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, August 28, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Methods of Prayer : Part I

In this issue, we will begin a short series on prayer from the teachings of St. Simeon the New Theologian, a saint of the 11th century. St. Simeon served first in the imperial service in Constantinople, but then left it all for the monastic life, living in strict asceticism under the guidance of an elder, also named Simeon. He eventually became abbot of the Monastery of St. Mamas and finally a hermit. He is considered the greatest theologian since St. Gregory the Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox Church. St. Simeon entered the Kingdom of Heaven in 1022.

St. Simeon described three methods of prayer. We will look at the first of those here.


BEGIN -- There are three methods of prayer and attentiveness, by means of which the soul is either uplifted or cast down. Whoever employs these methods at the right time is uplifted, but whoever employs them foolishly and at the wrong time is cast down. Vigilance and prayer should be as closely linked together as the body to the soul, for the one cannot stand without the other. Vigilance first goes on ahead like a scout and engages sin in combat. Prayer then follows afterwards, and instantly destroys and exterminates all the evil thoughts with which vigilance has already been battling, for attentiveness alone cannot exterminate them. This, then, is the gate of life and death. If by means of vigilance we keep prayer pure, we make progress; but if we leave prayer unguarded and permit it to be defiled, our efforts are null and void.

Since, then, as we said, there are three methods of attentiveness and prayer, we should explain the distinctive features of each, so that he who aspires to attain life and wishes to set to work may with firm assurance select what suits him best; otherwise through ignorance he may choose what is worse and forfeit what is better.


The distinctive features of the first method of prayer are these. When a person stands at prayer, he raises hands, eyes and intellect heavenwards, and fills his intellect with divine thoughts, with images of celestial beauty, of the angelic hosts, of the abodes of the righteous. In brief, at the time of prayer he assembles in his intellect all that he has heard from Holy Scripture and so rouses his soul to divine longing as he gazes towards heaven, and sometimes he sheds tears. But when someone prays in this way, without him realizing it his heart grows proud and exalted, and he regards what is happening to him as the effect of divine grace and entreats God to allow him always to be engaged in this activity. Such assumptions, however, are signs of delusion, because the good is not good when it is not done in the right way.

If, then, such a person is pursuing a life of stillness and seclusion, he will almost inevitably become deranged. And even if this does not happen to him, it will be impossible for him to attain a state of holiness or dispassion. Those who adopt this method of prayer have also been deluded into thinking that they see lights with their bodily eyes, smell sweet scents, hear voices, and so on. Some have become completely possessed by demons and wander from place to place in their madness. Others fail to recognize the devil when he transforms himself into an angel of light (II Corinthians 2:14); and, putting their trust in him, they continue in an incorrigible state of delusion until their death, refusing to accept the counsel of anyone else. Still others, incited by the devil, have committed suicide, throwing themselves over a precipice or hanging themselves.

Indeed, who can describe all the various forms of deception employed by the devil? Yet from what we have said any sane person can understand the kind of harm that may result from this method of attentiveness. Even if someone who has adopted this method may perhaps avoid the evils we have mentioned because he lives in a community -- for it is solitaries who are especially subject to them -- none the less he will pass his entire life without making any progress. END


from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 67 - 68.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - On Delusion and Other Subjects

In the last post, we looked at the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai on mastering the intellect and expelling thoughts. In this issue, we will look specifically at the issue of finding and working with a spiritual father, a question that concerns many of us in this modern world where we often live far from anyone we think can fulfill that function.

St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching. In this selection, we will look at a few excerpts from a larger chapter that deal only with spiritual fathers.


BEGIN  -- Be careful, therefore, not to entertain and readily give assent to anything even if it be good, before questioning those with spiritual experience and investigating it thoroughly, so as not to come to any harm. Always be suspicious of it and keep your intellect free from colors, forms and images. For it has often happened that things sent by God to test our free will, to see which way it inclines and to act as a spur to our efforts, have in fact had bad consequences. For when we see something, whether with mind or senses -- even if this thing be from God -- and then readily entertain it without consulting those experienced in such matters, we are easily deceived, or will be in the future, because of our gullibility. A novice should pay close attention solely to the activity of his heart, because this is not led astray. Everything else he must reject until the passions are quietened. For God does not censure those who out of fear of being deluded pay strict attention to themselves, even though this means that they refuse to entertain what He sends them until they have questioned others and made careful enquiry. Indeed, He is more likely to praise their prudence, even though in some cases He is grieved.

-- Yet you should not question everyone. You should go only to one, to someone who has been entrusted with the guidance of others as well, who is radiant alike in his life and in his words, and who although poor makes many rich (II Corinthians 6:10). For people lacking spiritual experience have often done harm to foolish questioners, and for this they will be judged after death. Not everyone is qualified to guide others: only those can do so who have been granted divine discrimination -- what St. Paul calls the "discrimination of spirits" (I Corinthians 12:10) -- enabling them to distinguish between bad and good with the sword of God's teaching (Ephesians 6:17). Everyone possesses his own private knowledge and discrimination, whether inborn, pragmatic or scientific, but not all possess spiritual knowledge and discrimination. That is why Sirach said, "Be at peace with many, but let your counselors be one in a thousand" (Ecclesiastes 6:6). It is hard to find a guide who in all he does, says, or thinks is free from delusion. You can tell that a person is undeluded when his actions and judgment are founded on the testimony of divine Scripture, and when he is humble in whatever he has to give his mind to. No little effort is needed to attain a clear understanding of the truth and to be cleansed from whatever is contrary to grace, for the devil -- especially in the case of beginners -- is liable to present his delusions in the forms of truth, thus giving his deceit a spiritual guise.

-- If some have gone astray and lost their mental balance, this is because they have in arrogance followed their own counsels. For when you seek God in obedience and humility, and with the guidance of a spiritual master, you will never come to any harm, by the grace of Christ who desires all to be saved (I Timothy 2:4). Should temptation arise, its purpose is to test you and to spur you on; and God, who has permitted this testing, will speedily come to your help in whatever way He sees fit. As the Holy Fathers assure us, a person who lives an upright and blameless life, avoiding arrogance and spurning popularity, will come to no harm even if a whole host of demons provoke him with countless temptations. But if you are presumptuous and follow your own counsel you will readily fall victim to delusion. That is why a hesychast must always keep to the royal road. For excess in anything easily leads to conceit, and conceit induces self-delusion. Keep the intellect at rest by gently pressing your lips together when you pray, but do not impede your nasal breathing, as the ignorant do, in case you harm yourself by building up inward pressure.

-- There are three virtues connected with stillness which we must guard scrupulously, examining ourselves every hour to make sure that we possess them, in case through unmindfulness we are robbed of them and wander far away from them. These virtues are self-control, silence and self-reproach, which is the same thing as humility. They are all-embracing and support one another; and from them prayer is born and through them it burgeons.

-- QUESTION: What should we do when the devil transforms himself into an angel of light (II Corinthians 11:14) and tries to seduce us?

ANSWER: You need great discrimination in order to distinguish between good and evil. So do not readily or lightly put your trust in appearances, but weigh things well, and after testing everything carefully cleave to what is good and reject what is evil (I Thessalonians 5:21-22). You must test and discriminate before you give credence to anything. You must also be aware that the effects of grace are self-evident, and that even if the devil does transform himself he cannot produce these effects: he cannot induce you to be gentle, or forbearing, or humble, or joyful, or serene, or stable in your thoughts; he cannot make you hate what is worldly, or cut off sensual indulgence and the working of the passions, as grace does. He produces vanity, haughtiness, cowardice and every kind of evil. Thus you can tell from its effects whether the light shining in your soul is from God or from satan. The lettuce is similar in appearance to the endive, and vinegar to wine; but when you taste them the palate discerns and recognizes the differences between each. In the same way the soul, if it possesses the power of discrimination, can distinguish with its noetic sense between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the illusions of satan.

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 283 - 286.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - How to Master the Intellect in Prayer

In out last post, we looked at the teaching of St. Gregory of Sinai on fasting. In today's teaching, we will continue studying his works, this time focusing on two issues related to the life of prayer: mastering the intellect and expelling thoughts.

St. Gregory is a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching.


BEGIN  -- No one can master the intellect unless he himself is mastered by the Spirit. For the intellect is uncontrollable, not because it is by nature ever-active, but because through our continual remissness it has been given over to distraction and has become used to that. When we violated the commandments of Him who in baptism regenerates us we separated ourselves from God and lost our conscious awareness of Him and our union with Him.

-- Sundered from that union and estranged from God, the intellect is led captive everywhere; and it cannot regain its stability unless it submits to God and is stilled by Him, joyfully uniting with Him through unceasing and diligent prayer and through noetically confessing all our lapses to Him each day. God immediately forgives everything to those who ask forgiveness in a spirit of humility and contrition and who ceaselessly invoke His holy name. As the Psalmist says, "Confess to the Lord and call upon His holy name" (Psalms 105:1).

-- Holding the breath also helps to stabilize the intellect, but only temporarily, for after a little it lapses into distraction again. But when prayer is activated, then it really does keep the intellect in its presence, and it gladdens it and frees it from captivity. But it may sometimes happen that the intellect, rooted in the heart, is praying, yet the mind wanders and gives its attention to other things; for the mind is brought under control only in those who have been made perfect by the Holy Spirit and who have attained a state of total concentration upon Christ Jesus.


-- In the case of a beginner in the art of spiritual warfare, God alone can expel thoughts, for it is only those strong in such warfare who are in a position to wrestle with them and banish them. Yet even they do not achieve this by themselves, but they fight against them with God's assistance, clothed in the armor of His grace.

-- So when thoughts invade you, in place of weapons call on the Lord Jesus frequently and persistently and then they will retreat; for they cannot bear the warmth produced in the heart by prayer and they flee as if scorched by fire. St. John Climacus tells us, "Lash your enemies with the name of Jesus," because God is a fire that cauterizes wickedness (Deuteronomy 4:24 and Hebrews 12:29). The Lord is prompt to help, and will speedily come to the defense of those who wholeheartedly call on Him day and night (Luke 18:7).

-- But if prayer is not yet activated in you, you can put these thoughts to flight in another manner, by imitating Moses (Exodus 17:11-12): rise up, lift hands and eyes to heaven, and God will rout them. Then sit down again and begin to pray resolutely. This is what you should do if you have not yet acquired the power of prayer.

-- Yet even if prayer is activated in you and you are attacked by the more obdurate and grievous of the bodily passions -- namely, listlessness and lust -- you should sometimes rise up and lift your hands for help against them. But you should do this only seldom, and then sit down again, for there is a danger of the enemy deluding you by showing you some illusory form of the truth. For only in those who are pure and perfect does God keep the intellect steadfast and intact wherever it is, whether above or below, or in the heart. END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 276 - 278.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - How to Partake of Food

In today's "fast food culture" with rampant obesity, poor nutrition, and gluttony, it is always a good time to look once again at the whole issue of fasting, eating, and self-control and what the Desert Fathers teach about controlling the stomach. Today's teaching is from a later saint of the 13th century who lived fully in the spirit and teachings of the early Desert Fathers. As a young man captured by the Turks in the late 1200, Gregory was eventually ransomed to Cyprus where be was tonsured a monk and then went to Mount Sinai shortly after where he became a full monk. He then went to Crete where he learned the art of prayer in obedience to the monk Arsenios. After some time, Gregory went to Mount Athos where he spent the next twenty-five years.

The Philokalia includes five works by St. Gregory of Sinai. One of these, "On Prayer," is the subject of our study today. Our text today is but a fraction of St. Gregory's entire text on prayer, but it is very useful for laypersons and monastics alike, depending on the degree to which we are able as individuals to follow his teaching.


-- What shall I say about the belly, the queen of the passions? If you can deaden or half-deaden it, do not relent. It has mastered me, beloved, and I worship it as a slave and vassal, this abettor of the demons and dwelling-place of the passions. Through it we fall and through it -- when it is well-disciplined -- we rise again. Through it we have lost both our original divine status and also our second divine status, that which was bestowed on us when after our initial corruption we are renewed in Christ through baptism, and from which we have lapsed once more, separating ourselves from God through out neglect of the commandments, even though in our ignorance we exalt ourselves. We think that we are with God, but it is only by keeping the commandments that we advance, guarding and increasing the grace bestowed upon us.

-- As the fathers have pointed out, bodies vary greatly in their need for food. One person needs little, another much to sustain his physical strength, each according to his capacity and habit. A hesychast, however, should always eat too little, never too much. For when the stomach is heavy the intellect is clouded, and you cannot pray resolutely and with purity. On the contrary, made drowsy by the effects of too much food you are soon induced to sleep; and as you sleep the food produces countless fantasies in your mind. Thus in my opinion if you want to attain salvation and strive for the Lord's sake to lead a life of stillness, you should be satisfied with a pound of bread and three or four cups of water or wine daily, taking at appropriate times a little from whatever victuals happen to be at hand, but never eating to satiety. In this way you will avoid growing conceited, and by thanking God for everything you will show no disdain for the excellent things He has made. This is the counsel of those who are wise in such matters. For those weak in faith and soul, abstinence from specific types of food is most beneficial; St. Paul exhorts them to eat herbs (Romans 14:2), for they do not believe that God will preserve them.

-- What shall I say? You are old, yet have asked for a rule, and an extremely severe one at that. Younger people cannot keep to a strict rule by weight and measure, so how will you keep to it? Because you are ill, you should be entirely free in partaking of food. If you eat too much, repent and try again. Always act like this -- lapsing and recovering again, and always blaming yourself and no one else -- and you will be at peace, wisely converting such lapses into victories, as Scripture says. But do not exceed the limit I set down above, and this will be enough, for no other food strengthens the body as much as bread and water. That is why the prophet disregarded everything else and simply said, "Son of man, by weight you will eat your bread and by measure you will drink water" (Ezekiel 4:16).

-- There are three degrees of eating: self-control, sufficiency and satiety. Self-control is to be hungry after having eaten. Sufficiency is to be neither hungry nor weighed down. Satiety is to be slightly weighed down. To eat again after reaching the point of satiety is to open the door of gluttony, through which unchastity comes in. Attentive to these distinctions, choose what is best for you according to your powers, not overstepping the limits. For according to St. Paul only the perfect can be both hungry and full, and at the same time be strong in all things (Philippians 4:12). END

from The Philokalia: Volume IV, edited and translated by G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Bishop Kallistos Ware, (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), pp. 280 - 281.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

ABBA THEONAS - All Holy Persons Confess Themselves as Unclean and Sinners

St. John Cassian's book, The Conferences, is well-known to readers of our newsletter. It, along with The Institutes, is a classic to which we will return from time to time as it is chock-full of centuries-old monastic wisdom from the Egyptian Desert that is still useful in today's modern world. In today's conference with Abba Theonas, a man of whom we know virtually nothing beyond the text of his writings, we will look at the issue of sinlessness.


-- Therefore all those who are holy are struck with compunction because of the weakness of their constitution, and with daily sighs they scrutinize their different thoughts and the hidden and secret places of their conscience, humbly crying out: "Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for in your sight no one living shall be justified." And this: "Who will boast of having a chaste heart? Or who will have confidence that he is pure of sin?" And again: "There is no one who is righteous upon the earth, who does what is good and does not sin." And also this: "Who understands his sins?"

-- They consider the righteousness of human beings so weak and imperfect and constantly in need of God's mercy that one of them, whose iniquities and sins God cleansed with the fiery coal of his word that was sent from his altar, said after having contemplated God in wondrous fashion and after having seen the lofty seraphim and a revelation of the heavenly mysteries: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips."

-- In my estimation he would perhaps not even then have felt the uncleanness of his lips if he had not deserved to know the true and integral purity of perfection, thanks to his having contemplated God. Upon seeing him he immediately recognized an uncleanness that had hitherto been unknown to him. For when he says: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips," he shows by what follows -- "and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips" -- that he was speaking of his own lips and not of the people's uncleanness.

-- In vain, then, does your penetrating and thorny objection -- when you said shortly before that if no one is sinless then no one is holy, and that if no one is holy then no one will be saved -- pose a problem for a most evident truth. For the difficulty in this question can be resolved from the text of the prophet where he says: "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned." That is, when you turned away from the pride and heedlessness of our hearts and deprived us of your help, the abyss of our sins immediately engulfed us. It was as if someone had said to the sun in all its splendor: Behold, you have set, and at once thick darkness has covered us over.

-- And yet, although he says that the holy have sinned, and not only that they have sinned but they have always remained in their sins, he does not utterly despair of salvation, but he adds: "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved."

-- I shall compare these words -- "Behold, you are angry, and we have sinned" -- with those of the Apostle: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Again, what the prophet adds -- "We have always been in them, and we shall be saved" -- corresponds to the words of the Apostle that follows: "The grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- Likewise, what the same prophet also says -- "Woe is me, for I am a man with unclean lips" -- also seems to smack of the aforementioned words: "Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from the body of this death?" Similarly, what follows in the prophet -- "Behold, one of the seraphim flew to me, and in his hand there was a coal (or a stone), which he had brought from the altar with a tongs. And he touched my mouth and said: Behold, I have touched your lips, and your iniquity shall be removed and your sinfulness shall be cleansed" -- is like what seems to be uttered by the mouth of Paul, when he says: "The grace of God, though Jesus Christ our Lord."

-- You see, then, how all the holy truthfully confess themselves sinners not in the person of the people but in their own. Yet they are not at all hopeless about their salvation; rather, thanks to the grace and mercy of the Lord, they presume upon the complete justification that they despair of being able to attain due to the condition of their human frailty." END

from St. John Cassian, The Conferences, (New York: Newman Press, 1997), pp. 808 - 810

Sunday, August 11, 2013

ST. MARK THE ASCETIC - Epistle to the Monk Nicholas: Fighting the Passions

This issue is from a well-known Egyptian Desert Father, St. Mark the Ascetic. Although very little is actually known about his life, he remains one of the best-known Egyptian Fathers. St. Palladius, who wrote the most famous collection of Patristic sayings, Paradise of the Fathers, met St. Mark, but recorded little of his life. It is known that he lived for over a hundred years, knew several of the successors of St. Anthony the Great personally, and may have even met the great Desert saint as well. He died at the beginning of the fifth century. As demonstrated in today's text, St. Mark the Ascetic had profound knowledge of the mysteries of the spiritual life. We know he wrote much more than is available today, as many of his treasured texts are lost to history.

- by St. Mark the Ascetic

Beloved Son Nicholas . . . .

-- A man must, above all, strive after knowledge and reason, if he wants to take up his cross and follow Christ, constantly examining his thoughts, taking every care to gain salvation and adhering to God with all his strength. He should also question other servants of God, who are of the same mind and soul and who are doing the same work, in order to know how and where to direct his steps and not walk in the dark without a bright lamp. For a self-reliant man, walking without the knowledge and guidance of the Gospels, often stumbles and falls into many pitfalls and nets of the evil one, frequently goes astray and is subject to many calamities, not knowing where he will arrive in the end. Many have gone through great feats of self- mortification and endured much labor and seat for the sake of God; but their self-will, lack of good judgment and the fact that they did not deem it necessary to seek salutary advice from their brethren, made these labors useless and vain.

-- If you wish, my son, to acquire and possess within yourself your own lamp of mental light and spiritual knowledge, that you may walk without stumbling in the deepest night of this age and have your steps ordered by the Lord (Psalms 118:133), according to the words of the Prophet, you must greatly desire the path of the Gospels, that is, to practise the most perfect Gospel commandments with ardent faith and become a participant in the passion of Christ through desire and prayer; then I will show you a wonderful method to achieve this, consisting of an inner state of the spirit, which demands no physical work or effort, but the most painful labor of the soul, mastery of the mind (over all things within) and attentive thought, together with the fear and love of God. By this state you can easily turn to flight enemy hordes, as did the blessed David who, having slain one alien giant with faith and trust in God, by this very fact put to flight the hordes of the enemies with their peoples.

-- I speak of the three strong and powerful alien giants, on whom are founded all the hostile forces of the mental Holophernes. If they are cast down and slain, all the forces of the evil spirits will be finally defeated. These three giants of the evil one, who seem to be strong, are "ignorance," mother of all ills, "forgetfulness," her sister, aider and abettor, and "laziness" (indifference) which out of darkness weaves a dusky garment and cloak in the soul. This latter strengthens and affirms the former two, gives them substance and makes evil take firm root in a negligent soul and become an essential part of it. For through indifference (laziness), forgetfulness and ignorance the props of all other passions grow and strengthen. Since they mutually help one another and cannot exist independently of one another, they (in their totality) are powerful forces of the enemy and chief generals of the evil one. With their help the hordes of evil spirits fashion their snares in the soul and succeed in carrying out their plans.

-- If you wish to gain victory over passions and easily put to flight the hordes of mental aliens, collect yourself inwardly with God's help by prayer and, descending into the depths of your heart, find there those three strong giants of the devil -- I mean forgetfulness, indifference or laziness, and ignorance, the food on which all other passions feed and act, live and grow strong in self-indulgent hearts and unpunished souls. With strict attention to yourself and a sober mind, and with help from above, you will certainly find these evil passions, unknown and not even suspected by others, yet more pernicious than the rest; you will find them by the weapons of righteousness which are their contrary. These weapons are memory of the good, the source of all blessings, enlightened knowledge, by which a soul kept in sobriety chases away the darkness of ignorance, and a lively zeal, which rouses the soul and leads it to salvation. Thereupon, armed with these weapons of virtue, accompanied by every prayer and supplication, you will manfully and valiantly conquer (completely chase away) these three giants of mental aliens by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, with the help of an excellent godly memory always reflecting on "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise" (Philippians 4:8), you will chase away wicked forgetfulness; by enlightened heavenly knowledge you will destroy the pernicious darkness of ignorance; and by a lively zeal, ready for every good action, you will drive away godless indifference (laziness), through which evil becomes firmly rooted in the soul. You acquire these virtues not merely by your own will alone, but by the power of God and with the help of the Holy Spirit, with much attention and prayer. Having thus acquired them you will be able, through them, to free yourself from the said three strong giants of the evil one. When through the power of active grace there is formed and carefully preserved in the soul a (tripartite) alliance of true knowledge, memory of the words of God and righteous zeal, then every trace of forgetfulness, ignorance and indifference will vanish from the soul. They will be resolved into nothing, and at last there will reign in the soul the grace of Christ Jesus, our Lord, to Whom be power and glory for ever and ever, Amen. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, trans., Early Fathers from the Philokalia, (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 60 - 62.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

ABBA EVAGRIUS - The Eight Thoughts (Vices)

Abba Evagrius is well-known to students of the Philokalia. He was a monk of Sketis, born around the middle of the fourth century to a priest. He was known to such contemporary teachers as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Theologian. He attended the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, but he left there after a short while for Jerusalem. There he became and monk and returned to Egypt a short while later. He lived in Nitria for two years, then in the area known as "the Cells," and finally in Sketis. He was a student of St. Macarius of Egypt and St. Macarius of Alexandria. Abba Evagrius wrote many texts which were translated and read widely in both the Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking Churches. His works were translated and carried to the West by his disciple, Rufinus.

This teaching from Abba Evagrius is written in the form of a letter to Anatolius and is about the eight vices from which all other thoughts stem.


BEGIN:  -- There are eight principal thoughts, from which all other thoughts stem. The first thought is of gluttony; the second, of fornication; the third, of love of money; the fourth, of discontent; the firth, of anger; the sixth, of despondency; the seventh, of vainglory; the eighth, of pride. Whether these thoughts disturb the soul or not does not depend on us; but whether they linger in us or not and set passions in motion or not -- does depend on us.

-- The thought of gluttony suggests to a monk that he make haste to give up his ascetic life, depicting to him diseases of the stomach, liver or bile, dropsy or some other long illness, the lack of medical remedies and the absence of physicians. Moreover, it brings to his memory brethren who actually contracted such diseases. At times the enemy urges brethren, who have suffered such diseases, to visit monks who are fasting and to relate what has happened to them, adding that this was due to too strict an abstinence.

-- The demon of fornication excites carnal lust, and insidiously attacks abstainers, striving to make them abandon their abstinence, thinking that it brings them no profit. Polluting the soul, it urges it also towards such actions and makes them say and hear certain words, as though the act itself were before their eyes.

-- Love of money conjectures a long old age, inability to work with one's hands, hunger, illness, the hardships of want and the grievousness of accepting from others the wherewithal for bodily needs.

-- Discontent is sometimes caused by the loss of what is desirable, and sometimes accompanies anger. When caused by the loss of what is desirable it happens thus. Certain thoughts come first and bring to the soul memories of home, relatives and the old way of life. When they see the soul does not oppose them but goes with them and mentally spreads itself in enjoying them, they seize it and immerse it in discontent, both because the objects of their thoughts are absent, and because by the statutes of a monk's life he cannot have them. So the more eagerly the poor soul spreads itself in the initial thoughts, the more it is stricken and grieved by the sequel.

-- Anger is the quickest passion of all. It is aroused and inflamed against a man who has done, or seems to have done one an injury. It hardens the soul ever more and more; it particularly captures the mind during prayer, vividly bringing up the face of an offender. At times, lingering in the soul and passing into enmity, it causes nightmares, depicting physical tortures, the horrors of death, attacks of poisonous snakes and beasts. These four phenomena accompanying the birth of enmity, bring with them many thoughts, as every observer will find for himself.

-- The demon of despondency, which is also called the noonday demon (Psalms 90:6), is more grievous than all others. It attacks a monk in about the fourth hour (about ten in the morning) and whirls the soul round and round till about the eighth hour (two o'clock in the afternoon). It begins by making a man notice dejectedly how slowly the sun moves, or does not move at all, and that the day seems to have become fifty hours long. Then it urges the man to look frequently out of the window or even to go our of his cell to look at the sun and see how long it is till the ninth hour, at the same time making him glance hither and thither to see if some of the brethren are about. Then it arouses in him vexation against the place and his mode of life itself and his work, adding that there is no more love among the brethren and no one to comfort him. If in these days someone has offended him, the demon reminds him of it to increase his vexation. The it provokes in him a longing for other places, where it would be easier to find the wherewithal to satisfy his needs by adopting some craft which is less strenuous and more profitable. He adds that to please God does not depend on the place; God can be worshiped everywhere. He connects with this thought memories of relatives and former well-being; and prophesies here a long life with the hardships of asceticism, and uses every wile to make the monk end by leaving his cell and taking flight from his career. This demon is followed by another, but not at once. However if a monk fights and conquers, this struggle is followed by a peaceful state, and the soul becomes filled with ineffable joy.

-- The thought of vainglory is the most subtle of all. It comes to those who lead a righteous life, and begins to extol their efforts and collect praise from men, making them imagine the cries of demons being cast out, the healing of women, crowds pressing round a man to touch his garments. Finally it predicts his consecration into priesthood, brings to his doors men to seek him who, on his refusal, bind him and lead him forcibly away against his will. Having thus kindled idle hopes in him, the demon withdraws, leaving the field for further temptations either by the demon of pride or the demon of discontent, who at once suggests to him thoughts opposed to these hopes. At times he even surrenders to the demon of fornication, this man who, only a short time before, saw himself as a holy and venerable priest.

-- The demon of pride is the cause of the most grievous fall of the soul. It counsels the soul not to profess God as its helper, but to ascribe to itself its righteousness and to puss itself up before its brethren, considering them to be ignorant because not all of them think so highly of it. Pride is followed by anger and discontent and by the final evil -- going out of one's mind, frenzy and visions of many demons in the air. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, trans., Early Fathers from the Philokalia, (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 110 - 112.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

ST. THEOPHANES THE RECLUSE - The Hermitage of the Heart: Different Kinds of Feelings in Prayer

In this issue, we will look at a very nice text from St. Theophanes the Recluse, a 19th century Russian father who became steeped in the early Desert Fathers during the seven years he spent in Palestine as a monk in the middle of that century. Although not strictly a Desert Father in the chronological sense, St. Theophanes is very much in their tradition in the spirituality of his teachings. These teachings are usually in the form of letters written to disciples.

Our text today is about prayer; or, as St. Theophanes puts it --


You dream of a hermitage. But you already have your hermitage, here and now! Sit still, and call out: "Lord have mercy!" When you are isolated from the rest of the world, how will you fulfill the will of God? Simply by preserving within yourself the right inner state. And what is this? It is a state of unceasing remembrance of God in fear and piety, together with the remembrance of death. The habit of walking before God and keeping Him in remembrance -- such is the air we breathe in the spiritual life. Created as we are in the image of God, this habit should exist in our spirit naturally: if it is absent, that is because we have fallen away from God. As a result of this fall, we have to fight to acquire the habit of walking before God. Our ascetic struggle consists essentially in the effort to stand consciously before the face of the ever- present God; but there are also various secondary activities, which likewise form part of the spiritual life. Here too, there is work to be done, in order to direct these activities to their true aim. Reading, meditation, prayer, all our occupations and contacts, must be conducted in such a way as not to blot out or disturb the remembrance of God. The seat of our consciousness and attention must also be concentrated on this remembrance of God.

The mind is in the head, and intellectuals live always in the head. They live in the lead and suffer from unceasing turbulence of thoughts. This turbulence does not allow the attention to settle on any one thing. Neither can the mind, when it is in the head, dwell constantly on the one thought of God. All the time it keeps running away. For this reason, those who want to establish the one thought of God within themselves, are advised to leave the head and descend with their mind into their heart, and to stand there with ever present attention. Only then, when the mind is united with the heart, is it possible to expect success in the remembrance of God.

This, then, is the aim which you should now set before yourself, and towards which you should begin to advance. Do not think that this task is beyond your strength; but also do not think that it is so easy that you have only to wish it, and it will be immediately accomplished. The first step in attracting the mind to the heart is essentially to be moved with sympathy, entering with your feelings into the meaning of the prayers which you read or hear; for it is the feelings of the heart which usually dominate the mind. If you take this first step as you should, these feelings will change according to the content of the prayers. But besides this first kind of feelings there are others, far stronger and more overwhelming -- feelings which take captive both our consciousness and heart, enchaining the soul and giving it no freedom to continue reading, claiming its attention wholly for themselves. These are special feelings; and as soon as they are born, the soul too gives birth to prayers which are their very progeny. You must never interrupt these special feelings and prayers which are born in the heart - - do not, for instance, go on reading, but stop at once -- for you must leave them freedom to pour out until they are exhausted and emotion returns to the level of the more usual feelings during prayer. This second form of prayer is more powerful than the first, and sends the mind down into the heart more quickly. But it can only act after the first form, or together with it.

From The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. By E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), pp. 185 - 186