until it becomes fervent again and is set on fire in God. For the prophet David, too, on seeing his heart weighed down, said, "I have poured out my heart by myself (Psalms 42:4), I have remembered the days of old, and meditated on all your works, I lifted up my hands unto you; my soul thirsts after you as does a thirsty land." (Psalms 143:5-6) This is what David did when he saw his soul grow cold, until he had made it fervent again; and he received the divine sweetness both by day and by night. Do this, then, my beloved, and you will grow, and God will reveal to you great mysteries.

May God keep you in health of spirit and soul and body, till He brings you into the kingdom with your fathers who completed a good life, unto ages of ages, amen. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 3 - 5

Sunday, December 16, 2012

ABBA AMMONAS - Obedience and Prayer


Today's "thought" is a letter written by Abba Ammonas. Although we do not have a lot of biographical information on this early teacher and ascetic of the Egyptian desert, bits and pieces have been gathered based on comments made about him in various "sayings" from the early desert fathers. We know, for example, that he visited St. Anthony the Great in his cave after being miraculously guided there, and he eventually became St. Anthony's successor and abbot of the monastery in Pispir. He did not, however, live in the monastery, but directed it from outside as he preferred the hermetic life.

Ammonas's brief letter which we will read today discusses the importance of prayer and the relationship of obedience to prayer:

BEGIN:

[BE LIKE YOUR FATHERS IN THE FAITH TO GET THE INHERITANCE]

To my beloved in our Lord, who are counted in the portion of the kingdom of heaven: for in such wise have you sought God, imitating your fathers in the faith, so that you should receive the promises also, because you are reckoned their sons; for sons inherit the blessing of their fathers, because their zeal was like theirs. For this cause, since the blessed Jacob followed all the God- fearing ways of his parents, the blessings of his parents came upon him too. And having been blessed by them, suddenly he saw the Ladder, and angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28).

[THE BLESSINGS OF THE FATHER STRENGTH US IN OUR FAITH]

And so now, as soon as men have been blessed by their fathers and have seen the hosts, nothing is able to move them. For when blessed Paul saw these hosts, he became unshakeable, and cried out and said, "Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? Shall sword or famine or nakedness? But neither angels nor principalities nor powers nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God" (Romans 8:38).

[TO RECEIVE THE BLESSINGS, ONE MUST FIRST ASK]

Now therefore, beloved, ask continually night and day that the blessings of my fathers may come upon you, that the hosts of the angels may thus rejoice over you in all things, and you may complete the rest of your days in all joy of heart. For if a man attains to this measure, the joy of God will be with him continually: henceforth he will not toil in any matter. For it is written, "The light of the righteous is never put out" (Proverbs 13:9).

[OBEY GOD AND RECEIVE HIS BLESSINGS]

But I pray that you too may come to the place of life. And this I do because of your obedience. For when our Lord saw that His disciples obeyed Him, He asked His Father on their behalf saying, "that where I am, there may they be also, because they have obeyed my word" (john 17:24). And again He asked that they might be kept "from the evil one" (John 17:15), until they should attain to the place of rest. This is what I pray and ask of our Lord, that you may be kept from the evil one, and attain to God's place of rest, and be blessed. For after the Ladder, Jacob saw face to face the host of angels, so that he even wrestled with an angel and prevailed. And this God did that He might bless him. And may the God whom I have served from my youth bless you. END

from Derwas J. Chitty (trans), "The Letters of Ammonas," (Oxford: SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, 1979), pp. 8 - 9

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - On the Order of Acquiring Virtues


In today's "thought," we will conclude our study of a book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In our readings from this book over the past several weeks, we have truly only scratched the surface of this gold mine of teachings! St. Nicodemos has EIGHTY chapters of wisdom in this book, every one of which deals with a spiritual issue in a practical, hands-on matter. Most spiritual fathers would agree, I think, that "Unseen Warfare" is a must for one's spiritual library.

In today's reading, St. Nicodemos advises us "On the Order of Acquiring Virtues."

BEGIN: A true warrior of Christ, filled with a whole-hearted desire to achieve the fullness of perfection, must set no limits to his efforts to gain success in all things. Yet he must moderate and direct excessive transports of his spiritual zeal by good judgment. Particularly in the beginning, such transports surge up suddenly with great vigor and carry us away with irresistible force; but later they gradually grow weaker and weaker, until they die down altogether, leaving us stranded in the middle of our journey. For not only should external, bodily virtues be acquired little by little, by gradually ascending, as by the rungs of a ladder, but in the acquisition of the inner virtues of the soul one should also observe a definite order and sequence, since only then does our little become much and remain with us for ever.

[BEGIN WITH A LOWER DEGREE OF A VIRTUE AND THEN STEP UP]

For example, in the process of acquiring the inner virtue of patience, it is impossible at once to welcome injustice, injuries and all other forms of unpleasantness, to seek them and rejoice in them, although it is possible to endure them with patience when they come. For welcoming them and rejoicing in them are the highest degrees of patience, and before you reach them you should traverse the lower degrees, which are: humble self-depreciation, in which you consider yourself worthy of every insult, overcoming in yourself impulses of revenge, hatred of the least thought of revenge, and so on.

[START WITH ONE VIRTUE AND THEN ACQUIRE MORE]

I advise you, besides: do not at once undertake the practice of all virtues, or even of a number of them, but become first grounded in one and there upon pass to another. In this way every habit of virtue will take root in your soul with greater ease and firmness. For when you are constantly exercising yourself in the virtue above all others, your memory will be almost entirely occupied by this alone, and your mind, thus welded to the thought of it, will acquire more quickly the skill of finding means and occasions for its practice, while your will will cleave to it with greater readiness and desire. All these things help greatly in the work of acquiring habits of virtue, which you will expect in vain if you undertake many virtues at once.

[VIRTUES BUILD ON ONE ANOTHER AS YOU GROW SPIRITUALLY]

On the other hand, since the practice itself of any given virtue remains always the same, it follows from the similarity of this mode of action that it gradually becomes less and less difficult and leads more quickly to another virtue. For one virtue usually stimulates another, akin to it, and helps it by the fact that, once it is established in the heart, it predisposes the heart to receive the like by preparing as it were a seat for it.

This calculation of mine is true and reliable, and we know from experience that if a man exercises himself in one virtue well and wholeheartedly, he not only learns in advance by this very fact how to exercise himself in another, but, as his experience in the first virtue increases, he stimulates too all other virtues and makes them grow and strengthen in himself; for they cannot be divided from one another, as all are rays issuing from the same Divine Light. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 179 - 180

Sunday, December 9, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Aids to Success in Gaining the Habit of Prayer


We are continuing our study from a book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll look at an entire chapter entitled, "Aids to Success in Gaining the Habit of Prayer" --concrete instructions and advice that are practical, easily understood, and doable, even for those of us who live in the world:

BEGIN: If you desire to seek success in the work of prayer, adapt all else to this, lest you destroy with one hand what the other builds.

1) Keep your body strictly disciplined in food, sleep and rest. Do not give it anything simply because it wants it; as the Apostle says: "Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (Romans 13:14). Give no respite to the flesh.

2) Reduce your external contacts to the most inevitable. This is for the period of your training in prayer. Later, when prayer begins to act in you, it will itself indicate what can be added without harming it. Especially guard your senses, above all, eyes and ears; also tie your tongue. Without this guarding, you will not make a single step forward in the work of prayer. As a candle cannot burn in wind and rain, so the flame of prayer cannot be lit in a flood of impressions from outside.

3) Use all the time left from prayer in reading and meditation. For reading, choose mainly such books as deal with prayer and generally with inner spiritual life. Meditate exclusively on God and on divine matters, and above all on the incarnated dispensation for our salvation, chiefly on the passion and death of our Lord and Savior. Doing this you will always be immersed in the sea of divine light. In addition, go to church, whenever you have the possibility to do so. Merely to be present in church will envelop you in a cloud of prayer. What then will you receive if you stand throughout the service in a true state of prayer?

4) Know that it is impossible to make progress in prayer without general progress in Christian life. It is absolutely necessary that no sin, not purified by repentance, should burden the soul. If during your work on prayer you do something, which troubles your conscience, hasten to purify yourself by repentance, so that you can look up to the Lord boldly. Keep humble contrition constantly in your heart. Moreover, neglect no opportunity for doing some good, or for manifesting some good disposition, above all humility, obedience and cutting off your own will. It goes without saying that zeal for salvation must always be burning and fill the whole soul; in all things, great or small, it must be the main impelling force, together with fear of God and unshaken trust.

5) Thus established, labor in the work of prayer, praying now with set prayers, now with your own, now with short appeals to the Lord, now with the Jesus Prayer, omitting nothing which can be of help in this work. And you will receive what you seek. I remind you of the words of St. Macarius of Egypt: God will see your work of prayer and that you sincerely wish to succeed in prayer -- and He will give you prayer. For you must know that, although prayer done and achieved with one's own efforts is pleasing to God, yet that real prayer, which comes to dwell in the heart and becomes constant, is the gift of God, an act of Divine grace. Therefore, in your prayer for all other things, do not forget to pray too about prayer.

6) I shall repeat to you what I heard from a God-loving man. "I was not leading a very good life," he said, "but God had mercy on me and sent me the spirit of repentance. This was during preparation for communion. I was trying hard to plant in myself a firm resolve to mend my ways, and especially before confession I prayed for a long time before the Icon of the Mother of God, begging Her to obtain this resolve for me. Then, during confession, I candidly related everything. My Spiritual Father said nothing: but while he was reciting the prayer of absolution over my head, a small sweet flame was lit in my heart. The sensation was like swallowing some delectable food. This little flame remained in the heart, and I felt as though someone was gripping my heart. From that time I prayed continuously, and kept my attention there, where this sensation was, my only care being to preserve it. And God helped me. I had not heard about the Jesus Prayer, and when I did hear of it, I saw that what was within me was precisely that which is sought by this prayer." I mention this story to make you understand what the work of prayer seeks and what are the signs that it is received.

7)I shall also add the following words of St. Gregory of Sinai (from the Philokalia).

"Grace abides in us from the time of our holy baptism; but, through our inattention, vanity and the wrong life we lead it is stifled, or buried. When a man resolves to lead a righteous life and is zealous for salvation, the fruit of his whole labor is, therefore, the restoration in force of this gift of grace. It comes to pass in a two-fold manner: first, this gift becomes revealed through many labors in following the commandments; in so far as a man succeeds in following the commandments, this gift becomes more radiant and brilliant. Secondly, it manifests and reveals itself through constant invocation of the Lord Jesus in prayer. The first method is powerful, but the second is more so, so that even the first method gains power through it. Thus, if we sincerely wish to open the seed of grace concealed in us, let us hasten to train ourselves in this latter exercise of the heart, and let us have only this work of prayer in our heart, without forms, without images, till it warms our heart and makes it burn with ineffable love of the Lord."

-- This extract contains all of which I reminded you earlier in the fourth paragraph. END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 218 - 220

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - Developing and Maintaining Inner Peace


Our study of "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, will continue with this look at how to develop and maintain "inner peace."  This book is his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. In this reading, we'll look at two chapters of practical advice on making ourselves WANT to please God and then methods for developing and maintaining inner peace:

[SOME REMINDERS THAT CAN IMPEL OUR WILL TOWARDS
DESIRE TO PLEASE GOD IN EVERY ACTIVITY]

BEGIN: In order that you may move your will more easily to to this one desire in everything -- to please God and to work for His glory alone -- remind yourself often, that He has granted you many favors in the past and has shown you His love. He has created you out of nothing in His own likeness and image, and has made all other creatures your servants; He has delivered you from your slavery to the devil, sending down not one of the angels but His Only-Begotten Son to redeem you, not at the price of corruptible gold and silver, but by His priceless blood and His most painful and degrading death. Having done all this He protects you, every hour and every moment, from your enemies; He fights your battles by His divine grace; in His immaculate Mysteries He prepares the Body and Blood of His beloved Son for your food and protection.

All this is a sign of God's great favor and love for you; a favor so great that it is inconceivable how the great Lord of hosts could grant such favors to our nothingness and worthlessness. Judge from this what honor and devotion we must offer to the boundless Majesty of Him, Who has done such wonderful things for us. If we cannot help offering thanks, honor, glory and obedience to earthly kings for their favors, how much more, immeasurably more, must we worthless ones offer to the Almighty Lord of hosts, Who loves us and bestows upon us favors beyond counting.

But more than all we have just said, keep always in your memory the realization that God's greatness is in itself worthy of all honor, worship and wholehearted service acceptable to Him.

[ON THE MEANS OF PRESERVING INNER PEACE]

To preserve inner peace;

(1) First of all keep your outer senses in order and flee all licentiousness in your external conduct -- namely, neither look, speak, gesticulate, walk nor do anything else with agitation, but always quietly and decorously. Accustomed to behave with decorous quietness in your external movements and actions, you will easily and without labor acquire peace within yourself, in the heart; for, according to the testimony of the fathers, the inner man takes his tone from the outer man.

(2) Be disposed to love all men and to live in accord with everyone, as St. Paul instructs: "If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18).

(3) Keep your conscience unstained, so that it does not gnaw at you or reproach you in anything, but is at peace in relation to God, to yourself, to your neighbors, and to all external things. If your conscience is thus kept clean, it will produce, deepen, and strengthen inner peace, as David says: "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them" (Psalms 119:165).

(4) Accustom yourself to bear all unpleasantness and insults without perturbation. It is true that before you acquire this habit you will have to grieve and suffer much in your heart, through this lack of experience in controlling yourself in such cases. But once this habit is acquired, your soul will find great comfort in the very troubles you meet with. If you are resolute, you will day by day learn to manage yourself better and better and will soon reach a state when you will know how to preserve the peace of your spirit in all storms, both inner and outer.

If at times you are unable to manage your heart and restore peace in it by driving away all stress and griefs, have recourse to prayer and be persistent, imitating our Lord and Savior, Who prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane, to show you by His example that prayer should be your refuge in every stress and affliction of the heart and that, no matter how faint- hearted and grieved you may be, you should not abandon it until you reach a state when your will is in complete accord with the will of God and, calmed by this, your heart is filled with courageous daring and is joyfully ready to meet, accept and bear the very thing it feared and wished to avoid; just as our Lord felt fear, sorrow and grief, but, regaining peace through prayer, said calmly: "Rise, let us be going: behold, he is at hand that doth betray me" (Matthew 26:46). END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978), pp. 99, 258 - 259

Sunday, December 2, 2012

ST. NICODEMUS OF THE HOLY MOUNTAIN - On Protecting the Mind From Too Much Useless Knowledge and Idle Curiosity


In this issue, we will continue our study from another book by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, his most famous work which was translated and published widely in old Russia by St. Theophan the Recluse. Entitled, "Unseen Warfare," this fantastic volume is basically a handbook of spiritual development. In today's reading, we'll examine the issue of "On Protecting the Mind from too Much Useless Knowledge and Idle Curiosity"

BEGIN: Just as it is necessary to guard the mind from ignorance, so is it equally necessary to protect it from the opposite, namely from too much knowledge and curiosity. For if we fill it with a quantity of information, ideas and thoughts, not excluding such as are vain, unsuitable and harmful, we deprive it of force, so that it is no longer able to understand clearly what is useful for our true self-correction and perfection. Therefore, in relation to the knowledge of earthly things, which is not indispensable, even if it is permissible, your attitude should be as of one already dead. Always collect your mind within yourself, with all the concentration you can, and keep it free of thoughts about all worldly things.

Let tales of the past and news of the present pass you by, and let all the changes in the world and its kingdoms be for you as though they did not exist at all. If anyone brings you such news, disregard it and turn it away from your heart and imagination. Listen to what St. Basil says: "Let listening to worldly news be bitter food for you, and let the words of saintly men be as combs filled with honey." Listen also to the words of David: "The proud have digged pits for me, which are not after thy law" (Psalms 109:85). Love to hear only of spiritual and heavenly things and to study them, and wish to know nothing in the world save our Lord "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified" (I Corinthians 2:2), save His life and death and what He demands of you. Acting thus, you will act in a way pleasing to God, Who has for His chosen and beloved those who love Him and try to do His will.

All other inquiry and investigation is the offspring and food of self-love and pride. They are the nets and shackles of the devil; he sees the strength and firmness of will of those who pay attention to spiritual life, and strives to conquer their minds by means of such curiosity, in order to gain possession of their mind and will. For this purpose, he is wont to suggest to them thoughts that are lofty, subtle and wondrous, especially to those who are sharp-witted and quick to make lofty speculations. Attracted by the pleasure of possessing and examining such lofty thoughts, they forget to watch over their purity of heart and to pay attention to a humble opinion of themselves and to true self-mortification; and so they are enmeshed in the bonds of pride and conceit; they make an idol of their own mind and thus, little by little, without realizing it, they fall into the thought that they no longer need any advice or admonition from others, since they are accustomed in all cases to hasten to the idol of their own understanding and judgment.

This is a very dangerous thing and not easily cured; pride of mind is much worse than pride of will. For pride of will, being visible to the mind, can sometimes be easily cured by forcing it to submit to the yoke of what is good. But when the mind is firmly grounded in the self-relying thought that its own judgments are better than all others, who can cure it in the end? Can it ever obey anyone, if it feels certain that the judgments of others are not as good as its own? When this eye of the soul -- mind -- with whose help man could see and correct pride of will, is itself blinded by pride and remains uncured, who will cure the will? Then every thing within is so disorganized that there is neither place nor person for applying a healing poultice. This is why you must hasten to oppose this pernicious pride of mind, before it penetrates into the marrow of your bones. Resist it, curb the quickness of your mind and humbly subject your opinion to the opinions of others. Be a fool for the love of God, if you wish to be wiser than Solomon. "If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise." (I Corinthians 3:18) END

from "Unseen Warfare," by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, revised by St. Theophan the Recluse, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978),
pp. 92 - 94