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)

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