The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert

The Desert Fathers: Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert
The Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes, Red Sea Desert, Egypt (1990)

Sunday, 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.