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 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