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 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