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, February 27, 2013

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - Lessons on Education: Part III

We will continue with Part III of our reading of St. John Chrysostom's 39 instructions on educating the child. St. John wrote this wonderful treatise as a guide for parents on how to raise up a Christian child whose education would be not only secular, but also spiritual and moral and would thus be a complete person. 



21. Tell me, which trees are best? Do we not prefer those that are inwardly strong, and are not injured by rainstorms, or hail, or gusts of wind, or by any sort of harsh weather, but stand exposed to them all without fences or garden to protect them? He who truly loves wisdom is like this, and his riches we have already described. He has nothing, yet has everything; he has everything, yet has nothing. A fence does not provide internal strength, nor is a wall a natural support; they provide only artificial protection. What is a strong body? Is it not one that is healthy, whether hungry or surfeited, cold or warm? Or is it something that is dependent upon restaurants, tailors, merchants, and physicians for health? The truly rich man, the true lover of wisdom, needs none of these things, and that is why the blessed Apostle admonishes us to bring our children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.


22. Therefore wealth is a hindrance, because it leaves us unprepared for the hardships of life. So, let us raise our children in such a way that they can face any trouble, and not be surprised when difficulties come; let us bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Great will the reward in store for us, for if artists who make statues and paint portraits of kings are held in high esteem, will not God bless ten thousand times more those who reveal and beautify His royal image (for man is the image of God)? When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving (all these are attributes of God), to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them. This, then, is our task; to educate both ourselves and our children in godliness; otherwise what answer will we have before Christ's judgment-seat? If a man with unruly children is unworthy to be a bishop, how can he be worthy of the kingdom of heaven? What do you think? If we have an undisciplined wife, or unruly children, shall we not have to render an account for them? Yes, if this happens it is because we did not take strict measures as we should have.


23. Neglect of children is one of the greatest sins, and it is the highest degree of impiety. And so that I might not seem to draw an unfounded conclusion, I will demonstrate this with experience itself, so that you will know that even though we may have everything we need, and all is beautifully arranged, we will nevertheless be subjected to the most extreme punishment if we do not take care for the salvation of our children. You know the story of the high priest Eli, written in the Holy Scriptures. He was an aged, well-known priest, who governed the Jewish nation faultlessly for twenty years, living during a time that did not demand great strictness (in life). Nevertheless he could not justify himself, but to the contrary, perished horribly and disastrously because he did not concern himself enough with his sons' behavior; and the guilt of his neglect, like a great fault, over-shadowed all of Eli's qualities and good works. How then shall we be judged, who live in a time full of much more love of wisdom, but who do not have his virtues? We not only do not instruct our children ourselves, but even take revenge upon those who wish to do so, and treat our own children more cruelly than any barbarians. For the cruelty of the barbarians leads only to slavery, to the razing and captivity of one's homeland -- in general it is only a physical misfortune. But you enslave the very soul and, binding it like some kind of captive, thus commit it to the evil and fierce demons and their passions. You do this and nothing else when you yourselves do not prompt your children in anything spiritual, nor let anyone else do so.

24. Let no one say to me that there are many besides Eli who neglect their children but who have not endured anything like what Eli endured. No -- many have, and many endure even a good deal more for that very sin. For what is the cause of untimely death? What is the cause of our serious and long illness and of our children's? What is the cause of losses, misfortunes, distress, the innumerable multitude of evils? Is it not because we do not try to correct our vicious children? The misfortune of the elder (Eli) is enough to prove that this is not mere conjecture. But let me tell you yet another word of our wise fathers. Thinking of his children, he says this: "Delight neither in ungodly sons. Though they multiply, rejoice not in them, except the fear of the Lord be with them. Trust not thou in their life" (Sirach 16:1-3). For you will moan with untimely grief and will unexpectedly hear of their destruction. Thus, many, as I have said, endured much the same; if some have escaped (punishment), they will not escape it forever. If they have escaped it here, then the destruction will be on their heads, for they will endure very cruel punishments when they leave this world.

25. We must not act irrationally because God no longer sends prophets and does not wreak such punishments as that of Eli. Now is not the time for prophets; besides, He does send them even now. How do we know? "They have (it is said) Moses and the prophets" (Luke 16:29. It was said to them (who lived at the time of Moses and the prophets) and it is said to us; and God says it not only to Eli, but through him and his suffering to all who sin as he did. God is no respecter of persons, and if He destroyed those of a less sinful household, then He will not leave unpunished those who have committed more serious sins.


26. God Himself takes great care over the upbringing of children. That is why He placed such a natural attraction in parents toward their children -- in order to put parents in inescapable necessity of caring for their children. Subsequently, He created laws concerning their care, and, establishing the feasts, commanded us to explain their meaning. He summed up the meaning of the Passover in this instruction: "And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying, Therefore the Lord dealt thus with me, as I was going out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:8). He does the same in the Law. For, telling of the first- born, He adds again: "And if thy son should ask thee hereafter, saying, What is this? Then thou shalt say to him, With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of beast; therefore do I sacrifice every offspring that opens the womb. The males to the Lord, and every first-born of my sons I will redeem" (Exodus 13:14-15). Through all of this He commands him to lead the children to the knowledge of God.

Even to the children themselves He commands much with respect to the parents, rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient, thereby making them even more dear to their parents. Actually, when someone makes us lords over someone else, by this honor he places upon us the greatest obligation to care for him, so that this alone without anything else is able to convince us that the entire fate of this person is in our hands, and we will not lightly dare to injure the one who has been thus entrusted to us. When he also becomes even more wrathful and displeased with us for breaking this trust than the offended ones themselves, and becomes a stern punisher, he thereby inspires us even more to fulfill our obligation. This is what God has done. To these two He has added a third, natural obligation, and if you like, it is the first. Namely, it is that parents, having received the commandment to educate their children, would not disdain His commandment by which God has bound them by natural obligation. If this tie should be held in contempt by the children, He has protected it from being broken entirely by His own punishments and by the parents'. Thus He has subjected children to their parents and inspired love in the parents for their children.

But there is also a fourth method by which God has strongly and closely bound us with them. He not only punishes those children who work evil against their parents, but He also rewards the good ones. He does the same with parents, cruelly punishing those who neglect their children, while grating honor and praise to those who care. Thus did He punish the elder (Eli), who was worthy of praise in every other respect, but rewarded the patriarch Abraham for his care no less than for other virtues. For, speaking of those many and great gifts that He promised to Abraham, God names precisely this virtue as His reason for such a promise: "For I know that he will order his sons, and his house after him, and they will keep the ways of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Genesis 18:19).

27. I have said this so that you would know that God will not be condescending to those who are neglectful of those for whom He Himself takes such care. For it is impossible that one and the same God should do so much to save these (children), yet pay no attention when their own parents disdain them. He will not ignore this, but to the contrary, He will all the more fearfully display His displeasure and wrath, as it actually happens. Therefore, the blessed Paul insistently convinces us, saying: "Ye fathers . . . bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). If we [NOTE: "we" refers to spiritual instructors] are obligated to tirelessly care for their souls, "as they that must give account" (Hebrews 13:17), so much more is the father (obligated to do it), who gave birth to the son, brought him up and lives constantly with him. For just as he can find no excuse for his own sins, he cannot find one for his children's misdeeds.

The blessed Paul showed this same thing. Describing how those who have accepted authority over others should be, he requires care for their own children over all other requirements, so that we have no excuse for our children's unruliness (I Timothy 3, 4, 5). And this is perfectly just! If evil in people is from nature, then everyone would have a right to excuse himself; but as we ourselves are impious or honorable according to our own will, then what good excuse could one present who has allowed his son, whom he loves more than anything, to come to impiety and dishonor? That he did not want to make him honorable? But not one father will say that; nature itself insistently and incessantly inspires him toward this. Or that he was not able to do it?

But this also cannot be said; for everything -- that he took his son under his protection at a tender age, and that he alone primarily has been given authority over him, and that he constantly had him around -- all of this makes the education of his son very easy and convenient. It means that the children's unruliness comes from nothing other than the insane attachment of the fathers to earthly cares. Paying attention only to earthly cares, and counting nothing to be more important, they involuntarily begin to neglect the souls of their children. I will say of these fathers (and let no one consider these words to be born of anger), that they are even worse than child- killers. The one only sunders the body from the soul, but the other cases them both into the fires of gehenna. Death is inevitable according to the natural order, but the second fate could have been avoided if the fathers' neglect had not led up to it. Physical death can be ended instantly by the resurrection when it comes, but no reward awaits the lost soul; it will receive not resurrection, but will have to suffer eternally. This means that we not unjustly call those fathers worse than child-killers. It is not so cruel to sharpen the sword, take it in the right hand and plunge it into the little child's heart, as it is to destroy and degrade the soul, for there is nothing equal to the soul.

28. If the evil were only limited to the parents' not giving their children any beneficial counsel, then the evil would not be so great. But you, parents, induce your children to do the opposite. Actually, when fathers convince their children to study sciences, you can hear in the course of their conversation none other than the following words: "So-and-so, they say, is a low-born man of meager means, who perfected himself in eloquent speech and received a very high position, acquired a large property, took a rich wife, built a marvelous house, and has become fearsome and famous to all." Another says: "So-and-so learned Latin, shines in the royal court and wields great influence there." Yet another points to someone else, and they all speak only of those who are glorified on earth.

But of those who are glorified in heaven no one recounts; and even if one should recount them, he would be watched as a man who disturbs everything. Thus, when you instill this in your children from an early age, you teach them nothing other than the basis for all the vices, planting in them the two most savage passions -- that is, love of money, and the even more blameworthy passion of vainglory. Each of these passions by itself can disorder everything in the child; but when they are both rooted together in the tender soul of a youth, then like two united stormy fronts, they destroy everything good and produce so many thorns, sand and dust that they make the soul fruitless and incapable of anything good. How do you think your son can escape the devil's snares when he is young -- living in Egypt, or among the devil's army, not hearing a beneficial word from anyone, and seeing that everyone, especially his parents and educators, are leading him to the opposite? How could he do it? With the help of your admonitions? But you suggest the opposite to him and, not allowing him to think about love of wisdom even in his sleep, to the contrary constantly occupy him with the present life and its gain, and only assist him in his drowning. Or does it happen by itself? Absolutely not; a youth does not have the strength by himself to perfect himself in the virtues, and if something good is born in him, then this good is more likely to perish than grow under the torrent of your words. For just as the body cannot live long if it feeds on harmful foods, so also the soul, when it receives such suggestions, cannot think about something good and great; no, being disturbed and weakened as if by some infection, it will finally inevitably go down to gehenna and perish.


29. For you, as though you were intentionally destroying your children, order them to do exactly those things which make it impossible to be saved. Look first of all (at what is written). "Woe," it is said, "unto you that laugh" (Luke 6:25), but you give your children a multitude of causes for laughter. "Woe unto you that are rich" (Luke 6:24), but it is your chief concern that they get rich. "Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you" (Luke 6:26), but you often spend all your living for the sake of human glory. Again, he who maligns his brother is "in danger of hell fire" (Matthew 5:22), but you consider anyone who silently bears offensive words from others to be weak and cowardly. Christ commands us to avoid fights and arguments, but you are constantly occupying your children with these evil affairs. He commanded in many circumstances to pluck out your eye if it leads to evil (Matthew 5:29), but you especially befriend those who can give you money, even though they may be teaching extreme depravity. He commanded not to put away one's wife unless it be for adultery (Matthew 5:32), but when you see that money can be had, you order that this commandment be disdained. He absolutely forbade oaths (Matthew 5:34), but you even laugh when you see that this ban is observed. "He that loveth his life," the Lord said, "shall lose it" (John 12:25), but you do all you can to draw children into this love. "If ye forgive not men their trespasses," He says, "neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15), but you even criticize your children when they do not want to take revenge upon their offenders, and try to bring them to a state where they will want to do this. Christ said that if you do anything out of vainglory -- fasting, praying, or almsgiving -- it is all done to no effect (Matthew 6:1), but you only try to arrange that your children receive praise. But why enumerate everything? If these vices already named are able not just collectively but even separately to prepare a thousand gehennas, and you, having gathered them together and laid this unbearably heavy bundle of sins on your children, send them with it to the lake of fire; how can they save themselves, carrying so much food for the fire?

30. It is bad enough that you prompt your children to do what is contrary to Christ's commandments, but you also mask them in beneficent-sounding names. You call the constant attendance of horse races and theaters "social life," the possession of wealth "freedom," audacity "openness," dissipation "humanitarianism," unfairness "manliness." Then, as if this deceit were not enough, you call virtues by unattractive names: modesty is "lack of education," meekness is "cowardice," fairness is "weakness," humility is "slavishness," angerlessness is "powerlessness." It is as if you are afraid that your child might hear the true name of these virtues and vices and therefore avoid the vices like the plague. For calling the vices by their real names does not a little to inspire aversion for them. I know many people who come to their senses this way, and, hearing these offensive names, became more modest in life. But you have deprived your children of this means of correction. And what is worse, you prompt them to do evil not only by your words but by your deeds -- you build magnificent homes, buy expensive land, surround them with all manner of glitter, and by all of this, as with some sort of horrid cloud, darken their souls. How can I be convinced that they can possibly be saved when I see that you incline them toward the very things that Christ singled out as leading to inevitable destruction; when I see that you disdain their souls as something unnecessary, but concern yourself with what is truly extravagant as though it were something necessary and important? You do everything in order to provide your son with a servant, horse and the best clothing; but you do not even want to think about making him good himself. No, having stretched yourself in cares over rocks and trees, there is not the slightest portion of your care left for souls. You do everything to make sure that there is a lovely statue and golden roof on your house, but that the most precious of all sculptures -- the soul -- might be golden, you take no thought at all. END

To be concluded in the next issue!

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 335 - 344.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - Lessons on Education: Part II

We will continue with Part II of our reading of St. John Chrysostom's 39 instructions on educating the child with Part II. St. John wrote this wonderful treatise as a guide for parents on how to raise up a Christian child whose education would be not only secular, but also spiritual and moral and would thus be a complete person. 



11. Therefore I beg you to take care for the good upbringing of your children. First of all think of the salvation of their souls. God has placed you as the heads and teachers over your families. It is your duty to watch, and to watch continually after the behavior of your wife and children. Listen to St. Paul. If your wives, says he, want to learn anything, let them learn it from their husbands. Educate your children in the teaching and instructions of the Lord (I Corinthians 14:35, Ephesians 6:4). Imitate Job, who continually looked after his children and offered sacrifices for mercy towards any secret misdeeds they might have committed (Job 1:5). Imitate Abraham, who concerned himself less with the acquisition of riches than with the keeping of God's law by every member of his house, and about whom the Lord witnessed: "For I know that he will order his sons, and his house after him, and they will keep the ways of the Lord, to do justice and judgment" (Genesis 18:19). David, when he was near death, wanted to leave Solomon the surest inheritance; he called him to himself in order to repeat the following wise instructions: "that the Lord may confirm his word which he spoke, saying, if they children shall take heed to their way to walk before me in truth with all their heart, I promise thee, saying, there shall not fail thee a man on the throne of Israel" (III Kings 2:4). These are the examples that we should follow during our lives and with our final breath!

12. If good fathers would strive to give their children a good upbringing, then we would need neither laws, judges, courts, nor punishments. Executioners exist because we have no morality.


13. We spare neither labors nor means in order to teach our children secular sciences, so that they can serve well the earthly authorities. Only the knowledge of the holy Faith, the service of the Heavenly King are a matter of indifference to us. We allow them to attend spectacles, but we care little whether they go to Church and stand within it reverently. We demand an account from them of what they learned in their secular institutes -- why do we not demand an account from them of what they heard in the Lord's house?

14. Having made the necessary exhortation to children, the Apostle addresses himself also to the fathers, saying: "You fathers . . . bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Do you want your child to be obedient? Then from the beginning bring him up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Do not think that it is not necessary for a child to listen to the Scriptures; the first thing he will hear from them will be, "Honor thy father and mother" (Exodus 20:12), and immediately you will begin to reap your reward. Do not say, "Bible-reading is for monks; am I turning my child into a monk?" No! It is not necessary for him to be a monk. Make him into a Christian! Why are you afraid of something so good? It is necessary for everyone to know Scriptural techings, and this is especially true for children. Not knowing divine truths, they do know something of the pagan stories, learning from them about wondrous lives, about heroes in their sight, who served the passions and were afraid of death. Such an example is Achilles, inconsolably dying for his mistress; another who gives himself over to drunkenness, and on and on! Therefore your children need remedies for these things, in the retribution and teachings of the Lord.

15. We are so concerned with our children's schooling; if only we were equally zealous in bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord! And then we wonder why we reap such bitter fruit when we have raised our children to be insolent, licentious, impious, and vulgar. May this never happen; instead, let us heed the blessed Paul's admonition to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Let us give them a pattern to imitate; from their earliest years let us teach them to study the Bible. "He repeats this over and over again," you say, "we are sick of listening to it." Never will I stop doing my duty!


16. Why do you refuse to imitate the holy men and women of old? Tell me! Especially you mothers; think of Hannah's example; look at what she did. She brought Samuel, her only son, to the temple, when he was only an infant! Who among you would not rather have a son like Samuel than one who became king of the whole world ten thousand times over? "But it is impossible," you say, "for my son ever to become as great as he." Why is it impossible? Because you DO NOT really want it; you will not entrust him to the One who is able to make him great. And who is that? God. Hannah commended Samuel into the hands of God. The high priest Eli had no real ability to form him, since he even failed to form his own children. It was the mother's faith and zeal that made everything possible. He was her first and only child. She did not know if she would ever have another, yet she never said, "I will wait until he grows up; he should have a taste of worldly pleasures, during his childhood at least." No; she rejected all these thoughts, for she had only one object: how from the very beginning she could dedicate her heart's delight to God. Be ashamed, you men, at the wisdom of this woman. She gave Samuel to God, and with God she left him, and thus her marriage was blessed more than ever, because her first concern was for spiritual things. She dedicated the first-fruits of her womb to God and obtained many more children in return. She saw Samuel honored even in this life. If men return honor for honor, will not God do much more? He gives so much even to those who do not honor Him at all! How long are we to be mere lumps of flesh? How long will we cling to the ground? Let everything take second place to our care for our children, our bringing them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If from the beginning we teach them to love true wisdom, they will have greater wealth and glory than riches can provide. If a child learns a trade, or id highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing.

This is how to discipline and teach your child; this is the greatest of riches. Do not worry about giving him an influential reputation for worldly wisdom, but ponder deeply how you can teach him to think lightly of this life's passing glories; thus he will become truly renowned and glorious. Whether you are poor or rich, you can do this; these lessons are not learned from a skillful professor, but from divine revelation. Do not ask how he can enjoy a long life here, but how he can enjoy an infinite and eternal life in the age to come. Give him the great things, not the little things. Do not strive to make him a clever orator, but teach him to love true wisdom. He will not suffer if he lacks clever words; but if he lacks wisdom, all the rhetoric in the world cannot help him. A pattern of life is what is needed, not empty speeches; character, not cleverness; deeds, not words. These things will secure the Kingdom and bestow God's blessings. Do not sharpen his tongue, but purify his soul. I do not mean that worldly learning is worthless and to be ignored, but it should not be an exclusive preoccupation.

18. Do not think that only monks need to learn the Bible; children about to go out into the world stand in greater need of Scriptural knowledge. A man who never travels by sea does not need to know how to equip a ship, or where to find a pilot or a crew, but a sailor has to know all these things. The same applies to the monk and the man of this world. The monk lives an untroubled life in a calm harbor, removed from every storm, while the worldly man is always sailing the ocean, battling innumerable tempests. Although he himself (the worldly man) may not have any need (of instruction), it may be necessary to him in case he must stop the mouths of others.

19. Whoever enjoys great respect in the present life needs such an education even more. If anyone should serve in the king's palace -- there, are many Hellenic philosophers, people who are haughty over their temporary glory. There, everyone is puffed up and arrogant; and if anyone is not, he strives to become so. How would it be if your son should enter this company as the best possible doctor with his medical instruments, able to tame the arrogance of each one, approaching each one and discoursing, treating the sick body, applying the plaster of Scripture, disseminating wisdom-loving evidence?

20. With whom shall a monk speak? With the walls of his cell, or his blanket? With the desert or the bushes? With the hills or the trees?! Thus he does not need the same teaching, in spite of the fact that he is striving to perfect himself in it -- not in order to teach others, but to teach himself. What about those people who live in this (worldly) life? They are in total need of this teaching; for the worldly man is presented with more causes of temptation than the monk. And if you please, know, that with such an education a man will be the most pleasant of men. All will begin to respect him when they see that he is not irascible and seeking after power. Know this, educate your children in the discipline and knowledge of the Lord. And if some one be poor? Let him remain poor. It will never be the worse for him if he does not serve among the courtiers; to the contrary, he could become the object of wonder. For if the Hellenists -- who are a dime a dozen, philosophers (meaning Greek philosophers), or rather, philosophers only in name, dressed up in mantles with flowing hair, are able to put many to shame; cannot the true lover of wisdom do much more? If a false appearance alone, the mere shadow of philosophy can so exalt a man, what can be said of the love for true and enlightened wisdom? Will not everyone begin to respect such a man? Will they not entrust to him without reservation their houses, wives and children? END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 329 - 335. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM - Lessons on Education: Part I

For those with children and young adults in school, this series on education is especially relevant.  St. Theophan the Recluse, the nineteenth century Russian saint whose writings we have studied before, includes in his spiritual classic ("The Path to Salvation") 39 instructions from St. John Chrysostom on educating the child.

Too often people tend to think of the Desert Fathers and the Patristic writings as being relevant mainly for monastics and ascetics who are striving for sanctity and not everyday people with jobs, families, and common concerns which is the case for most of us today. St. John wrote this wonderful treatise on education as a guide for parents on how to raise up a Christian child whose education would be not only secular, but also spiritual and moral and would thus be a complete person.


1. Having children is a matter of nature; but raising them and educating them in the virtues is a matter of mind and will.

2. By the duty of raising them I mean not only not allowing them to die of hunger, as people often limit their obligation toward their children to doing. For this, is needed neither books nor rubrics, for nature speaks of it quite loudly. I am speaking of the concern for educating children's hearts in virtues and piety -- a sacred duty which cannot be transgressed without thereby becoming guilty of the children's murder, in a certain sense.

3. This obligation belongs to fathers as well as mothers. There are fathers who spare nothing in order to secure for their children teachers of pleasure and to pander to their cravings as wealthy heirs. But so that the children would be Christians, so that they would exercise themselves in piety, is of little need to them. O criminal blindness! It is this very crude inattention that is responsible for all the disorder that causes our society to groan. Let us suppose that you have acquired large property for them. However, if they do not know how to conduct themselves sensibly this property will not last long with them. It will be squandered; it will perish with its owners, and will be their most grievous inheritance.

4. Your children will always be sufficiently wealthy if they receive from you a good upbringing that is able to order their moral life and behavior. Thus, strive not to make them rich, but rather to make them pious masters of their passions, rich in virtues. Teach them not to think up illusory needs, reckoning their worth according to worldly standards. Attentively watch their deeds, their acquaintances and their attachments -- and to not expect any mercy from God if you do not fulfill this duty.

5. If the Apostle commands us to take more care for others than for ourselves, and if we are guilty when we neglect their benefit, then is it not a much greater guilt when this concerns those who are so near to us? "Was it not I," the Lord will say to us, "Who gave place to these children in your family? Was it not I Who entrusted them to your care, making you masters, guardians and judges over them? I gave you complete authority over them; I placed all care for their upbringing in your hands. You will tell me that they did not want to bend their necks to the yoke, that they threw it off. But this should have been averted from the very beginning; you should have mastered their first impressions, placed the reigns on them before they had the power to break away from them. You should have bent their young souls under the yoke of duty, accustomed them to it, educated them in accordance with it, bound the wound when it first opened. You should have uprooted the tares when they first began to sprout around the young plant, and not have waited until they put down deep roots, when the passions have become uncontrollable and untamable through gradual strengthening in their formation."

6. The wise Sirach says: "Hast thou children? Instruct them, and bow down their neck from their youth" (Sirach 7:25). But the Lord does not only prompt us with this command through the lips of His prophet; he even takes our side, supporting the fulfillment of this commandment with the fearsome punishment that awaits those children who do not submit to the authority of their parents: "Every man who shall speak evil of his father or of his mother, let him die the death" (Leviticus 20:9). He punishes with death those who become guilty before you, and you look tepidly at these sins that they commit against the highest possible authority. They are rebelling against God Himself, transgressing His commandments, and you look at this without the least displeasure, without the slightest criticism of your children. What does He have to lose from their offense? Nothing. But you, why should you not fear for your own selves? For whoever abandons the Lord will never respect either his own father or himself.

7. Children who are submissive and faithful to God in their obedience to His law will have found an abundant source of happiness, even in this temporal life. A poor man with Christian morals inspires respect and love from others. Meanwhile, with an evil and depraved heart, all your riches will not save you from the displeasure and aversion of everyone around you.

8. The youth to whom you give a good upbringing will not only enjoy general respect, he will also become dearer to you yourselves! Your attachment to him will not be a mere natural attraction -- it will be the fruit of his virtue. For this, during your old age, you will in turn receive from him the services of his filial love. He will be your support. For just as those who do not revere the Lord also have contempt for their own parents, those who revere God, the Father of all men, will have every respect for those who gave them life.

9. Let us suppose that you fulfill the commandment of the law in every other respect, but being unfaithful in this one commandment you will be severely punished. Listen to this proof taken from the history of one ancient people. You will immediately see to what terrible punishment those fathers subject themselves who neglect their children's upbringing. Among the Jews was one priest who was respected for his meek character. His name was Eli. This priest had two sons who had given themselves over to every vice. The father did not concern himself and paid little attention, or if their depravity, having reached the limit, forced him to reproach them, he did it without the necessary fervor and authority. He should have punished them severely, thrown them out of his presence, taken strict measures in order to put a stop to the outrage. He did nothing of the sort. He limited himself to giving them a form of admonition: "Nay, my sons, for the report which I hear is not good; do not so" (I Kings 2:24). Is this what he should have said? They offended the One to Whom they owe their existence, and he still accepts them as part of his family? His admonition was useless and vain. No, this demanded not an admonition, but a strong lesson, severe torments, a treatment as strong as the evil. He should have used fear to root their young hearts out of this blindness. An admonition! Eli's sons had no lack of these. O useless words! O criminal meekness by which they became victims! A war began, and the wretches became the spoils of their enemy. When their father learned of their misfortune, he fell to the ground and, smashing his head, died.

10. I have just told you that fathers who do not take care to give their children a Christian upbringing are murderers of their own children. Is it not true? Who should Eli blame for his sons' deaths? Himself. True, the enemy's sword slew them, but the neglect of their false father directed the blow. Abandoned by heavenly help, the appeared naked against the arrows of the Philistines. The father destroyed himself and them. Meanwhile, we see the same thing before ourselves daily. How many parents there are who do not want to take upon themselves this labor of correcting their unsubmissive and unruly children! They are as if afraid to upset their children by reigning in with stern words the vicious tendencies to which they have submitted themselves. What is the outcome? Their disorder increases; their impunity leads them to criminal offenses; they are brought to trial; and the wretches die at the hands of the executioner. You refused your personal rights over them and committed them to the severity of civil punishment, and human justice wielded its harsh rights over them. You are afraid to humiliate them with some light punishment in your presence; but what horrible dishonor shall befall you when your son is no longer around, and the father, hounded everywhere by accusing glares, no longer dares to show himself anywhere. END

from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 326 - 330.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - Love of God and Fellow Man

We will continue today with St. Peter of Damaskos whose writings are an absolute treasury of spiritual wisdom. Today's text is about "love" and the importance of love in the spiritual life, both toward God and toward our fellow man:



To speak of love is to dare to speak of God; for, according to St. John the Theologian, "God is love; and he who dwells in love dwells in God" (I John 4:16). And the astonishing thing is that this chief of all the virtues is a natural virtue. Thus, in the Law, it is given pride of place: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5). When I heard the words "with all your soul," I was astounded, and no longer needed to hear the rest. For "with all your soul" means with the intelligent, incensive, and desiring powers of the soul, because it is of these three powers that the soul is composed.


Thus the intellect should think at all times about divine matters, while desire should long constantly and entirely, as the Law says, for God alone and never for anything else; and the incensive power should actively oppose only what obstructs this longing, and nothing else. St. John, consequently, was right in saying that God is love. If God sees that, as He commanded, these three powers of the soul aspire to Him alone, then, since He is good, He will necessarily not only love that soul, but through the inspiration of the Spirit will dwell and move within it (II Corinthians 6:16, Leviticus 26:12); and the body, though reluctant and unwilling -- for it lacks intelligence -- will end by submitting to the intelligence, while the flesh will no longer rise in protest against the Spirit, as St. Paul puts it (Galatians 5:17).


Just as the sun and moon, at the command of God, travel through the heavens in order to light the world, even though they are soul-less, so the body, at the behest of the soul, will perform works of light. As the sun journeys each day from east to west, thus making one day, while when it disappears night comes, so each virtue that a man practices illumines the soul, and when it disappears passion and darkness come until he again acquires that virtue, and light in this way returns to him. As the sun rises in the furthest east and slowly shifts its rays until it reaches the other extreme, thus forming time, so a man slowly grows from the moment he first begins to practice the virtues until he attains the state of dispassion. And just as the moon waxes and wanes every month, so with respect to each particular virtue a man waxes and wanes daily, until this virtue becomes established in him. At times, in accordance with God's will, he is afflicted, at times he rejoices and gives thanks to God, unworthy as he is to acquire the virtues; and sometimes he is illumined, sometimes filled with darkness, until his course is finished.

All this happens to him by God's providence: some things are sent to keep him from self-elation, and others to keep him from despair. Just as in this present age the sun creates the solstices and the moon waxes and wanes, whereas in the age to come there will always be light for the righteous and darkness for those who, like me, alas, are sinners, so, before the attainment of perfect love and of vision in God, the soul in the present world has its solstices, and the intellect experiences darkness as well as virtue and spiritual knowledge; and this continues until, through the acquisition of that perfect love to which all our effort is directed, we are found worthy of performing the works that pertain to the world to be. For it is for love's sake that he who is in a state of obedience obeys what is commanded; and it is for love's sake that he who is rich and free sheds his possessions and becomes a servant, surrendering both what he has and himself to whoever wishes to possess them. He who fasts likewise does so for love's sake, so that others may eat what he would otherwise have eaten. In short, every work rightly done is done out of love for God or for one's neighbor. The things we have spoken of, and others like them, are done out of love for one's neighbor, while vigils, psalmody and the like are done out of love for God. To Him be glory, honor and dominion through all the ages. Amen. END

From G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia -- Vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 253 - 254

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASCUS - True Piety and Self-Control

Although we concluded our earlier study of St. Peter of Damascus, we are bringing another one outside that series to your attention for its importance.  St. Peter, as you may remember, has more space in the Philokalia than any other writer except St. Maximos the Confessor. A great man of prayer, steeped in the teachings and traditions of the ancient Desert Fathers, he apparently lived in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, although little is known about his life.

In today's text, St. Peter of Damaskos talks about piety and self-control and the relationship between these two spiritual traits.


It is clear that true piety embraces a great variety of things, as does secular philosophy. For philosophy presupposes the completion of ten different branches of learning, embracing not just one or two of these branches but all ten together. Similarly, true piety consists not in the possession of a single virtue alone, but in the keeping of all the commandments. In its Greek form, the term "true piety" comes from a word meaning "to serve well." If some people say that "to serve well" is the same thing as faith, let them explain how it is possible to fear the Lord before believing in Him. Does one not first believe in the Lord and then fear Him? Hence faith gives rise to fear, and from fear comes true piety. The prophet Isaiah indicates that this is the correct sequence: starting with wisdom, he proceeds in a descending order, referring to "the spirit of knowledge and true piety," and last of all to "the spirit of the fear of God" (Isaiah 11:2-3). The Lord Himself starts with fear and then guides the man who possesses this fear to a state of inward grief.

This is not the moment to speak systematically about every form of true piety or spiritual activity. Leaving to one side the ascetic practices pertaining to the body that precede the acquisition both of the higher kind of faith and of pure fear – for everyone knows what these practices are – I will speak of the trees of the spiritual paradise, that is, with the help of God's grace I will speak briefly about the virtues of the soul. Of these, the most all-embracing is self-control, by which I mean abstinence from all the passions. There is also another, more partial form of self-control, that applies to bodily actions and teaches us the proper use of food and drink. Here, however, I am referring to the self-control that applies, as I said, to the passions and that restrains every thought and every movement of the limbs that is not in harmony with God's will. The person who possesses this virtue does not tolerate any thought or word, any movement of hand or foot or of any other member of the body, unless it is essential to the life of the body or to the soul's salvation.

It is after the acquisition of this virtue that the trials and temptations incited by the demons multiply, for they see before them an embodied angel, wholeheartedly committed to doing what is right and good. This is what is meant by the command given to man in paradise, "to cultivate and to keep it" (Genesis 2:15); for self-control needs to be cultivated and guarded ceaselessly, so as to prevent any of the passions that are outside the garden from stealthily creeping in. As I have said, the two forms of self-control or self-restraint are not identical, for while the first curbs unchastity and the other shameful passions, the second controls even the slightest thought, bringing it under surveillance before it can lead to sin, and then conducting it to God.

No one can speak or learn about this with precision merely through hearsay; it is only through experience that one can come to understand and counteract all these things that so disturb the intellect. How, indeed, is it possible merely by giving things a name to resurrect the dust and to make the material immaterial? Names are one thing, and secular learning, on the basis of etymology, can provide one with knowledge about them. But the experience and acquisition of the virtues require God's help; and they are achieved only through much effort and over a long period of time. This is especially true of the virtues of the soul, for these are the more inward and essential virtues. The virtues that pertain to the body – which are better described as the tools of the virtues – are easier to acquire, even though they do demand bodily effort. But the virtues of the soul, although they demand the control of thought alone, are much more difficult to achieve. Because of this the Law says first: "Watch yourself attentively" (Exodus 23:21). St. Basil the Great has written an excellent treatise on this phrase.

But what shall we say, we who are not attentive at all? We are like the Pharisees. Some of us may fast and keep vigil and perform other such things, and we may often do this with partial understanding. But we lack discrimination because we do not pay attention to ourselves and do not know what it is that is being asked of us. Nor are we willing to give persistent and patient attention to our thoughts, so as to gain experience from our many trials and battles, and thus become for others at least an experienced sailor, if not a captain. Although we are all of us blind, we claim that we ourselves see, as the Pharisees claimed. That is why it is said that they will be judged more severely (John 9:41). For if we acknowledge our blindness, we should not be condemned; it would be enough for us to be grateful and to admit our failure and ignorance. But, alas, we shall receive the greater condemnation, as did the pagan Greeks; for, according to Solomon, they aspired after so many things and yet failed to attain what they sought. Should we therefore keep silence, as though there was nothing for us to do? That would be even worse. Let us rather rebuke ourselves, for it is shameful even to mention the things that we do in secret (Ephesians 5:12). Hence I will say nothing about such things, but will speak about the virtues that so deserve our esteem. For the recollection of their sweetness fills my darkened heart with pleasure, and I forget my limitations and am no longer troubled about the condemnation that awaits me if I speak and do not act.

Self-control, then, and self-restraint have the same power and are twofold, as has been said. But now I want to say something further about their more perfect form. He who by God's grace enjoys the great faith of contemplation together with pure and divine fear, and who wishes on the basis of these to keep possession of self-control and self-restraint, should first master himself both outwardly and inwardly, acting as if he were already dead in soul and body as regards this world and all other men. In every circumstance he should say to himself: "Who am I? What is my existence? Nothing but abomination. For I start as earth and I end as putrefaction, and in between I am filled with al manner of insolence and worse. What is my life? And how long? A single hour and then death comes. Why do I bother about this and that? Already I am dying. For Christ controls both life and death. Why do I worry and strive in vain? All one needs is a bit of bread: why seek more? I have this, there is nothing to worry about. If I don't, it may be that in my ignorance I do worry about it; yet it is God who provides."

For these reasons every man should make it his whole concern to guard his senses and his thoughts, so as not to devise or do anything that does not seem to be in accordance with God's will. Let him prepare himself to accept patiently the things that befall him at the hands of men and demons, whether these things are pleasant or unpleasant. Neither the one nor the other should excite him or make him give way either to senseless joy and presumption, or to dejection and despair. He should entertain no over-confident thought until the Lord comes. To Him be glory throughout the ages. Amen. END

From G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia – Vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 218 - 221

Sunday, February 10, 2013

THEOPHANIS THE MONK - The Ladder of Divine Graces

In this reading, we will study a poem from the Greek Philoklia credited to "Theophanis the Monk." Unfortunately, there is nothing known about the author from the text or from other sources, but the poem draws directly from the teachings and experiences of the Desert Fathers. Theophanis the Monk puts special emphasis on the need for direct personal experience and says that eternal life begins here and now in the present world. At the same time, he sees perfection as an endless progress in the age to come. The poem is delightful – we hope you'll enjoy it.



The first step is that of purest prayer. From this there comes a warmth of heart, And then a strange, a holy energy, Then tears wrung from the heart, God-given. Then peace from thoughts of every kind.

From this arises purging of the intellect, And next the vision of heavenly mysteries. Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably, And thence, beyond all telling, the heart's illumination.

Last comes – a step that has no limit Though compassed in a single line – Perfection that is endless. The ladder's lowest step Prescribes pure prayer alone. But prayer has many forms: My discourse would be long Were I now to speak of them: And, friend, know that always Experience teaches one, not words.

A ladder rising wondrously to heaven's vault: Ten steps that strangely vivify the soul. Ten steps that herald the soul's life. A saint inspired by God has said: Do not deceive yourself with idle hopes That in the world to come you will find life If you have not tried to find it in this present world. Ten steps: a wisdom born of God. Ten steps: fruit of all the books. Ten steps that point towards perfection. Ten steps that lead one up to heaven. Ten steps through which a man knows God.

The ladder may seem short indeed, But if your heart can inwardly experience it You will find a wealth the world cannot contain, A god-like fountain flowing with unheard-of life. This ten-graced ladder is the best of masters, Clearly teaching each to know its stages.

If when you behold it You think you stand securely on it, Ask yourself on which step you stand, So that we, the indolent, may also profit.

My friend, if you want to learn about all this, Detach yourself from everything, From what is senseless, from what seems intelligent. Without detachment nothing can be learnt. Experience alone can teach these things, not talk.

Even if these words once said By one of God's elect strike harshly, I repeat them to remind you: He who has no foothold on this ladder, Who does not ponder always on these things, When he comes to die will know Terrible fear, terrible dread, Will be full of boundless panic. My lines end on a note of terror.

Yet it is good that this is so: Those who are hard of heart – myself the first – Are led to repentance, led to a holy life, Less by the lure of blessings promised Than by fearful warnings that inspire dread. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

You who have written this, hear, then, and take note: Void of all these graces, How have you dared to write such things? How do you not shudder to expound them? Have you not heard what Uzzah suffered When he tried to stop God's ark from falling? (II Samuel 6:6-7) Do not think that I speak as one who teaches: I speak as one whose words condemn himself, Knowing the rewards awaiting those who strive, Knowing my utter fruitlessness. END

From G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, "The Philokalia – Vol. III," (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 67 – 69

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - The Signs of Grace and Delusion

We will now study ten texts by St. Gregory of Sinai written for the Confessor Longinos. St. Gregory of Sinai was a contemporary on Mount Athos with St. Gregory Palamas in the mid- fourteenth century. These two great theologians and thinkers are the "crowning glory" of Orthodox mystical theology and their works are vital reading for anyone desiring to grow in the spirit and to understand better the teachings and actions of the ancient Desert Fathers. After becoming a monk on Mount Sinai, St. Gregory of Sinai eventually moved to Mount Athos where he spent some 25 years in a secluded hermitage not from the Monastery of Philotheou. Within the whole "Philokalia," five of St. Gregory's works are given, one of which we will study today. Very much in the tradition of those who practice the Jesus Prayer, St. Gregory refers often to the need to invoke the name of Jesus in constant prayer of the heart and soul. He connects this wonderful prayer to Holy Baptism and states that the aim of the Jesus Prayer is to reveal in a conscious and dynamically active way "the energy of the Holy Spirit, which we have already mystically received in baptism."

In today's text, St. Gregory of Sinai instructs us in how to discover that energy and to distinguish between grace and delusion.



1. As the great teacher St. John Chrysostom states, we should be in a position to say that we need no help from the Scriptures, no assistance from other people, but are instructed by God; for "all will be taught by God" (Isaiah 54:13, John 6:45), in such a way that we learn from Him and through Him what we ought to know. And this applies not only to those of us who are monks but to each and every one of the faithful: we are all of us called to carry the law of the Spirit written on the tablets of our hearts (II Corinthians 3:3), and to attain like the Cherubim the supreme privilege of conversing through pure prayer in the heart directly with Jesus. But because we are infants at the time of our renewal through baptism we do not understand the grace and the new life conferred upon us. Unaware of the surpassing grandeur of the honor and glory in which we share, we fail to realize that we ought to grow in soul and spirit through the keeping of the commandments and so perceive noetically what we have received. On account of this most of us fall through indifference and servitude to the passions into a state of benighted obduracy. We do not know whether God exists, or who we are, or what we have become, although through baptism we have been made sons of God, sons of light, and children and members of Christ. If we are baptized when grown up, we feel that we have been baptized only in water and not by the Spirit. And even though we have been renewed in the Spirit, we believe only in a formal, lifeless and ineffectual sense, and we say we are full of doubts.

Hence because we are in fact non-spiritual we live and behave in a non-spiritual manner. Should we repent, we understand and practice the commandments only in a bodily way and not spiritually. And if after many labors a revelation of grace is in God's compassion granted to us, we take it for a delusion. Or if we hear from others how grace acts, we are persuaded by our envy to regard that also as a delusion. Thus we remain corpses until death, failing to live in Christ and to be inspired by Him. According to Scripture, even that which we possess will be taken away from us at the time of our death or our judgment because of our lack of faith and our despair (Matthew 25:29). We do not understand that the children must be like the father, that is to say, we are to be made gods by God and spiritual by the Holy Spirit; for "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:6). But we are unregenerate, even though we have become members of the faith and heavenly, and so the Spirit of God does not dwell within us (Genesis 6:3). Because of this the Lord has handed us over to strange afflictions and captivity, and slaughter flourishes, perhaps because He wishes to correct evil, or cut it off, or heal it by more powerful remedies.

2. With the help of God, then, who inspires those who declare good tidings (Psalms 68:11), we must first examine how one finds Christ or, rather, how one is found by Him, since we already possess and have received Him through baptism in the Spirit: as St. Paul says, "Do you not realize that Jesus Christ dwells within you?" (II Corinthians 13:5). Then we must ask how to advance or, simply, how to retain what we have discovered. The best and shortest course is for us to give a brief summary of the whole spiritual journey from start to finish, long though it is. Many, indeed, have been so exhausted by their efforts to discover what they were looking for that, on finding the starting-point, they have remained content with this, and have not tried to advance further. Encountering obstacles and turning aside unawares from the true path, they think that they are on the right track when actually they are veering profitlessly off course. Others, on reaching the halfway point of illumination, have then grown slack, wilting before reaching the end; or they have reverted through their slipshod way of life, and have become beginners again. Yet others, on the point of attaining perfection, have grown inattentive and self-conceited, relapsing to the state of those in the middle way or even of beginners. Beginners, those in the middle way and the perfect have each their distinctive characteristic: for the first it is activity, for the second illumination, for the third purification and resurrection of the soul.


3. 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, through arduous and protracted practice of the commandments: to the degree to which we effectively practice the commandments its radiance in increasingly manifested in us. Secondly, it is manifested to those under spiritual 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.

4. 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 who 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 tremendous sense of jubilation, in others as joy, 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 (Revelation 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 this 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.

5. 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 (Psalms 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.

6. 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 arising from the prayer of fire that we offer when filled with awe. This awe is not 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.

7. 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 soul, inflame the sexual organs, and impel one to assent through the imagination to erotic physical obscenities.


8. 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.


9. The energy of grace is the power of spiritual fire that fills the heart with joy and gladness, stabilizes, 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.


10. 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, including a mindless joy, presumption and confusion, accompanied by a mood of ill-defined sterile levity, and fomenting above all the soul's apppetitive 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 G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware (eds.), "The Philokalia: Volume Four," (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 257 - 262.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Development of the Heart

Today we conclude our study of St. Theophan the Recluse.  He was 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.

We conclude today our multi-part series on "exercises" which St. Theophan recommends to help a person develop the body and soul in goodness. In this fourth and final section, St. Theophan discusses exercises for the heart. You may find that this newsletter is a bit long, but St. Theophan’s discussion of prayer in today’s reading is, in my opinion, one of the best overviews of prayer and developing a life of prayer I have read yet. 



Developing the heart means developing within it a taste for things holy, divine, and spiritual, so that when it finds itself amidst such things it would feel as though it were in its element. Finding them sweet and blessed, it would be indifferent to all else, with no taste for anything else; and even more -- it would find anything else revolting. All of man’s spiritual activity centers in the heart. The truths are impressed in it, and good dispositions are rooted into it. But its main work is developing a taste for the spiritual, as we have shown. When the mind sees the whole spiritual world and its different components, various good beginnings ripen in the will. The heart, under their influence, should taste sweetness in all of this and radiate warmth. This delight in the spiritual is the first sign of the regeneration of a soul deadened by sin. Therefore the heart’s development is a very important point even in the early stages.

The work directed at it is all of our Church services in all forms -- common and personal, at home and in church -- and it is mainly achieved through the spirit of prayer moving within it.  Church services, that is, all the daily services, together with the entire arrangement of the church’s icons, candles, censing, singing, chanting, movements of the clergy, as well as the services for various needs; then services in the home, also using ecclesiastical objects such as sanctified icons, holy oil, candles, holy water, the Cross, and incense -- all of these holy things together acting upon all the senses -- sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste -- are the “cloths that wipe clean” the senses of a deadened soul. They are the strongest and the only reliable way to do it. The soul becomes deadened by the spirit of the world, and possessed by sin that lives in the world. The entire structure of our Church services, with their tone, meaning, power of faith, and especially the grace concealed within them, have an invincible power to drive away the spirit of the world. In freeing the soul from the world’s onerous influence, it allows the soul to breathe freely and to taste the sweetness of spiritual freedom. Walking into church we walk into a completely different world, are influenced by it, and change according to it. The same thing happens when we surround ourselves with holy objects. Frequent impressions of the spiritual world more effectively penetrate within and more quickly bring about a transformation of the heart. Thus: 

1) It is necessary to establish a pattern of going to church as often as possible, usually to Matins, Liturgy and Vespers. Have a longing for this, and go there at the first opportunity -- at least once a day -- and if you can, stay without leaving. Our church is heaven on earth. Hasten to church with the faith that it is a place where God dwells, where He Himself promised to quickly hear prayers.  Standing in church, be as if you are standing before God in fear and reverence, which you express through patient standing, prostrations, and attention to the services without wandering thoughts, relaxation or crudeness. 

2) You must not forget other services -- personal services, be they in church or at home. N0either must you neglect your home prayers with all their churchly tone. You should remember that home services are only a supplement to church services and not a replacement. The Apostle, commanding us not to deprive ourselves of a synaxis, informed us that all the power of services belong to common worship.

3) You must observe all Church solemnities, rituals, customs, and rubrics, and cover yourself with them in all their forms, so that you would always abide in a particular atmosphere. This is easy to do. Such is the nature of our Church.  Only accept it with faith.

But what gives the most power to church services is a prayerful spirit. Prayer is an all-encompassing obligation, as well as an all-effective means. Through it the truths of the faith are also impressed in the mind and good morals into the will. But most of all it enlivens the heart in its feelings. The first two go well only when this one thing (prayer) is present. Therefore prayer should begin to be developed before anything else, and continued steadily and tirelessly until the Lord grants prayer to the one who prays.  The beginnings of prayer are applied at conversion itself, for prayer is the yearning of the mind and heart towards God, which is what happens at conversion. But inattentiveness or inability can extinguish this spark. Then right away you should begin the form of activity that we have already discussed, with the aim of kindling a prayerful spirit. 

Besides conducting services and participating in them, as we have described, the closest thing related to this is personal prayer, wherever and however it is performed. There is only one rule for this --- accustom yourself to praying. For this you must:

1) Choose a rule of prayer -- evening, morning, and daily prayers.

2) Start with a short rule at first, so that your unaccustomed spirit will not form an aversion to this labor.

3) Pray always with fear, diligence and all attention.

4) This requires: standing, prostrations, kneeling, making the sign of the Cross, reading, and at times singing.

5) The more often you do such prayer the better. Some people pray a little every hour.

6) The prayers you should read are written in the prayer book.  But it is good to get used to one or another, so that the spirit would ignite each time you begin it.

7) The rule of prayer is simple: standing at prayer, with fear and trembling say it as if you were speaking into God’s ear, accompanying it with the sign of the Cross, prostrations and falling down, corresponding to the movement of the spirit.

8) Once you have chosen a rule you should always fulfill it, but this does not prevent you from adding something according to the heart’s desire.

9) Reading and singing out loud, in a whisper, or silently is all the same, for the Lord is near. But sometimes it is better to pray one way, other times another.

10) You should firmly keep in mind the limits of your prayers.  It is a good prayer that ends with your falling down before God with the feeling that “Though Who knowest the hearts,” save me.

11) There are stages of prayer. The first stage is bodily prayer, with reading, standing and prostrations. If the attention wanders, the heart does not feel, and there is no eagerness; this means there is no patience, toil or sweat.

Regardless of this, set your limits and pray. This is active prayer. The second stage is attentive prayer: the mind gets used to collecting itself at the hour of prayer, and says all with awareness, without being stolen away. The attention blends with the written words and repeats them as its own. The third stage is prayer of the feelings -- the attention warms the heart, and what was thought with attention becomes feeling in the heart.

In the mind was a compunctionate word, in the heart it is compunction; in the mind -- forgiveness, in the heart -- a feeling of its necessity and importance. Whoever has passed on to feeling prays without words, for God is a God of the heart. This, therefore, is the summit of prayer’s development: while standing in prayer, to go from feeling to feeling. Reading may stop at this, just as may thought; then there is only abiding in feeling with the known signs of prayer. Such prayer comes very little at first. The prayerful feeling comes over you in church or at home . . . . This is the common advice of the saints -- do not let this leave your attention: when the feeling is present, cease all other activity and stand in it. St. John of the Ladder says: “An angel is praying with you.” Attention to this manifestation of prayer ripens the development of prayer, and inattention decimates both the development and the prayer.

12) However, no matter how perfect one has become in prayer, the prayer rule should never be abandoned but should always be read as prescribed and always begun with active prayer. Mental prayer should come with it, and then prayer of the heart. Without the rule, prayer of the heart is lost, and the person will think that he is praying, but in fact he is not.

13) When the prayerful feeling ascends to ceaselessness, then spiritual prayer begins -- a gift of the Spirit of God which prays for us. This is the last stage of attainable prayer. But it is said that there is also prayer that is incomprehensible to the mind, or surpasses the limits of awareness (as described by St. Isaac the Syrian).

14) The easiest means for ascending to ceaseless prayer is the habit of doing the Jesus Prayer and rooting it in yourself. The most experienced men of spiritual life who were enlightened by God found this to be the one simple and all-effective means for confirming the spirit in all spiritual activities, as well as in all spiritual ascetic life; and they left detailed guidelines for it in their instructions.  

By laboring in asceticism we seek purification of the heart and renewal of the spirit. There are two ways to find this: the first is the way of activity, that is, performing those ascetic labors that we have previously outlined; and the second is that of the mind -- turning the mind to God. In the first way the soul is purified and receives God; in the second God burns away all impurity and comes to abide in the purified soul.  Considering the latter as belonging to the Jesus Prayer alone, St. Gregory the Sinaite says: “We acquire God by either activity, labor, or the artful calling on the Name of Jesus.” He then supposes that the first way is longer than the second; the second is quicker and more effective. Others after him have given first place to the Jesus Prayer among “podvigs” [EDITOR’S NOTE: “podvig” is a Russian word meaning “the struggle of man with himself” -- there is no exact English translation as the concept it describes does not exist in the Western churches]. It illuminates, strengthens, enlivens, conquers all enemies visible and invisible, and leads us to God. That is how powerful and effective it is! The name of the Lord Jesus is the treasury of blessings, strength and life in the spirit.

From this it is evident that any penitent, or anyone beginning to seek the Lord, can and should be taught complete instructions in doing the Jesus Prayer. From there he can be brought into all other practices, because through this he will become strong more quickly, ripen sooner spiritually and enter the interior world.  Not knowing this, other people, or at least a large part of them, stop with bodily activities and those of the soul, and waste nearly all their labor and time.

This activity is called an “art.” It is very simple. Standing with awareness and attention in the heart, pronounce ceaselessly: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” (NOTE: St. Seraphim of Sarov adds the line “a sinner” to the end) without picturing any sort of image or face, but with faith that the Lord will see you and attend to you.

In order to become strong in this, you should assign a time in the morning or the evening -- fifteen minutes, a half hour, or more -- however much you can, just for saying this prayer. It should be after morning or evening prayers, standing or sitting.   This will place the beginnings of a habitual practice.

Then during the day, force yourself minute-by-minute to say it, no matter what you are doing.It will become more and more habitual, and then it will start working as if by itself during any work or occupation. The more resolutely you take it up, the faster you will progress. 

Your awareness should be kept unfailingly in the heart, and during the practice your breath should lighten as a result of the tension with which you practice it. But the most important condition is faith that God is near and hears us. Say the prayer into God’s ear.

This habitual practice will draw warmth into the spirit, later enlightenment, then ecstasy. But acquiring all of this sometimes takes years.  At first this prayer is only active prayer, just like any other activity. Then it becomes mental prayer, and finally it takes root in the heart.

Some have gone astray from the right path through this prayer.  Therefore it should be learned from someone who knows it.  Deception comes mostly from placing the attention on the head rather than the chest.Whoever has the attention centered in the heart is safe. Even safer is the one who falls down before God every hour in contrition, with the prayer that he be delivered from deception.

The Holy Fathers gave detailed instructions on this activity.  Therefore, whoever takes up this work should read these instructions and throw out all else. The best instructions are by St. Hesychius, St. Gregory the Sinaite, St. Philotheus of Sinai, St. Theoleptus, St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Nilus of Sora, Hieromonk Dorotheus, in the prologue to Elder Barsanuphius, and in the life of St. Paisius.

Whoever becomes practiced in this, having gone through everything set forth above, is a practitioner of Christian life. He will quickly ripen in his purification and in Christian perfection, and will acquire his desired peace in being with God.

This is the activity for the powers of the soul, which are adaptable to the movement of the spirit. Here we see how every one of them is adapted to the life of the spirit, or to spiritual feeling. But they also lead to the fortification of the primary conditions for being within, namely: mental activity -- the concentration of attention; activity o the will -- vigilance, activity of the heart -- soberness. Prayer covers them all and encompasses them all. Even the production of it is nothing other than the interior work we have previously described.

All of these activities are assigned for the development of the powers of the soul in the spirit of a new life. This is the same as infusing the soul with spirit, or elevating it to the spirit and blending with it. In fallenness they are united to a contrary purpose. At conversion the spirit is renewed, but in the soul there still remains a cruel streak of unsubmissiveness and an aversion to the spirit and everything spiritual. These activities, penetrated with spiritual elements, cause the soul to grow into the spirit and blend with it. It is clear from this how essential these activities are and what a disservice those people do to themselves who abandon them. They themselves are the reason that their labors are fruitless. They sweat but see no fruit; they soon grow cold, and then everything comes to an end.

But we must remember that all the fruits of these labors come from the spirit of zeal and quest. It conducts the renewing power of grace through these activities and brings down life unto the soul. Without it, all these activities are empty, cold, lifeless, and dry. Reading, prostrations, services and everything else are unfruitful when there is no inner spirit.  They can teach vainglory and pharisaism, which become its sole support. This is why someone who has no spirit falls away when he meets with any opposition. Why, they themselves are a torture. For the spirit transfers power to the soul, which makes the soul so well disposed to these activities that it can not get enough of them and wants to have recourse to them always.

Thus it is extremely necessary when doing these activities to always bear in mind that the spirit of life must burn within, and we must in humility and pain of heart fall down before God our Savior. This state is fed and preserved best of all by prayer and prayerful activity. We must watch that we not stop with the activities alone just because they also nourish the soul. This might cause us to remain with them in soul at the cost of the spirit. This happens perhaps most often with reading, and generally any study and integration of the truth. END

NOTE: If you have read this far, you know by now what a tremendous spiritual resource the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse are. Personally, I have found this book to be one of the most “essential” readers for one’s spiritual library. At 366 pages, you will get many hours of highly beneficial reading from St. Theophan’s book and you will want to refer to it and even re-read it many times in the years to come.from St. Theophan the Recluse, "The Path to Salvation," (Platina, California: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1998), pp. 253 - 261.