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, May 29, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - Jesus as the New Adam

In this issue, we will continue our study of St. John Cassian's "Conferences" in which we are looking at the teachings of Abba Serapion on "The Eight Principal Vices." In the original text, these teachings are quite long (and incredibly rich in wisdom!), but we will only look at some excerpts here. Last week we had an overview of the eight vices; today, we will study how Adam and Jesus were tempted by Satan and, in the process, why the Church calls Jesus "the New Adam". The parallels St. John Cassian draws in this reading are fascinating in their theology and in Abba Serapion's understanding of Holy Scripture.


BEGIN: "The one who possessed the incorruptible image and likeness of God had to be tempted himself by the same passions by which Adam also was tempted when he still enjoyed the inviolate image of God -- that is, by gluttony, vainglory, and pride -- and not by those in which he entangled himself after having broken the commandment, when the image and likeness of God was violated and he had already fallen through his own fault. For it was by gluttony that he took the food from the forbidden tree; by vainglory that it was said: 'Your eyes shall be opened'; and by pride that it was said: 'You shall be as gods, knowing good and evil' (Genesis 3:5).

-- "By these three vices, then, we read that the Lord, the Savior, was also tempted: by gluttony when the devil said to him: 'Tell these stones to become loaves of bread'; by vainglory when he said: 'If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down'; and by pride when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and he said: 'All these things I will give you if you fall down and adore me' (Matthew 4:6 - 9). Thus, having been attacked by these very same temptations, he taught us also by his own example how we should conquer the tempter.

"Therefore both the one and the other are called Adam, the former having been the first to go to ruin and death and the latter having been the first to go to resurrection and life.


-- "Through the former the whole human race is condemned, but through the latter the whole human race is freed. The former was fashioned of untilled and untouched earth, the latter was born of the Virgin Mary. It behooved him, then, to suffer temptations, but it was not necessary that they be excessive. For one who had conquered gluttony could not be tempted by fornication, which proceeds from the former's repletion and from its root. Even the first Adam would not have been struck by this if he had not been deceived by the enticements of the devil and contracted the passion which generates it.

-- "For this reason the Son of God is not said to have come, without qualification, in sinful flesh but rather "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3). Although he had real flesh, which is to say that he ate and drank and slept and was also really fastened by nails, he did not have real sin contracted through wrongdoing but only what seemed to be such.

-- "For he did not experience the burning pricks of carnal desire that even arise when we do not want them, due to nature's action, but he experienced a certain similarity through participating in our nature. When he was truly accomplishing all the things that pertain to our condition and was bearing every human weakness, he was consequently thought to be subject to this passion as well, so that in these weaknesses he even seemed to carry about in his flesh the stuff of this vice and sin.


-- "The devil tempted him, then, only with the vices by which he had also deceived that first man, conjecturing that, as a man, he could be mocked in other ways too if he saw that he was seduced by the things with which he had overthrown the first man. But he was unable to inflict him with a second disease, sprouting from the root of the principal vice that served as a source, since he was defeated in the first battle. He saw that he had not been touched at all by the first stages of this sickness and that it was too much to expect the fruit of sin from him, since he discerned that he had never possessed its seeds and roots.

-- "Although Luke gives the last temptation as: 'If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down' (Luke 4:9), this can be understood as the passion of pride. The one mentioned previously, which Matthew places as third and in which, according to the aforesaid evangelist Luke, the devil promised him all the kingdoms of the world, showing them to him in an instant, can then be taken to be the passion of avarice. For once gluttony was conquered he was unable to prevail over him with fornication, and so he passed on to avarice, which he knew was the root of all evils' (I Timothy 6:10). Here again he was overcome, and he did not dare to afflict him with any of the vices that followed and that he knew sprouted from its root and stock. So he passed on to the last passion, that of pride, by which he knew that even the perfect and those who have conquered all the vices could be struck. He remembered that on its account he himself had been thrown down from the heavenly places when he was Lucifer, along with many others, without having been incited by any preceding passion.

-- "According to the order that we have spoken of, then, which is described by the evangelist Luke, the seductions and forms of temptations with which the clever enemy attacked the first and the second Adam concur very neatly. For to the former he says: 'Your eyes shall be opened,' and to the latter: 'He showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory' (Matthew 4:8). In one place he says: 'You shall be as gods,' and in the other: 'If you are the Son of God.'

-- "Let us say something in the same order that we had proposed about the effects of the other passions too, the explanation of which we were obliged to interrupt because of our exposition on gluttony and on the Lord's temptations. Vainglory and pride are also consummated without any action on the body's part. For why do these things, which cause the ruin of the captive soul for the exclusive purpose of winning praise and pursuing human glory, need bodily action?

-- "Or what bodily activity was there in the aforesaid Lucifer's ancient pride, which he conceived solely in mind and thought? As the prophet mentions: 'You who said in your heart: I will go up to heaven, I will set my throne above the stars of God, I will ascend above the height of the clouds, I will be like the Most High" (Isaiah 14:13-14). He had no one to provoke him to this pride. It was in thought alone that his crime and his eternal ruin were perfectly achieved, especially inasmuch as there followed no works of the tyranny that he was striving for." END

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 185 - 187

Sunday, May 26, 2013

ABBA SERAPION - The Eight Principal Vices

-- In that community of very old men there was a man by the name of Serapion who was particularly adorned with the grace of discretion and whose conference I think is worth the effort to put down in writing. When we had begged him to say something about the assault of the vices that would cast light on their origins and causes, he began in this way:

-- "There are eight principal vices that attack humankind. The first is gluttony, which means the voraciousness of the belly; the second is fornication; the third is filargyria, which is avarice or love of money; the fourth is anger; the fifth is sadness; the sixth acedia, which is anxiety or weariness of heart; the seventh is cenodoxia, which is boastfulness or vainglory; and the eighth is pride.

-- "Of these vices there are two kinds. They are either natural like gluttony or unnatural like avarice. But they have four kinds of operation. Certain ones cannot be consummated without bodily action, such as gluttony and fornication. Certain others, however, can be completed without any bodily action whatsoever, such as pride and vainglory. Some take their motivating causes from without, such as avarice and anger. Others, however, are aroused from within, such as acedia and sorrow.

-- "Let us make this still clearer not only by a short discussion as well as we are able, but also by scriptural texts.

-- "Gluttony and fornication, although they are in us naturally (for sometimes they also arise without any provocation from the mind but solely due to the instigation and itching of the flesh), nonetheless require external matter in order to be consummated, and thus they operate through bodily action. For 'everyone is tempted by his own lust. When lust has been conceived it gives birth to sin, but when sin has been consummated it brings forth death' (James 1:14-15).

-- "The first Adam would not have been able to be deceived by gluttony had he not had something to eat and immediately and lawlessly misused it, nor was the second tempted without the enticement of some substance, when it was said to him: 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread' (Matthew 4:3). It is clear to everyone that fornication also is not committed except by means of the body, as God says to the blessed Job with reference to this spirit: 'Its strength is in the loins, and its power in the navel of the belly' (Job 40:11).

-- "Therefore these two in particular, which are exercised by means of the flesh, more especially require not only the spiritual concern of the soul but also bodily abstinence, since the mind's attentiveness is not enough of itself to check their urgings (as it sometimes does in the case of anger or sadness and other passions, which it can expel by mental effort alone and without chastising the flesh). Bodily discipline must come to its assistance, and this is accomplished by fasting, vigils, and works of penance, and to these is added living in a remote place, because just as they are generated through the fault of both soul and body, so they cannot be overcome except by the toil of both.

-- "Although the blessed Apostle has declared that all the vices in general are carnal, since he has numbered enmity and anger and heresies among the other works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18- 21), nonetheless we make a distinction based on a twofold division for the sake of a more refined understanding of their remedies and their natures. For we say that some of them are carnal, while some others are spiritual. The carnal ones pertain especially to the enjoyment and feelings of the flesh; by them it is so delighted and gratified that it sometimes even arouses peaceful minds and drags them reluctantly to acquiesce in its will.

-- "About these the Apostle says: 'In which all of us at one time walked in the desires of the flesh, doing the will of our flesh and of our thoughts, and we were by nature children of wrath like the rest (Ephesians 2:3).

"But we call spiritual those that, having arisen at the prompting of the soul alone, not only give no pleasure to the flesh but even inflict it with serious sufferings and merely provide the sick soul with the food of a miserable enjoyment. Therefore these have need of the medicine of a simple heart, whereas those that are carnal are only remedied by a twofold cure, as we have said. Hence it is important to those who strive for purity first of all to remove from themselves the very stuff of these carnal passions, by which either an occasion for or the memory of those same passions can be aroused in the soul that is still sick.

-- "For a twofold sickness necessarily requires a twofold cure. Seductive images and matter need to be removed from the body, lest lust attempt to break out into deeds, and by the same token a more careful medication on Scripture, constant watchfulness, and solitude must be applied to the soul, lest it so much as conceive this in thought. In the case of the other vices, however, human companionship is of no harm, and indeed it is even of great help to those who really want to be rid of them, since they are frequently rebuked by the presence of other people, and although aggravations more readily appear, they are quickly remedied.

-- "Therefore our Lord Jesus Christ, although he was declared by the Apostle to have been tempted 'in every respect as we are,' is nonetheless said to have been 'without sin' (Hebrews 4:15). That is, he was without the contagion of this passion, having had no experience whatsoever of the pricks of fleshly lust by which we are inevitably stung, even unwittingly and unwillingly, for in his regard there was nothing like our own insemination and conception, as the archangel said in announcing how his conception would take place: 'The Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you. Therefore the holy one that is to be born of you shall be called the Son of God' (Luke 1:35).

from St. John Cassian, "The Conferences," (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 183 - 185

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

ST. THEOPHAN THE RECLUSE - Humility and Love

In today's "thought," we will look at some brief teachings on humility and love, two of the most important virtues one should acquire in spiritual growth. Without these two virtues, no one can advance in the Spirit so they must be cultivated very carefully and with great effort. The teachings today come not from an ancient desert father, but from a more modern one -- St. Theophan the Recluse who lived in nineteenth century Russia. His writings are based entirely on the teachings of the early Desert Fathers and the Philokalia so we should see them as part of that same tradition.


BEGIN: You say that you have no humility or love. So long as these are absent, everything spiritual is absent. What is spiritual is born when they are born and grows as they grow. They are the same for the soul as mastery of the flesh is for the body. Humility is acquired by acts of humility, love by acts of love.


Keep both eyes open. This is the measure of humility: if a man is humble he never thinks that he has been treated worse than he deserves. He stands so low in his estimation that no one, however hard they try, can think more poorly of him than he thinks himself. This is the whole secret of the matter.


The Lord sometimes leaves in us some defects of character in order that we should learn humility. For without them we would immediately soar above the clouds in our own estimation and would place our throne there. And therein lies perdition.


There is no need for me to repeat to you that the invincible weapon against all our enemies is humility. It is not easily acquired. We can think ourselves humble without having a trace of true humility. And we cannot make ourselves humble merely by thinking about it. The best, or rather, the only sure way to humility is by obedience and the surrender of our own will. Without this it is possible to develop a satanic pride in ourselves, while being humble in words and in bodily postures. I beg you to pay attention to this point and, in all fear, examine the order of your life. Does it include obedience and surrender of your will? Out of all the things you do, how many are done contrary to your own will, your own ideas and reflections? Do you do anything unwillingly, simply because you are ordered, through sheer obedience? Please examine it all thoroughly and tell me. If there is nothing of this type of obedience, the kind of life you lead will not bring you to humility. No matter how much you may humble yourself in thought, without deeds leading to self-abasement humility will not come. So you must think carefully how to arrange for this.


Humbling oneself is not yet humility, but only the desire and search for humility. May the Lord help you acquire this virtue. There is a spirit of illusion which in some unknown way deceives the soul by its guile. It so confuses our thoughts that the soul thinks itself humble, whereas inwardly it conceals an arrogant and conceited opinion of its own worth. So we have to go on looking carefully into our heart. External relationships which lead us to humility are the best means here.

You have been somewhat negligent. The fear of God left you, and soon after that attention left you too, and you fell into the habit of censuring people. You say that you have sinned inwardly, and this is true. Repent quickly and beg God's forgiveness. Such a fault as that brings its own retribution: the fault is inward, and so is the punishment. We can condemn others not only in words but also with an inner movement of the heart. If the soul, when thinking of someone, criticizes them adversely, then it has already condemned them.


You say that you are offended. To be offended at lack of attention is to consider oneself worthy of attention, and consequently to set a high value upon oneself in the heart; in other words, to have a heart swollen with pride. Is this good? Is it not our duty to endure wrongful accusation? Certainly it is. How then shall we start practicing this duty? After all, when we are commanded to endure, we have to endure every unpleasantness without exception, and endure gladly, without losing our inward peace. The Lord told us, when smitten on one cheek, to turn the other also, but we are so sensitive that if a fly so much as brushes us with its wing in passing we are immediately up in arms. Tell me, are you prepared to obey this commandment of the Lord about being smitten on the cheek? You will probably say, Yes, you are prepared. Yet the instance you describe in your letter is precisely an occasion where this commandment applies. Being smitten on the cheek should not be taken literally. We should understand by it any action of our neighbor in which, it seems to us, we did not receive due attention and respect -- any action by which we feel degraded, and our honor, as people call it, wounded. Every deed of this kind, however trivial -- a look, an expression -- is a blow on the cheek. Not only should we endure it, but we should also be ready for some greater degradation which would correspond toi turning the other cheek. What happened in your case was a very light slap on one cheek. And what did you do? Did you turn the other? No; so far from turning it, you retaliated. For you have already retaliated; you have made the other person feel that you are somebody, as though saying, "Keep your hands off me!" But what are we good for, you and I, if we do this? And how can we be regarded as disciples of Christ if we do not obey His commandments? What you should have done is to consider: do I deserve any attention? If you had had this feeling of unworthiness in your heart you would not have taken offense.


Spiritual unrest and passions harm the blood and effectively damage our health. Fasting and a general abstinence in our daily life are the best way to preserve our health sound and vigorous.

Prayer introduces the human spirit into God's realm where the rock of life dwells; and the body also, led by the spirit, partakes of that life. A contrite spirit, feelings of repentance, and tears -- these do not diminish our physical strength but add to it, for they bring the soul to a state of comfort.

You wish that contrition and tears would never leave you, but you had better wish that the spirit of deep humility should always reign in you. This brings tears and contrition, and it also prevents us from being puffed up with pride at having them. For the enemy manages to introduce poison even through such things as these.

There is also spiritual hypocrisy which may accompany contrition. True contrition does not interfere with pure spiritual joy, but can exist in harmony with it, concealed behind it.

And what of self-appreciation? Take up the sword of humility and meekness, hold it always in your hand, and mercilessly cut off the head of our chief foe. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer (trans), "The Art of Prayer," (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), pp. 271 - 274

Sunday, May 19, 2013

ST. GREGORY PALAMAS - How to Pray Without Ceasing

With Great Lent and Pascha behind us, now is a good time to look at the whole issue of prayer and, most particularly, "prayer without ceasing" as described by the Apostle Paul. As we begin a new study of the life of prayer in the Spirit, let's consider this admonition of the Apostle and ask ourselves whether he truly meant this literally and whether it applies to each of us, especially those of us who are not monks.

Today's text is from St. Gregory Palamas who was Archbishop of Thessalonica from about 1296 to 1359. While not a "Desert Father" in the strict sense of his time and place, St. Gregory is nonetheless a teacher of the Desert way of life and prayer and one of the greatest teachers and practitioners of unceasing prayer. The text we will study today is the concluding text to both the Greek and Russian versions of the Philokalia and is one we should each read carefully. After all, dear pilgrims, it tells us why the Apostle's command applies to each and every one of us, monk or not.


BEGIN: Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer. For look what the most holy Patriarch of Constantinople, Philotheus, writes in his life of St. Gregory of Thessalonica. This saint had a beloved friend by the name of Job, a very simple but most virtuous man. Once, while conversing with him, His Eminence said of prayer that every Christian in general should strive to pray always, and to pray without ceasing, as Apostle Paul commands all Christians, "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17), and as the prophet David says of himself, although he was a king and had to concern himself with his whole kingdom: "I foresaw the Lord always before my face" (Psalms 15:8), that is, in my prayer I always mentally see the Lord before me. Gregory the Theologian also teaches all Christians to say God's name in prayer more often than to breathe. . . . .

So, my Christian brethren, I too implore you, together also with St. Chrysostom, for the sake of saving your souls, do not neglect the practice of this prayer. Imitate those I have mentioned and follow in their footsteps as far as you can. At first it may appear very difficult to you, but be assured, as it were from Almighty God, that this very name of our Lord Jesus Christ, constantly invoked by you, will help you to overcome all difficulties, and in the course of time you will become used to this practice and will taste how sweet is the name of the Lord. Then you will learn by experience that this practice is not impossible and not difficult, but both possible and easy. This is why St. Paul, who knew better than we the great good which such prayer would bring, commanded us to pray without ceasing. He would not have imposed this obligation upon us if it were extremely difficult and impossible, for he knew beforehand that in such case, having no possibility of fulfilling it, we would inevitably prove to be disobedient and would transgress his commandment, thus incurring blame and condemnation. The Apostle could have had no such intention.

Moreover, bear in mind the method of prayer -- how it is possible to pray without ceasing, namely by praying in the mind. And this we can always do if we so wish. For when we sit down to work with our hands, when we walk, when we eat, when we drink we can always pray mentally and practice this mental prayer -- the true prayer pleasing to God. Let us work with the body and pray with the soul. Let our outer man perform his bodily tasks, and let the inner man be entirely dedicated to the service of God, never abandoning this spiritual practice of mental prayer, as Jesus, God and Man, commanded us, saying: "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret" (Matthew 6:6). The closet of the soul is the body; our doors are the five bodily senses. The soul enters its closet when the mind does not wander hither and thither, roaming among things and affairs of the world, but stays within, in our heart. Our senses become closed and remain closed when we do not let them be attached to external sensory things, and in this way our mind remains free from every worldly attachment, and by secret mental prayer unites with God its Father.

"And thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly," adds the Lord. God who knows all secret things sees mental prayer and rewards it openly with great gifts. For that prayer is true and perfect which fills the soul with Divine grace and spiritual gifts. As chrism perfumes the jar the more strongly the tighter it is closed, so prayer, the more fast it is imprisoned in the heart, abounds the more in Divine grace.

Blessed are those who acquire the habit of this heavenly practice, for by it they overcome every temptation of the evil demons, as David overcame the proud Goliath. It extinguishes the unruly lusts of the flesh, as the three men extinguished the flames of the furnace. This practice of inner prayer tames passions as Daniel tamed the wild beasts. By it the dew of the Holy Spirit is brought down upon the heart, as Elijah brought down rain on Mount Carmel. This mental prayer reaches to the very throne of God and is preserved in golden vials, sending forth their odors before the Lord, as John the Divine saw in the Revelation, "Four and twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of the saints" (Revelation 5:8). This mental prayer is the light which illumines man's soul and inflames his heart with the fire of love of God. It is the chain linking God with man and man with God. Oh the incomparable blessing of mental prayer! It allows a man constantly to converse with God. Oh truly wonderful and more than wonderful -- to be with one's body among men while in one's mind conversing with God.

Angels have no physical voice, but mentally never cease to sing glory to God. This is their sole occupation and all their life is dedicated to this. So, brother, when you enter your closet and close your door, that is, when your mind is not darting hither and thither but enters within your heart, and your senses are confined and barred against things of this world, and when you pray thus always, you too are then like the holy angels, and your Father, Who sees your prayer in secret, which you bring Him in the hidden depths of your heart, will reward you openly by great spiritual gifts.

But what other and greater rewards can you wish from this when, as I said, you are mentally always before the face of God and are constantly conversing with Him -- conversing with God, without Whom no man can ever be blessed either here or in another life?

Finally, my brother, whoever you may be, when you take up this book and, having read it, wish to test in practice the profit which mental prayer brings to the soul, I beg you, when you begin to pray thus, pray God with one invocation, "Lord have mercy," for the soul of him who has worked on compiling this book and of him who helped to give it to the public. For they have great need of your prayer to receive God's mercy for their soul, as you for yours. May it be so! May it be so! END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 412 - 415

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - Three Kinds of Gifts from God

In this issue, we are going to interrupt our series from St. Isaac the Syrian with a reading from St. John Cassian's "Conferences." St. John's works have been a classic of monastic literature, both East and West, for centuries and today's reading demonstrates well the depth of his wisdom and teaching. In this selection, "Conference Fifteen," St. John and his companion, the monk Germanus, are discussing the gifts of God.


BEGIN:  After the evening meal we sat on the mats, as monks do, and we waited for the discussion which had been promised us. Out of deference to the old man we remained silent for a while. Then he interrupted our respectful silence with the following words.

"The direction taken by our earlier discussion has brought us now to the need to state the nature of spiritual gifts, and the tradition of our elders, as we know, us that this takes a threefold form.


"The first cause of the gift of healing is the merit earned by holiness. The grace of working miracles is to be found among specially chosen and just men. It is quite evident that the apostles and many saints worked miracles and wonders. This was in accordance with what the Lord Himself had commanded when He said, 'Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, expel the demons. You have freely received. Give freely.' (Matthew 10:8)


"Second, for the edification of the church or of those who bring forward their own patients or of those who have to be healed, the virtue of healing comes even from sinners and from the unworthy. Of such people the Savior had this to say in the gospel: 'They will say to me on that day: Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and did we not drive out devils in your name, and did we not do many wonders in your name? And I will say out loud to them. I do not know you. Leave me, you workers of iniquity' (Matthew 7:22 - 23). But by contrast, if faith is lacking in those who bring forward the sick, then it will not be permitted, even to those with the gift of healing , to work a cure. The evangelist Luke had this to say: 'And Jesus could not work miracles among them because of their unbelief' (Mark 6: 5 - 6 -- NOTE: this is NOT in Luke, but in Mark). It was at this time that the Lord said: 'There were many lepers in Israel in the days of Elisaeus the prophet and no one of them was cured except Neman the Syrian' (Luke 4:27).


"The third kind of healing is a trick and deception worked by demons. A man caught up in obvious wrongdoing is an object of admiration of being a holy man and a servant of God and he becomes, for evil spirits, the means of enticing others to imitate him even to the extent of doing wrong like him. The way is now open for scandal and even the sanctity of religion is maligned. And it is quite certainly the case that this man who credits himself with the gift of healing is brought crashing down all the harder because of the pride in his heart.

"The demons have also the following trick. They cry out the names of those whom they know to have none of the merits of holiness and to possess none of the fruits of the Spirit. They pretend to be burnt up by the merits of such people and to take flight from the bodies of the possessed. Deuteronomy has this to say about such persons: 'If a prophet should arise among you or a man claiming visionary dreams, and if he foretells a sign and a portent, and if what he says should actually happen, and if he should say to you, "Let us go and follow strange gods who are unknown to you and let us serve them," do not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. For the Lord your God is putting you to the test, bringing out into the open whether or not you love Him with all your heart and with all your should (Deuteronomy 13: 1 - 3). And in the gospel he says this: 'Fake Christs and fake prophets will rise up and they will perform great signs and wonders so that if possible even the chosen will be led into error' (Matthew 24:24).


"Therefore we must never be admirers of those who pretend to do such things out of virtuousness. We must note, instead, whether they have become perfect as a result of driving out their sins and because of the improvement of their way of life. This is something that is certainly not achieved through the act of faith of someone else or for reasons that are obscure to us. It happens because of a man's own zeal and the divine gift of grace.

"Such, then, is the practical knowledge which is otherwise called 'charity' by the apostle and which, on his apostolic authority, is to be preferred to all the speech of men and angels, to the full faith which can even move mountains, to all knowledge and prophetic power, to the utter abandonment of the things of the world, and, finally, even to glorious martyrdom. He listed all the types of charismatic gifts and had this to say: 'To one man the Spirit grants wisdom in preaching, to another knowledgeable discourse, to another faith, to another the gift of healing, to another the working of cures' (I Corinthians 12:8 - 10) and all the rest. But he will go on to speak of love, and notice how he put this before all the charisms: 'I will show you a way that is better than any of them' (I Corinthians 12:31).

"In this way it is clearly shown that the high point of perfection and blessedness does not lie in the working of those miracles but rather in the purity of love. And not without good reason. The former have to vanish and to be done away with. But love will endure forever. Hence we never see the Fathers caught up in these wonderworkings. By the grace of the Holy Spirit they were possessors of such capacities but they never wanted to use them unless they were coerced by utter, unavoidable necessity." END

from St. John Cassian (trans Colm Luibheid), "Conferences," (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 174 - 176

Sunday, May 12, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part VI

Today we will conclude our study of St. Isaac of Syria and his "Directions on Spiritual Training." St. Isaac teaches us more about the distinctions between different kinds of knowledge and how we should evaluate and respond to those different types. He also gives an excellent discussion of liturgical worship and how the believer should approach the services and rituals of the Church. As a convert from a non-liturgical background, I find his discussion of this subject especially valuable in learning how to enter fully into the Liturgy and the prayers which the Church establishes for us.


BEGIN: Knowledge which is concerned with the visible, or which receives through the senses what comes from the visible, is called natural. Knowledge which is concerned with the power of the immaterial and the nature of incorporeal entities within a man is called spiritual, because perceptions are received by the spirit and not by the senses. Because of these two origins (perceptions of the visible and of the spiritual) each kind of knowledge alike comes from without. But the knowledge bestowed by Divine power is called supranatural; it is more unfathomable and is higher than knowledge. Contemplation of this knowledge comes to the soul not from matter, which is outside it, as is the case of the first two kinds of knowledge; it manifests and reveals itself in the innermost depths of the soul itself, immaterially, suddenly, spontaneously and unexpectedly, since, according to the words of Christ 'the kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17:21). It does not feed hope with any image in advance, nor can its coming be observed: but within the image imprinted in the hidden mind, it reveals itself by itself, without thought. The first kind of knowledge results from constant and diligent work of learning; the second results from right living and rational faith; the third is given only to the faith, which sets aside knowledge and puts an end to actions.


-- Accept without fail words spoken from experience, even if the speaker is not learned in books. For though royal treasures may be the greatest of all on earth, yet they do not despise adding an obol taken from a beggar; and rivers are swollen by small streams to become mighty in their flow.

-- Memory of good things and memory of bad things show us, like a pointing finger, either the shamefulness of our thoughts, or the height of our life, and each, according to its nature, strengthens in us thoughts and movements belonging either to the right or to the left. Our traffic with them is in the secrecy of our mind; but this mental traffic depicts our life and in it we can see ourselves.

-- There is a love like a small lamp, fed by oil, which goes out when the oil is ended; or like a rain-fed stream which goes dry, when rain no longer feeds it. But there is a love, like a spring gushing from the earth, never to be exhausted. The first is human love; the second - is Divine, and has God as its source.


-- Do not doubt the power of our prayers in established services, if it happens that prayers or hourly reading are not followed by strong stimulation and constant contrition.

-- Do you wish to enjoy the words of your services and to understand the meaning of the words of the Spirit that you utter? Then disregard completely the quantity of verses, take no account of your skill in giving rhythm to the lines, abandon te customary loud chanting, but let your mind sink deep into study of the words of the Spirit, till your soul is roused to heights of understanding and thereby is moved to glorify God or to salutary mourning. There is no peace for the mind in slavish work (in merely reading the set prayers); and disturbance of mind deprives it of the taste of the meaning and of understanding and disperses thoughts. Disturbance may truthfully be called the devil's chariot, for it is Satan's practice to drive the mind like a charioteer, and, carrying with him a load of passions, to enter the luckless soul and plunge it into confusion.


-- Do not oppose the thoughts, which the enemy sows in you, but rather cut off all converse with them by prayer to God. We have not always strength enough so to oppose hostile thoughts as to stop them; on the contrary, in such attempts they frequently inflict us with a wound that is long in healing. Despite all your wisdom and all your good intentions, the enemies will succeed in dealing you a blow. But even if you conquer them, the filth of such thoughts will pollute your mind and their stench will long cling in your nostrils. But if you use the first method, you will be free of all this and of fear; for there is no help but God. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 196 - 198

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part V

In this issue, we will continue our study of the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will continue to these texts over the next several issues.


Today's teachings from St. Isaac concern the "three degrees of knowledge." Last week we looked at what these degrees are and how they are manifested; this week we will examine their effects on the believer:


BEGIN TEXT -- These are the three modes of knowledge. From the time a man begins to distinguish good from evil, and until he leaves this world, the knowledge of his soul remains within these three degrees. The fullness of all wrong and impiety, and the fullness of righteousness, and the probing of all the depths of the mysteries of the spirit, all these are produced by one single knowledge in these three degrees; in it is contained every movement of the mind, whether it ascends or descends, in good, in evil, or in something between the two. These three degrees are called by the fathers: natural, contranatural and supranatural knowledge. They are the three directions along which the memory of a rational soul travels up and down, either when, as has been said, a man acts rightly from his own nature, or when by memory he is ravished on high, above his nature, in supranatural contemplation of God, or when he goes out to herd swine, having squandered the riches of good judgment, slaving with a multitude of demons.


-- The first degree of knowledge renders the soul cold towards efforts to walk according to God. The second warms the soul, hastening its progress towards that which is on the level of faith. The third is rest from activity, enjoying the mysteries of the future life, in a single striving of mind. But since our being is as yet unable entirely to transcend its state of lifelessness and the burden of the flesh, so, while a man lives in the body, he remains in a constant state of changing from one to another. Now, like a miserable beggar, his soul begins its service in the second, the middle degree of virtue; now, like those who have received the spirit of sonship in the mystery of liberation, he rejoices in the quality of spiritual grace which corresponds to its Giver; then again he returns to his humble works performed with the help of the body. For there is no perfect freedom in this imperfect life.

-- In the second degree, the work of knowledge consists in long- drawn exercise and labor. Work in the third degree is the doing of faith, performed not through actions, but through spiritual representations in the mind, in an activity which is purely of the soul, since it transcends the senses. By faith we mean not faith in relation to the distinctions of the Divine Hypostases we worship, or the miracle of dispensation through Incarnation in man's nature, although this faith is also very lofty; we mean that faith, which is kindled in the soul from the light of grace and which fortifies the heart by testimony of the mind, giving it the certainty of hope which is free from all doubt. This faith manifests itself not through increased hearing fo the ears, but thropugh spiritual eyes, which see the mysteries hidden in the soul, that invisible Divine treasure, which is hidden from the sight of sons of the flesh and is revealed by the Spirit to those who receive their food from Christ's table and learn His laws. As the Lord said: if ye keep my commandments, I will send you a Comforter, "even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive . . . he shall teach you all things" (John 14:17, 26). END TEXT

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 195 - 196

Sunday, May 5, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part IV

In this issue, we will continue our study of the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will continue to these texts over the next several issues.


Today's teachings from St. Isaac concern the "three degrees of knowledge." Today we will look at what these degrees are and how they are manifested, and next week we will examine their effects on the believer:

BEGIN TEXT -- There are three modes by which knowledge ascends and descends. These modes are: body, soul, spirit. Knowledge is the gift of God to the nature of rational beings and was bestowed on them at their very creation. In its nature it is as simple and indivisible as sunlight, but corresponding to its application it undergoes changes and divisions. Listen to the order of this application.


-- The first degree of knowledge. When knowledge follows desires of the flesh, it embraces the following modes: wealth, vainglory, adornment, bodily comfort, care for book-learning, such as is suitable in the administration of this world and producing new things through inventions, arts and sciences, and all the other things which crown the body in this visible world. Because of these distinctive features knowledge becomes opposed to faith. It is called naked knowledge, for it excludes all concern for God, owing to the preponderance of the body, introduces into the mind an irrational impotence and limits all its concern to this world alone.

This is how this knowledge conceives itself: as if it were a mental power, which secretly governs man, a kind of divine management, which watches over man and takes perfect care of him. Therefore this knowledge does not ascribe the control of the world to God's Providence; on the contrary, all that is good in man, all that saves him from harm, al that naturally protects him from difficulties and the many adversities which accompany our nature, both secretly and openly, all this appears to this knowledge to be the result of its own care and its own methods.

Such is the opinion this blasphemous knowledge has of itself. It imagines that all things happen through its own providence; and in this it is in agreement with those who asse4rt that nothing rules this world. All the same it cannot exist without constant cares and without fears for the body, and is, therefore, a prey to faintheartedness, sorrow, despair and fears: fears that come from demons, fears that come from men, rumors about robbers, rumors about murders, worries brought by sickness, by want and lack of the necessities of life, fear of death, fear of sufferings and wild beasts, and of other similar things -- all of which make this knowledge like a turbulent sea, on which sailors spend day and night, with no respite from attacks and buffetings by waves from every side.

Since this knowledge is incapable of placing all care of itself on God, through faith and trust in Him, it is constantly occupied in evolving and inventing various contrivances concerned with itself. But when these contrivances happen to fail in some case, it does not see in this the mysterious hand of Providence, and begins to quarrel with people, who resist or oppose it. In this respect, there is implanted in this knowledge the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree which uproots love. Its qualities are pride and arrogance. It is puffed up, while yet it walks in darkness, it values what it has by earthly standards, and does not know that there is something better than itself.


-- The second degree of knowledge: When a man renounces the first degree, he becomes occupied with thoughts and desires of the soul; then, in the light of the nature of his soul, he practices the following excellent deeds: fasting, prayer, alms, reading of the Divine Scriptures, virtuous life, struggle with passions and so on. For all the good deeds, all the excellent features seen in the soul and the wonderful means used for serving in the house of Christ in this second degree of knowledge are the work of the Holy Spirit, Who lends power to its action. At the same time this knowledge also shows to the heart the ways which lead us to faith, and collects in it what is useful for the journey into true life.

But even here knowledge is still material and multiple. It contains only the way which leads and speeds us towards faith. There is yet a higher degree of knowledge. Should a man achieve success in his work, with Christ's help it will be possible for him to be raised to that third degree, if he has laid the foundation of his activity on silent withdrawal from people, reading the Scriptures, prayer and other good works, by which are achieved all that relates to the second knowledge. It is by this knowledge that all that is most beautiful is performed; indeed it is called the knowledge of actions, because by sensory actions, through the sense of the body, it does its work on the external level.


-- The third degree of knowledge is the degree of perfection. Hear now how a man becomes finer, acquires that which is of the spirit, and in his life comes to resemble the invisible powers, which perform their service not through sensory actions but through vigilance of mind. When knowledge soars above earthly things and the cares of earthly activities, when it begins to experience thoughts belonging to what is within and hidden from the eyes, when it surges upwards and follows faith in its solicitude for the life to come, in its desire for what was promised us, and in searching deeply into the mysteries that are hidden; then faith itself absorbs this knowledge, is transformed and begets it anew, so that this knowledge becomes all spirit.

Then it can soar on wings to the realms of the incorporeal and touch the depths of the intangible sea, representing to the mind the wondrous workings of the Divine rule in the natures of incorporeal and sensory creatures; (it can) search out the spiritual mysteries, accessible to a fine and simple mind. Then the inner senses awake for spiritual doing, according to the order which will prevail in the immortal and incorruptible life; for then it has, as it were, undergone a spiritual resurrection even in this world, as a true token of the general resurrection. END TEXT.

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 192 - 19

PASCHA - "Christ Is Risen! Truly He Is Risen!

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Today is Orthodox Easter -- the Feast of the Resurrection -- for all Christians, whether from the Eastern or Western traditions. The Orthodox know it as "Pascha;" to all of our readers, Inner Light Productions wishes you the very best in this Paschal season. It is our hope and prayer that the Light of our Lord will fill your heart and soul as you continue forward in your study of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and seek to apply their teachings to your life.

Today's "thought" will continue our tradition of bringing the "Easter Sermon" of St. John Chrysostom to you on Orthodox Easter. St. John Chrysostom was born in Antioch in 347. This Sermon is read in every Orthodox Church during the Paschal Liturgy. Although most Eastern Orthodox Christians are well familiar with this text, those of other Christian traditions may not be, so we want to share it with you today. It is truly one of those "classic" texts that cannot be read enough! The Joy of the Resurrection which St. John Chrysostom feels shines through in every word of this joyous text; we are pleased to share it with you here.

BEGIN: Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

If any man is a devout lover of God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man is a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of the Lord. If any has labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any has wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any has come at the third hour, let him have no misgivings; because he will in no wise be deprived thereof. If any has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any has tarried even until the eleventh hour let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as to him who has wrought from the first hour. And he shows mercy on the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he giveth, and upon the other he bestoweth gifts. And he accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast you all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go away hungry. All of you, enjoy the feast of faith: receive all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, he has made Hell captive. He angered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was angered, when it encountered You in the lower regions. It was angered for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. It was angered, for it was slain. It was angered for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the Angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

Trans. by Isabel F. Hapgood, from "The Bible and the Holy Fathers for Orthodox," ed. By Johanna Manly, (Menlo Park, California: Monastery Books, 1990), p. 11

The book from which today's text is taken is one of the finest Bible study books we have seen as it presents the Holy Scriptures through the writings and teachings of the Holy Fathers.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part III

In this issue, we will continue our study of the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will continue to these texts over the next several issues.


With Great Lent now underway, we will take a close look at St. Isaac's teachings on fasting and bodily discipline as the path to spiritual growth. The Desert Fathers and the Church have enjoined all of us to fast during the period leading up to the Feast of the Resurrection, but not necessarily to the same degree for all people. St. Isaac teaches us today the basis for fasting and why it is important for all Christians, but especially for monks:


-- The practices of a monk are the following: freedom from things of the flesh, labor of the body in prayers and constant memory of God in the heart.


-- Prayer is one thing, and contemplation in prayer is another, although prayer and contemplation mutually engender one another. Prayer is sowing, contemplation the reaping of the harvest, when the reaper is filled with wonder at the ineffable sight of the beautiful ears of corn, which have sprung up before him from the little naked seeds that he sowed.


-- The Savior began the work of our salvation with fasting. In the same way all those, who follow in the footsteps of the Savior, build on this foundation the beginning of their endeavor, since fasting is a weapon established by God. Who will escape blame if he neglects this? If the Lawgiver Himself fasts, how can any of those, who have to obey the law, be exempt from fasting? This is why the human race knew no victory before fasting, and the devil was never defeated by our nature as it is: but this weapon has indeed deprived the devil of strength from the outset. Our Lord was the Leader and the first example of this victory, in order to place the first crown of victory on the head of our nature. As soon as the devil sees some one possessed of this weapon, fear straightway falls on this adversary and tormentor of ours, who remembers and thinks of his defeat by the Savior in the wilderness; his strength is at once destroyed and the sight of the weapon, given us by our Supreme Leader, burns him up. A man armed with the weapon of fasting is always afire with zeal. He who remains therein, keeps his mind steadfast and ready to meet and repel all violent passions.

-- Works and deeds gain passionlessness for the soul, mortify the "members which are upon the earth" (Colossians 3:5) and give quietness from thoughts, when we acquire silence, and when the turmoil produced by impressions from the outer senses ceases in the soul. Otherwise success in this is not possible. For, if a tree is watered every day, can its root ever wither? Does water ever get less in a vessel if more is added daily? But when a man gains silence, his soul readily discerns passions, and the inner man, roused to spiritual work, overcomes them and, from day to day, lifts the soul nearer to purity.


-- How can one say that a man has attained purity? When he sees all men as being good, and when none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then he is indeed pure in heart.

-- Blessed are the pure in heart, for there is no time when they do not rejoice in the sweetness of tears -- in which too they see the Lord at all times. While tears are still wet in their eyes, they are granted a sight of His revelations at the height of their prayer; and no prayer of theirs is without tears. This is the meaning of the Lord's saying: "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4). For if, with the help of tears, a monk has succeeded in crossing the realm of passions and entering the plain of purity of soul, he meets with the comfort which God grants for their purity to those that mourn. To mourn and shed tears is a gift of the passionless. If the tears of a man, who for a time weeps and mourns, can not only lead him to passionlessness, but even completely free and cleanse his mind of all memory of passions, what can be said of those who day and night exercise themselves in this doing with knowledge?

-- One of the saints said that a body is greatly burdened by the sufferings of silence, endures privations and want, and comes near to losing its life, it is natural for it to implore you and say: "Give me a little freedom to live decently; I now walk righteously, for I have been tried by all kinds of bitter sufferings." But as soon as you take pity on it and give it some small rest from sufferings it begins little by little to cajole you (and its cajolings are very powerful) by whispering: "We can live as we should even close to the world, by following the same rules which guide us now, since we have been well tried. Put me to the test, and if I am not as you wish, we can always go back. The wilderness will not run away." Do not trust it, however hard it implores you and whatever promises it makes. It will not do as it says. If you grant its request it will cast you into great downfalls, and you will not be able to rise up from them again. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 188 - 191