The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Exercises for Developing the Will

Today's thought continues our study of St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth century Russian bishop steeped in the teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers who brought their teachings and words of wisdom to modern readers and addressed modern-day problems and issues. St. Theophan's life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century and his works were avidly read by all classes of society. He was a prolific writer and his books are a prime addition to any spiritual bookshelf.

In today's issue we will continue our multi-part series on "exercises" which St. Theophan recommends to help a person develop the body and soul in goodness. In this third section, St. Theophan discusses exercises for the will; next week's section, the last one, will look at exercises for the heart. 



Developing the will means impressing upon it good dispositions or virtues -- humility, meekness, patience, continence, submissiveness, helpfulness and so on -- so that in blending with and grafting onto the will, the virtues would eventually constitute its very nature, and when something is undertaken by the will, it would be undertaken according to their inspiration and in their spirit, and they would govern and reign over our deeds.

Such a disposition of will is the safest and most stable. But inasmuch as it is contrary to the spirit of sin, its achievement requires toil and sweat. That is why the activity related to this is for the most part directed against the chief infirmity of the will, that is -- self-will, unsubmissiveness, and intolerance of the yoke.


This infirmity is healed by submission to the will of God, with denial of your own and of any other. The will of God is revealed through the various forms of obedience that each person carries. Its first and most important requirement is observing the laws or commandments according to each person's duty or calling; next is observing the rubrics of the Church, the dictates of civil and family order, the dictates of circumstance that are wrought by providential will, and the demands of a zealous spirit -- all done with discernment and counsel.

All of this is within the field of righteous deeds which is open to anyone and everyone. Therefore, know only how to arrange this for yourself and you will not experience a dearth of means for developing the will.

For this you must clarify for yourself the sum of righteous deeds that are possible for you to do -- in your station, calling and circumstances -- together with an assessment of what, when, how, in what measure, and what can and should be done.

Having clarified all this, determine the general outline of the deeds and their order, so that nothing you do would be accidental. Remember at the same time that this is only an outline -- details may change according to what is required under the circumstances. Do everything with discernment.

Therefore it is best to daily go over all the possible occurrences and deeds.

Those who are used to doing righteous deeds never pre-determine what they are going to do, but do always what God sends them, for everything comes from God. He reveals His own determination to us through different occurrences.


By the way, all of this is only deeds. Doing them only straightens you out. In order to flow also into virtues through them, you must forcefully keep a true spirit of good works. To be more precise, do everything with humility and fear of God according to God's will and to His glory. He who does something out of self-reliance, with boldness and audacity, out of self- gratification or man-pleasing, no matter how righteous the works may be, only fosters within himself an evil spirit of self- righteousness, arrogance and pharisaism.

Carrying a right spirit, you should also be in remembrance of the laws, especially the law of graduality and constancy; that is, always begin with the small and ascend to what is higher. Then, once you have begun, do not stop.

By this you can avoid:

1) "Embarrassment" that you are not perfect, for perfection does not come all at once. The time will come.

2) "Thoughts" that you have already done everything; for there is no end to the heights.

3) "Arrogant" aspirations, ascetic feats beyond your strength.

The last stage is when good deeds have become natural for you, and the law no longer weighs upon you as a burden.

The one who achieves this most successfully is one who is blessed with the grace of living with an actively virtuous man, especially if he is being taught this science. He will not have to repeat and re-do every failure he has allowed through ignorance and inexperience. As they say, even if you do not read or intellectualize, only find a reverent man, and you will quickly learn the fear of God. This is applicable to any virtue.


Incidentally, it is good to choose one outstanding virtuous work according to your character and station, and stick with it unswervingly -- it will be the foundation or basis from which you can go on to others. It will save you in times of weakness -- it is a strong reminder and quickly inspires. The most reliable of all is almsgiving, which leads to the King.

This concern only works and not dispositions, which should have their own inner framework that is founded on the spirit, and are in a certain way independent of the consciousness and free will -- they are as the Lord grants. All the saints accept the beginning of this to be the fear of God, and the end to be love. In the middle are all the virtues, one building upon another. Although they are perhaps not all the same, they are inevitably built on humble, conpunctionate repentance and sorrow over sins, which are the essence of virtue. A description of each virtue - - its nature, activity, degrees of perfection, and deviations from them -- is the subject of special books and patristic instructions. Get to know all of this through reading.

This kind of virtuous activity directly develops the will and impresses the virtuous into it. At the same time it also keeps the spirit in constant tension. Just as friction causes warmth, so do good works warm the heart. Without them a good spirit also grows cold and evaporates. This is what usually befalls those who do not do anything, or those who limit themselves to merely not doing evil and unrighteousness. No, we must also find good works to do. Incidentally, there are also those who make too much fuss over their works, and therefore quickly exhaust themselves and dissipate the spirit. Everything should be done in moderation. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 250 - 253

Sunday, January 27, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Exercises for the Intellect

In this issue, we will continue our study of St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth century Russian bishop steeped in the teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers who brought their teachings and words of wisdom to modern readers and addressed modern-day problems and issues. St. Theophan's life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century and his works were avidly read by all classes of society. He was a prolific writer and his books are a prime addition to any spiritual bookshelf.

In today's issue we will continue our multi-part series on "exercises" which St. Theophan recommends to help a person develop the body and soul in goodness. In this second section, we will look at exercises for the intellect. As you will see from this selection, St. Theophan places a special emphasis on the need for Christians to read spiritual literature: the Bible, Lives of the Saints, and the Holy Fathers. Your best source for recommended titles in these areas is our own bookstore.



Our externality is the outflow of our actions, their field as well as their cause and support, their source as well as their outcome. It could be left alone if it did not work against us. But in fact, it tyrannizes us and even directs us. Therefore, as the activities of our powers (or our inner character), are changed, our external appearance, which is their expression, will also inevitably change. The family -- its duties and relationships -- is the field of activity. Thus, all mandatory rules should relate to it:

1) Abandon all evil customs without exception; then: 2) Purge all relationships and acquaintances, retaining the salvific and estranging the harmful, and determine your behavior or conduct with people; 3) Rearrange or re-establish the duties of whatever occupation you may have, to fit your new way of life; 4) Establish order in your family affairs, or in general adapt your home to spiritual life.


A Christian intellectual development occurs when all the truths of the Faith are impressed so deeply into the intellect that the intellect's whole existence is made up of these truths alone. When it begins to reason over something, it reasons according to what it knows of the Christian truths, and would never make the slightest move without them. The Apostle calls this keeping the image "of a sound mind" (II Timothy 1:7).

Exercises or work related to this are: reading and hearing the Word of God, patristic literature, Lives of the Holy Fathers, mutual discourse and asking questions of those more experienced.

It is good to read or listen, better to have a mutual discourse, and even better to ask questions of those more experienced.

The most fruit-bearing is the Word of God, then patristic literature and the Lives of Saints. Incidentally, it is needful to know that the Lives of Saints are better for beginners, patristic literature for the intermediate, and the Word of God for the perfect.

All of these are the sources of Truth as well as the means for drawing from them; obviously, impressing them in the mind along with preserving the spirit of zeal also help.

Often one text will warm the spirit for more than a day. There are Lives of which the mere remembrance is enough to inflame zeal. There are also passages in patristic writings that inspire. Therefore we have this good rule: write down such passages and save them, in case you need them later to warm your spirit.

Often neither internal nor external work helps -- the spirit remains sleepy. Hasten to read something from somewhere. If this does not help, run to someone to discuss it. The latter performed with faith is rarely fruitless.

There are two kinds of reading: one -- ordinary, almost mechanical, and another -- discriminating, according to spiritual need and advice. But the first kind is also not useless. It is, as we have said already, what is simply repeated and not studied.

It is most necessary for everyone to have someone with whom he can discuss spiritual matters -- someone who already knows all our problems and to whom we can boldly reveal everything on our soul. It is best if it is only one person; two is too many. Idle conversations carried on only in order to pass the time should be avoided at all cost.

Here is a rule for reading:

1) Before reading you should empty your soul of everything; 2) Arouse the desire to know about what is being read; 3) Turn prayerfully to God; 4) Follow what you are reading with attention and place everything in your open heart; 5) If something did not reach the heart, stay with it until it reaches; 6) You should, of course, read quite slowly.

Stop reading when the soul no longer wants to nourish itself with reading. That means it is full. If the soul finds one passage utterly stunning, stop there and read no more.

The best time for reading the Word of God is in the morning. Lives of Saints after the mid-day meal, and Holy Fathers before going to sleep. Thus you can take up a little bit each day.

During such occupations, you should continually keep in mind the main goal -- impressing the truth on yourself and awakening the spirit. If reading or discourse does not bring this about, then they are but idle itchings of the tongue and ears, or empty discussion. If it is done with intelligence, then the truths impress themselves and rouse the spirit, and one thing aids the other. But if the reading or discourse digresses from the proper image, then there is neither one nor the others -- truth is stuffed into the head like sand, and the spirit becomes cold and hard, smokes over and puffs up.

Impressing the spirit is not the same as searching for it. This requires only that you clarify what the truth is, and hold it in your mind until they bond together. Let there be no deductions or limitations -- only the face of truth.

The easiest method for this could lawfully be considered the following: the whole truth is in the catechesis. Every morning take the truth from it and clarify it to yourself, carry it in your mind and nourish yourself with it for as long as it feeds the soul -- a day, two days or longer. Do the same thing with another truth, and continue thus to the end. This is a method that is easy and applicable to everyone. Those who do not know how to read may ask for one truth and proceed from there.

We can see that the rule for everyone is this: impress the truth in a way that will awaken you. The methods for fulfilling this rule vary, and it is not at all possible to prescribe the same one for everyone.

Thus, reading, listening and discourse that do not impress the truth or awaken the spirit should be considered wrong, as they lead away from the truth. It is a sickness to read many books out of curiosity alone, when only the mind follows what is being read, without leading it to the heart or delighting in its flavor.

This is the science of dreaming; it is not creative, does not hasten success, but is devastating and always leads to arrogance. All your work should be limited, as we have said, to the following: clarify the truth and hold it in the mind until the heart tastes of it. The Holy Fathers put it simply: remember it, hold it in the mind, and have it always before your eyes. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 243 - 244, 247 - 250

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Exercises to Confirm the Body and Soul in Goodness

Today we will continue our study of St. Theophan the Recluse, a nineteenth century Russian bishop steeped in the teachings of the ancient Desert Fathers who brought their teachings and words of wisdom to modern readers and addressed modern-day problems and issues. St. Theophan's life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century and his works were avidly read by all classes of society. He was a prolific writer and his books are a prime addition to any spiritual bookshelf.

In today's issue we will begin a multi-part series on "exercises" which St. Theophan recommends to help a person develop the body and soul in goodness. In this first section, we will look at exercises for the soul and body.



In this way, an interior grace-filled life in the spirit will burn and flame up. For the sake of his zeal and fervency in dedicating himself to God, grace will descend upon the person and penetrate him with its illuminating power more and more, and make him its own. Incidentally, he cannot and should not stop with this. This is only the seed and the point of support.

We must allow this light of life to penetrate further and fill the soul and body, thus illuminating them and making them its own, cutting away the unnatural passionateness that had entered them, and restoring them to their pure and natural form. Thus the grace will not just remain alone and inactive, but will pour itself throughout our entire existence, through all our powers.

Inasmuch as these powers, as stated above, are all permeated with unnaturalness, when the all-pure spirit of grace enters the heart, it cannot directly and independently enter the powers, for they fence it out by their impurity. Therefore we must strengthen certain agents that stand between the indwelling spirit of grace and our powers. Through these agents grace will pour into the powers and heal them, as a plaster heals a sore spot.

Obviously, all these agents should on the one hand be of a divine character and quality or origin, while on the other hand, they should be in perfect agreement with our powers' natural constitution and function, otherwise grace will not pass through them and the powers will not draw healing from them. Such agents, by their origin, should be also of an interior nature. Because they are applied to the powers, the distinctive nature of which is to act, these agents in and of themselves can be none other than activities, exercises, and labors. Thus, we must now seek out the works and activities which God Himself, through His Scriptures or through the teachings of His saints, has chosen for us as a means for healing our powers and restoring to them their lost purity and wholeness.

We can easily discover these exercises or activities -- only scan a few Lives of ascetics, and the activities become evident. Fasting, labor, vigils, solitude, leaving the world, guarding the senses, reading the Scriptures and Holy Fathers, going to church, frequent Confession and Communion, vows and other acts of piety and virtue -- all of this together, or singly in predominant aspects, can be found in almost every Life of the Holy Fathers. The general term for them -- "podvig" (NOTE: this is a Russian term referring to the struggle of man with himself) -- rather scares people off, but their significance as portrayed in any given saint's life, that is, their ability to heal, should rather attract people. We will only show what place each of these "podvigs" and exercises has, their power, and what "podvig" should be applied to which infirmity.

In order to do this more successfully, we will show the process of our various actions, and thereby all activity. All free activity, born in consciousness and free will and therefore in spirit, descends into the soul, and through the soul's powers -- the intellect, the will and the senses -- prepares for fulfillment. It is then fulfilled through the physical powers at a particular time and place, and under other external circumstances.

External work, for the most part, comes and goes without a trace if it is not repeated, not noticed, or not copied by someone else. When this does happen, then activity becomes a permanent rule, morality, custom, in a word -- law. The aggregate of these customs makes up the spirit of that society or circle of people in which these customs are affirmed. If what issues is good, then the customs are good, and so is the society. If what issues is bad, then the customs are bad, and so is the society. But in the second case, whoever enters this treadwheel of customs and morals inevitably becomes its slave. Regardless of the slave's labor, he is still in uncritical servility. Whoever lives in a worldly way is servile to the customs and spirit of the world. But whoever goes into this world fresh inevitably absorbs its spirit and soon becomes like everyone else, for these customs are the elements that foster in us the spirit of sin, passions, and atheism; for the customs themselves are nothing other than passionate issuances.

With the goal of purifying and correcting man, divine grace first of all tries to heal all of these issuances of our activity, namely: it turns our awareness and freedom to God, so that it can then conduct a healing of all the powers through each particular activity assigned to them, or inspired in them by the issuance, which is now of healing and illumination. We have already seen how this issuance heals and how it is preserved. Now we must determine what actions should come from it with healing power in the capacity that we have already seen. Nevertheless, this does not allow for self-willed appointment of these activities. It only means that they should be apprehended through the forcing of the awareness and freedom, for otherwise the expected fruit will not come from them.

Thus, after the development and preservation of zeal with the whole proper inner disposition, exercises should be determined that have been revealed by the Word of God and writings of the Holy Fathers -- at first applicable to the powers of the soul, as close foster children of everything conceived within the sanctuary of the spirit; and then to the powers and functions of the body, as foster children of what has ripened in the soul; and finally, to the external behavior, as the general emanation of all inner activity, or its field and developer. All of these exercises should be conducted in such a way so as not to extinguish, but rather to kindle the spirit of zeal, along with the entire inner disposition.


In the soul we find three powers: the intellect, the will, the heart, or, as the Holy Fathers say, the intellectual, desiring and incensive powers. Each of them is assigned particular curative exercises by the holy ascetics. These related exercises are both receptive and conducive to grace. They need not be contrived according to some theory, but rather chosen from tested ascetic labors particularly suited to a given power:


1) Reading and hearing the Word of God, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and the lives of the God-pleasers. 2) Studying and impressing upon yourself all the God-given truths in brief statements (the catechesis). 3) Asking questions of those older and more experienced. 4) Mutual informative discourse with friends.


1) Submission to the whole Church rule. 2) Submission to civil order, or to family duty, for they are conduits of God's Will. 3) Obedience to God's Will as manifested in your fate. 4) Obeying your conscience in the doing of good deeds. 5) Subjecting yourself to the spirit that is zealous to fulfill its vows.


1) Attending holy Church services. 2) Prayer, as specified by the Church; home prayer rule. 3) Using holy crosses, icons and other sacred substances and objects. 4) Observing holy customs established and promoted by the Church.


The body is by nature pure. Therefore we must only estrange from it unnatural cravings and strengthen it in those things which are natural to it; in other words, we must return it to its natural state. Besides this, the body should assist the soul as its constant companion. Therefore, besides returning it to its natural state, we must turn the very satisfaction of its basic needs to the benefit of the soul and spirit. In satisfying these needs, some sort of exercise should be assigned to each bodily function as another means of healing our fleshliness, thus benefiting us spiritually as well.

Here are the prescribed rules:

1) For the senses: guard the senses altogether, especially the hearing and vision (nervous system). 2) Guarding the tongue. 3) Abstinence and fasting (the stomach). 4) Moderate sleep and vigilance (the stomach). 5) Physical purity (the stomach).

For the body in general. Wear out (muscular), constrain (nervous system) and emaciate yourself (the stomach). It is obvious how through these ascetic practices the body little-by-little returns to its natural state, becomes alive and strong (muscular), bright and pure (nervous system), light and free. It becomes a most capable instrument of our spirit and a worthy temple of the Holy Spirit. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 239 - 243

Sunday, January 20, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Instructing Youth in the Faith

We have looked at some of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse in previous blog entries. Over the next few weeks, we will look at what is perhaps his most important work for modern readers, "The Path to Salvation." St. Theophan was a Russian Orthodox bishop in Russia whose life spanned almost the entire 19th century (1802 - 1894). He was a very prolific writer whose works were widely read by all segments of the population. Deeply immersed in the teachings of the ancient Fathers and the wisdom of the desert, St. Theophan wrote for the modern reader, addressing the issues of modern life, and writing especially for those people who were not so immersed in the life of the Church and its teachings and practices. He thus stands as one of the most important writers on the relevancy of the Desert Fathers to modern life and his teachings are as valid for us today as they were for his Russian audience over a century ago.

Today's text is a bit out of the ordinary for the topics we usually examine. Since the new school year is beginning soon -- and many of us are involved in the education of children, whether our own or someone else's -- we should consider the role of spirituality in the education of children. St. Theophan addressed this issue and what he says is just as relevant today as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago.



One cannot define just when a person comes to the awareness of himself as being a Christian and to the independent resolve to live in a Christian way. In actual fact this happens at different times: at the age of seven, ten, fifteen, or later. It may be that the time of study comes before this, as usually happens.

At the same time there is an unchanging rule: one must keep the whole previous order without change during the whole time of study also, for it proceeds essentially from the nature of our capabilities and from the demands of Christian life. The order of study must not be placed in opposition to the indicated outlook, otherwise everything will be destroyed which was created there. That is, one must preserve young students, just like infants, by means of the piety of everything surrounding them, by means of church life and the Mysteries; and likewise one must act upon their body, soul, and spirit.


At the same time, practically speaking, to the teaching itself one must add only this: Let instruction be so arranged that it will be evident what is the main point and what is secondary. This idea is easiest to imprint through a division of the objects of study and the time for them. Let the study of faith be considered the chief thing. Let the best time be assigned to works of piety, and in case of conflict let them take the first place over learning. Let approval be given not only for success in learning, but likewise for faith and good behavior. In general, one must so dispose the mind of pupils that they do not lose the conviction that our chief work is the pleasing of God, and that learning is a secondary quality, something incidental, which is good only during the present life. This is why it should not at all be placed so high and in such an attractive form that it will occupy all one's attention and absorb all one's concern. There is nothing more poisonous or ruinous for the spirit of Christian life than such learning and an exclusive concern for it. It casts one straight into coldness and then one can keep one forever in it, and sometimes it also adds to this an immoral life, if there are conditions which are favorable for this.


The second thing to which attention should be given is the spirit of the instruction or of the attitude towards the objects of study. It should be placed as an unfailing law that every kind of learning which is taught to a Christian should be penetrated with Christian principles and, more precisely, Orthodox ones. Every branch of learning is capable of this approach, and it will be a true kind of learning only when this condition is fulfilled. Christian principles are true beyond doubt. Therefore, without any doubting, make them the general measuring stick of truth. It is a most dangerous error among us that subjects of learning are taught without any attention to the true faith; one allows oneself freethinking and even lying under the supposition that faith and learning are two spheres which are quite distinct.

On the contrary, we have a single spirit. It receives learning and is imbued with its principles just as it receives faith and is penetrated by it. How is it then possible that these two spheres should not come into contact here, whether favorable or unfavorable? At the same time, the sphere of truth is one. Therefore, why pound into the head that which is not from this sphere?

If instruction will be conducted in this manner, so that faith together with life in the spirit of faith might dominate in the attention of pupils, both in the manner of studying and in the spirit of instruction, then there is no doubt that the principles placed in childhood not only will be preserved, but will increase, be strengthened, and come to a corresponding maturity. And what a good effect this will have!


If one will put in such order the upbringing of a child from his first years, then little by little the character which his whole life should have will be revealed before him, and he will grow more accustomed to the thought that upon him there lies the obligation given by our God and Saviour to live and act according to His decree, that all other deeds and occupations are lower than this and have a place only for the course of the present life, and that there is another dwelling place, another homeland towards which one must direct all one's thoughts and all one's desires.

In the natural course of the development of one's capabilities, everyone naturally comes to the awareness that he is a man. But if to his nature there is engrafted the new principle of the grace of Christianity at the very moment when a person's powers and their movements are awakened (in Baptism), and if then in all the points of the development of these powers this new principle not only does not yield first place -- but on the contrary always prevails and gives as it were the form to everything -- then when a man comes to full awareness he will find himself at the same time acting according to Christian principles and will find himself to be a Christian.


This is the chief aim of a Christian upbringing: that a man as a result of this might say within himself that he is a Christian. And if, when he comes to full awareness of himself he will say, "I am a Christian, obliged by my Saviour and God to live in such a way so as to be vouchsafed the blessed communion with Him and with His chosen ones in the future life," then in the very midst of his independent existence or the unique, rational ordering of his life, he will place for himself as his first and essential duty to preserve in an independent way and to warm the spirit of piety in which he previously walked under the guidance of others. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 63 - 65

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - Spiritual Virtues Require Bodily Virtues

 Today we will conclude our readings from the writings of St. Peter of Damaskos. After St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Peter has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks. In this short text, St. Peter explains why one must acquire bodily virtues in order to obtain spiritual virtues.


BEGIN: It is good to be reminded of certain things frequently, and so I will begin by quoting for the most part from the writings of others. For what I say is not my own invention but comes from the words and discernment of the divine Scriptures and the Holy Fathers.

St. John of Damaskos affirms that the bodily virtues -- or, rather, tools of virtue -- are essential, for without them the virtues of the soul cannot be acquired. But one must pursue them in humility and with spiritual knowledge. If they are not pursued in this way, but only for themselves, then they serve no purpose, just as plants are useless if they do not bear any fruit. Moreover, no one can fully master any art without long application and the excision of his own desires.


Hence, after ascetic practice we need spiritual knowledge, total devotion to God in all things, and careful study of the divine Scriptures; for without these things no one can ever acquire virtue. The person enabled by grace to devote himself utterly and always to God has achieved the highest good; he who has not reached this point should take care not to grow negligent in any way. Blessed are they who are completely devoted to God, either through obedience to someone experienced in the practice of the virtues and living an ordered life in stillness, or else through themselves living in stillness and total detachment, scrupulously obedient to God's will, and seeking the advice of experienced men in everything they say or think. Blessed above all are those who seek to attain dispassion and spiritual knowledge unlaboriously through their total devotion to God: as God Himself has said through His prophet, "Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God" (Psalms 46:10).

Those who live in the world -- or rather who live after the fashion of the world, for this includes many so-called monks -- should try to attain a measure of devotion, as did the righteous men of old, so as to examine their unhappy souls before their death and to amend or humble them, and not to bring them to utter destruction through their total ignorance and their conscious or unconscious sins. David, indeed, was a king; but every night he watered his bed with tears because of his sense of the divine presence (Psalms 6:6). And Job says: "The hair of my flesh stood up" (Job 4:15). Let us then, like those living in the world, devote at least a small part of the day and night to God; and let us consider what we are going to say in our defence before out righteous Judge on the terrible day of judgment. Let us take trouble over this, for it is essential in view of the threat of age long punishment; and let us not be troubled about how we shall live if we are poor or how we can grow rich so as to give alms, thus stupidly devoting all our attention to worldly matters. We have to work, St. John Chrysostom says, but we need not concern or trouble ourselves about many things, as our Lord told Martha (Luke 10:41). For concern with this life prevents that concern with one's own soul and its state which is the purpose of the man who devotes himself to God and is attentive to himself. It is said in the Law, "Be attentive to yourself" (Deuteronomy 15:9). St. Basil the Great has written about this text with marvelous wisdom. END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 103 - 104

Sunday, January 13, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - Be Thankful to God for Everything

Today we will continue our look at the writings of St. Peter of Damaskos, one of the most prolific writers in the "Philokalia." Of all the many texts in this marvelous collection of spiritual works, St. Peter's works are perhaps the most accessible and understandable for monks and non-monks alike. In this respect, volume III of the "Philokalia" is probably more suited to our everyday reading than the other three volumes which are currently available. If you have not yet added the "Philokalia" to your spiritual library, volume III is a good place to start!

Today's text teaches us to be thankful to God for everything that happens, both good and bad:



We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual.

These include wealth, so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience and service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God, sickness; so that one may earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge and strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness and ignorance, so that, turning one's back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility; unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one's possessions or even of giving alms; ease and prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls, trials and hardship, so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection. All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.


Better than them all, however, is the patient endurance of afflictions; and he who has been found worthy of this great gift should give thanks to God in that he has been all the more blessed. For he has become an imitator of Christ, of His holy apostles, and of the martyrs and saints: he has received from God great strength and spiritual knowledge, so that he may voluntarily abstain from pleasure and may readily embrace hardship through the eradication of his own will and his rejection of unholy thoughts, and may thus always do and think what is in accordance with God's will. Those who have been found worthy of using things as they ought to be used should in all humility give heartfelt thanks to God, for by His grace they have been freed from what is contrary to nature and from the transgression of the commandments. We, however, who are still subject to the passions and who still misuse things, and who therefore act in a manner that is contrary to nature, should tremble and in all gratitude should give heartfelt thanks to our Benefactor, astonished at His unutterable forbearance, in that though we have disobeyed His commandments, misused His creation and rejected His gifts, He endures our ingratitude and does not cease to confer His blessings on us, awaiting until our last breath for our conversion and repentance.


Thus we should all give thanks to Him, as it is said: "In everything give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:18). Closely linked to this phrase is another of St. Paul's injunctions: "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17), that is, be mindful of God at all times, in all places, and in every circumstance. For no matter what you do, you should keep in mind the Creator of all things. When you see the light, do not forget Him who gave it to you; when you see the sky, the earth, the sea and all that is in them, marvel at these things and glorify their Creator; when you put on clothing, acknowledge whose gift it is and praise Him who in His providence has given you life. In short, if everything you do becomes for you an occasion for glorifying God, you will be praying unceasingly. And in this way your soul will always rejoice, as St. Paul commends (I Thessalonians 5:16). For, as St. Dorotheos explains, remembrance of God rejoices the soul; and he adduces David as witness: "I remembered God, and rejoiced" (Psalms 77:3). END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 172 - 173.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - The Virtues and the Passions

We will continue today with our readings from the writings of St. Peter of Damaskos. After St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Peter has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks.

St. Peter wrote a long and exhaustive list of the virtues and the passions which encompasses not only everyday passions and virtues, but the more specialized ones relating to ascetic practices and the monastic life. These two lists will apply to all of us, whether monk or layperson. When I first read these two lists, I was frankly stunned to find that so many of my own personal traits are "passions" that need to be worked on and surprised to see that a few others are "virtues" which I should work to strengthen and develop. Many of the items listed are so "minor" that I never thought about them being spiritual issues for the individual. For me, these two lists were real "eye openers!"

As discouraging as it can be to do this self-evaluation as you read these two lists, it is also very encouraging to have this information laid out so explicitly for our edification. Study them carefully, read them again and again, and turn to the Word of God and His Desert Saints for the guidance and instruction needed to advance on the Ladder of Divine Ascent.



The virtues are: moral judgment, self-restraint, courage, justice, faith, hope, love, fear, religious devotion, spiritual knowledge, resolution, strength, understanding, wisdom, contrition, grief, gentleness, searching the Scriptures, acts of charity, purity of heart, peace, patient endurance, self- control, perseverance, probity of intention, purposiveness, sensitivity, heedfulness, godlike stability, warmth, alertness, the fervor of the Spirit, meditation, diligence, watchfulness, mindfulness, reflection, reverence, shame, respect, penitence, refraining from evil, repentance, return to God, allegiance to Christ, rejection of the devil, keeping of the commandments, guarding of the soul, purity of conscience, remembrance of death, tribulation of soul, the doing of good actions, effort, toil, an austere life, fasting, vigils, hunger, thirst, frugality, self-sufficiency, orderliness, gracefulness, modesty, reserve, disdain of money, unacquisitiveness, renunciation of worldly things, submissiveness, obedience, compliance, poverty, possessionlessness, withdrawal from the world, eradication of self-will, denial of self, counsel, magnanimity, devotion to God, stillness, discipline, sleeping on a hard bed, abstinence from washing oneself, service, struggle, attentiveness, the eating of uncooked food, nakedness, the wasting of one's body, solitude, quietude, calmness, cheerfulness, fortitude, boldness, godlike zeal, fervency, progress, folly for Christ, watchfulness over the intellect, moral integrity, holiness, virginity, sanctification, purity of body, chasteness of soul, reading for Christ's sake, concern for God, comprehension, friendliness, truthfulness, uninquisitiveness, uncensoriousness, forgiveness of debts, good management, skillfulness, acuity, fairness, the right use of things, cognitive insight, good-naturedness, experience, psalmody, prayer, thanksgiving, acknowledgment, entreaty, kneeling, supplication, intercession, petition, appeal, hymnody, doxology, confession, solicitude, mourning, affliction, pain, distress, lamentation, sighs of sorrow, weeping, heart-rending tears, compunction, silence, the search for God, cries of anguish, lack of anxiety about all things, forbearance, lack of self-esteem, disinterest in glory, simplicity of soul, sympathy, self-retirement, goodness of disposition, activities that accord with nature, activities exceeding one's natural capacity, brotherly love, concord, communion in God, sweetness, a spiritual disposition, mildness, rectitude, innocence, kindliness, guilelessness, simplicity, good repute, speaking well of others, good works, preference of one's neighbor, godlike tenderness, a virtuous character, consistency, nobility, gratitude, humility, detachment, dignity, forbearance, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, discrimination, accessibility, courtesy, tranquility, contemplation, guidance, reliability, clearsightedness, dispassion, spiritual joy, sureness, tears of understanding, tears of soul, a loving desire for God, pity, mercy, compassion, purity of soul, purity of intellect, prescience, pure prayer, passion-free thoughts, steadfastness, fitness of soul and body, illumination, the recovery of one's soul, hatred of life, proper teaching, a healthy longing for death, childlikeness in Christ, rootedness, admonition and encouragement, both moderate and forcible, a praiseworthy ability to change, ecstasy towards God, perfection in Christ, true enlightenment, an intense longing for God, rapture of intellect, the indwelling of God, love of God, love of inner wisdom, theology, a true confession of faith, disdain of death, saintliness, successful accomplishment, perfect health of soul, virtue, praise from God, grace, kingship, adoption to sonship -- altogether 228 virtues. To acquire all of them is possible only through the grace of Him who grants us victory over the passions.


The passions are harshness, trickery, malice, perversity, mindlessness, licentiousness, enticement, dullness, lack of understanding, idleness, sluggishness, stupidity, flattery, silliness, idiocy, madness, derangement, coarseness, rashness, cowardice, lethargy, dearth of good actions, moral errors, greed, over-frugality, ignorance, folly, spurious knowledge, forgetfulness, lack of discrimination, obduracy, injustice, evil intention, a conscienceless soul, slothfulness, idle chatter, breaking of faith, wrongdoing, sinfulness, lawlessness, criminality, passion, seduction, assent to evil, mindless coupling, demonic provocation, dallying, bodily comfort beyond what is required, vice, stumbling, sickness of soul, enervation, weakness of intellect, negligence, laziness, a reprehensible despondency, disdain of God, aberration, transgression, unbelief, lack of faith, wrong belief, poverty of faith, heresy, fellowship in heresy, polytheism, idolatry, ignorance of God, impiety, magic, astrology, divination, sorcery, denial of God, the love of idols, dissipation, profligacy, loquacity, indolence, self-love, inattentiveness, lack of progress, deceit, delusion, audacity, witchcraft, defilement, the eating of unclean food, soft living, dissoluteness, voracity, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem, pride, presumption, self-elation, boastfulness, infatuation, foulness, satiety, doltishness, torpor, sensuality, over-eating, gluttony, insatiability, secret eating, hoggishness, solitary eating, indifference, fickleness, self-will, thoughtlessness, self- satisfaction, love of popularity, ignorance of beauty, uncouthness, gaucherie, lightmindedness, boorishness, rudeness, contentiousness, quarrelsomeness, abusiveness, shouting, brawling, fighting, rage, mindless desire, gall, exasperation, giving offence, enmity, meddlesomeness, chicanery, asperity, slander, censure, calumny, condemnation, accusation, hatred, railing, insolence, dishonor, ferocity, frenzy, severity, aggressiveness, forswearing oneself, oathtaking, lack of compassion, hatred of one's brothers, partiality, patricide, matricide, breaking fasts, laxity, acceptance of bribes, theft, rapine, jealousy, strife, envy, indecency, jesting, vilification, mockery, derision, exploitation, oppression, disdain of one's neighbor, flogging, making sport of others, hanging, throttling, heartlessness, implacability, covenant- breaking, bewitchment, harshness, shamelessness, impudence, obfuscation of thoughts, obtuseness, mental blindness, attraction to what is fleeting, impassionedness, frivolity, disobedience, dullwittedness, drowsiness of soul, excessive sleep, fantasy, heavy drinking, drunkenness, uselessness, slackness, mindless enjoyment, self-indulgence, venery, using foul language, effeminacy, unbridled desire, burning lust, masturbation, pimping, adultery, sodomy, bestiality, defilement, wantonness, a stained soul, incest, uncleanliness, pollution, sordidness, feigned affection, laughter, jokes, immodest dancing, clapping, improper songs, revelry, fluteplaying, licence of tongue, excessive love of order, insubordination, disorderliness, reprehensible collusion, conspiracy, warfare, killing, brigandry, sacrilege, illicit gains, usury, wiliness, grave-robbing, hardness of heart, obloguy, complaining, blasphemy, fault-finding, ingratitude, malevolence, contemptuousness, pettiness, confusion, lying, verbosity, empty words, mindless joy, day-dreaming, mindless friendship, bad habits, nonsensicality, silly talk, garrulity, niggardliness, depravity, intolerance, irritability, affluence, rancour, misuse, ill-temper, clinging to life, ostentation, affectation, love of power, dissimulation, irony, treachery, frivolous talk, pusillanimity, satanic love, curiosity, contumely, lack of the fear of God, unteachability, senselessness, haughtiness, self- vaunting, self-inflation, scorn for one's neighbor, mercilessness, insensitivity, hopelessness, spiritual paralysis, hatred of God, despair, suicide, a falling away from God in all things, utter destruction -- altogether 298 passions.

These, then, are the passions which I have found named in the Holy Scriptures. I have set them down in a single list, as I did at the beginning of my discourse with the various books I have used. I have not tried, nor would I have been able, to arrange them all in order; this would have been beyond my powers, for the reason given by St. John Climacus: "If you seek understanding in wicked men, you will not find it." For all that the demons produce is disorderly. In common with the godless and the unjust, the demons have but one purpose: to destroy the souls of those who accept their evil counsel. Yet sometimes they actually help men to attain holiness. In such instances they are conquered by the patience and faith of those who put their trust in the Lord, and who through their good actions and resistance to evil thoughts counteract the demons and bring down curses upon them. END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 202 - 206

Sunday, January 6, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - What is True Discrimination?

We will continue today with our readings from the writings of St. Peter of Damaskos. After St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Peter has more writings in the five-volume "Philokalia" than any other writer. However, very little is known about his biography other than textual indications that he lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He was apparently a monk, living in a "skete," and wrote his texts mainly for the edification of other monks.


BEGIN: If by the grace of God you have received the gift of discrimination, you should in great humility do everything you can to guard it, so that you do nothing without it. Otherwise you will bring on yourself greater chastisement by sinning knowingly because of your negligence. If you have not received
this gift you should not think, say, or do anything without consulting others about it, and without a basis of firm faith and pure prayer. Without such faith and such prayer you will never truly achieve discrimination.


Discrimination is born of humility. On its possessor it confers spiritual insight, as both Moses and St. John Climacus say: such a man foresees the hidden designs of the enemy and foils them before they are put into operation. It is as David states: “And my eyes looked down upon my enemies” (Psalms 54:7).
Discrimination is characterized by an unerring recognition of what is good and what is not, and the knowledge of the Will of God in all that one does. Spiritual insight is characterized, first, by awareness of one’s own failings before they issue in outward actions, as well as of the stealthy tricks of the demons; and, second, by the knowledge of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures and in sensible creation.
As has been already explained, humility, the mother of discrimination and spiritual insight, likewise has its own characteristic by which it is known. The humble person must possess every virtue and yet truly think himself the greatest of debtors and inferior to everything else in creation, even though he seems to lead a life like that of the angels. For even a true angel possessing so many virtues and so much wisdom cannot conform to the Creator’s Will unless he also possesses humility.  What, then, can a person who thinks that he is an angel say for himself if he lacks humility, source of all present and future blessings, begetter of that discrimination which illumines the ends of the earth and without which all things are obscure?


Discrimination is not only called light; it truly is light. We need this light before we say or do anything. When it is present we are able to view everything else with wonder. We can marvel at how God, on the first and greatest of days, began by creating light, so that what was subsequently created might not be
invisible and as if it did not exist, as St. John of Damaskos says. Let it be said again: discrimination is light; and the spiritual insight it generates is more necessary than all other gifts. For what is more necessary than to perceive the wiles of the demons and with the help of God’s grace to protect one’s soul? Other things most necessary to us include, according to St. Isaac, purity of conscience; and, according to the apostle, the sanctification of the body (Romans 12:1; I Corinthians 6:19-20) without which “no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 158 - 159

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - How to Acquire True Faith


BEGIN: If we desire to acquire faith -- the foundation of all blessings, the door to God's mysteries, unflagging defeat of our enemies, the most necessary of all the virtues, the wings of prayer and the dwelling of God within our soul -- we must endure every trial imposed by our enemies and by our many and various thoughts. Only the inventor of evil, the devil, can perceive these thoughts or uncover and describe them. But we should take courage; because if we forcibly triumph over the trials and temptations that befall us, and keep control over our intellect so that it does not give in to the thoughts that spring up in our heart, we will once and for all overcome all the passions; for it will not be we who are victorious, but Christ, who is present in us through faith. It was with regard to this that Christ said, "If you have faith no bigger than a mustard-seed . . . " (Luke 17:6). Yet even if our thought, in a moment of weakness, should succumb, we should not be afraid or despair, or ascribe to our own soul what is said to us by the devil. On the contrary, we should patiently and diligently, to the limit of our strength, practice the virtues and keep the commandments, in stillness and devotion to God, freeing ourselves from all thoughts subject to our volition.


In this way the enemy, who day and night promotes every kind of fantasy and deceit, will not find us worried about his tricks and illusions and all the thoughts within which he lurks, presenting to us as truth what are really deceits and falsehoods; and so he will lose heart and go away. Through such experience of the devil's weakness, the man who practices Christ's commandments will no longer be alarmed by any of his tricks. On the contrary, he will do whatever accords with God's will joyfully and without hindrance, strengthened by faith and assisted by God in whom he has believed. As the Lord Himself has said, "All things are possible for the person who believes" (Mark 9:23). For it is not he who fights the enemy, but God, who watches over him on account of his faith. As the Prophet said, "You have made the Most High your refuge" (Psalms 91:9). Such a person no longer feels anxiety about anything, for he knows that "though the horse is made ready for battle, salvation comes from the Lord" (Proverbs 21:31). Because of his faith he faces everything boldly. As St. Isaac says, "Acquire faith within you and you will trample on your enemies."

The man of faith acts, not as one endowed with free will, but as a beast that is led by the will of God. He says to God: "I became as a beast before Thee; yet I am continually with Thee" (Psalms 73:22 - 23). If Thy desire is that I should be at rest in Thy knowledge, I shall not refuse. If it is that I should experience temptation so as to learn humility, again I am with Thee. Of myself, there is absolutely nothing I can do. For without Thee I would not have come into existence from non- existence; without Thee I cannot live or be saved. Do what Thou wilt to Thy creature; for I believe that, being good, Thou bestowest blessings on me, even if I do not recognize that they are for my benefit. Nor am I worthy to know, nor do I claim to understand, so as to be at rest: this might not be to my profit.


I do not dare to ask for relief in any of my battles, even if I am weak and utterly exhausted: for I do not know what is good for me. "Thou knowest all things" (John 21:17); act according to Thy knowledge. Only do not let me go astray, whatever happens; whether I want it or not, save me, though, again, only if it accords with Thy will. I, then, have nothing: before Thee I am as one that is dead; I commit my soul into Thy pure hands, in this age and in the age to be. Thou art able to do all things; Thou knowest all things; Thou desirest every kind of goodness for all men and ever longest for my salvation. This is clear from the many blessings that in Thy grace Thou hast bestowed and always bestowest on us, visible and invisible, known to us and unknown; and from that gift of Thyself to us, O Son and Logos of God, which is beyond our understanding. Yet who am I that I should dare to speak to Thee of these things, Thou searcher of hearts? I speak of them in order to make known to myself and to my enemies that I take refuge in Thee, the harbor of my salvation. For I know by Thy grace that "Thou art my God" (Psalms 31:14).


I do not dare to say many things, but only wish to set before Thee an intellect that is inactive, deaf and dumb. It is not myself but Thy grace that accomplishes all things. For, knowing that I am always full of evil, I do not attribute such things to my own goodness; and because of this I fall down as a servant before Thee, for Thou hast found me worthy of repentance, and "I am Thy servant, and the son of Thy handmaid" (Psalms 116:16). But do not allow me, my Lord Jesus Christ, my God, to do, say or think anything contrary to Thy will: the sins I have already committed are enough. But in whatever way Thou desirest have mercy on me. I have sinned: have mercy on me as Thou knowest. I believe, Lord, that Thou hearest this my pitiable cry, "Help Thou my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Thou who has granted me, not only to be, but also to be a Christian. "It is a great thing," St. John of Karpathos has said, "for me to be called a monk and a Christian." As Thou has said, Lord, to one of Thy servants, "It is no light thing for you to be called by My name" (Isaiah 49:6). This is more to me than all the kingdoms of heaven or of earth. Let me always be called by Thy most sweet name. O Master, full of compassion, I give thanks to Thee.


Just as certain readings and certain words, tears and prayers are appropriate for one engaged in ascetic practice, so his is a different kind of faith from that superior faith which gives birth to stillness. The former is the faith of hearsay, the latter is the faith of contemplation, as St. Isaac says. Contemplation is more sure than hearsay. For the ordinary initial faith of the Orthodox is born of natural knowledge, and from this faith are born devotion to God, fasting and vigil, reading and psalmody, prayer and the questioning of those with experience. It is such practices that give birth to the soul's virtues, that is, to the constant observance of the commandments and of moral conduct. Through this observance come great faith, hope, and the perfect love that ravishes the intellect to God in prayer, when one is united with God spiritually, as St. Neilos puts it.


The words of prayer are written once and for all, so that he who wishes to present his intellect motionless before the Holy and Life-giving Trinity may always pray one and the same prayer. The intellect itself has the sense that it is seen, even though at that time it is utterly impossible for it to see anything, for it is imageless, formless, colorless, undisturbed, undistracted, motionless, matterless, entirely transcending all the things that can be apprehended and perceived in the created world. It communes with God in deep peace and with perfect calm, having only God in mind, until it is seized with rapture and found worthy to say the Lord's Prayer as it should be said. This is what we are told by St. Philimon and St. Irene, as well as by the Holy Apostles, the martyrs and other holy men. Anything other than this is illusion born of self-conceit. For the Divine is infinite and uncircumscribed, and the intellect that returns to itself must be in a similar state, so that through grace it may experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. "For we walk by faith, not by sight," says St. Paul (II Corinthians 5:7).


For this reason, we should persist in our ascetic practice, so that through this enduring persistence our intellect is drawn in longing towards the Divine. For if the intellect does not find something that is superior to sensible realities it cannot direct its desire towards it, abandoning the things to which it has been so long accustomed. Just as the compassionate and the dispassionate are not greatly harmed by the affairs of this life, since they manage them well, so those who have received great gifts of grace are not harmed, since they ascribe their achievements to God. END

from G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia: vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 164 - 167