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)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hiatus in Posting to the Blog

Dear Friends,

Due to work and travel commitments, I will not be able to add any new posts to our blog until about November 18. In the meantime, please enjoy the many earlier posts and rest assured we will be back with new material in November! Thank you.

Michael McClellan
Inner Light Productions

Sunday, October 13, 2013

ST. JOHN THE DWARF - Teachings on Asceticism


On November 9, the Eastern Churches commemorate one of the greatest of the ancient Desert Fathers, "St. John the Dwarf." This remarkable father left for Scetis at the age of 18 and was trained there by Abba Ammoes for twelve years. One of the most vivid characters in the Egyptian Desert, he attracted many disciples and in order to preserve his own solitude, he dug himself a cave underground. Abba John was later ordained priest and the number of his sayings that are recorded and preserved point to his importance among his disciples. After 407, he went to Suez and the Mountain of St. Anthony. We have a photo in our Egypt Gallery that shows the door of a very old Coptic Church in Upper Egypt on which an image of Abba John has been carved. This church is over the cave where he spent much of his life.  St. John has long been considered one of the greatest of the ascetics, a disciple of Abba Pambo and a teacher of St. Arsenius the Great.

Some two and a half years ago, this newsletter ran a two-part study of St. John's teachings on asceticism, a study we would like to repeat here today and next week, as many of our readers have probably not read them. They are simply superb.

TEACHINGS OF ST. JOHN THE DWARF ON ASCETICISM

BEGIN:  -- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf that he withdrew and lived in the desert at Scetis with an old man of Thebes. His abba, taking a piece of dry wood, planted it and said to him, "Water it every day with a bottle of water, until it bears fruit." Now the water was so far away that he had to leave in the evening and return the following morning. At the end of three years the wood came to life and bore fruit. The old man took some of the fruit and carried it to the church saying to the brethren, "Take and eat the fruit of obedience."

-- It was said of Abba John the Dwarf, that one day he said to his elder brother, "I should like to be free of all care, like the angels who do not work, but ceaselessly offer worship to God." So he took off his cloak and went away into the desert. After a week he came back to his brother. When he knocked on the door, he heard his brother say, before he opened it, "Who are you?" He said, "I am John, your brother." But he replied, "John has become an angel, and henceforth he is no longer among men." Then the other begged him saying, "It is I." However, his brother did not let him in, but left him there in distress until morning. Then, opening the door, he said to him, "You are a man and you must once again work in order to eat." Then John made a prostration before him, saying, "Forgive me." (NOTE: this story is, according to most sources, from Abba John's youth when he was still living with his family)

-- Abba John the Dwarf said, "If a king wanted to take possession of his enemy's city, he would begin by cutting off the water and the food and so his enemies, dying of hunger, would submit to him. It is the same with the passions of the flesh; if a man goes about fasting and hungry the enemies of his soul grow weak."

-- Some old men were entertaining themselves at Scetis by having a meal together; amongst them was Abba John. A venerable priest got up to offer drink, but nobody accepted any from him, except John the Dwarf. They were surprised and said to him, "How is that you, the youngest, dared to let yourself be served by the priest?" Then he said to them, "When I get up to offer drink, I am glad when everyone accepts it, since I am receiving my reward; that is the reason, then, that I accepted it, so that he also might gain his reward and not be grieved by seeing that no one would accept anything from him." When they heard this, they were all filled with wonder and edification at his discretion.

-- The brethren used to tell how the brethren were sitting one day at an agape* and one brother at table began to laugh. When he saw that, Abba John began to weep, saying, "What does this brother have in his heart, that he should laugh, when he ought to weep, because he is eating at an agape?"

-- Some brethren came one day to test him to see whether he would let his thoughts get dissipated and speak of the things of this world. They said to him, "We give thanks to God that this year there has been much rain and the palm trees have been able to drink, and their shoots have grown, and the brethren have found manual work." Abba John said to them, "So it is when the Holy Spirit descends into the hearts of men; they are renewed and they put forth leaves in the fear of God."

-- Abba John said, "I am like a man sitting under a great tree, who sees wild beasts and snakes coming against him in great numbers. When he cannot withstand them any longer, he runs to climb the tree and is saved. It is just the same with me; I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy."

-- Abba Poemen said of Abba John the Dwarf that he had prayed God to take his passions away from him so that he might become free from care. He went and told an old man this: "I find myself in peace, without an enemy," he said. The old man said to him, "Go, beseech God to stir up warfare so that you may regain the affliction and humility that you used to have, for it is by warfare that the soul makes progress." So he besought God and when warfare came, he no longer prayed that it might be taken away, but said, "Lord, give me strength for the fight."

-- The old man also said this to a certain brother about the soul, which wishes to be converted, "There was in a city a courtesan who had many lovers. One of the governors approached her, saying, "Promise me you will be good, and I will marry you." She promised this and he took her and brought her to his house. Her lovers, seeking her again, said to one another, "That lord has taken her with him to his house, so if we go to his house and he learns of it, he will condemn us. But let us go to the back, and whistle to her. Then, when she recognizes the sound of the whistle she will come down to us; as for us, we shall be unassailable." When she heard the whistle, the woman stopped her ears and withdrew to the inner chamber and shut the doors." The old man said that this courtesan is our soul, that her lovers are the passions and other men; that the lord is Christ; that the inner chamber is the eternal dwelling; those who whistle are the evil demons, but the soul always takes refuge in the Lord.

-- One day when Abba John was going up to Scetis with some other brothers, their guide lost his way for it was night time. So the brothers said to Abba John, "What shall we do, Abba, in order not to die wandering about, for the brother has lost the way?" The old man said to them, "If we speak to him, he will be filled with grief and shame. But look here, I will pretend to be ill and say I cannot walk any more; then we can stay here till the dawn." This he did. The others said, "We will not go on either, but we will stay with you." They sat there until the dawn, and in this way they did not upset the brother. END

*agape: the primary meaning of this Greek word is "love." Here, it refers to the common meal taken by the fathers after the celebration of the Liturgy. It can also refer to the Liturgy itself.

from Sr. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 1975), pp. 85-89

Sunday, October 6, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Life: Part III


In this issue, we will continue our reading of the counsels of Sts. John and Barsanuphius.

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you I these newsletters. Today we will look at some of their teachings on humility.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART III

-- If you cannot discourse about faith, do not try to. If a man is firm in faith he will never be confused in discussions and disputes with heretics or unbelievers, because he has in him Jesus, the Lord of peace and quiet. After a peaceful discussion, such a man can lovingly bring many heretics and unbelievers to the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Savior. As for you, since discoursing on some subjects is beyond you, keep to the royal road, that is to the faith of the 318 holy fathers (and for us now, to the faith established by the seven ecumenical councils), into which you were baptized. It contains everything stated exactly for perfect understanding. But most of all have attention in yourself, meditating on your sins and on how you will be received by God.

-- When you hear someone praising you, remember the words of the Scriptures: "O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths" (Isaiah 3:12). Such praise prevents us from seeing the abomination of our actions; it probably does harm even to those who have attained a measure (of spiritual achievement) and separates man from faith in God, Who says: "How can ye believe, which receive honor one of another?" (John 5:44). He who accepts the humility of the Apostle will rather choose to be "a fool, that he may be wise" later (I Corinthians 3:18). But if a man shows himself clever rather than spiritual, it would surprise me if he escaped the judgment reserved for boastfulness.

-- The Lord has taught us how to acquire wise humility, saying: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). If you too want to find perfect rest, understand what the Lord has endured and suffer the same; and cut off your will in all things. The Lord Himself says: "For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me" (John 6:38). And perfect humility consists in enduring blame and abuse and other things which our Teacher, Christ Jesus, has suffered. The same is also a sign that a man has touched perfect prayer -- namely the fact that he is no longer troubled even if the whole world were to abuse him.

-- The approach to perfect prayer is when a man is freed from dispersion of thoughts and sees his mind, enlightened in the Lord, filled with joy. A man has attained perfection in prayer if he makes himself dead to the world with its ease. But when a man does his work diligently for the sake of God, it is not a distraction but a thoroughness, which pleases God.

-- The Lord wishes you to regard every man as superior to yourself. Show obedience to your staretz in all things and do all that he tells you, whether it refers to food or drink or some other matter. If they slander you, rejoice -- it is most useful. If they insult you, endure it, for "he that endureth to the end shall be saved" (Matthew 10:22). Give thanks to God for all things, because thanksgiving is intercession before God for our weakness. Judge yourself always and in everything as a sinner and as one seduced -- and so God will not judge you; be humble in everything and you will receive grace.

-- Let us have recourse to humility on all occasions; for the humble lie prone on the ground, and how can a man fall if he lies on the ground? But a man who stands on a height can easily fall. If we have been converted and have mended our ways, it did not come from ourselves but was a gift of God, for "The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind; the Lord raiseth them that are bowed down" (Psalms 146:8).

-- He who wants to be a monk must in no way have any will of his own. Christ our Lord taught us this when He said: "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will" (John 6:38). But if you obey in one thing and refuse to obey in another, you will show by this that you are wiser than him who directs you, and this is the same as being mocked by the demons. So you must obey in everything, even if it should seem to you that what is ordained is not without sin. The Abba who ordains you to do it will bear your sin and will have to answer for you. If something is extremely difficult and dangerous for you, or above your strength, explain this to the Abba, and do what he decides.

-- If anyone, while keeping fast, adds something to it by his own will, or if he fasts seeking men's praise or some gain from it, such a fast is abomination in the eyes of God. And so it is in all things. Every good action, which is done not merely from love of God, but is mingled with one's own will, is unclean and unpleasing to God. The same can also be seen from the Divine law which says: "Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee" (Leviticus 19:19; Deuteronomy 22:9-11). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 367.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Work: Part II


In today's reading, we will continue our reading of the counsels of Sts. John and Barsanuphius.

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.

Today, we will look at several wonderful selections on fasting and controlling the appetite, an especially relevant topic now that we are in the period of Great Lent before the Feast of the Lord's Resurrection.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK -- PART II

-- About the measure of abstinence in food and drink, the fathers say that one should partake of the one and the other in a measure somewhat less than one's actual need, that is, not to fill the stomach completely. Everyone should establish a measure for himself, whether in cooked food or in wine. Moreover the measure of abstinence is not limited to food and drink but embraces also conversations, sleep, garments and all the senses. Each of these should have its own measure of abstinence.

-- How to establish a measure of food and drink, at less than one needs? Take away about one ounce from the total quantity of bread and other foods. As regards water and wine taken together, take away less than half a cup. If you have attention in yourself and it is not hard for you to drink only once a day, it would be well to do so; if you cannot, drink twice a day, but each time less than you need. At times when thoughts are troubled and at war, even the customary quantity of food and drink should be reduced, that is, food by another ounce and all drink by a cup, so that in all food is reduced by two ounces and drink by one cup.

-- How to establish the needful measure or to find out how much a man should eat and drink? By observing himself over several days in relation to the total amount of food, that is, bread, other foods and vegetables, a man can learn by experience how much food and drink his body requires (to be satisfied without overloading it). This measure he should reduce by one ounce of food and half a cup of drink. And at times of struggle he should reduce it by another ounce and another half cup.

-- What does it mean to abstain according to one's strength? To abstain according to one's strength means precisely to use food and drink as I said, namely: to take slightly less than one needs. The same applies to sleep. But if owing to hardship and exhaustion a man somewhat increases the measure, this will not mean an infringement of the rule: "according to one's strength." You will ask: What should be the measure of sleep? The Fathers set it as half the night. As regards food, stop eating when you would like to have a little more, and in this way always take it in moderation.

-- What does it mean to take food to satisfy a whim, and what to satisfy natural requirements? To satisfy a whim means to want to take food not because the body needs it but to pander to the belly (and the palate). But if you notice that your body takes some foods more willingly than others, not for pleasure, but because it is lighter, then to take it would not be a whim. If the nature of some demands sweet food, the nature of others -- salt food and the nature of yet others -- acid food, that is not a whim. But to be particularly fond of some kind of food and to lust for it is a whim -- serving gluttony. If you wish to find out whether you are addicted to the passion of gluttony, you can find it out in the following manner. If food captures your thought (so that you cannot resist it) -- you are a glutton. If you are not possessed by it and partake freely of all kinds of food to the extent your body requires it, you are not a glutton.

Another sign of gluttony is to have a craving for food before the appointed time. This should never be allowed, unless there is some valid reason for it.

-- If the passion (of gluttony) does not trouble me beforehand but appears when I am taking food, what should I do -- leave off eating or not? If you are having a meal with someone else, do not leave off but, calling on the name of God for help, banish lust and eat a little, bearing in mind that the food will soon be transformed into stench. But when you are alone and hungry, eat bread and some other food towards which you are not drawn.

-- I want to curb my belly and reduce the amount of food -- and cannot. Even if sometimes I reduce it, I very soon return again to the old measure. It is the same with drink. Why is this so? No one is freed from this except a man who has attained to the measure of him who said: "I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin" (Psalms 102: 4-5). Such a man quickly succeeds in reducing his food and drink; for tears serve him as bread -- and he finally reaches a state when he is fed by the Holy Spirit. Believe me, brother -- I know a man of such stature; once or twice in the course of a week, and sometimes more often he is transported towards spiritual food, and its sweetness makes him forget physical food. When he is about to eat bread, he is like one fully satiated and has no desire for it; and, when he does eat it, reproaches himself saying: Why as I not always in that state? And so wishes to attain to still greater achievement.

-- How to reach such a state? When all man's thoughts form one whole in God, then the flesh too follows the thought of God and the joy of the Spirit comes to the heart, feeding the soul and strengthening the body, and so fortifies both. Such a man no longer weakens or grows despondent, for from then onwards Jesus becomes his Intercessor and sets him at the door of that place where "sorrow and mourning shall flee away" (Isaiah 51:11). And so the word of the Scriptures becomes fulfilled in him: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). And what brings a man to such a state is humility.

-- How to distinguish a natural infirmity of the flesh (brought about by abstinence) from one simulated by the demons, and how much food should one eat? About infirmity I should say: if receiving daily food (with the habitual measure of abstinence) the body grows weak -- it is from the demons. In the opposite case (if the measure of abstinence is increased) -- the infirmity is natural. The usual measure of abstinence is to get up from the meal slightly hungry, as the fathers laid down for beginners. Later when a man becomes firmly established in this and in a still greater measure of abstinence, experience will have taught him to know clearly how much he should eat.

-- "Pray for me; I am sorely tired." Those who completely die to the world come to the measure of stature through patience and trials, O beloved brother! The Lord has suffered on the cross. Should you not rejoice in sufferings, the endurance of which leads you to the kingdom of heaven? That you suffer is a good sign. Do you not know what sufferings and temptations become multiplied when the Lord prepares His mercy? And, generally, do not seek bodily ease if the Lord does not grant it to you, for bodily ease if abomination in His eyes. And the Lord has said: "In the world ye shall have tribulation" (John 16:33).

-- How to allot oneself daily food? If you allot yourself daily food in the cell, it will lead you to cares and struggles. Be content with what God provides. "He that walketh uprightly walketh surely" (Proverbs 10:9). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 350 - 355.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Work: Part I


Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.

DIRECTIONS IN SPIRITUAL WORK

-- Dispose yourself to give thanks to God for everything, hearkening to the word of the Apostle: "In every thing give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:18). Whether you are assailed by tribulation, or suffer want or persecution, or have to bear physical hardships and infirmities, give thanks to God for all that befalls for "we must through tribulation enter into the kingdom of god" (Acts 14:22). So let not your soul be assailed by doubt, nor your heart weaken; but remember the word of the Apostle: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). If you do not endure sufferings, you will not be able to mount the cross and share its fruit which brings salvation.

-- While the ship is at sea, it is a prey to dangers and winds. When it reaches a calm and peaceful harbor, it no longer fears dangers, calamities or winds, but remains safe. In the same way, while you are among men you must expect tribulation, dangers and mental buffetings. But when you reach the harbor of silence prepared for you, then you will have no fear.

-- You have no peace from thoughts, which impel you to trouble others, and in turn to be troubled by others. But know, my brother, that if we offend by word or deed, we are thereby ourselves offended a hundredfold. By longsuffering in all things and refrain from letting your own will enter into anything. Carefully examine your thoughts lest they infect your heart with deadly poison (ill temper) and make you take a gnat for a camel, a pebble for a cliff, and lest you become like a man who has a beam in his own eye but beholds the mote in the eye of another.

-- You call yourself a sinner, but in effect you show that you do not feel yourself to be one. A man, who admits himself to be a sinner and the cause of many evils, disagrees with no one, quarrels with no one, is not wroth with anyone, but considers every man better and wiser than himself. If you are a sinner, why do you reproach your neighbor and accuse him of bringing afflictions upon you? It seems that you and I are as yet far from regarding ourselves as sinners. Look brother, how base we are: we speak with our lips only; our actions show something different. Why, when we oppose thoughts, do we not receive the strength to repulse them? Because, previously, we have surrendered to criticizing our neighbor and this has weakened our spiritual strength. So we accuse our brother, being ourselves guilty. Put all your thoughts in the Lord, saying: God knows what is best, and you will be at peace and, little by little, will be given the strength to endure.

-- Churn the milk and you will bring forth butter; but if you wring the nose, you will bring forth blood (Proverbs 30:33). If a man wants to bend a bough or a vine into a hoop, he bends it gradually, lest it break, for if he suddenly bends it too much, it snaps. (This refers to strict measures of abbots and excessive asceticism of monks.)

-- Do you wish to be free of afflictions and not to be burdened by them? Expect greater ones, and you will find peace. Remember Job and other saints, and the afflictions they suffered. Acquire their patience, and comfort will come to your spirit. Be of good courage, stand firm and pray.

-- While we have time, let us have attention in ourselves and learn to be silent. If you wish to be untroubled by anything, be dead in relation to every man, and you will find peace. I speak here touching thoughts, touching all kinds of activities, relationships with men and cares.

-- You wrote me asking me to pray for your sins. And I will say the same: pray for my sins. For it is said: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31). Although I am accursed and lower than all men, I continue to do so as much as I can, according to the commandment: "Pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (James 5:16). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 346 - 350.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Spirit of Anger: Part II

One of the best known of the Desert Fathers is the fourth century writer, St. John Cassian, whose Institutes and Conferences comprise two of the most comprehensive collections of sayings from the holy men and women of the ancient deserts. This text on anger, the second of two parts, is from the Institutes and certainly speaks to all of us. We highly recommend both these books to the serious student of monastic spirituality; like the Philokalia, they will supply the serious student with many years of pleasant study and inspiration.


THE SPIRIT OF ANGER

-- But what is to be said of those persons (and this I am unable to mention without shame) on whose implacability even sundown itself place3s no limits and who draw it out for days on end? They maintain a rancorous spirit against those with whom theyare upset and, although they deny orally that they are angry, they manifest the deepest anger by their actions. They neither approach them with an appropriate word nor speak to them with ordinary civility, and in this regard they do not consider themselves in the wrong because they do not demand vengeance for their annoyance. Yet, because they do not dare to or at any rate cannot bring it out into the open, they turn the poison of their wrath back to their own destruction, brooding over it in their hearts and in glum silence digesting it within themselves. They do not at once and with strength of mind cast out their bitter sadness; instead they mull it over, and eventually as time goes on they deal with it equably.

-- How could the Lord wish to be held onto for even a moment when in fact he does not even allow the spiritual sacrifices of our prayers to be offered if we know that someone else is angry with us? As he says: "If, then, you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). How, then, are we permitted to be annoyed with our brother even until sundown -- not to mention for several days -- when, if he has something against us, we are not allowed to offer our prayers to God? We are commanded by the Apostle: "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17). And: "In every place lifting up pure hands without anger and dissension" (I Timothy 2:8). It follows, therefore, that either we keep this kind of poison in our hearts and never pray, thus disobeying the apostolic and gospel precept by which we are commanded to pray ceaselessly and everywhere, or, if we deceive ourselves and dare to make prayer contrary to his prohibition, we realize that it is not prayer that we are offering to the Lord but a stubborn and rebellious spirit.

-- But why do we tarry for so long over gospel precepts and those of the Apostle when even the old law, which seems to be somewhat less demanding, warns of the very same thing? As it says: "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17). And again: "you shall not be mindful of the offense of your fellow citizens" (Leviticus 19:18). And again: "The ways of those who preserve the memory of a misdeed lead to death" (Proverbs 12:28). There as well you see that wickedness is checked not only in deed but even in secret thoughts, when not only hatred and vengefulness but even the recollection of an offense are commanded to be uprooted and cast out of the heart.

-- Sometimes, when we have been overcome by pride or impatience and are unwilling to correct our unseemly and undisciplined behavior, we complain that we are in need of solitude, as if we would find the virtue of patience in a place where no one would bother us, and we excuse our negligence and the causes of our agitation by saying that they stem not from our own impatience but from our brothers' faults. But, as long as we attribute our own wrongdoing to other people, we shall never be able to get near to patience and perfection.

-- The sum total of our improvement and tranquility, then, must not be made to depend on someone else's willing, which will never be subject to our sway; it comes, rather, under our own power. And so our not getting angry must derive not from someone else's perfection but from our own virtue, which is achieved not by another person's patience but by our own forbearance.

-- It is right, on the other hand, for those who are perfect and cleansed of all vice to search out the desert and, having been purged of vice in the community of the brothers, to go into it not as a refuge for their weak-spiritedness but with a view to divine contemplation and out of a desire for that deeper insight which can be grasped in solitude only by the perfect. For if we have brought any vices into the desert that we have not attended to, they will not be abolished but will lie hidden in us. For just as solitude can disclose the purest contemplation to those whose behavior has been corrected and from its unclouded perspective reveal a knowledge of spiritual mysteries, it is likewise accustomed not only to preserve but even to exaggerate the vices of those who have not corrected themselves. A person may seem patient and humble to himself as long as he has nothing to do with anyone else, but he will soon revert to his former nature should some disturbing event occur. Indeed, vices that have lain hidden emerge at once there, and like unbridled horses nourished by a long period of quiescence they eagerly break out of their restraints, all the more violently and savagely endangering their charioteer. For when contact with other human beings ce3ases, along with the discipline that that provides, the vices grow wilder in us if they have not previously been purged, and through slothful security we lose even the pretense of patience that we gave the appearance of possessing at least for the sake of our brothers' respect and our own good reputation when we lived among them.

-- It should be known, however, that in those manuscripts where it reads: "Whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment," the phrase "without cause" is superfluous and was added by persons who did not think that anger needed to be cut off for a just cause, since in fact no one, however irrationally upset he was, would say that he had no cause for anger. It appear, therefore, that this was added by those who did not understand the intention of Scripture, which seeks to cut off completely the growth of anger and to maintain no occasion for indignation whatsoever lest, in ordering us to get angry with cause, an occasion for getting angry without cause also be offered us. For patience does not achieve its goal in righteous anger; it consists, rather, in not getting angry at all. I know, though, that the phrase "without cause" is interpreted in such a way as to mean that he is angered without cause who, when he is angry, is not allowed to seek revenge. Yet it is better to take it as it is found to be written both in many new manuscripts and in all the old ones.

-- Hence it behooves the athlete of Christ, who is contending lawfully, to root out the movements of wrath. The perfect medicine for this disease is that we realize, first, that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or a just cause, knowing that we shall at once lose the light of discretion and firm and correct counsel, as well as goodness itself and the restraints of righteousness, if the guiding principle of our heart is obscured by darkness; and then, that the purity of our mind will soon be driven out and that it can never become a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as the spirit of wrath dwells in us. Lastly, we should understand that we are never allowed to pray or to make petition to God when we are angry. Above all, we should keep before our eyes the uncertain state of our human condition, daily realizing that we shall depart from our bodies and that our chaste abstinence, the renunciation of all our property, the contempt of wealth, and the toil of fasting and keeping vigil will confer nothing on us if eternal punishment is being readied for us by the Judge of all on account of wrath and hatred alone. END

St. John Cassian, The Institutes, (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 198 - 204

Sunday, September 22, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Spirit of Anger: Part I


One of the best known of the Desert Fathers is the fourth century writer, St. John Cassian, whose Institutes and Conferences comprise two of the most comprehensive collections of sayings from the holy men and women of the ancient deserts. This text on anger, the first of two parts, is from the Institutes and certainly speaks to all of us. We highly recommend both these books to the serious student of monastic spirituality; like the Philokalia, they will supply the serious student with many years of pleasant study and inspiration.

THE SPIRIT OF ANGER

-- We have heard that some people try to excuse this most destructive disease of the soul by attempting to extenuate it by a rather detestable interpretation of Scripture. They say that it is not harmful if we are angry with wrongdoing brothers, because God Himself is said to be enraged and angered with those who do not want to know Him or who, knowing Him, disdain Him. For example: "The Lord was angry and enraged against His people" (Psalms 106:40). And when the prophet prays and says: "Lord, do not rebuke me in your fury, nor in your anger correct me" (Psalms 6:1). They do not understand that, in their eagerness to concede human beings the opportunity for pernicious vice, they are mixing the injustice of fleshly passion into the divine limitlessness and the source of all purity.

-- And so the monk who is on the way to perfection and who wishes to engage lawfully in the spiritual struggle must in every respect be free of the vice of anger and wrath. He should listen to what the vessel of election (Acts 9:15) commands of him: "All anger and indignation and uproar and blasphemy should be removed from you, as well as all malice" (Ephesians 4:31). When he says: "All anger should be removed from you," he makes no exception at all for us as to necessity and utility. He should strive to cure a wrongdoing brother, if need be, in such a way that, while bringing relief to one who is perhaps laboring under a rather slight fever, he does not get angry and bring upon himself the more baleful malady of blindness, so that as he sees the speck in his brother's eye he does not see the beam in his own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). For it behooves the one who wishes to heal someone else's wound to be healthy and untouched by any disease or illness, lest the gospel saying be applied to him: "Physician, heal yourself first" (Luke 4:23). And how will a person see to remove the speck from his brother's eye if he carries about a beam of wrath in his own eye?

-- For any reason whatsoever the movement of wrath may boil over and blind the eyes of the heart, obstructing the vision with the deadly beam of a more vehement illness and not allowing the sun of righteousness to be seen. It is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.

-- Yet we have a function for anger placed quite appropriately within us, and for this purpose alone it is useful and beneficial for us to take it up -- when we wax indignant against the wanton movements of our own heart and are angered at things that we are ashamed to do or to say in the sight of human beings but that have found their way into the recesses of our heart, as we tremble with utter horror before the presence of the angels and of God Himself, whose eye penetrates everywhere and everything and from whom our consciences can hide no secrets at all.

-- And so we are commanded to get angry in a healthy way, at ourselves and at the evil suggestions that make an appearance, and not to sin by letting them have a harmful effect. The following verse opens itself to this same understanding in clearer fashion: "Be struck with compunction on your beds for what you say in your hearts" (Psalms 4:5). That is, whatever you think in your hearts when unexpected and deceitful suggestions rush in upon you, amend and correct with the most salutary compunction, removing all the noise and disturbance of wrath by means of moderate counsel, as if you were peacefully in bed.

When the blessed Apostle made use of the text of this verse and said: "Be angry, and do not sin," he added: "The sun should not go down on your anger, and you should not give room to the devil" (Ephesians 4:26). If it is dangerous to let the sun of righteousness go down on our anger, and if we immediately give room to the devil in our heart when we are angry, why did he previously command us to get angry, when he said: "Be angry, and do not sin"? Does he not clearly mean that you should be angry at your vices and your rage lest you grow dark on account of your wrath and Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, begin to go down in your dusky minds and, once He departs, you offer room in your hearts to the devil? END

St. John Cassian, The Institutes, (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 193 - 198

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Some Thoughts on Finding a Spiritual Father


During the time we have been publishing this newsletter, we received many letters from readers with questions on the spiritual life, asceticism, and related topics. It was clear from the questions and the letters that many people thought this newsletter was produced by monks or other clergy; but that is not the case. Instead, it is produced by a simple layman who merely wants to share the riches of the ancient Desert Fathers with the widest possible audience and to help people see that today's problems and issues can be addressed with the ancient wisdom of the Early Desert Christians and those who have followed their way since. By making the writings of the Desert Fathers available on the Internet, in a searchable, accessible format, it is our hope that this ancient wisdom will touch the lives of more people in today's world. In that, I believe we have succeeded as our readership now numbers over 1700 each week.

One question that has come up time and time again is the most important one -- "How do I find a spiritual father in today's world?" It is this question I would like to address today as it is one that applies to a great number of people and it is one I personally have struggled with over the years. In answering this question, reference will be made to the writings of spiritual fathers through the centuries, but I will also take the liberty of sharing some personal experiences with you.

Two primary points have been made repeatedly in my own consultations with monks and priests and in the writings I have consulted: 1) a sincere spiritual child will ALWAYS be led to a spiritual father if the seeker is sincere; and 2) in the absence of a spiritual father, one can always turn to the writings of the Desert Fathers.

I remember once asking a Russian monk, "Why are there no spiritual fathers today like St. Seraphim or the ancient saints who can guide and advise us?" His answer: because there are no spiritual children as in the past. In other words, because modern people are not as serious and humble in their quest for spiritual maturity, are not as willing to endure the hardship, submission, asceticism, material renunciation, and time spent in prayer as people did in earlier times, God does not reward us with the spiritual fathers we think we want. The monk told me, however, that any person who is truly desirous, truly sincere, whose heart truly seeks complete submission to God, will always be led to a spiritual father or mother who can help lead that seeker to salvation.

On the other hand, most of us do not fit that category of truly sincere and truly submissive seekers. For us, a "mediocre" spiritual guide may be found, but the safest and most reliable guide will always be found in the writings of the ancient Desert Fathers. In this respect, you might wish to reread a newsletter from 1998 which discusses the issue of "Why Should We Read the Desert Fathers?" .

What about the earliest saints? Did St. Anthony the Great or St. Paul of Thebes have spiritual fathers or libraries of books to read? Of course not. So how did they learn? How did they acquire their vast troves of spiritual knowledge and understanding? I asked a monk on Mount Athos about this once and his answer was simple. The early Fathers had the greatest spiritual library imaginable -- the Holy Bible.

If you read the lives of the Desert Fathers, one common fact about their lives comes up repeatedly; quite often, the ONLY book they had in their cells was a copy of the Bible, as often as not personally and painstakingly hand-copied from a Bible owned by another hermit. This Bible was their most valuable possession, but they were without exception ready to give it up to a thief, a buyer, or a pilgrim in order to avoid material attachment to the object itself. Because of their profound humility and simplicity, and their great desire to submit to God, the Almighty One taught them through the pages of the Bible and led them to learn and write down the vast wisdom we now know as the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Anthony the Great, when asked how he could live in the desert without books to teach him, replied that the hills around him were his books. In other words, living in solitude in nature in submission to God's Will taught him the spiritual life. The implication is clear -- the serious seeker, who shuns the material world (even if he or she continues to live IN the world, material attachment can still be avoided), will always be led to the Truth by God if the effort and desire are there.

One should also not make the mistake of thinking that only those will be saved who leave families and the world behind to live the ascetic life in solitude. On this, the teachings of the Desert Fathers are clear. A man who lived in the city and wanted to go to the desert to be a monk once consulted St. Niphon. St. Niphon could tell this man had no real inclination toward monasticism so he told him, "My son, a man is neither saved nor lost by the place he is in, but is saved or lost by his deeds. Neither a holy place nor a holy state is of use to him who does not fulfill the commandments of the Lord. Saul lived in regal luxury and perished. David lived in luxury and received the wreath (of salvation). Lot lived among the lawless Sodomites and was saved. Judas was among the apostles and went to Hell. Whoever says that it is impossible to be saved with a wife and children is a deceiver. Abraham had a wife and children and three hundred and eighteen servants, and also much gold and silver, and he was called the friend of God! Many servants of the Church have been saved, and many lovers of the desert; many aristocrats, and many soldiers; many craftsmen, and many farm laborers. Be devout towards God and loving towards men, and you will be saved."

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote a nice piece about the need for a spiritual father in one's life. Read his words carefully:

"St. Anthony the Great, when he began to wonder whether his rule was true, immediately began to cry out: 'Tell me the way, Lord,' and was only at peace when he received assurance. Anyone who has embarked upon the spiritual life is just as one who has embarked upon an ordinary journey. Since we do not know the way, we need someone to lead us. It would be too self-reliant to think: 'I can do it myself. . . . .' No, neither rank nor learnedness, nor any other thing can help. It is no less self- reliant if someone who is not subject to extraordinary circumstances but who has the opportunity to seek out a guide, yet does not choose one, assuming that God will guide him without an intermediary. It is true that it is God Who has received us and leads us to perfection, but under the guidance of a father. The father does not lift us onto the steps, but facilitates our being lifted by God. Nevertheless, in the usual order of things, God leads us, makes us understand, purifies us, and tells us his will through others. Anyone left alone with himself is in extreme danger, never mind that he will be thrashing and floundering in one place, producing very little fruit. Knowing neither ascetic feats, nor spiritual exercises, nor their order, he will do them and re-do them, like someone who has taken up a task he does not know how to do. Often for this reason many people get stuck, grow cold and lose their zeal. But the chief danger is inner disorder and satanic delusion."

Clearly, the spiritual seeker should seek a spiritual father, but one should not despair when one does not find such a guide immediately. Each Christian needs a spiritual father if they are truly seeking to do God's Will and grow in the Faith. However, we do not need to go to Mount Athos or the Holy Land to find a "spiritual guru." We do not even need to wander from monastery to monastery or parish to parish within our own land to seek a spiritual father. If you truly seek the wisdom of the Desert, you will find it if you seek with your heart and soul and your real desire is to submit to God, as opposed to being "spiritual." If you are a sincere student of the spiritual life, a true seeker of holy wisdom, then God will lead you to it and, in the process, may even lead you to a true spiritual father who will direct your daily life in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. Should that happen, consider yourself blessed to the highest degree. If it does not happen, however, do not despair because everything you need for spiritual growth is there if your heart is truly seeking submission to God's Will.

I hope these thoughts are of some help to you if you feel the need to find a spiritual father in these times of spiritual deadness. The search is not an easy one, but God DOES reward the sincere seeker and the guidance we need is out there, whether in the Bible, the Desert Fathers, or from that rare spiritual father who can truly lead the dedicated student who submits to his will. It is a difficult search, but the payoff is eternal life and salvation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - On Prayer


Several issues ago, we looked at several texts from St. Gregory of Sinai on prayer. St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching. Today we will look at a couple of small texts on the "Jesus Prayer" which is most useful for any Christian who wishes to develop a life of prayer and is considered by many the highest form of Christian spirituality.

ON PRAYER

-- Sometimes, and most often, you should sit on a stool, because it is more arduous; but sometimes, for a break, you should sit for a while on a mattress. As you sit be patient and assiduous, in accordance with St. Paul's precept, "Cleave patiently to prayer" (Colossians 4:2). Do not grow discouraged and quickly rise up again because of the strain and effort needed to keep your intellect concentrated on its inner invocation. It is as the prophet says: "The birth-pangs are upon me, like those of a woman in travail" (Isaiah 21:3). You must bend down and gather your intellect into your heart -- provided it has been opened -- and call on the Lord Jesus to help you. Should you feel pain in your shoulders or in your head -- as you often will -- endure it patiently and fervently, seeking the Lord in your heart. For "the kingdom of God is entered forcibly, and those who force themselves take possession of it" (Matthew 11:12). With these words the Lord truly indicated the persistence and labor needed in this task. Patience and endurance in all things involve hardship in both body and soul.

-- Some of the fathers advise us to say the whole prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy," while others specify that we say it in two parts -- "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy," and then "Son of God, help me" -- because this is easier, given the immaturity and feebleness of our intellect. For no one on his own account and without the help of the Spirit can mystically invoke the Lord Jesus, for this can be done with purity and in its fullness only with the help of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:3). Like children who can still speak only falteringly, we are unable by ourselves to articulate the prayer properly. Yet we must not out of laziness frequently change the words of the invocation, but only do this rarely, so as to ensure continuity. Again, some fathers teach that the prayer should be said aloud; others, that it should be said silently with the intellect. On the basis of my personal experience I recommend both ways. For at times the intellect grows listless and cannot repeat the prayer, while at other times the same thing happens to the voice. Thus we should pray both vocally and in the intellect. But when we pray vocally we should speak quietly and calmly and not loudly, so that the voice does not disturb and hinder the intellect's consciousness and concentration. This is always a danger until the intellect grows accustomed to its work, makes progress and receives power from the Spirit to pray firmly and with complete attention. Then there will be no need to pray aloud -- indeed, it will be impossible, for we shall be content to carry out the whole work with the intellect alone. END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 275 - 276.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ST.GREGORY OF SINAI - On the Different Kinds of Energy


In this issue, we will look at the second and final part of some of the teachings of St. Gregory of Sinai who lived in the thirteenth century. Although not an "ancient Desert Father" in the chronological sense, he is clearly one of them in a spiritual sense. Today's article is an excellent piece on the different kinds of energy involved in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit:

ON THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF ENERGY

-- In every beginner two forms of energy are at work, each affecting the heart in a distinct way. The first comes from grace, the second from delusion. St. Mark the Ascetic corroborates this when he says that there is a spiritual energy and a satanic energy, and that the beginner cannot distinguish between them. These energies in their turn generate three kinds of fervor, the first prompted by grace, the second by delusion or sin, and the third by an excess of blood. This last relates to what St. Thalassios the Libyan calls the body's temperament, the balance and concord of which can be achieved by appropriate self-control.

ON DIVINE ENERGY

-- The energy of grace is the power of spiritual fire that fills the heart with joy and gladness, warms and purifies the soul, temporarily stills our provocative thoughts, and for a time suspends the body's impulsions. The signs and fruits that testify to its authenticity are tears, contrition, humility, self-control, silence, patience, self-effacement and similar qualities, all of which constitute undeniable evidence of its presence.

ON DELUSION

-- The energy of delusion is the passion for sin, inflaming the soul with thoughts of sensual pleasure and arousing phrenetic desire in the body for intercourse with other bodies. According to St. Diadochos it is entirely amorphous and disordered, inducing a mindless joy, presumption and confusion, accompanied by a mood of ill-defined sterile levity, and fomenting above all the soul's appetitive power with its sensuality. It nourishes itself on pleasure, aided and abetted by the insatiable belly; for through the belly it not only impregnates and enkindles our whole bodily temperament but also acts upon and inflames the soul, drawing it to itself so that little by little the disposition to self-indulgence expels all grace from the person thus possessed. END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 261 - 262.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - On How to Discover the Energy of the Holy Spirit


Today we will look again at some of the teachings of St. Gregory of Sinai who lived in the thirteenth century. Although not an "ancient Desert Father" in the chronological sense, he is clearly one of them in a spiritual sense. Today's article is an excellent piece on the power of the Holy Spirit:

ON HOW TO DISCOVER THE ENERGY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

-- The energy of the Holy Spirit, which we have already mystically received in baptism, is realized in two ways. First, to generalize, this gift is revealed, as St. Mark tells us (e.g., St. Mark the Ascetic in "On Baptism"), through arduous and protracted practice of the commandments: to the degree to which we effectively practice the commandments its radiance is increasingly manifested in us. Secondly, it is manifested to those under guidance through the continuous invocation of the Lord Jesus, repeated with conscious awareness, that is, through mindfulness of god. In the first way, it is revealed more slowly, in the second more rapidly, if one diligently and persistently learns how to dig the ground and locate the gold. Thus if we want to realize and know the truth and not to be led astray, let us seek to possess only the heart-engrafted energy in a way that is totally without shape or form, not trying to contemplate in our imagination what we take to be the figure or similitude of things holy or to see any colors or lights. For in the nature of things the spirit of delusion deceives the intellect through such spurious fantasies, especially at the early stages, in those who are still inexperienced. On the contrary, let our aim be to make the energy of prayer alone active in our hearts, for it brings warmth and joy to the intellect, and sets the heart alight with an ineffable love for God and man. It is on account of this that humility and contrition flow richly from prayer. For prayer in beginners is the unceasing noetic activity of the Holy Spirit. To start with it rises like a fire of joy from the heart; in the end it is like light made fragrant by divine energy.

-- There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen and are not just putting God to the test -- for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, "It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it" (Wisdom 1:2). In some it appears as awe arising in the heart, in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation, in others as joy mingled with awe, or as tremulousness mingled with joy, and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe. For the soul is joyous at God's visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins. Again, in some the soul at the outset experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (Revolution 12:2). For the living and active Logos - - that is to say, Jesus -- penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (Hebrews 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body. In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation -- a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (Romans 8:26). Isaiah has also called the "waves" of God's righteousness (Isaiah 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it "spurring." The Lord Himself describes it as a "spring of water welling up for eternal life" (John 4:14) -- He refers to the Spirit as water -- a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.

-- You should know that there are two kinds of exultation or joyousness: the calm variety (called a vibration or sighing or intercession of the Spirit), and the great exultation of the heart -- a leap, bound or jump, the soaring flight of the living heart towards the sphere of the divine. For when the soul has been raised on the wings of divine love by the Holy Spirit and has been freed from the bonds of the passions, it strives to fly to that higher realm even before death, seeking to separate itself from its burden. This is also known as a stirring of the spirit -- that is to say, an eruption or impulsion -- as in the text, "Jesus was stirred in spirit and, deeply moved, He said, 'Where have you laid him?'" (John 11:34). David the Psalmist indicates the difference between the greater and the lesser exultation when he declares that the mountains leap like rams and the little hills like lambs (Psalm 114:6). He is referring of course to those who are perfect and to beginners, for physical mountains and hills, lacking animal life, do not actually leap about.

-- Divine awe has nothing to do with trepidation -- by which I mean, not the tremulousness induced by joy, but the trepidation induced by wrath or chastisement or the feeling of desertion by God. On the contrary, divine awe is accompanied by a tremulous sense of jubilation from the prayer of fire that we offer when filled with awe. This awe is not the fear provoked by wrath or punishment, but it is inspired by wisdom, and is also described as "the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10). Awe may be divided into three kinds, even though the fathers speak only of two: the awe of beginners, that of the perfect, and that provoked by wrath, which should properly be called trepidation, agitation or contrition.

-- There are several kinds of trembling. That of wrath is one, that of joy is another, and that of the soul's incensive power, when the heart's blood is over-heated, is another, that of old age is another, that of sin or delusion is another, and that of the curse which was laid on the human race because of Cain is another (Genesis 4:11-15). In the early stages of spiritual warfare, however, it sometimes but not always happens that the trembling induced by joy and that induced by sin contend with one another. The first is the tremulous sense of jubilation, when grace refreshes the soul with great joyfulness accompanied by tears; the second is characterized by a disordered fervor, stupor and obduracy that consume the sol, inflame the sexual organs, and impel one to assent through the imagination to erotic physical obscenities. END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 259 - 261.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Methods of Prayer: Part III


This issue will conclude our short series on prayer from the teachings of St. Simeon the New Theologian, a saint of the 11th century. St. Simeon served first in the imperial service in Constantinople, but then left it all for the monastic life, living in strict asceticism under the guidance of an elder, also named Simeon. He eventually became abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and finally a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. St. Simeon entered the Kingdom of Heaven in 1022.

St. Simeon described three methods of prayer. We have already looked at the first two methods; today we will look at the third.

THE THREE METHODS OF PRAYER -- THE THIRD METHOD OF PRAYER

-- Let us now begin to speak about the third method of prayer, which is truly astonishing and hard to explain. For those ignorant of it, it is not only difficult to understand but virtually incredible, and there are very few to be found who practice it. It seems to me that it has deserted us along with the virtue of obedience. For it is the love of obedience that delivers us from entanglement with this evil world, rendering us free from anxiety and impassioned craving. It makes us wholehearted and unflagging in pursuit of our aim -- provided, of course, that we find an unerring guide. For if through obedience you make yourself dead to every worldly and bodily attachment, how can anything transient enslave your intellect? If you entrust all the care of your soul and body to God and to your spiritual father, no longer living for yourself or desiring the good opinion of others, what anxiety can distract you?

-- This third method, then, destroys the invisible wiles of the demons, with which as with ropes they seek to drag down the intellect into all manner of devious thoughts. Set at liberty, the intellect wages war with its full strength, scrutinizing the thoughts insinuated by the enemy and with masterful dexterity expelling them, while the heart in its purity offers prayers to God. This is the beginning of a life of true seclusion, and those who fail to make such a beginning exhaust themselves in vain.

-- The starting point of this third method of prayer is not to gaze upwards, to raise one's hands aloft, to concentrate one's thoughts and to call down help from heaven. These, as we said, are the marks of the first form of delusion. Nor does it begin, as the second method does, by keeping guard over the senses with the intellect, while failing to observe the enemies who attack from within. In such a case, a person is struck by the demons instead of striking them; when wounded he is unaware of it; taken captive, he cannot retaliate against his captors. His enemies constantly attack him, and from behind and even face to face, and fill him with self-esteem and arrogance.

-- If you desire to embark on this light-giving and joyful task, begin as follows. You must first practice exact obedience, as described above, and so act always with a pure conscience; for without obedience it is impossible for your conscience to be pure. And you must keep your conscience pure in three respects: first, with respect to God, you must keep your conscience pure by refraining from doing anything that conflicts with the worship due to Him. With respect to your spiritual father do everything he tells you to do, neither more nor less, and be guided by his purpose and will. With respect to other people, you must keep your conscience pure by not doing to them anything that you hate (Tobit 4:15) and that you do not want them to do to you. With respect to material things, you must take care not to misuse them, whether food, drink, or clothing. In brief, do everything as if you were in the presence of God, so that your conscience does not rebuke you in any way.

-- . . . In short, if you do not guard your intellect you cannot attain purity of heart, so as to be counted worthy to see God (Matthew 5:18). Without such watchfulness you cannot become poor in spirit, or grieve, or hunger and thirst after righteousness, or be truly merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or be persecuted for the sake of justice (Matthew 5:3-10). To speak generally, it is impossible to acquire all the other virtues except through watchfulness. For this reason you must pursue it more diligently than anything else, so as to learn from experience these things, unknown to others, that I am speaking to you about. Now if you would like to learn also about the method of prayer, with God's help I will tell you about this too, in so far as I can.

-- Above all else you should strive to acquire three things, and so begin to attain what you seek. The first is freedom from anxiety with respect to everything, whether reasonable or senseless -- in other words, you should be dead to everything. Secondly, you should strive to preserve a pure conscience, so that it has nothing to reproach you with. Thirdly, you should be completely detached, so that your thoughts incline towards nothing worldly, not even your own body.

-- Then sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself, and do what I tell you. Close the door, and withdraw your intellect from everything worthless and transient. Rest your head on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the center of your belly or your navel. Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ. From this point onwards the intellect begins to be full of rancor against the demons and, rousing its natural anger against its noetic enemies, it pursues them and strikes them down. The rest you will learn for yourself, with God's help, by keeping guard over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart. As the saying does, "Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything." END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 69 - 73.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Kinds of Prayer: Part II


In this issue, we will continue our short series on prayer from the teachings of St. Simeon the New Theologian, a saint of the 11th century. St. Simeon served first in the imperial service in Constantinople, but then left it all for the monastic life, living in strict asceticism under the guidance of an elder, also named Simeon. He eventually became abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and finally a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. St. Simeon entered the Kingdom of Heaven in 1022.

St. Simeon described three methods of prayer. Last week we looked at the first method of prayer; today we will look at the second.

THE THREE METHODS OF PRAYER

The second form of prayer is this. A person withdraws his intellect from sensory things and concentrates it in himself, guards his senses, and collects all his thoughts; and he advances oblivious of the vanities of this world. Sometimes he examines his thoughts, sometimes pays attention to the words of the prayer he is addressing to God, and sometimes drags back his thoughts when they have been taken captive; and when he is overcome by passion he forcefully strives to recover himself.

One who struggles in this way, however, can never be at peace or win the crown of victory. He is like a person fighting at night: he hears the voices of his enemies and is wounded by them, but he cannot see clearly who they are, where they come from, and how and for what purpose they assail him. Such is the damage done to him because of the darkness in his intellect. Fighting in this manner, he cannot ever escape his noetic enemies, but is worn out by them. For all his efforts he gains nothing. Falsely imagining that he is concentrated and attentive, he falls victim unawares to self-esteem. Dominated and mocked by it, he despises and criticizes others for their lack of attentiveness. Imagining that he is capable of becoming the shepherd of sheep, he is like the blind man who undertakes to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14).

Such are the characteristics of the second method of prayer, and everyone one striving after salvation can see what harm it does. Yet this second method is better than the first, just as a moonlit night is better than a night that is pitch-dark and starless. END


from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 68 - 69.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Methods of Prayer : Part I


In this issue, we will begin a short series on prayer from the teachings of St. Simeon the New Theologian, a saint of the 11th century. St. Simeon served first in the imperial service in Constantinople, but then left it all for the monastic life, living in strict asceticism under the guidance of an elder, also named Simeon. He eventually became abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and finally a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. St. Simeon entered the Kingdom of Heaven in 1022.

St. Simeon described three methods of prayer. We will look at the first of those here.

THE THREE METHODS OF PRAYER

BEGIN -- There are three methods of prayer and attentiveness, by means of which the soul is either uplifted or cast down. Whoever employs these methods at the right time is uplifted, but whoever employs them foolishly and at the wrong time is cast down. Vigilance and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Vigilance first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which vigilance has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. This, then, is the gate of life and death. If by means of vigilance we keep prayer pure, we make progress; but if we leave prayer unguarded and permit it to be defiled, our efforts are null and void.

Since, then, as we said, there are three methods of attentiveness and prayer, we should explain the distinctive features of each, so that he who aspires to attain life and wishes to set to work may with firm assurance select what suits him best; otherwise through ignorance he may choose what is worse and forfeit what is better.

THE FIRST METHOD OF PRAYER

The distinctive features of the first method of prayer are these. When a person stands at prayer, he raises hands, eyes and intellect heavenwards, and fills his intellect with divine thoughts, with images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous. In brief, at the time of prayer he assembles in his intellect all that he has heard from Holy Scripture and so rouses his soul to divine longing as he gazes towards heaven, and sometimes he sheds tears. But when someone prays in this way, without him realizing it his heart grows proud and exalted, and he regards what is happening to him as the effect of divine grace and entreats God to allow him always to be engaged in this activity. Such assumptions, however, are signs of delusion, because the good is not good when it is not done in the right way.

If, then, such a person is pursuing a life of stillness and seclusion, he will almost inevitably become deranged. And even if this does not happen to him, it will be impossible for him to attain a state of holiness or dispassion. Those who adopt this method of prayer have also been deluded into thinking that they see lights with their bodily eyes, smell sweet scents, hear voices, and so on. Some have become completely possessed by demons and wander from place to place in their madness. Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light (II Corinthians 2:14); and, putting their trust in him, they continue in an incorrigible state of delusion until their death, refusing to accept the counsel of anyone else. Still others, incited by the devil, have committed suicide, throwing themselves over a precipice or hanging themselves.

Indeed, who can describe all the various forms of deception employed by the devil? Yet from what we have said any sane person can understand the kind of harm that may result from this method of attentiveness. Even if someone who has adopted this method may perhaps avoid the evils we have mentioned because he lives in a community -- for it is solitaries who are especially subject to them -- none the less he will pass his entire life without making any progress. END

NEXT WEEK -- "THE SECOND METHOD OF PRAYER"

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 67 - 68.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - On Delusion and Other Subjects


In the last post, we looked at the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai on mastering the intellect and expelling thoughts. In this issue, we will look specifically at the issue of finding and working with a spiritual father, a question that concerns many of us in this modern world where we often live far from anyone we think can fulfill that function.

St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching. In this selection, we will look at a few excerpts from a larger chapter that deal only with spiritual fathers.

ON DELUSION AND OTHER SUBJECTS

BEGIN  -- Be careful, therefore, not to entertain and readily give assent to anything even if it be good, before questioning those with spiritual experience and investigating it thoroughly, so as not to come to any harm. Always be suspicious of it and keep your intellect free from colors, forms and images. For it has often happened that things sent by God to test our free will, to see which way it inclines and to act as a spur to our efforts, have in fact had bad consequences. For when we see something, whether with mind or senses -- even if this thing be from God -- and then readily entertain it without consulting those experienced in such matters, we are easily deceived, or will be in the future, because of our gullibility. A novice should pay close attention solely to the activity of his heart, because this is not led astray. Everything else he must reject until the passions are quietened. For God does not censure those who out of fear of being deluded pay strict attention to themselves, even though this means that they refuse to entertain what He sends them until they have questioned others and made careful enquiry. Indeed, He is more likely to praise their prudence, even though in some cases He is grieved.

-- Yet you should not question everyone. You should go only to one, to someone who has been entrusted with the guidance of others as well, who is radiant alike in his life and in his words, and who although poor makes many rich (II Corinthians 6:10). For people lacking spiritual experience have often done harm to foolish questioners, and for this they will be judged after death. Not everyone is qualified to guide others: only those can do so who have been granted divine discrimination -- what St. Paul calls the "discrimination of spirits" (I Corinthians 12:10) -- enabling them to distinguish between bad and good with the sword of God's teaching (Ephesians 6:17). Everyone possesses his own private knowledge and discrimination, whether inborn, pragmatic or scientific, but not all possess spiritual knowledge and discrimination. That is why Sirach said, "Be at peace with many, but let your counselors be one in a thousand" (Ecclesiastes 6:6). It is hard to find a guide who in all he does, says, or thinks is free from delusion. You can tell that a person is undeluded when his actions and judgment are founded on the testimony of divine Scripture, and when he is humble in whatever he has to give his mind to. No little effort is needed to attain a clear understanding of the truth and to be cleansed from whatever is contrary to grace, for the devil -- especially in the case of beginners -- is liable to present his delusions in the forms of truth, thus giving his deceit a spiritual guise.

-- If some have gone astray and lost their mental balance, this is because they have in arrogance followed their own counsels. For when you seek God in obedience and humility, and with the guidance of a spiritual master, you will never come to any harm, by the grace of Christ who desires all to be saved (I Timothy 2:4). Should temptation arise, its purpose is to test you and to spur you on; and God, who has permitted this testing, will speedily come to your help in whatever way He sees fit. As the Holy Fathers assure us, a person who lives an upright and blameless life, avoiding arrogance and spurning popularity, will come to no harm even if a whole host of demons provoke him with countless temptations. But if you are presumptuous and follow your own counsel you will readily fall victim to delusion. That is why a hesychast must always keep to the royal road. For excess in anything easily leads to conceit, and conceit induces self-delusion. Keep the intellect at rest by gently pressing your lips together when you pray, but do not impede your nasal breathing, as the ignorant do, in case you harm yourself by building up inward pressure.

-- There are three virtues connected with stillness which we must guard scrupulously, examining ourselves every hour to make sure that we possess them, in case through unmindfulness we are robbed of them and wander far away from them. These virtues are self-control, silence and self-reproach, which is the same thing as humility. They are all-embracing and support one another; and from them prayer is born and through them it burgeons.

-- QUESTION: What should we do when the devil transforms himself into an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14) and tries to seduce us?

ANSWER: You need great discrimination in order to distinguish between good and evil. So do not readily or lightly put your trust in appearances, but weigh things well, and after testing everything carefully cleave to what is good and reject what is evil (I Thessalonians 5:21-22). You must test and discriminate before you give credence to anything. You must also be aware that the effects of grace are self-evident, and that even if the devil does transform himself he cannot produce these effects: he cannot induce you to be gentle, or forbearing, or humble, or joyful, or serene, or stable in your thoughts; he cannot make you hate what is worldly, or cut off sensual indulgence and the working of the passions, as grace does. He produces vanity, haughtiness, cowardice and every kind of evil. Thus you can tell from its effects whether the light shining in your soul is from God or from satan. The lettuce is similar in appearance to the endive, and vinegar to wine; but when you taste them the palate discerns and recognizes the differences between each. In the same way the soul, if it possesses the power of discrimination, can distinguish with its noetic sense between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the illusions of satan.

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 283 - 286.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - How to Master the Intellect in Prayer


In out last post, we looked at the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai on fasting. In today's teaching, we will continue studying his works, this time focusing on two issues related to the life of prayer: mastering the intellect and expelling thoughts.

St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching.

HOW TO MASTER THE INTELLECT IN PRAYER

BEGIN  -- No one can master the intellect unless he himself is mastered by the Spirit. For the intellect is uncontrollable, not because it is by nature ever-active, but because through our continual remissness it has been given over to distraction and has become used to that. When we violated the commandments of Him who in baptism regenerates us we separated ourselves from God and lost our conscious awareness of Him and our union with Him.

-- Sundered from that union and estranged from God, the intellect is led captive everywhere; and it cannot regain its stability unless it submits to God and is stilled by Him, joyfully uniting with Him through unceasing and diligent prayer and through noetically confessing all our lapses to Him each day. God immediately forgives everything to those who ask forgiveness in a spirit of humility and contrition and who ceaselessly invoke His holy name. As the Psalmist says, "Confess to the Lord and call upon His holy name" (Psalms 105:1).

-- Holding the breath also helps to stabilize the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little it lapses into distraction again. But when prayer is activated, then it really does keep the intellect in its presence, and it gladdens it and frees it from captivity. But it may sometimes happen that the intellect, rooted in the heart, is praying, yet the mind wanders and gives its attention to other things; for the mind is brought under control only in those who have been made perfect by the Holy Spirit and who have attained a state of total concentration upon Christ Jesus.

HOW TO EXPEL THOUGHTS

-- In the case of a beginner in the art of spiritual warfare, God alone can expel thoughts, for it is only those strong in such warfare who are in a position to wrestle with them and banish them. Yet even they do not achieve this by themselves, but they fight against them with God's assistance, clothed in the armor of His grace.

-- So when thoughts invade you, in place of weapons call on the Lord Jesus frequently and persistently and then they will retreat; for they cannot bear the warmth produced in the heart by prayer and they flee as if scorched by fire. St. John Climacus tells us, "Lash your enemies with the name of Jesus," because God is a fire that cauterizes wickedness (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29). The Lord is prompt to help, and will speedily come to the defense of those who wholeheartedly call on Him day and night (Luke 18:7).

-- But if prayer is not yet activated in you, you can put these thoughts to flight in another manner, by imitating Moses (Exodus 17:11-12): rise up, lift hands and eyes to heaven, and God will rout them. Then sit down again and begin to pray resolutely. This is what you should do if you have not yet acquired the power of prayer.

-- Yet even if prayer is activated in you and you are attacked by the more obdurate and grievous of the bodily passions -- namely, listlessness and lust -- you should sometimes rise up and lift your hands for help against them. But you should do this only seldom, and then sit down again, for there is a danger of the enemy deluding you by showing you some illusory form of the truth. For only in those who are pure and perfect does God keep the intellect steadfast and intact wherever it is, whether above or below, or in the heart. END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 276 - 278.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - How to Partake of Food


In today's "fast food culture" with rampant obesity, poor nutrition, and gluttony, it is always a good time to look once again at the whole issue of fasting, eating, and self-control and what the Desert Fathers teach about controlling the stomach. Today's teaching is from a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching.

HOW TO PARTAKE OF FOOD

-- What shall I say about the belly, the queen of the passions? If you can deaden or half-deaden it, do not relent. It has mastered me, beloved, and I worship it as a slave and vassal, this abettor of the demons and dwelling-place of the passions. Through it we fall and through it -- when it is well-disciplined -- we rise again. Through it we have lost both our original divine status and also our second divine status, that which was bestowed on us when after our initial corruption we are renewed in Christ through baptism, and from which we have lapsed once more, separating ourselves from God through out neglect of the commandments, even though in our ignorance we exalt ourselves. We think that we are with God, but it is only by keeping the commandments that we advance, guarding and increasing the grace bestowed upon us.

-- As the fathers have pointed out, bodies vary greatly in their need for food. One person needs little, another much to sustain his physical strength, each according to his capacity and habit. A hesychast, however, should always eat too little, never too much. For when the stomach is heavy the intellect is clouded, and you cannot pray resolutely and with purity. On the contrary, made drowsy by the effects of too much food you are soon induced to sleep; and as you sleep the food produces countless fantasies in your mind. Thus in my opinion if you want to attain salvation and strive for the Lord's sake to lead a life of stillness, you should be satisfied with a pound of bread and three or four cups of water or wine daily, taking at appropriate times a little from whatever victuals happen to be at hand, but never eating to satiety. In this way you will avoid growing conceited, and by thanking God for everything you will show no disdain for the excellent things He has made. This is the counsel of those who are wise in such matters. For those weak in faith and soul, abstinence from specific types of food is most beneficial; St. Paul exhorts them to eat herbs (Romans 14:2), for they do not believe that God will preserve them.

-- What shall I say? You are old, yet have asked for a rule, and an extremely severe one at that. Younger people cannot keep to a strict rule by weight and measure, so how will you keep to it? Because you are ill, you should be entirely free in partaking of food. If you eat too much, repent and try again. Always act like this -- lapsing and recovering again, and always blaming yourself and no one else -- and you will be at peace, wisely converting such lapses into victories, as Scripture says. But do not exceed the limit I set down above, and this will be enough, for no other food strengthens the body as much as bread and water. That is why the prophet disregarded everything else and simply said, "Son of man, by weight you will eat your bread and by measure you will drink water" (Ezekiel 4:16).

-- There are three degrees of eating: self-control, sufficiency and satiety. Self-control is to be hungry after having eaten. Sufficiency is to be neither hungry nor weighed down. Satiety is to be slightly weighed down. To eat again after reaching the point of satiety is to open the door of gluttony, through which unchastity comes in. Attentive to these distinctions, choose what is best for you according to your powers, not overstepping the limits. For according to St. Paul only the perfect can be both hungry and full, and at the same time be strong in all things (Philippians 4:12). END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 280 - 281.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ABBA THEONAS - All Holy Persons Confess Themselves as Unclean and Sinners


St. John Cassian's book, The Conferences, is well-known to readers of our newsletter. It, along with The Institutes, is a classic to which we will return from time to time as it is chock-full of centuries-old monastic wisdom from the Egyptian Desert that is still useful in today's modern world. In today's conference with Abba Theonas, a man of whom we know virtually nothing beyond the text of his writings, we will look at the issue of sinlessness.

THE THIRD CONFERENCE OF ABBA THEONAS: THAT ALL HOLY PERSONS HAVE TRUTHFULLY CONFESSED THEMSELVES UNCLEAN AND SINNERS

-- Therefore all those who are holy are struck with compunction because of the weakness of their constitution, and with daily sighs they scrutinize their different thoughts and the hidden and secret places of their conscience, humbly crying out: "Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living shall be justified." And this: "Who will boast of having a chaste heart? Or who will have confidence that he is pure of sin?" And again: "There is no one who is righteous upon the earth, who does what is good and does not sin." And also this: "Who understands his sins?"

-- They consider the righteousness of human beings so weak and imperfect and constantly in need of God's mercy that one of them, whose iniquities and sins God cleansed with the fiery coal of his word that was sent from his altar, said after having contemplated God in wondrous fashion and after having seen the lofty seraphim and a revelation of the heavenly mysteries: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips."

-- In my estimation he would perhaps not even then have felt the uncleanness of his lips if he had not deserved to know the true and integral purity of perfection, thanks to his having contemplated God. Upon seeing him he immediately recognized an uncleanness that had hitherto been unknown to him. For when he says: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips," he shows by what follows -- "and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips" -- that he was speaking of his own lips and not of the people's uncleanness.

-- In vain, then, does your penetrating and thorny objection -- when you said shortly before that if no one is sinless then no one is holy, and that if no one is holy then no one will be saved -- pose a problem for a most evident truth. For the difficulty in this question can be resolved from the text of the prophet where he says: "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned." That is, when you turned away from the pride and heedlessness of our hearts and deprived us of your help, the abyss of our sins immediately engulfed us. It was as if someone had said to the sun in all its splendor: Behold, you have set, and at once thick darkness has covered us over.

-- And yet, although he says that the holy have sinned, and not only that they have sinned but they have always remained in their sins, he does not utterly despair of salvation, but he adds: "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved."

-- I shall compare these words -- "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned" -- with those of the Apostle: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Again, what the prophet adds -- "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved" -- corresponds to the words of the Apostle that follows: "The grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- Likewise, what the same prophet also says -- "Woe is me, for I am a man with unclean lips" -- also seems to smack of the aforementioned words: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Similarly, what follows in the prophet -- "Behold, one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand there was a coal (or a stone), which he had brought from the altar with a tongs. And he touched my mouth and said: Behold, I have touched your lips, and your iniquity shall be removed and your sinfulness shall be cleansed" -- is like what seems to be uttered by the mouth of Paul, when he says: "The grace of God, though Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- You see, then, how all the holy truthfully confess themselves sinners not in the person of the people but in their own. Yet they are not at all hopeless about their salvation; rather, thanks to the grace and mercy of the Lord, they presume upon the complete justification that they despair of being able to attain due to the condition of their human frailty." END

from St. John Cassian, The Conferences, (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 808 - 810