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, September 29, 2013

STS. BARSANUPHIUS AND JOHN - Directions in Spiritual Work: Part I

Sts. Barsanuphius and John lived in the sixth century as fellow spiritual strugglers in Palestinian monasteries and in isolation in the desert. We are blessed today to have a wonderful collection of their teachings on the spiritual life which should be studied by every serious student of the Christian faith. St. Barsanuphius spent some fifty years in his cell, forbidding himself the sight of another person. A great ascetic, he was brought three loaves of bread a week by the monastery purser, but often did not eat even that. St. John was his equal in asceticism and was blessed with the additional gift of prophecy.

The book written by these two fathers contains 850 answers to various questions asked by a wide variety of people. Some were written by St. John, but the vast majority were give by St. Barsanuphius. He did not actually write the answers down himself, but dictated them to Abba Serid. When the saint first began to give his answers to questions, he asked Abba Serid to write it down. Not expecting to retain in his memory all the words said to him by the great desert father, Abba Serid was in a quandary how to write down so many words and expected the saint to tell him to bring paper and ink in order to take dictation as he listened. By his gift of clairvoyance, St. Barsanuphius read the secret thought of Serid. His face became like a flame and he said to Serid, "Go, write it down and fear not. Even if I say innumerable words for you to write down, know that the Holy Spirit will not you write one single word more or less than what I have said, even though you wish it, but will guide your hand in writing down everything correctly and in right order."

Obviously, we cannot put all 850 of their answers in our newsletter, but we will share some of our favorites with you over the next couple of newsletters.


-- Dispose yourself to give thanks to God for everything, hearkening to the word of the Apostle: "In every thing give thanks" (I Thessalonians 5:18). Whether you are assailed by tribulation, or suffer want or persecution, or have to bear physical hardships and infirmities, give thanks to God for all that befalls for "we must through tribulation enter into the kingdom of god" (Acts 14:22). So let not your soul be assailed by doubt, nor your heart weaken; but remember the word of the Apostle: "Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day" (II Corinthians 4:16). If you do not endure sufferings, you will not be able to mount the cross and share its fruit which brings salvation.

-- While the ship is at sea, it is a prey to dangers and winds. When it reaches a calm and peaceful harbor, it no longer fears dangers, calamities or winds, but remains safe. In the same way, while you are among men you must expect tribulation, dangers and mental buffetings. But when you reach the harbor of silence prepared for you, then you will have no fear.

-- You have no peace from thoughts, which impel you to trouble others, and in turn to be troubled by others. But know, my brother, that if we offend by word or deed, we are thereby ourselves offended a hundredfold. By longsuffering in all things and refrain from letting your own will enter into anything. Carefully examine your thoughts lest they infect your heart with deadly poison (ill temper) and make you take a gnat for a camel, a pebble for a cliff, and lest you become like a man who has a beam in his own eye but beholds the mote in the eye of another.

-- You call yourself a sinner, but in effect you show that you do not feel yourself to be one. A man, who admits himself to be a sinner and the cause of many evils, disagrees with no one, quarrels with no one, is not wroth with anyone, but considers every man better and wiser than himself. If you are a sinner, why do you reproach your neighbor and accuse him of bringing afflictions upon you? It seems that you and I are as yet far from regarding ourselves as sinners. Look brother, how base we are: we speak with our lips only; our actions show something different. Why, when we oppose thoughts, do we not receive the strength to repulse them? Because, previously, we have surrendered to criticizing our neighbor and this has weakened our spiritual strength. So we accuse our brother, being ourselves guilty. Put all your thoughts in the Lord, saying: God knows what is best, and you will be at peace and, little by little, will be given the strength to endure.

-- Churn the milk and you will bring forth butter; but if you wring the nose, you will bring forth blood (Proverbs 30:33). If a man wants to bend a bough or a vine into a hoop, he bends it gradually, lest it break, for if he suddenly bends it too much, it snaps. (This refers to strict measures of abbots and excessive asceticism of monks.)

-- Do you wish to be free of afflictions and not to be burdened by them? Expect greater ones, and you will find peace. Remember Job and other saints, and the afflictions they suffered. Acquire their patience, and comfort will come to your spirit. Be of good courage, stand firm and pray.

-- While we have time, let us have attention in ourselves and learn to be silent. If you wish to be untroubled by anything, be dead in relation to every man, and you will find peace. I speak here touching thoughts, touching all kinds of activities, relationships with men and cares.

-- You wrote me asking me to pray for your sins. And I will say the same: pray for my sins. For it is said: "As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31). Although I am accursed and lower than all men, I continue to do so as much as I can, according to the commandment: "Pray one for another, that ye may be healed" (James 5:16). END

Kadloubovsky, E., and Palmer, G.E.H., trans., Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart, (London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 346 - 350.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Spirit of Anger: Part II

One of the best known of the Desert Fathers is the fourth century writer, St. John Cassian, whose Institutes and Conferences comprise two of the most comprehensive collections of sayings from the holy men and women of the ancient deserts. This text on anger, the second of two parts, is from the Institutes and certainly speaks to all of us. We highly recommend both these books to the serious student of monastic spirituality; like the Philokalia, they will supply the serious student with many years of pleasant study and inspiration.


-- But what is to be said of those persons (and this I am unable to mention without shame) on whose implacability even sundown itself place3s no limits and who draw it out for days on end? They maintain a rancorous spirit against those with whom theyare upset and, although they deny orally that they are angry, they manifest the deepest anger by their actions. They neither approach them with an appropriate word nor speak to them with ordinary civility, and in this regard they do not consider themselves in the wrong because they do not demand vengeance for their annoyance. Yet, because they do not dare to or at any rate cannot bring it out into the open, they turn the poison of their wrath back to their own destruction, brooding over it in their hearts and in glum silence digesting it within themselves. They do not at once and with strength of mind cast out their bitter sadness; instead they mull it over, and eventually as time goes on they deal with it equably.

-- How could the Lord wish to be held onto for even a moment when in fact he does not even allow the spiritual sacrifices of our prayers to be offered if we know that someone else is angry with us? As he says: "If, then, you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Matthew 5:23-24). How, then, are we permitted to be annoyed with our brother even until sundown -- not to mention for several days -- when, if he has something against us, we are not allowed to offer our prayers to God? We are commanded by the Apostle: "Pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17). And: "In every place lifting up pure hands without anger and dissension" (I Timothy 2:8). It follows, therefore, that either we keep this kind of poison in our hearts and never pray, thus disobeying the apostolic and gospel precept by which we are commanded to pray ceaselessly and everywhere, or, if we deceive ourselves and dare to make prayer contrary to his prohibition, we realize that it is not prayer that we are offering to the Lord but a stubborn and rebellious spirit.

-- But why do we tarry for so long over gospel precepts and those of the Apostle when even the old law, which seems to be somewhat less demanding, warns of the very same thing? As it says: "you shall not hate your brother in your heart" (Leviticus 19:17). And again: "you shall not be mindful of the offense of your fellow citizens" (Leviticus 19:18). And again: "The ways of those who preserve the memory of a misdeed lead to death" (Proverbs 12:28). There as well you see that wickedness is checked not only in deed but even in secret thoughts, when not only hatred and vengefulness but even the recollection of an offense are commanded to be uprooted and cast out of the heart.

-- Sometimes, when we have been overcome by pride or impatience and are unwilling to correct our unseemly and undisciplined behavior, we complain that we are in need of solitude, as if we would find the virtue of patience in a place where no one would bother us, and we excuse our negligence and the causes of our agitation by saying that they stem not from our own impatience but from our brothers' faults. But, as long as we attribute our own wrongdoing to other people, we shall never be able to get near to patience and perfection.

-- The sum total of our improvement and tranquility, then, must not be made to depend on someone else's willing, which will never be subject to our sway; it comes, rather, under our own power. And so our not getting angry must derive not from someone else's perfection but from our own virtue, which is achieved not by another person's patience but by our own forbearance.

-- It is right, on the other hand, for those who are perfect and cleansed of all vice to search out the desert and, having been purged of vice in the community of the brothers, to go into it not as a refuge for their weak-spiritedness but with a view to divine contemplation and out of a desire for that deeper insight which can be grasped in solitude only by the perfect. For if we have brought any vices into the desert that we have not attended to, they will not be abolished but will lie hidden in us. For just as solitude can disclose the purest contemplation to those whose behavior has been corrected and from its unclouded perspective reveal a knowledge of spiritual mysteries, it is likewise accustomed not only to preserve but even to exaggerate the vices of those who have not corrected themselves. A person may seem patient and humble to himself as long as he has nothing to do with anyone else, but he will soon revert to his former nature should some disturbing event occur. Indeed, vices that have lain hidden emerge at once there, and like unbridled horses nourished by a long period of quiescence they eagerly break out of their restraints, all the more violently and savagely endangering their charioteer. For when contact with other human beings ce3ases, along with the discipline that that provides, the vices grow wilder in us if they have not previously been purged, and through slothful security we lose even the pretense of patience that we gave the appearance of possessing at least for the sake of our brothers' respect and our own good reputation when we lived among them.

-- It should be known, however, that in those manuscripts where it reads: "Whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be liable to judgment," the phrase "without cause" is superfluous and was added by persons who did not think that anger needed to be cut off for a just cause, since in fact no one, however irrationally upset he was, would say that he had no cause for anger. It appear, therefore, that this was added by those who did not understand the intention of Scripture, which seeks to cut off completely the growth of anger and to maintain no occasion for indignation whatsoever lest, in ordering us to get angry with cause, an occasion for getting angry without cause also be offered us. For patience does not achieve its goal in righteous anger; it consists, rather, in not getting angry at all. I know, though, that the phrase "without cause" is interpreted in such a way as to mean that he is angered without cause who, when he is angry, is not allowed to seek revenge. Yet it is better to take it as it is found to be written both in many new manuscripts and in all the old ones.

-- Hence it behooves the athlete of Christ, who is contending lawfully, to root out the movements of wrath. The perfect medicine for this disease is that we realize, first, that in no way are we permitted to get angry, whether for an unjust or a just cause, knowing that we shall at once lose the light of discretion and firm and correct counsel, as well as goodness itself and the restraints of righteousness, if the guiding principle of our heart is obscured by darkness; and then, that the purity of our mind will soon be driven out and that it can never become a temple of the Holy Spirit as long as the spirit of wrath dwells in us. Lastly, we should understand that we are never allowed to pray or to make petition to God when we are angry. Above all, we should keep before our eyes the uncertain state of our human condition, daily realizing that we shall depart from our bodies and that our chaste abstinence, the renunciation of all our property, the contempt of wealth, and the toil of fasting and keeping vigil will confer nothing on us if eternal punishment is being readied for us by the Judge of all on account of wrath and hatred alone. END

St. John Cassian, The Institutes, (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 198 - 204

Sunday, September 22, 2013

ST. JOHN CASSIAN - The Spirit of Anger: Part I

One of the best known of the Desert Fathers is the fourth century writer, St. John Cassian, whose Institutes and Conferences comprise two of the most comprehensive collections of sayings from the holy men and women of the ancient deserts. This text on anger, the first of two parts, is from the Institutes and certainly speaks to all of us. We highly recommend both these books to the serious student of monastic spirituality; like the Philokalia, they will supply the serious student with many years of pleasant study and inspiration.


-- We have heard that some people try to excuse this most destructive disease of the soul by attempting to extenuate it by a rather detestable interpretation of Scripture. They say that it is not harmful if we are angry with wrongdoing brothers, because God Himself is said to be enraged and angered with those who do not want to know Him or who, knowing Him, disdain Him. For example: "The Lord was angry and enraged against His people" (Psalms 106:40). And when the prophet prays and says: "Lord, do not rebuke me in your fury, nor in your anger correct me" (Psalms 6:1). They do not understand that, in their eagerness to concede human beings the opportunity for pernicious vice, they are mixing the injustice of fleshly passion into the divine limitlessness and the source of all purity.

-- And so the monk who is on the way to perfection and who wishes to engage lawfully in the spiritual struggle must in every respect be free of the vice of anger and wrath. He should listen to what the vessel of election (Acts 9:15) commands of him: "All anger and indignation and uproar and blasphemy should be removed from you, as well as all malice" (Ephesians 4:31). When he says: "All anger should be removed from you," he makes no exception at all for us as to necessity and utility. He should strive to cure a wrongdoing brother, if need be, in such a way that, while bringing relief to one who is perhaps laboring under a rather slight fever, he does not get angry and bring upon himself the more baleful malady of blindness, so that as he sees the speck in his brother's eye he does not see the beam in his own eye (Matthew 7:3-5). For it behooves the one who wishes to heal someone else's wound to be healthy and untouched by any disease or illness, lest the gospel saying be applied to him: "Physician, heal yourself first" (Luke 4:23). And how will a person see to remove the speck from his brother's eye if he carries about a beam of wrath in his own eye?

-- For any reason whatsoever the movement of wrath may boil over and blind the eyes of the heart, obstructing the vision with the deadly beam of a more vehement illness and not allowing the sun of righteousness to be seen. It is irrelevant whether a layer of gold or one of lead or of some other metal is placed over the eyes; the preciousness of the metal does not change the fact of blindness.

-- Yet we have a function for anger placed quite appropriately within us, and for this purpose alone it is useful and beneficial for us to take it up -- when we wax indignant against the wanton movements of our own heart and are angered at things that we are ashamed to do or to say in the sight of human beings but that have found their way into the recesses of our heart, as we tremble with utter horror before the presence of the angels and of God Himself, whose eye penetrates everywhere and everything and from whom our consciences can hide no secrets at all.

-- And so we are commanded to get angry in a healthy way, at ourselves and at the evil suggestions that make an appearance, and not to sin by letting them have a harmful effect. The following verse opens itself to this same understanding in clearer fashion: "Be struck with compunction on your beds for what you say in your hearts" (Psalms 4:5). That is, whatever you think in your hearts when unexpected and deceitful suggestions rush in upon you, amend and correct with the most salutary compunction, removing all the noise and disturbance of wrath by means of moderate counsel, as if you were peacefully in bed.

When the blessed Apostle made use of the text of this verse and said: "Be angry, and do not sin," he added: "The sun should not go down on your anger, and you should not give room to the devil" (Ephesians 4:26). If it is dangerous to let the sun of righteousness go down on our anger, and if we immediately give room to the devil in our heart when we are angry, why did he previously command us to get angry, when he said: "Be angry, and do not sin"? Does he not clearly mean that you should be angry at your vices and your rage lest you grow dark on account of your wrath and Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, begin to go down in your dusky minds and, once He departs, you offer room in your hearts to the devil? END

St. John Cassian, The Institutes, (New York: The Newman Press, 2000), pp. 193 - 198

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Some Thoughts on Finding a Spiritual Father

During the time we have been publishing this newsletter, we received many letters from readers with questions on the spiritual life, asceticism, and related topics. It was clear from the questions and the letters that many people thought this newsletter was produced by monks or other clergy; but that is not the case. Instead, it is produced by a simple layman who merely wants to share the riches of the ancient Desert Fathers with the widest possible audience and to help people see that today's problems and issues can be addressed with the ancient wisdom of the Early Desert Christians and those who have followed their way since. By making the writings of the Desert Fathers available on the Internet, in a searchable, accessible format, it is our hope that this ancient wisdom will touch the lives of more people in today's world. In that, I believe we have succeeded as our readership now numbers over 1700 each week.

One question that has come up time and time again is the most important one -- "How do I find a spiritual father in today's world?" It is this question I would like to address today as it is one that applies to a great number of people and it is one I personally have struggled with over the years. In answering this question, reference will be made to the writings of spiritual fathers through the centuries, but I will also take the liberty of sharing some personal experiences with you.

Two primary points have been made repeatedly in my own consultations with monks and priests and in the writings I have consulted: 1) a sincere spiritual child will ALWAYS be led to a spiritual father if the seeker is sincere; and 2) in the absence of a spiritual father, one can always turn to the writings of the Desert Fathers.

I remember once asking a Russian monk, "Why are there no spiritual fathers today like St. Seraphim or the ancient saints who can guide and advise us?" His answer: because there are no spiritual children as in the past. In other words, because modern people are not as serious and humble in their quest for spiritual maturity, are not as willing to endure the hardship, submission, asceticism, material renunciation, and time spent in prayer as people did in earlier times, God does not reward us with the spiritual fathers we think we want. The monk told me, however, that any person who is truly desirous, truly sincere, whose heart truly seeks complete submission to God, will always be led to a spiritual father or mother who can help lead that seeker to salvation.

On the other hand, most of us do not fit that category of truly sincere and truly submissive seekers. For us, a "mediocre" spiritual guide may be found, but the safest and most reliable guide will always be found in the writings of the ancient Desert Fathers. In this respect, you might wish to reread a newsletter from 1998 which discusses the issue of "Why Should We Read the Desert Fathers?" .

What about the earliest saints? Did St. Anthony the Great or St. Paul of Thebes have spiritual fathers or libraries of books to read? Of course not. So how did they learn? How did they acquire their vast troves of spiritual knowledge and understanding? I asked a monk on Mount Athos about this once and his answer was simple. The early Fathers had the greatest spiritual library imaginable -- the Holy Bible.

If you read the lives of the Desert Fathers, one common fact about their lives comes up repeatedly; quite often, the ONLY book they had in their cells was a copy of the Bible, as often as not personally and painstakingly hand-copied from a Bible owned by another hermit. This Bible was their most valuable possession, but they were without exception ready to give it up to a thief, a buyer, or a pilgrim in order to avoid material attachment to the object itself. Because of their profound humility and simplicity, and their great desire to submit to God, the Almighty One taught them through the pages of the Bible and led them to learn and write down the vast wisdom we now know as the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

St. Anthony the Great, when asked how he could live in the desert without books to teach him, replied that the hills around him were his books. In other words, living in solitude in nature in submission to God's Will taught him the spiritual life. The implication is clear -- the serious seeker, who shuns the material world (even if he or she continues to live IN the world, material attachment can still be avoided), will always be led to the Truth by God if the effort and desire are there.

One should also not make the mistake of thinking that only those will be saved who leave families and the world behind to live the ascetic life in solitude. On this, the teachings of the Desert Fathers are clear. A man who lived in the city and wanted to go to the desert to be a monk once consulted St. Niphon. St. Niphon could tell this man had no real inclination toward monasticism so he told him, "My son, a man is neither saved nor lost by the place he is in, but is saved or lost by his deeds. Neither a holy place nor a holy state is of use to him who does not fulfill the commandments of the Lord. Saul lived in regal luxury and perished. David lived in luxury and received the wreath (of salvation). Lot lived among the lawless Sodomites and was saved. Judas was among the apostles and went to Hell. Whoever says that it is impossible to be saved with a wife and children is a deceiver. Abraham had a wife and children and three hundred and eighteen servants, and also much gold and silver, and he was called the friend of God! Many servants of the Church have been saved, and many lovers of the desert; many aristocrats, and many soldiers; many craftsmen, and many farm laborers. Be devout towards God and loving towards men, and you will be saved."

St. Theophan the Recluse wrote a nice piece about the need for a spiritual father in one's life. Read his words carefully:

"St. Anthony the Great, when he began to wonder whether his rule was true, immediately began to cry out: 'Tell me the way, Lord,' and was only at peace when he received assurance. Anyone who has embarked upon the spiritual life is just as one who has embarked upon an ordinary journey. Since we do not know the way, we need someone to lead us. It would be too self-reliant to think: 'I can do it myself. . . . .' No, neither rank nor learnedness, nor any other thing can help. It is no less self- reliant if someone who is not subject to extraordinary circumstances but who has the opportunity to seek out a guide, yet does not choose one, assuming that God will guide him without an intermediary. It is true that it is God Who has received us and leads us to perfection, but under the guidance of a father. The father does not lift us onto the steps, but facilitates our being lifted by God. Nevertheless, in the usual order of things, God leads us, makes us understand, purifies us, and tells us his will through others. Anyone left alone with himself is in extreme danger, never mind that he will be thrashing and floundering in one place, producing very little fruit. Knowing neither ascetic feats, nor spiritual exercises, nor their order, he will do them and re-do them, like someone who has taken up a task he does not know how to do. Often for this reason many people get stuck, grow cold and lose their zeal. But the chief danger is inner disorder and satanic delusion."

Clearly, the spiritual seeker should seek a spiritual father, but one should not despair when one does not find such a guide immediately. Each Christian needs a spiritual father if they are truly seeking to do God's Will and grow in the Faith. However, we do not need to go to Mount Athos or the Holy Land to find a "spiritual guru." We do not even need to wander from monastery to monastery or parish to parish within our own land to seek a spiritual father. If you truly seek the wisdom of the Desert, you will find it if you seek with your heart and soul and your real desire is to submit to God, as opposed to being "spiritual." If you are a sincere student of the spiritual life, a true seeker of holy wisdom, then God will lead you to it and, in the process, may even lead you to a true spiritual father who will direct your daily life in the tradition of the Desert Fathers. Should that happen, consider yourself blessed to the highest degree. If it does not happen, however, do not despair because everything you need for spiritual growth is there if your heart is truly seeking submission to God's Will.

I hope these thoughts are of some help to you if you feel the need to find a spiritual father in these times of spiritual deadness. The search is not an easy one, but God DOES reward the sincere seeker and the guidance we need is out there, whether in the Bible, the Desert Fathers, or from that rare spiritual father who can truly lead the dedicated student who submits to his will. It is a difficult search, but the payoff is eternal life and salvation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Several issues ago, we looked at several texts from St. Gregory of Sinai on prayer. 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. Today we will look at a couple of small texts on the "Jesus Prayer" which is most useful for any Christian who wishes to develop a life of prayer and is considered by many the highest form of Christian spirituality.


-- Sometimes, and most often, you should sit on a stool, because it is more arduous; but sometimes, for a break, you should sit for a while on a mattress. As you sit be patient and assiduous, in accordance with St. Paul's precept, "Cleave patiently to prayer" (Colossians 4:2). Do not grow discouraged and quickly rise up again because of the strain and effort needed to keep your intellect concentrated on its inner invocation. It is as the prophet says: "The birth-pangs are upon me, like those of a woman in travail" (Isaiah 21:3). You must bend down and gather your intellect into your heart -- provided it has been opened -- and call on the Lord Jesus to help you. Should you feel pain in your shoulders or in your head -- as you often will -- endure it patiently and fervently, seeking the Lord in your heart. For "the kingdom of God is entered forcibly, and those who force themselves take possession of it" (Matthew 11:12). With these words the Lord truly indicated the persistence and labor needed in this task. Patience and endurance in all things involve hardship in both body and soul.

-- Some of the fathers advise us to say the whole prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy," while others specify that we say it in two parts -- "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy," and then "Son of God, help me" -- because this is easier, given the immaturity and feebleness of our intellect. For no one on his own account and without the help of the Spirit can mystically invoke the Lord Jesus, for this can be done with purity and in its fullness only with the help of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:3). Like children who can still speak only falteringly, we are unable by ourselves to articulate the prayer properly. Yet we must not out of laziness frequently change the words of the invocation, but only do this rarely, so as to ensure continuity. Again, some fathers teach that the prayer should be said aloud; others, that it should be said silently with the intellect. On the basis of my personal experience I recommend both ways. For at times the intellect grows listless and cannot repeat the prayer, while at other times the same thing happens to the voice. Thus we should pray both vocally and in the intellect. But when we pray vocally we should speak quietly and calmly and not loudly, so that the voice does not disturb and hinder the intellect's consciousness and concentration. This is always a danger until the intellect grows accustomed to its work, makes progress and receives power from the Spirit to pray firmly and with complete attention. Then there will be no need to pray aloud -- indeed, it will be impossible, for we shall be content to carry out the whole work with the intellect alone. 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. 275 - 276.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

ST.GREGORY OF SINAI - On the Different Kinds of Energy

In this issue, we will look at the second and final part of some of the teachings of St. Gregory of Sinai who lived in the thirteenth century. Although not an "ancient Desert Father" in the chronological sense, he is clearly one of them in a spiritual sense. Today's article is an excellent piece on the different kinds of energy involved in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit:


-- In every beginner two forms of energy are at work, each affecting the heart in a distinct way. The first comes from grace, the second from delusion. St. Mark the Ascetic corroborates this when he says that there is a spiritual energy and a satanic energy, and that the beginner cannot distinguish between them. These energies in their turn generate three kinds of fervor, the first prompted by grace, the second by delusion or sin, and the third by an excess of blood. This last relates to what St. Thalassios the Libyan calls the body's temperament, the balance and concord of which can be achieved by appropriate self-control.


-- The energy of grace is the power of spiritual fire that fills the heart with joy and gladness, warms and purifies the soul, temporarily stills our provocative thoughts, and for a time suspends the body's impulsions. The signs and fruits that testify to its authenticity are tears, contrition, humility, self-control, silence, patience, self-effacement and similar qualities, all of which constitute undeniable evidence of its presence.


-- The energy of delusion is the passion for sin, inflaming the soul with thoughts of sensual pleasure and arousing phrenetic desire in the body for intercourse with other bodies. According to St. Diadochos it is entirely amorphous and disordered, inducing a mindless joy, presumption and confusion, accompanied by a mood of ill-defined sterile levity, and fomenting above all the soul's appetitive power with its sensuality. It nourishes itself on pleasure, aided and abetted by the insatiable belly; for through the belly it not only impregnates and enkindles our whole bodily temperament but also acts upon and inflames the soul, drawing it to itself so that little by little the disposition to self-indulgence expels all grace from the person thus possessed. 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. 261 - 262.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

ST. GREGORY OF SINAI - On How to Discover the Energy of the Holy Spirit

Today we will look again at some of the teachings of St. Gregory of Sinai who lived in the thirteenth century. Although not an "ancient Desert Father" in the chronological sense, he is clearly one of them in a spiritual sense. Today's article is an excellent piece on the power of the Holy Spirit:


-- The energy of the Holy Spirit, which we have already mystically received in baptism, is realized in two ways. First, to generalize, this gift is revealed, as St. Mark tells us (e.g., St. Mark the Ascetic in "On Baptism"), through arduous and protracted practice of the commandments: to the degree to which we effectively practice the commandments its radiance is increasingly manifested in us. Secondly, it is manifested to those under guidance through the continuous invocation of the Lord Jesus, repeated with conscious awareness, that is, through mindfulness of god. In the first way, it is revealed more slowly, in the second more rapidly, if one diligently and persistently learns how to dig the ground and locate the gold. Thus if we want to realize and know the truth and not to be led astray, let us seek to possess only the heart-engrafted energy in a way that is totally without shape or form, not trying to contemplate in our imagination what we take to be the figure or similitude of things holy or to see any colors or lights. For in the nature of things the spirit of delusion deceives the intellect through such spurious fantasies, especially at the early stages, in those who are still inexperienced. On the contrary, let our aim be to make the energy of prayer alone active in our hearts, for it brings warmth and joy to the intellect, and sets the heart alight with an ineffable love for God and man. It is on account of this that humility and contrition flow richly from prayer. For prayer in beginners is the unceasing noetic activity of the Holy Spirit. To start with it rises like a fire of joy from the heart; in the end it is like light made fragrant by divine energy.

-- There are several signs that the energy of the Holy Spirit is beginning to be active in those who genuinely aspire for this to happen and are not just putting God to the test -- for, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, "It is found by those who do not put it to the test, and manifests itself to those who do not distrust it" (Wisdom 1:2). In some it appears as awe arising in the heart, in others as a tremulous sense of jubilation, in others as joy mingled with awe, or as tremulousness mingled with joy, and sometimes it manifests itself as tears and awe. For the soul is joyous at God's visitation and mercy, but at the same time is in awe and trepidation at His presence because it is guilty of so many sins. Again, in some the soul at the outset experiences an unutterable sense of contrition and an indescribable pain, like the woman in Scripture who labors to give birth (Revolution 12:2). For the living and active Logos - - that is to say, Jesus -- penetrates, as the apostle says, to the point at which soul separates from body, joints from marrow (Hebrews 4:12), so as to expel by force every trace of passion from both soul and body. In others it is manifest as an unconquerable love and peace, shown towards all, or as a joyousness that the fathers have often called exultation -- a spiritual force and an impulsion of the living heart that is also described as a vibration and sighing of the Spirit who makes wordless intercession for us to God (Romans 8:26). Isaiah has also called the "waves" of God's righteousness (Isaiah 48:18), while the great Ephrem calls it "spurring." The Lord Himself describes it as a "spring of water welling up for eternal life" (John 4:14) -- He refers to the Spirit as water -- a source that leaps up in the heart and erupts through the ebullience of its power.

-- You should know that there are two kinds of exultation or joyousness: the calm variety (called a vibration or sighing or intercession of the Spirit), and the great exultation of the heart -- a leap, bound or jump, the soaring flight of the living heart towards the sphere of the divine. For when the soul has been raised on the wings of divine love by the Holy Spirit and has been freed from the bonds of the passions, it strives to fly to that higher realm even before death, seeking to separate itself from its burden. This is also known as a stirring of the spirit -- that is to say, an eruption or impulsion -- as in the text, "Jesus was stirred in spirit and, deeply moved, He said, 'Where have you laid him?'" (John 11:34). David the Psalmist indicates the difference between the greater and the lesser exultation when he declares that the mountains leap like rams and the little hills like lambs (Psalm 114:6). He is referring of course to those who are perfect and to beginners, for physical mountains and hills, lacking animal life, do not actually leap about.

-- Divine awe has nothing to do with trepidation -- by which I mean, not the tremulousness induced by joy, but the trepidation induced by wrath or chastisement or the feeling of desertion by God. On the contrary, divine awe is accompanied by a tremulous sense of jubilation from the prayer of fire that we offer when filled with awe. This awe is not the fear provoked by wrath or punishment, but it is inspired by wisdom, and is also described as "the beginning of wisdom" (Psalms 111:10). Awe may be divided into three kinds, even though the fathers speak only of two: the awe of beginners, that of the perfect, and that provoked by wrath, which should properly be called trepidation, agitation or contrition.

-- There are several kinds of trembling. That of wrath is one, that of joy is another, and that of the soul's incensive power, when the heart's blood is over-heated, is another, that of old age is another, that of sin or delusion is another, and that of the curse which was laid on the human race because of Cain is another (Genesis 4:11-15). In the early stages of spiritual warfare, however, it sometimes but not always happens that the trembling induced by joy and that induced by sin contend with one another. The first is the tremulous sense of jubilation, when grace refreshes the soul with great joyfulness accompanied by tears; the second is characterized by a disordered fervor, stupor and obduracy that consume the sol, inflame the sexual organs, and impel one to assent through the imagination to erotic physical obscenities. 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. 259 - 261.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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

This issue will conclude our 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 have already looked at the first two methods; today we will look at the third.


-- Let us now begin to speak about the third method of prayer, which is truly astonishing and hard to explain. For those ignorant of it, it is not only difficult to understand but virtually incredible, and there are very few to be found who practice it. It seems to me that it has deserted us along with the virtue of obedience. For it is the love of obedience that delivers us from entanglement with this evil world, rendering us free from anxiety and impassioned craving. It makes us wholehearted and unflagging in pursuit of our aim -- provided, of course, that we find an unerring guide. For if through obedience you make yourself dead to every worldly and bodily attachment, how can anything transient enslave your intellect? If you entrust all the care of your soul and body to God and to your spiritual father, no longer living for yourself or desiring the good opinion of others, what anxiety can distract you?

-- This third method, then, destroys the invisible wiles of the demons, with which as with ropes they seek to drag down the intellect into all manner of devious thoughts. Set at liberty, the intellect wages war with its full strength, scrutinizing the thoughts insinuated by the enemy and with masterful dexterity expelling them, while the heart in its purity offers prayers to God. This is the beginning of a life of true seclusion, and those who fail to make such a beginning exhaust themselves in vain.

-- The starting point of this third method of prayer is not to gaze upwards, to raise one's hands aloft, to concentrate one's thoughts and to call down help from heaven. These, as we said, are the marks of the first form of delusion. Nor does it begin, as the second method does, by keeping guard over the senses with the intellect, while failing to observe the enemies who attack from within. In such a case, a person is struck by the demons instead of striking them; when wounded he is unaware of it; taken captive, he cannot retaliate against his captors. His enemies constantly attack him, and from behind and even face to face, and fill him with self-esteem and arrogance.

-- If you desire to embark on this light-giving and joyful task, begin as follows. You must first practice exact obedience, as described above, and so act always with a pure conscience; for without obedience it is impossible for your conscience to be pure. And you must keep your conscience pure in three respects: first, with respect to God, you must keep your conscience pure by refraining from doing anything that conflicts with the worship due to Him. With respect to your spiritual father do everything he tells you to do, neither more nor less, and be guided by his purpose and will. With respect to other people, you must keep your conscience pure by not doing to them anything that you hate (Tobit 4:15) and that you do not want them to do to you. With respect to material things, you must take care not to misuse them, whether food, drink, or clothing. In brief, do everything as if you were in the presence of God, so that your conscience does not rebuke you in any way.

-- . . . In short, if you do not guard your intellect you cannot attain purity of heart, so as to be counted worthy to see God (Matthew 5:18). Without such watchfulness you cannot become poor in spirit, or grieve, or hunger and thirst after righteousness, or be truly merciful, or pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or be persecuted for the sake of justice (Matthew 5:3-10). To speak generally, it is impossible to acquire all the other virtues except through watchfulness. For this reason you must pursue it more diligently than anything else, so as to learn from experience these things, unknown to others, that I am speaking to you about. Now if you would like to learn also about the method of prayer, with God's help I will tell you about this too, in so far as I can.

-- Above all else you should strive to acquire three things, and so begin to attain what you seek. The first is freedom from anxiety with respect to everything, whether reasonable or senseless -- in other words, you should be dead to everything. Secondly, you should strive to preserve a pure conscience, so that it has nothing to reproach you with. Thirdly, you should be completely detached, so that your thoughts incline towards nothing worldly, not even your own body.

-- Then sit down in a quiet cell, in a corner by yourself, and do what I tell you. Close the door, and withdraw your intellect from everything worthless and transient. Rest your head on your chest, and focus your physical gaze, together with the whole of your intellect, upon the center of your belly or your navel. Restrain the drawing-in of breath through your nostrils, so as not to breathe easily, and search inside yourself with your intellect so as to find the place of the heart, where all the powers of the soul reside. To start with you will find there darkness and an impenetrable density. Later, when you persist and practice this task day and night, you will find, as though miraculously, an unceasing joy. For as soon as the intellect attains the place of the heart, at once it sees things of which it previously knew nothing. It sees the open space within the heart and it beholds itself entirely luminous and full of discrimination. From then on, from whatever side a distractive thought may appear, before it has come to completion and assumed a form, the intellect immediately drives it away and destroys it with the invocation of Jesus Christ. From this point onwards the intellect begins to be full of rancor against the demons and, rousing its natural anger against its noetic enemies, it pursues them and strikes them down. The rest you will learn for yourself, with God's help, by keeping guard over your intellect and by retaining Jesus in your heart. As the saying does, "Sit in your cell and it will teach you everything." 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. 69 - 73.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

ST. SIMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN - The Three Kinds of Prayer: Part II

In this issue, we will continue our 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. Last week we looked at the first method of prayer; today we will look at the second.


The second form of prayer is this. A person withdraws his intellect from sensory things and concentrates it in himself, guards his senses, and collects all his thoughts; and he advances oblivious of the vanities of this world. Sometimes he examines his thoughts, sometimes pays attention to the words of the prayer he is addressing to God, and sometimes drags back his thoughts when they have been taken captive; and when he is overcome by passion he forcefully strives to recover himself.

One who struggles in this way, however, can never be at peace or win the crown of victory. He is like a person fighting at night: he hears the voices of his enemies and is wounded by them, but he cannot see clearly who they are, where they come from, and how and for what purpose they assail him. Such is the damage done to him because of the darkness in his intellect. Fighting in this manner, he cannot ever escape his noetic enemies, but is worn out by them. For all his efforts he gains nothing. Falsely imagining that he is concentrated and attentive, he falls victim unawares to self-esteem. Dominated and mocked by it, he despises and criticizes others for their lack of attentiveness. Imagining that he is capable of becoming the shepherd of sheep, he is like the blind man who undertakes to lead the blind (Matthew 15:14).

Such are the characteristics of the second method of prayer, and everyone one striving after salvation can see what harm it does. Yet this second method is better than the first, just as a moonlit night is better than a night that is pitch-dark and starless. 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. 68 - 69.