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 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.