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, July 31, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS - 24 Discourses: Joy

St. Peter of Damaskos wrote a wonderful piece of "joy" and its meaning to the spiritual seeker. This reading is a bit long, but it is full of the kind of instruction that makes the seeker so aware of his or her surroundings, and so conscious of God's presence in everything in everyday life, that it is a joy to read. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.

(from The 24 Discourses)

BEGIN:  "Rejoice in the Lord," said St. Paul (Philemon 3:1). And he was right to say, "in the Lord." For if our joy is not in the Lord, not only do we not rejoice, but in all probability we never shall. Job, as he described the life of men, found it full of every kind of affliction (Job 7:1-21), and so also did St. Basil the Great. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that birds and other animals rejoice because of their lack of awareness, while man, being endowed with intelligence, is never happy because of his grief. For, he says, we have not been found worthy even to have knowledge of the blessings we have lost. For this reason nature teaches us rather to grieve, since life is full of pain and effort, like a state of exile dominated by sin. But if a person is constantly mindful of God, he will rejoice: as the psalmist says, "I remembered God, and I rejoiced" (Psalms 77:3). For when the intellect is gladdened by the remembrance of God, then it forgets the afflictions of this world, places its hope in Him, and is no longer troubled or anxious. Freedom from anxiety makes it rejoice and give thanks; and the grateful offering of thanks augments the gifts of grace it has received. And as the blessings increase, so does the thankfulness, and so does the pure prayer offered with tears of joy.

Slowly the man emerges from the tears of distress and from the passions, and enters fully into the state of spiritual joy. Through the things that bring him pleasure, he is made humble and grateful; through trials and temptations his hope in the world to come is consolidated; in both he rejoices, and naturally and spontaneously he loves God and all men as his benefactors. He finds nothing in the whole of creation that can harm him. Illumined by the knowledge of God he rejoices in the Lord on account of all the things that He has created, marveling at the care He shows for His creatures. The person who has attained spiritual knowledge not only marvels at visible things, but also is astounded by his perception of many essential things invisible to those who lack experience of this knowledge.

Thus he looks with wonder not only on the light of day, but also at the night. For the night is a benediction to all; to those practicing the virtues that pertain to the body it offers stillness and leisure; it encourages the remembrance of death and hell in those who grieve; those engaged in practicing the moral virtues it spurs to study and examine more closely the blessings they have received and the moral state of their soul. In the words of the psalmist, "As you lie in bed, repent of what you say in your heart" (Psalms 4:4), that is, repent in the stillness of the night, remembering the lapses that occurred in the confusion of the day and disciplining yourself in hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16) -- in other words, teaching yourself to persist in prayer and psalmody through attentive meditation on what you read. For the practice of the moral virtues is effectuated by meditating on what has happened during the day, so that during the stillness of the night we can become aware of the sins we have committed and can grieve over them.

When in this way through God's grace we make some progress, and discover that in truth and not just in fantasy we have realized in either action or thought some moral virtue of soul or body according to Christ's commandment, then we give thanks with fear and humility; and we struggle to preserve that moral virtue by means of prayer and many tears offered to God, disciplining ourselves to remember it lest we lose it again because of forgetfulness. For it takes much time to make a moral virtue effective in ourselves, while what has been achieved with so much time and effort can be lost in a single instant.

All this applies to those practicing the virtues. Where the contemplative life is concerned, the night supplies us with many themes for contemplation, as St. Basil the Great has said. First of all, it reminds us daily of the creation of the world, since all creation becomes invisible because of the darkness, as it was before it came into existence. This in its turn prompts us to reflect how the sky was empty then and without stars, as happens now whent hey become invisible because of the clouds. When we enter our cell and see only darkness, we are reminded of the darkness that was over the abyss (Genesis 1:2), and when suddenly the sky becomes clear again, and we stand outside our cell, we are struck by wonder at the world above, and offer praise to God, just as the angels are said in the Book of Job to have praised God when they saw the stars (Job 38:7). We see in the mind's eye the earth as it was originally, invisible and without form (Genesis 1:2), and men held fast by sleep as if they did not exist. We feel ourselves alone in the world like Adam and, united with the angels, in full knowledge we praise the Maker and Creator of the universe.

In thunder and lightning we see the day of judgment; in the call of cocks we hear the trumpet that will sound on that day (I Thessalonians 4:16), in the rising of the morning star and the light of dawn we perceive the appearance of the precious and life-giving Cross (Matthew 24:30); in men's rising from sleep we see a sign of the resurrection of the dead, and in the rising of the sun a token of the second advent of Christ. Some, like the saints caught up in clouds on the last day (I Thessalonians 4:17), we see go forth to greet Him with song, while others, like those who will then be judged, are indifferent and remain asleep. Some we see rejoicing throughout the day in the offering of praise, in contemplation and prayer, and in the other virtues, living in the light of spiritual knowledge, as will the righteous at the second coming; while others we see persisting in the passions and in the darkness of ignorance, as will sinners on that day.

In short, the man of spiritual knowledge finds that everything contributes to his soul's salvation and to God's glory: indeed, it was because of this glory that all things were brought into existence by the Lord and God of knowledge, as Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel calls Him (I Samuel 2:3). "Therefore let the wise man not vaunt himself because of his wisdom," she said, "or the strong man because of his strength, or the rich man because of his wealth; but let him who boasts do so because of his understanding and knowledge of the Lord" (I Samuel 2:10). That is to say, let him boast because he knows the Lord with full understanding from His works, and because he imitates Him, so far as is possible, through the keeping of His divine commandments. For it is through them that he knows God and can "work judgment and righteousness in the midst of the earth" (I Samuel 2:10), as God does. Hannah spoke these words prophetically concerning the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord. The gnostic's aspiration, too, is to suffer with the Lord through the acquisition of the virtues and to be glorified with Him through dispassion and spiritual knowledge, and to boast because of Him, in that, unworthy though he is, he has been enabled by grace to be a servant of such a master and an imitator of His humility. Then "Praise will come from God" (I Corinthians 4:5). But when will that happen? When He says to those on His right hand, "Come, you blessed, inherit the kingdom" (Matthew 25:34). May we all be found worthy to inherit that kingdom through His grace and love: to Him be gloy and dominion throughout the ages. Amen.

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. III, (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 260 - 263.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS - 24 Discourses: Courage

St. Peter of Damaskos wrote a short, but very nice piece on "courage" and how to cultivate the courage that is most needed in the eyes of God. It's a good teaching and, I think, will speak to each of us during these tense times.

(from The 24 Discourses)


Courage does not consist in defeating and oppressing one's neighbor, for this is overbearingness, which oversteps the bounds of courage. Nor again does it consist in fleeing terrified from the trials that come as a result of practicing the virtues; for this is cowardice and falls short of courage. Courage itself consists in persisting in every good work ad in overcoming the passions of soul and body. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, that is, against men, as was the case with the Jews of old, where to conquer other nations was to do the work of God; it is against principalities and powers, that is, against the unseen demons (Ephesians 6:12). He who is victorious conquers spiritually; otherwise he is conquered by the passions. The warfare described in the Old Testament prefigures our spiritual warfare.

These two passions of overbearingness and cowardice, though they appear to be opposites, are both caused by weakness. Overbearingness pulls one upwards and is outwardly something startling and frightening, like some powerless bear, while cowardice flees like a chased dog. No one who suffers from either of these two passions puts his trust in the Lord, and therefore he cannot stand firm in battle, whether he is overbearing or cowardly. But the righteous man is as bold as a lion (Proverbs 28:1) in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion throughout the ages. Amen. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. III, (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 258.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

ST. PETER OF DAMASKOS - 24 Discourses: Love

In this issue, we will look at another writing from St. Peter of Damaskos. The most prolific writer in the entire Philokalia, St. Peter apparently lived in the eleventh century, although biographical details of his life are sketchy, at best.

Our study today is a short chapter on "love" from his larger work, 24 Discourses. We hope you will enjoy it.


BEGIN:  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 soulless, 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 Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. III, (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), pp. 253 - 254.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

ST. THALASSIOS THE LIBYAN - Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life -- Part IVb

In this issue we will look at the second half of part four of our four-part series on St. Thalassios's four "centuries" on the spiritual life. We are dividing this fourth part into two sections due to the richness of their teachings and the length of the text. These are only excerpts as we do not have space for the full text. St. Thalassios the Libyan, abbot of a monastery in Libya in the late sixth and early seventy centuries. There is little information in his biography beyond saying that he was a contemporary and friend of St. Maximos the Confessor (580 - 662). St. Maximos wrote his largest work as a theological treatise addressed to St. Thalassios.

- by St. Thalassios the Libyan

-- The truly physician-like intellect is one that first heals itself and then heals others of the diseases of which it has been cured.

-- Our Lord Jesus has given light to all men, but those who do not trust in Him bring darkness upon themselves.

-- Do not think that the loss of virtue is a minor matter, for it was through such a loss that death came into the world.

-- He who has put his passions to death and overcome ignorance goes from life to life.

-- Search the Scriptures and you will find the commandments; do what they say and you will be freed from your passions.

-- Obedience to a commandment purifies the soul, and purification of the soul leads to its participation in light.

-- The tree of life is the knowledge of God; when, being purified, you share in that knowledge you attain immortality.

-- The first step in the practice of the virtues is faith in Christ; its consummation, the love of Christ.

-- Jesus is the Christ, our Lord and our God, who grants us faith in Him so that we may live.

-- Let us acquire faith so that we may attain love; for love gives birth to the illumination of spiritual knowledge.

-- The acquisition of faith leads successively to fear of God, restraint from sensual pleasure, the patient endurance of suffering, hope in God, dispassion and love.

-- Genuine love gives birth to the spiritual knowledge of the created world. This is succeeded by the desire of all desires: the grace of theology.

-- When you have been given faith, self-control is demanded from you; when self-control has become habitual, it gives birth to patient endurance, a disposition that gladly accepts suffering.

-- The sign of patient endurance is delight in suffering; and the intellect, trusting in this patient endurance, hopes to attain what is promised and to escape what is threatened.

-- He who has tasted the things for which he hopes will spurn the things of this world: all his longing will be spent on what he hopes for.

-- It is God who has promised the blessings held in store; and the self-disciplined person who has faith in God longs for what is held in store as though it were present.

-- The sign that the intellect dwells among the blessings for which it hopes is its total oblivion to worldly things and the growth in its knowledge of what is held in store.

-- The dispassion taught by the God of truth is a noble quality; through it He fulfils the aspirations of the devout soul.

-- According to the degree to which the intellect is stripped of the passions, the Holy Spirit initiates the intellect into the mysteries of the age to be.

-- The more the intellect is purified, the more the soul is granted spiritual knowledge of divine principles.

-- He who has disciplined his body and dwells in a state of spiritual knowledge finds that through this knowledge he is purified still further.

-- Initially our search for wisdom is prompted by fear; but as we attain our goal we are led forward by love.

-- The intellect that begins its search for divine wisdom with simple faith will eventually attain a theology that transcends the intellect and that is characterized by unremitting faith of the highest type and the contemplation of the invisible. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. II, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 328 - 330.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

ST. THALASSIOS THE LIBYAN - Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life -- Part IVa

Before we get into this week's study, I would like to share with you a prayer from St. Thalassios which he wrote for all those struggling against the passions:

A PRAYER -- St. Thalassios

Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them.

For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.

We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.

O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.

For Thou camest to save us who were lost. Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.

Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.

Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou hast broken the ranks of the impure demons.

Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light,

Having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal and indissoluble dance. Amen.


In this issue we will look at part four of our four-part series on St. Thalassios's four "centuries" on the spiritual life. We are dividing this fourth part into two sections due to the richness of their teachings and the length of the text. These are only excerpts as we do not have space for the full text. St. Thalassios the Libyan, abbot of a monastery in Libya in the late sixth and early seventy centuries. There is little information in his biography beyond saying that he was a contemporary and friend of St. Maximos the Confessor (580 - 662). St. Maximos wrote his largest work as a theological treatise addressed to St. Thalassios.

- by St. Thalassios the Libyan

-- Withdraw your soul from the perception of sense objects, and the intellect will find itself in God and in the realm of intelligible realities.

-- Intelligible natures that can be grasped only by the intellect belong to the realm of divinity, while the senses and sense objects have been created for the service of the intellect.

-- Use the senses and sense objects as a means to spiritual contemplation but, on the contrary, do not use what provokes the desire of the flesh as food for the senses.

-- You have been commanded to mortify the acts of the body (Colossians 3:5), so that when the soul has been made dead to pleasure you may bring it back to life through your ascetic labors.

-- Be ruled by God and rule over your senses; and, being on a higher level, do not give authority to what is inferior to you.

-- God, who is eternal, limitless and infinite, has promised eternal, limitless and inexpressible blessings to those who obey him.

-- The intellect's role is to live in God and to meditate on Him, His providence and His awesome judgments.

-- You have the power to incline either upwards or downwards: choose what is superior and you will bring what is inferior into subjection.

-- Because they are the work is of God, who is Himself good, the senses and sensible objects are good; but they cannot in any way be compared with the intellect and with intelligible realities.

-- The Lord has created intelligent and noetic beings with a capacity to receive the Spirit and to attain knowledge of Himself; He has brought into existence the senses and sense objects to serve such beings.

-- An intellect that does not control the senses will fall into evil because of them; deceived by the pleasure of sense objects, it depraves itself.

-- While controlling your senses, control your memory as well; for when its prepossessions are roused through the senses they stir up the passions.

-- Keep your body under control, and pray constantly; in this way you will soon be free from the thoughts that arise from your prepossessions.

-- Devote yourself ceaselessly to the words of God: application to them destroys the passions.

-- Spiritual reading, vigils, prayer and psalmody prevent the intellect from being deluded by the passions.

-- Keep the commandments, and you will find peace; love God, and you will attain spiritual knowledge.

-- As by nature the soul gives life to the body, so virtue and spiritual knowledge give life to the soul.

-- In controlling your self-esteem, beware of unchastity, so that you do not shun acclaim only to fall into dishonor.

-- Eschewing self-esteem, look to God, and beware lest you become presumptuous or unchaste.

-- A sign of self-esteem is an ostentatious manner; of pride, anger and scorn of others.

-- In cutting out gluttony, beware lest you seek the esteem of others, making a display of the pallor of your face.

-- To fast well is to enjoy simple food in small amounts and to shun other people's esteem.

-- After fasting until late in the day, do not eat your fill, lest in so doing you build up again what you have pulled down (Galatians 2:18).

-- If you do not drink wine, do not glut yourself with water either; for if you do you will be providing yourself with the same fuel for unchastity.

-- Pride deprives us of God's help, making us over-reliant on ourselves and arrogant towards other people.

-- Prayer with tears, and having no scorn for anyone, destroy pride; but so do chastisements inflicted against our will.

-- Chastisement through the trials imposed on us is a spiritual rod, teaching us humility when in our foolishness we think too much of ourselves.

-- The intellect's task is to reject any thought that secretly vilifies a fellow being.

-- Just as the gardener who does not weed his garden chokes his vegetables, so the intellect that does not purify its thoughts I wasting its efforts.

-- A wise man is one who accepts advice, especially that of a spiritual father counseling him in accordance with the will of God.

-- A man deadened by the passions is impervious to advice and will not accept any spiritual correction.

-- He who does not accept advice will never go by the straight path, but will always find himself among cliffs and gorges. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. II, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 325 - 327.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

ST. THALASSIOS THE LIBYAN - Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life -- Part III

Before we get into this issue, we would like to share with you a wonderful little poem written by an early convert of St. Patrick of Ireland, a great monastic saint shared venerated by both the Eastern and Western Churches. The author is St. Manchan of Offaly and he writes lovingly -- and beautifully -- of his simple needs as a hermit. We hope you will enjoy this as much as we did!

BEGIN: Grant me sweet Christ the grace to find -- Son of the living God! -- A small hut in a lonesome spot To make it my abode.

A little pool but very clear To stand beside the place Where all men's sins are washed away By sanctifying grace.

A pleasant woodland all about To shield it (the hut) from the wind, And make a home for singing birds Before it and behind.

A southern aspect for the heat A stream along its foot, A smooth green lawn with rich top soil Propitious to all fruit.

My choice of men to live with me And pray to God as well; Quiet men of humble mind -- Their number I shall tell.

Four files of three or three of four To give the Psalter forth; Six to pray by the south church wall And six along the north.

Two by two my dozen friends -- To tell the number right -- Praying with me to move the King Who gives the sun its light. END

Now, on to today's "thought."

In this issue we will look at part three of our four-part series on St. Thalassios's four "centuries" on the spiritual life. These are only excerpts as we do not have space for the full text. St. Thalassios the Libyan, abbot of a monastery in Libya in the late sixth and early seventy centuries. There is little information in his biography beyond saying that he was a contemporary and friend of St. Maximos the Confessor (580 - 662). St. Maximos wrote his largest work as a theological treatise addressed to St. Thalassios.

- by St. Thalassios the Libyan

-- Think good thoughts bout what is good by nature, and think well of every man.

-- Whether we think, speak or act in a good or an evil manner depends upon whether we cleave inwardly to virtue or to vice.

-- An intellect dominated by the passions thinks base thoughts; words and actions bring these thoughts into the open.

-- Shut out the senses, fight against prepossession and, with the commandments as your weapons, destroy the passions.

-- The forceful practice of self-control and love, patience and stillness, will destroy the passions hidden within us.

-- You will not find the rigors of the ascetic life hard to bear if you do all things with measure and by rule.

-- Maintain a regular level of ascetic practice and do not break your rule unless forced to do so.

-- Ascetic struggle -- fasting, vigils, patience, forbearance -- produces a clear conscience.

-- He who patiently endures unsought trials becomes humble, full of hope and spiritually mature.

-- Patient endurance is a continuous effort for the soul; it is born of suffering freely chosen and of trials that come unsought.

-- Perseverance in the face of adversity dissolves evil, while unremitting patience destroys it utterly.

-- The person advancing in the spiritual life studies three things: the commandments, doctrine, and faith in the Holy Trinity.

-- As has been said, our passions are roused through these three things: the memory, the body's temperament, and the senses.

-- The intellect that has shut out the senses, and has achieved a balance in the body's temperament, has to fight only against its memories.

-- It is when self-control and spiritual love are missing that the passions are roused by the senses.

-- Moderate fasting, vigils and psalmody are natural means for achieving a balance in the body's temperament.

-- Three things upset the balance of the body's temperament: lack of restraint in our diet, a change in the weather, and the touch of the demonic powers.

-- Our memories can be stripped of passion through prayer, spiritual reading, self-control and love.

-- First shut out the senses through the practice of stillness and then fight against your memories by cultivating the virtues.

-- The person who listens to Christ fills himself with light; and if he imitates Christ, he reclaims himself.

-- The Lord blinds the intellect that is jealous and resentful of its neighbor's blessings.

-- The tongue of a back-biting soul is three-pronged: it injures the speaker, the listeners and sometimes the person being maligned.

-- He who prays for those who offend him is without rancor; and the unstinting giver is set free from it.

-- Control of the belly withers desire and keeps the intellect free from lecherous thoughts.

-- An intellect in control of itself is the temple of the Holy Spirit, but that of a glutton is like a nest of crows.

-- A surfeit of foods breeds desire; a deficiency sweetens even plain bread.

-- If you share secretly in the joy of someone you envy, you will be freed from your jealousy; and you will also be freed from your jealousy if you keep silent about the person you envy.

-- A wise intellect restrains the soul, keeps the body in subjection, and makes the passions its servants.

-- The hypocrite, like the false prophet, is betrayed by his words and actions.

-- Hardship and humility save the soul and free it from all the passions.

-- A helpful word indicates an understanding mind; a good action reveals a saint-like soul.

-- An illumined intellect brings forth words of wisdom; a pure soul cultivates godlike thoughts.

-- The thoughts of a wise man are devoted to wisdom; a pure soul cultivates godlike thoughts.

-- The thoughts of a wise man are devoted to wisdom, and his words enlighten those who hear them.

-- A virtuous soul cultivates good thoughts; a soul full of evil breeds thoughts of depravity.

-- The virtues generate good thoughts; the commandments lead us to the virtues; the practice of the virtues depends on our own will and resolution.

-- Self-love precedes all the passions, while last of all comes pride.

-- The three most common forms of desire have their origin in the passion of self-love.

-- These three forms are gluttony, self-esteem and avarice. All other impassioned thoughts follow in their wake, though they do not all follow each of them.

-- The thought of unchastity follows that of gluttony; of pride, that of self-esteem. The others all follow the three most common forms.

-- Thus thoughts of resentment, anger, rancor, envy, listlessness and the rest all follow these three most common forms. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. II, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 319 - 324.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

ST. THALASSIOS THE LIBYAN - Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life -- Part II

In this issue we will continue our study of the writings of St. Thalassios the Libyan, abbot of a monastery in Libya in the late sixth and early seventy centuries. There is little information in his biography beyond saying that he was a contemporary and friend of St. Maximos the Confessor (580 - 662). St. Maximos wrote his largest work as a theological treatise addressed to St. Thalassios.

- by St. Thalassios the Libyan

-- The soul's health consists in dispassion and spiritual knowledge; no slave to sensual pleasure can attain it.

-- Self-love -- that is, friendship for the body -- is the source of evil in the soul.

-- It is an insult to the intelligence to be subject to what lacks intelligence and to concern itself with shameful desires.

-- You were commanded to keep the body as a servant, not to be unnaturally enslaved to its pleasures.

-- Break the bonds of your friendship for the body and give it only what is absolutely necessary.

-- The greatest weapons of someone striving to lead a life of inward stillness are self-control, love, prayer, and spiritual reading.

-- Let us strive to fulfill the commandments so that we may be freed from the passions; and let us struggle to grasp the divine doctrine so that we may be found worthy of spiritual knowledge.

-- The soul's immortality resides in dispassion and spiritual knowledge; no slave to sensual pleasure can attain it.

-- Fear of the Lord conquers desire, and distress that accords with God's will repulses sensual pleasure.

-- The Scriptures contain four things: commandments, doctrines, threats, and promises.

-- Self-control and strenuous effort curb desire; stillness and intense longing for God wither it.

-- Long-suffering and readiness to forgive curb anger; love and compassion wither it.

-- Woman symbolizes the soul engaged in ascetic practice; through union with it the intellect begets the virtues.

-- The study of divine principles teachers knowledge of God to the person who lives in truth, longing and reverence.

-- What light is to those whose and to what is seen, God is to intellective beings and to what is intelligible.

-- Do not neglect the practice of the virtues; if you do, your spiritual knowledge will decrease, and when famine occurs you will go down into Egypt (Genesis 41:57, 46:6).

-- Spiritual freedom is release from the passions; without Christ's mercy you cannot attain it.

-- The Egypt of the spirit is the darkness of the passions; no one goes down to Egypt unless he is overtaken by famine.

-- If you make a habit of listening to spiritual teaching, your intellect will escape from impure thoughts.

-- Control your stomach, sleep, anger, and tongue, and you will not "dash your foot against a stone" (Psalms 91:12).

-- Strive to love every man equally, and you will simultaneously expel all the passions.

-- The intellect cannot devote itself to intelligible realities unless you sunder its attachment to the senses and to sensible things.

-- A sign that the intellect is devoted to the contemplation of intelligible realities is its disdain for all that agitates the senses.

-- When the intellect is rich in the knowledge of the One, the senses will be completely under control.

-- The intellect becomes a stranger to the things of this world when its attachment to the senses has been completely sundered.

-- The intellect is perfect when transformed by spiritual knowledge; the soul is perfect when permeated by the virtues.

-- We are sons of God or of Satan according to whether we conform to goodness or to evil.

-- A wise man is one who pays attention to himself and is quick to separate himself form all defilement.

-- An obdurate soul does not notice when it is whipped and so is unaware of its benefactor.

-- He who fears God will pay careful attention to his soul and will free himself from communion with evil.

-- If you abandon God and are a slave to the passions you cannot reap God's mercy.

-- A soul defiled by the passions becomes obdurate: it has to undergo knife and cautery before it recovers its faith.

-- Concern for one's soul means hardship and humility, for through these God forgives us all our sins.

-- Just as desire and rage multiply our sins, so self-control and humility erase them.

-- All sin is due to sensual pleasure, all forgiveness to hardship and distress.

-- If you are not willing to repent through freely choosing to suffer, unsought sufferings will providentially be imposed on you.

-- Struggle until death to fulfill the commandments: purified through them, you will enter into life.

-- Make the body serve the commandments, keeping it so far as possible free from sickness and sensual pleasure.

-- Blessed stillness gives birth to blessed children: self- control, love and pure prayer.

-- Spiritual reading and prayer purify the intellect, while love and self-control purify the soul's passible aspect.

-- If you lay down rules for yourself, do not disobey yourself; for he who cheats himself is self-deluded.

-- Spiritual poverty is complete dispassion; when the intellect has reached this state it abandons all worldly things.

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. II, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 313 - 318.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

ST. THALASSIOS THE LIBYAN - Four Centuries on the Spiritual Life -- Part I

In this issue we will begin a new study of the writings of St. Thalassios the Libyan, abbot of a monastery in Libya in the late sixth and early seventy centuries. There is little information in his biography beyond saying that he was a contemporary and friend of St. Maximos the Confessor (580 - 662). St. Maximos wrote his largest work as a theological treatise addressed to St. Thalassios.

Over the next four posts, we will look at St. Thalassios's four "centuries" on the spiritual life. These are only excerpts as we do not have space for the full text.

- by St. Thalassios the Libyan

-- An all-embracing and intense longing for God binds those who experience it both to God and to one another.

-- An intellect that has acquired spiritual love does not have thoughts unworthy of this love about anyone.

-- He who has acquired love endures calmly and patiently the injuries and sufferings that his enemies inflict on him.

-- A person who does not tolerate suspicion or disparagement of others possesses true love.

-- If you tell your brother how someone else denigrates him you conceal your own envy in the guise of goodwill.

-- Worldly virtues promote human glory, spiritual virtues the glory of God.

-- A strong man is one who repels evil through the practice of the virtues and with spiritual knowledge.

-- If you wish to overcome impassioned thoughts, acquire self- control and love for your neighbor.

-- Firmly control anger and desire, and you will speedily rid yourself of evil thoughts.

-- Inner work destroys self-esteem and if you despise no one you will repel pride.

-- The genuineness of a friend is shown at a time of trial, if he shares the distress you suffer.

-- Waste your body with fasting and vigils, and you will repulse the lethal thoughts of pleasure.

-- The proper activity of the intellect is to be attentive at every moment to the words of God.

-- It is God's task to administer the world and the soul's task to guide the body.

-- Hardship and distress, whether of our own choosing or providential, destroy sensual pleasure.

-- The amassing of money fuels the passions, for it leads to increasing indulgence in all kinds of sensual pleasure.

-- How God treats you depends upon how you treat your body.

-- Virtue and spiritual knowledge lead to immortality, their absence is the mother of death.

-- If you wish to attain salvation, renounce sensual pleasure and learn self-control, love and how to pray with concentration.

-- There are three ways through which thoughts arise in you: through the senses, through the memory, and through the body's temperament. Of these the most irksome are those that come through the memory.

-- The intellect freed from the passions becomes like light, unceasingly illumined by the contemplation of created beings.

-- He who stands in awe of God searches for the divine principles that God has implanted in creation; the lover of truth finds them.

-- Stillness and prayer are the greatest weapons of virtue, for they purify the intellect and confer on it spiritual insight.

-- Only spiritual conversation is beneficial; it is better to preserve stillness than to indulge in any other kind.

-- The person who is unaffected by the things of this world loves stillness; and he who loves no human thing loves all men.

-- The conscience is a true teacher, and whoever listens to it will not stumble.

-- Only those who have reached the extremes of virtue or of evil are not judged by their consciences.

-- Spiritual commerce consists in being detached equally from the pleasures and the pains of this life for the sake of the blessings held in store.

-- Love and self-control strengthen the soul; pure prayer and contemplation, the intellect.

-- When you hear something to your benefit, do not condemn the speaker; for if you do you will nullify his helpful admonition.

-- A pure conscience rouses the soul, but an impure thought debases it.

-- If you want to be free of all the passions, practice self- control, love, and prayer.

-- Forgiveness of sins is betokened by freedom from the passions; he who has not yet been granted freedom from the passions has not yet received forgiveness. END

from G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, trans., The Philokalia -- vol. II,  (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 307 - 312.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

ST. NILUS OF SINAI - Developing the Active Life of Prayer

In this issue, we will look at some wonderful writings of St. Nilus of Sinai, a contemporary of St. John Chrysostom. From a wealthy and illustrious family, his noble birth and personal gifts resulted in his being appointed prefect of the capital city of Antioch. This illustrious position, and the fame and social life the position attracted, conflicted with his spiritual aspirations. Therefore, St. Nilus reached an agreement with his wife, with whom he already had two children, and renounced the world in order to follow the path of salvation in solitude. He took his son, Theodul, and departed Antioch for Mount Sinai, while his wife and daughter entered a convent in Egypt.

Nilus and Theodul lived a very austere life in the desert of Sinai. They dug a cave with their bare hands to use as a cell and subsisted on bitter wild plants growing in the area. They spent all their time in prayer, study of the Bible, meditation, and labors.

Like Abraham and Isaac before, God tested Nilus and Theodul in the following way. Raiders from Arabia invaded the Sinai, pillaged everything, slaughtered many, and led others away into captivity. Among those captured was Theodul, much to the distress of St. Nilus. A couple of days after the raid, St. Nilus heard that the pagans were about to sacrifice Theodul to Venus, the morning star, but the report did not indicate whether the barbarous act had been carried out. After some time had passed, Nilus learned that Theodul was not sacrificed, but instead had been sold into slavery in the town of Elusius where the bishop had bought him, along with some other captives, and was preparing him for the service of the Church. When Nilus arrived in Elusius to get his son back, the bishop tried to persuade him to enter the service of the Church, too. However, his love of solitude prevented him from doing that. The bishop then ordained both of them to the priesthood, blessed them to return to the Sinai, and they remained there for the rest of their lives.

St. Nilus entered the desert in 390 and departed this world in 450 after spending some sixty years in the desert. His writing on prayer are considered among the finest available from the desert fathers on the subject of prayer.

Today's study will look at sixteen texts on prayer that touch on a number of practical aspects of developing -- and maintaining - - an active life of prayer and contemplation.


BEGIN:  -- Prayer and reading are excellent; they stop the aimless wandering of thoughts, shackle the thought which turns on useless things and keep it close by them with profit, occupied without distraction by this excellent doing.

-- Prayer attunes us for converse with God and, through long practice, leads us to friendship with Him; with Him Whose love accepts even worthless men and is not ashamed to enter into friendship with them, so long as the love that lives in them gives them daring.

-- Prayer frees the mind of all thought of the sensory and raises it to God Himself, Who is above all, to converse with Him and daringly ask Him for anything. Thus a man spends his life in purity, as one who, having already experienced communion with God, is thereupon again preparing for this communion.

-- St. Paul teaches us to continue "instant in prayer" (Romans 12:12), grounding ourselves in it by long perseverance (Collossians 4:2, Ephesians 6:18). He also commands us to "pray everywhere" (I Timothy 2:8) so that no idle one can excuse himself because he lives far from the house of prayer. Any place is suitable for prayer. God accepts those who call to Him with a pure heart and righteous deeds, and seeing their disposition, listens to their supplication, even if the place whence they call to Him has nothing special to distinguish it.

-- At times during vigil one should read the psalms quickly, while at other times it is best to intone them. We should vary the method to oppose the wiles of the enemies, who at times incite us to hurry our tongue in quick reading, because the soul is sunk in depression, and at times incite us to stately intoning.

-- Be fond of working with your hands, but still more of the memory of prayer; because the first does not always bring us the fruit of that occupation, while the second does so unceasingly. Do not stop praying until you have paid your due of prayer in full, and do not listen to the thought that it is time to sit down to work. Equally, when you sit at work, do not be too concerned in it, lest you agitate the heart by your haste and make it worthless for prayer.

-- A mind from which the thought of God has been carried away and which has thus become far removed from remembering Him, is also indifferent to sin with the outer senses. For such a mind can guide neither the hearing nor the tongue, since zest to work on itself has gone out of it.

-- Sometimes we try hard to practice pure prayer, and cannot; but it happens also that we do not compel ourselves, yet the soul prays with purity. The first results from our infirmity, the second, from grace from above, which thus calls us to seek purity of soul and teaches us, in each case, not to ascribe it to ourselves if our prayer is pure, but to recognize in this a gift of the Giver. "We know not what we should pray for as we ought"(Romans 8:26). When we try to make our prayer pure and cannot, but are enveloped in darkness, let us moisten our cheeks with tears and implore God to disperse the night of the battle and to let light shine in the soul.

-- Memory of carnal lusts is revolting; for not only does it prevent us from converse with God, but even when the mind seems to be praying, it defiles it with the fantasies of abominable representations. It is good to remain in constant prayer and to exercise the mind in converse with God. But is it so with us? We are frequently diverted from the words of the prayer, we follow thoughts that lead us away, neither denying them nor being saddened by them -- which would have shown that our will disagreed with unseemly suggestions. Although our outward aspect is appropriate to prayer, for we kneel and appear to those who see us to be praying, in our thought we imagine something pleasant, graciously talk with friends, angrily abuse enemies, feast with guests, build houses for our relatives, plant trees, travel, trade, are forced against our will into priesthood, organize with great circumspection the affairs the affairs of the churches placed in our care, and go over most of it in our thoughts, consenting to any thought that comes along, in whatever way passion chooses to dispose our heart.

-- Prayer demands that the mind should be pure of all thought and should admit nothing not belonging to prayer, even if it were good in itself. As if inspired by God the mind should withdraw from all things and hold its converse with Him alone.

-- He who divides his time between physical work and prayer subdues his body by labor and moderates its disorderly demands; and since his soul, working together with the body, at last longs for a rest, it disposes it to prayer, as to something easier, and brings it to the work of prayer with fresh strength and zeal. For the soul finds comfort in a change of occupation and in passing from one thing to another, whereas it gets bored when occupied for long with the same thing. It becomes weary of monotony, but welcomes variety of occupations. It seems to it that, by abandoning one occupation, it is freed of all hardship, and so it comes to another with fresh strength, as though it were only now starting work.

-- He who does not like working, feeds passions by idleness and gives his desires freedom to fly to kindred objects. This is specially evident in prayer, for then the attention of the mind is wholly absorbed in what occupies the heart, and thought merely turns over and over the suggestions offered by the stirrings of some passion, instead of conversing with God and asking Him for what profits it. Knowing this, St. Paul vigorously attacks idleness and by his Apostolic authority commands all to work (II Thessalonians 3:6-12). Work is an anchor for thought and gives it a safe direction. Let storms and gusts of wind come from all sides, threatening shipwreck -- thought stands firm, kept steadfast by work as by an anchor; even if somewhat agitated by rising suggestions, it is not led into danger, for the bonds that hold it fast are stronger than the driving winds.

-- Those who refuse to work with their hands under the pretext that one should pray without ceasing, in reality do not pray either. By the very fact that they think, through idleness, to give the soul freedom from cares, they entangle it in a labyrinth of thoughts with no way out and so make it incapable of prayer. A body laboring at some piece of work keeps the thought close by, since the task of thought, like that of the eyes, is to watch over what is being done and to help the body act faultlessly; but a body at rest gives thought freedom to wander, for during rest passions are apt to be set in motion and every lustful memory entices the thought away and captures it like a slave.

-- There is a higher prayer -- that of the perfect -- which is a certain ravishing of the mind, its complete separation from all sensory things, when with unutterable sighings of the spirit it approaches God, Who sees the heart open like a written book, wherein its will is expressed in wordless images. Thus Paul was ravished to the third heaven, not knowing "whether in the body" or "whether out of the body" (II Corinthians 12:2).

-- Below the first, there is a second kind of prayer, when words are uttered, while the heart is touched, and the mind follows them, and knows to Whom the supplication is addressed.

-- But prayer interrupted by thoughts (the lowest form), and linked with bodily cares, is far from the structure of mind fitting for prayer. In such prayer man does not hear himself, but darts hither and thither in thought, not remembering what words he utters. But if the man who prays is such, will God's ear pay heed to what, in his inattention, he does not himself hear? With those who said, "Attend to my petition; give ear to my prayer" (Psalms 16:1) and "O Lord, hearken to my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication" (Psalms 129:2), the mind was wholly and carefully collected and not scattered and spread about over such things as is usual with the negligent, whose thoughts are uncontrolled. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer (trans), Early Fathers From the Philokalia, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 144 - 147