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, April 28, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part II


We will continue our study of the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will study some of these texts over the next several issues.

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DIRECTIONS ON SPIRITUAL TRAINING
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BEGIN:

-- Always keep in mind the grievous afflictions of those stricken with sorrow and tribulations, that you may render due thanks for the small and insignificant adversities, which may happen to you, and be able to bear them with joy.

-- In times of cooling and laziness, imagine in your heart those past times when you were full of zeal and solicitude in all things, even the smallest; remember your past efforts and the energy with which you opposed those who wised to obstruct your progress. These recollections will reawaken your soul from its deep sleep, will invest it anew with the fire of zeal, will raise it, as it were, from the dead and will make it engage in an ardent struggle against the devil and sin, thus returning to its former rank.

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THE ACTIVITY OF BEARING ONE'S CROSS
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-- The activity of cross-bearing is of two kinds: one consists in enduring bodily afflictions (bodily privations, inevitable in struggling with passions), and is called activity proper; the other consists in subtle doing of the mind, meditation on God, abiding in prayer, and so on, and is called contemplation. The first purifies the passionate part of the soul, the other brings light to its mental part. Every man who, before perfecting his training in the first activity, passes to the second, being attracted to its delights, not to speak of his own laziness, becomes overtaken by wrath for not having first mortified his 'members which are upon the earth' (Colossians 3:5), that is, for not having overcome the impotence of thoughts by patient exercise in the activity of bearing the cross, and for presuming to let his mind dream of the cross's glory. This is the meaning of the saying of the saints of old that, if a man's mind conceives an intention to climb on to the cross, before his senses are cured of their sickness and have achieved a state of serenity, he is overtaken by the wrath of God. A man whose mind is defiled by shameful passions, who is quick to fill it with fantasies, has an interdiction set on his lips, because, without first purifying his mind by suffering, without conquering carnal lusts, he puts his trust on what his ear has heard and what is written in ink, and has forged ahead on a part shrouded in darkness, when his eyes are blind.

-- Imagine virtue as the body, contemplation as the soul, and the two together as forming one perfect man, whose two parts -- the senses and the mind -- are made one by the spirit. Just as it is impossible for a soul to manifest its being before the forming of the body, with its members, has been completed; so too is it impossible for a soul to reach contemplation without active work in virtue.

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WITHDRAWING FROM THE WORLD - THE 'WORLD' OF PASSIONS
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-- When you hear that it is necessary to withdraw from the world, to leave the world, to purify yourself from all that belongs to the world, you must first learn and understand the term 'world,' not in its everyday meaning, but in its purely inward significance. When you understand what it means and the different things that this term includes, you will be able to learn about your soul -- how far removed it is from the world and what is mixed with it that is of the world. 'World' is a collective name, embracing what are called passions. When we want to speak of passions collectively, we call them 'the world'; when we want to distinguish between them according to their different names, we call them passions.

-- When you have learned what the world means, then, by discerning all that is implied in this term, you will also learn what ties you to the world and in what you are freed from it. I will say, more briefly, that the world is carnal life and minding of the flesh. Therefore a man is seen to be free of the world inasmuch as he has wrenched himself free of this. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 186 - 187

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ST. ISAAC OF SYRIA - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part I


In this issue, we will begin a new study on the teachings of St. Isaac of Syria who left us with extensive teachings on the spiritual life. St. Isaac was born in Nineveh. We know nothing of his childhood except that he and his brother took up the monastic life early on, entering the Monastery of St. Matthew. St. Isaac soon developed a desire for the solitary life, departing the monastery and settling far away from his monastic community in a lonely cell where he was able to devote himself fully to God. St. Isaac's brother, who had since become abbot of the monastery, begged him to return to the communal life, but Isaac refused even to make a short visit.

St. Isaac was soon called by God to rule over the Church in Nineveh. Although he ruled well as a bishop, affairs in the church there soon convinced him that he could not serve as a bishop. He retired again to his blessed solitude where he remained for the rest of his life. The writings St. Isaac produced in his solitary life have served the Church and the faithful well for some fourteen centuries (he died at the end of the sixth century), certainly a greater service to the faithful than he would have provided had he remained in the world as a bishop. He wrote from experience and guided those who came to him on the basis of his own activity. St. Isaac taught from practice, not from theory.

These teachings came down to us in Syriac and Arabic. About half of them have been translated into Greek and then into Russian. We will study some of these texts over the next several issues.

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DIRECTIONS ON SPIRITUAL TRAINING
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-- Fear of God is the beginning of virtue; it is the offspring of faith and is sown in the heart, when the mind is withdrawn from worldly distractions in order to collect its wandering thoughts into meditation about the future restoration.

-- The beginning of the path of life is always to be instructing one's mind in the Words of God and to spend one's life in poverty. Filling oneself with the one helps to gain perfection in the other. If you fill yourself with study of the Words of God, this helps toward progress in poverty; and progress in non- acquisitiveness gives you leisure to make progress in study of the Words of God. So the two combine to help the speedy building of the whole edifice of virtues.

-- No one can approach God without withdrawing from the world. By withdrawal I do not mean change of physical dwelling place, but withdrawal from worldly affairs. The virtue of withdrawal from the world consists in not occupying your mind with the world.

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THE NEED TO STUDY DIVINE SCRIPTURE
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-- To drive away the wrong tendencies previously acquired by the soul, nothing is more helpful than immersing oneself in love of studying the Divine Scriptures, and understanding the depths of the thoughts they contain. When thoughts become immersed in the delight of fathoming the hidden wisdom of the words, a man leaves the world behind and forgets all that is therein, in proportion to the enlightenment he draws from the words. But even when the mind floats only on the surface of the waters of the Divine Scriptures and cannot penetrate to the very depths of the thoughts contained therein, even then the very fact that he is occupied with zeal to understand the Scriptures is enough firmly to pinion his thoughts in ideas of the miraculous alone, and to prevent them from seeking after the material and the carnal.

-- In everything you meet with in the Scriptures, strive to find the purpose of the word, to penetrate into the depth of the thought of the saints and to understand it more exactly. Those whose life is guided by Divine grace towards enlightenment, always feel as though some inner ray of light travels over the written lines and allows the mind to discern from the bare words what is said with great thought for the instruction of the soul.

-- If a man reads lines of great meaning without going deeply into them, his heart remains poor (it gets no food); and the holy force which, through wondrous understanding of the soul, gives most sweet food to the heart, grows dim in him.

-- Each thing is usually attracted to its like. So the soul, being endowed with the spirit, ardently attracts to itself the content of a saying, as soon as it hears words which contain hidden spiritual force. Not every man is moved to wonder by what is said spiritually and possesses great spiritual force concealed in it. Words which speak of virtue require a heart not occupied with the earth; and in a man whose mind is burdened with temporal cares, virtue does not awake thought to love it and seek to possess it.

-- Do you wish to commune with God in your mind? Strive to be merciful. To the spiritual love which imprints the invisible image (of God in oneself), there is no other path than that a man should first of all begin to be merciful in the measure that our heavenly Father is merciful, as the Lord said (Luke 6:36). END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 183 - 185

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Teachings of the 'Startsi' of Valamo Monastery on Prayer


Although this newsletter was supposed to begin a study of the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian, I want to share with you another small collection writings I came across in my readings on prayer, which I think are especially good. This small collection is not from the Desert Fathers, but rather from more recent fathers of the 18th and 19th century who lived at Valamo Monastery in Russia. As was usually the case with the monastic fathers of Russia before the revolution of 1917, these fathers lived very much in the traditions and spirit of the ancient Desert Fathers, even though they lived in "modern" times in the "desert" of the Russian north. The readings in today's passage give a very nice overview of prayers, both internal and external, and I think they are a nice follow-up to the teachings of Abba Dorotheus we have been reviewing.

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ORAL PRAYER 
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BEGIN: [Schema Monk Agapii] -- In the beginning the Jesus Prayer is mostly uttered with unwillingness and constraint. But if we have a firm intention to subdue all our passions, through prayer and with the help of divine grace, then with frequent practice of the Prayer and perseverance, as the passions grow less, the Prayer itself will become gradually easier and more attractive.

In oral prayer we must try in every possible way to keep our mind fixed on the words of the prayer, saying it without haste and concentrating all our attention on the meaning of the words. When the mind becomes distracted by alien thoughts, we must bring it back undiscouraged to the words of the prayer.

Freedom from distraction is not given to the mind quickly, nor whenever we wish it. It comes when we have first humbled ourselves, and when God chooses to grant this blessing to us. This divine gift does not depend upon the length of time we pray or the number of prayers we recite. What is needed is a humble heart, the grace of Christ, and constant effort.

From oral prayer recited with attention we pass over to inner or mental prayer. This is so called because in such prayer our mind is swept towards God and sees Him alone.

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INNER PRAYER (PRAYER OF THE MIND) 
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To practice inner prayer, it is essential to keep our attention in the heart before the Lord. In response to our zeal and humble striving in prayer, the Lord bestows upon our mind His first gift -- the gift of recollection and concentration in prayer. When attention is directed towards the Lord effortlessly and without interruption, this is attention given by grace, whereas our own attention is always forced. This inner prayer, if all goes well, in due time passes into prayer of the heart: the transition is easily made, provided we have an experienced teacher to guide us. When the feelings of our heart are with God and love for God fills our heart, such prayer is called prayer of the heart.

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PRAYER OF THE HEART 
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It is said in the Gospels: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). When we pray, then, we must first give up our own will and our own ideas, and then take up our cross, which is the labor of body and soul that is unavoidable in this spiritual quest. Having surrendered ourselves entirely to the never- sleeping care of God, we should joyfully and humbly endure the sweat and labor, for the sake of the true reward God will grant to the zealous when the right time comes. Then God, imparting His grace to us, will put an end to the wanderings of our mind and will place it -- together with the remembrance of Himself -- immovably within the heart. When this dwelling of the mind in the heart has become something natural and constant, the Fathers call it "union of mind and heart." In this state the mind has no longer any desire to be outside the heart. On the contrary, if outward circumstances or some long conversation keeps the mind away from its attention to the heart, it experiences an irresistible longing to return within, a craving and spiritual thirst: its one desire is to set to work once more with renewed zeal in building its inner house.

When this inner order is established, everything in a man passes from the head into the heart. Then a kind of inner light illumines all that is within him, and whatever he does, says, or thinks, is performed with full awareness and attention. He is able to discern clearly the nature of the thoughts, intentions, and desires that come to him; he willingly submits his mind, heart, and will to Christ, eagerly obeying every commandment of God and the Fathers. Should he deviate from them in any respect, he expiates his fault with heart-felt repentance and contrition, humbly prostrating himself before God in unfeigned sorrow, begging and confidently awaiting help from above in his weakness. And God, seeing this humility, does not deprive the suppliant of His grace.

Prayer of the mind in the heart comes quickly to some people, while for others the process is slow. Thus of three people known to me, it entered into one as soon as he was told about it, in that same hour; to another it came in six months' time; to a third after ten months, while in the case of one great staretz it came only after two years. Why this happens so, God alone knows.

Know also that before the passions are destroyed prayer is of one kind, and after the heart has been purified of passions it is of another kind. The first kind helps to purify the heart of passions, while the second is a spiritual token of future bliss. This is what you should do; when you can actually feel the mind entering the heart and are consciously aware of the effects of prayer, give full sway to such a prayer, banishing all that is hostile to it; and so long as it continues active within you, do nothing else. But when you do not feel thus carried away, practice oral prayer with prostrations, striving in all possible ways to keep your attention in the heart before the face of the Lord. This manner of praying will also enable the heart to acquire warmth.

Watch and be sober, and especially during the prayer of the mind and heart. No one pleases God more than he who practices the prayer of mind and heart aright. When outward surroundings make prayer difficult, or when you have no time to pray, at such times, whatever you may be doing, strive to preserve the spirit of prayer in yourself by all possible means, remembering God and striving in every way to see Him before you with the eyes of your mind, in fear and love. Feeling His presence before you, surrender yourself to His almighty power, all-seeing and omniscient, in worshipful submission laying all your activities before Him, in such a way that in every action, word and thought you remember God and His holy will. Such, in brief, is the spirit of prayer. Whoever has a love for prayer must without fail possess this spirit, and, as far as possible, must submit his understanding to God's understanding by means of constant attention of the heart, humbly and reverently obeying the commands of God. In the same way he should submit his wishes and desires to God's will, and surrender himself completely to the designs of God's providence.

In all possible ways we should combat the spirit of arbitrary self-will and the impulse to shake off all restraint. It is a spirit that whispers to us: This is beyond my strength, for that I have no time, it is too soon yet for me to undertake this, I should wait, my monastic duties prevent me -- and plenty of other excuses of like kind. He who listens to this spirit will never acquire the habit of prayer. Closely connected with this spirit is the spirit of self-justification: when we have been carried away into wrong-doing by the spirit of willful arbitrariness and are therefore worried by our conscience, this second spirit approaches and sets to work on us. In such a case the spirit of self-justification uses all kinds of wiles to deceive the conscience and to present our wrong as being right. May God protect you against these evil spirits.

[Igumen Varlaam] -- The Apostle writes: "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience" (II Corinthians 1:12). Simeon the New Theologian says: "If our conscience is pure, we are given the prayer of mind and heart; but without a pure conscience we cannot succeed in any spiritual endeavor."

[Igumen Nazarii] -- With reverence call in secret upon the Name of Jesus, thus: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner."

Try to make this prayer enter ever more deeply into your soul and heart. Prayer the prayer with your mind and thought, and do not let it leave your lips even for a moment. Combine it, if possible, with your breathing, and with all your strength try through the prayer to force yourself to a heart-felt contrition, repenting over your sins with tears. If there are no tears, at least there should be contrition and mourning in the heart. END

From "The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology," compiled by Igumen Chariton of Valamo, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, (London: Faber & Faber, 1966, pp. 275 - 279

As most of readers know by now, the "Philokalia" (currently published in four volumes in English) is the best overall source of spiritual guidance on prayer and spirituality that is available. However, this one-volume collection from the Philokalia is, in our opinion, the best book to get if you can only purchase one book.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part V


In this issue we will conclude our study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abba Barsanuphius and Abba John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abba Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

Next week, we will begin a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church provide us with the guidance we need to start a new commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead. Today's study focuses on presumptuousness.

BEGIN:

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PRESUMPTUOUSNESS 
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26. Presumptuousness may have many forms; one may be presumptuous by word, gesture, or look. It may lead a man to chatter, to worldly talk, to doing something ridiculous, provoking others to unseemly mirth. It is presumptuousness, too, if a man touches another without need, points at someone who is laughing, pushes him, snatches something out of his hands, shamelessly stares at him; all this is the work of presumptuousness, all this comes of having no fear of God in the soul and so little by little a man becomes utterly careless. Therefore God, when He gave the commandments of the law, said, "Ye shall cause the children of Israel to beware of their uncleannesses" (Leviticus 15:31), for without reverence and modesty man cannot honor even God Himself, nor can he keep a single commandment. Hence nothing is more harmful than presumptuousness; it is the mother of all passions, since it banishes reverence, drives the fear of God away from the soul, and gives birth to carelessness.

28. Over whatever you have to do, even if it be very urgent and demands great care, I would not have you argue or be agitated. For rest assured, everything you do, be it great or small, is but one eighth of the problem, whereas to keep one's state undisturbed even if thereby one should fail to accomplish the task, is the other seven eighths. So if you are busy at some task and wish to do it perfectly, try to accomplish it -- which, as I said, would be one eighth of the problem, and at the same time to preserve your state unharmed -- which constitutes seven eighths. If, however, in order to accomplish your task you would inevitably be carried away and harm yourself or another by arguing with him, you should not lose seven for the sake of preserving one eighth.

29. The wise Solomon says in the Proverbs, "They that have no guidance fall like leaves: but in counsel there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14). So you see what the Holy Scriptures teach us? They enjoin us not to rely on ourselves, not to regard ourselves as knowing all, not to believe that we can control ourselves, for we need help, are in need of those who would counsel us according to God. No men are more unfortunate or nearer perdition than those who have no teachers on the way of God. For what does it mean that where no guidance is, the people fall like leaves? A leaf is at first green, flourishing, beautiful; then it gradually withers, falls and is finally trampled underfoot. So is it with a man who has no guide; at first he is always zealous in fasting, vigil, silence, obedience and other virtues; then his zeal little by little cools down and, having no one to instruct, support and fire him with zeal, he insensibly withers, falls and finally becomes a slave of the enemies, who do with him what they will.

30. Of those who revel their thoughts and actions and who do everything with counsel the Wise One says, "in much counsel there is safety" (Proverbs 9:14). He does not say, "in the counsels of many" that is, in seeking counsel from everyone, but in seeking counsel in all things -- naturally from one we trust; and not in such a way as to tell one thing and conceal another, but to reveal everything and seek counsel in all things. For such a man, safety is assured "in much counsel."

31. When we do not reveal our thoughts and intentions and do not seek the counsel of the experienced, we hold on to our own will and follow our own justifications. Then, apparently doing something good, we spread nets for ourselves, and so without realizing it we perish. For how can we understand the will of God or completely surrender ourselves to it, when we trust ourselves and cling to our own will? Therefore Abba Pimen said that "our will is a brass wall between man and God."

32. The devil trips up as he likes the man who trusts his own mind and keeps to his own will. But he has no access to a man who does everything with counsel. That is why he hates questions and the guidance in response, hates the very voice, the very sound of such words. Is it not clear why? Because he knows that his evil wiles will at once be exposed when people begin to ask questions and talk of useful things. And there is nothing he fears more than being exposed, for then he can no longer be wily as he wills. When a man asks and hears the advice of someone experienced, "do this, but do not do that" or, "now is not the time for that" or sometimes "now is the time," the devil cannot find how to harm or bring him down, since he always seeks counsel and protects himself on all sides. So the saying "in much counsel there is safety" is fulfilled for him.

33. The enemy likes those who rely on their own understanding, for they help him and sets traps for themselves. I know of no other way for a monk to fall than when he trusts his own heart. Some say a man falls because of this or that, but I know of no other fall except when a man follows his own lead. If you see a man fallen, know that he followed his own lead. Nothing is more dangerous, nothing more pernicious than this. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 160 - 163

Sunday, April 14, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part IV


We will continue our study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abba Barsanuphius and Abba John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abba Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

We will continue our multi-part study today of these teachings, and will follow these with a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church will provide us with the guidance we need to start the new year with a commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead. Today's study focuses on love and fear, in both their perfect and imperfect states.

BEGIN:

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PERFECT LOVE AND PERFECT FEAR 
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22. St. John says, "Perfect love casteth out fear" (I John 4:18). How is it then that the holy Prophet David says, "Fear the Lord, all ye his saints" (Psalms 33:9)? This shows that there are two kinds of fear: the first, initial, the second perfect; one belongs to beginners, the other to perfect saints, who have attained to the measure of perfect love. He who obeys God's will through fear of torment is still a beginner; and he who fulfils the will of God through love for God in order to please Him, is brought by this love into perfect fear; and through this fear, when once he has tasted the delight of being with God, he is afraid to fall away, is afraid to be deprived of it. It is this perfect fear, born of love, which casts out the initial fear.

23. No one can attain to perfect fear unless he first acquires the initial fear. The wise Sirach says, "To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom . . . The fear of the Lord is a crown of wisdom" (Ecclesiasticus 1:14, 18). By the beginning is meant the initial fear, on which follows the perfect fear of the saints. The initial fear belongs to the state of our soul. It protects the soul from every fall, for it is said, "By the fear of the Lord everyone departs from evil" (Proverbs 15:27). But a man who departs from evil from fear of punishment, like a slave in fear of his master, gradually comes to doing good voluntarily -- at first like a hireling in the hope of some reward for his good action. If he continues thus constantly to avoid evil from fear, like a slave, and to do good in the hope of reward like a hireling, then, abiding by God's grace in the good and thus correspondingly uniting with God, he finally acquires a taste for the good, comes to a certain sense of what is truly good, and no longer wishes to be parted from it. Then he attains to the dignity of a son and loves good for its own sake; and although he fears, he does so because he loves. This is great and perfect fear.

24. This sequence is expressed by the Prophet David in the following words: "Turn away from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it" (Psalms 33:14). "Turn away from evil," that is, avoid all evil in general, turn away from every action which leads to sin. But having said this he did not stop there, but added "and do good." For sometimes a man does no evil, but neither does he any good: for example, he harms no one but also does not show mercy; or he does not hate but neither does he love. Having said this David continued, "seek peace, and pursue it." He did not merely say "seek," but pursue it with diligence to acquire it. Follow carefully these words in your mind and note the subtlety shown by the Saint. When it is granted to a man to turn away from evil and thereupon, with God's help, diligently to do good, he becomes at once a prey to attacks from the enemy. And so he labors, strives, sorrows, now fearing to return to evil like a slave, now hoping for a reward for good like a hireling. In suffering attacks from the enemy, struggling with him and resisting him from these motives, though the man does what is good, he does it with great effort and grief. But when he receives God's help and acquires a certain habit of good, then he finds rest, then he tastes peace, then he experiences what grievous warfare means and what mean the joy and gladness of peace. Then he begins to seek peace, to strive after it assiduously in order to attain it, to possess it wholly and to establish it in himself. He who has reached this stage tastes at last the blessedness of the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). And henceforth who can impel his soul to do good for the sake of anything but the enjoyment of that good itself? Then such a man knows also perfect fear.

25. The fathers said that man acquires the fear of God if he keeps death and torments in his memory, if each evening he questions himself as to how he spent the day, and each morning how he passed the night, if he is not presumptuous and, finally, if he remains in close communion with a man who fears God. For they relate that once a certain brother asked a staretz, "What should I do, father, in order to fear God?" The staretz answered, "Go, live with a man who fears God; and by the very fact that he fears God, he will teach you too to fear Him." We repel the fear of God from ourselves by doing everything contrary to what has been said -- we have neither memory of death nor memory of torments, we have no attention on ourselves and do not question ourselves about how we spend out time, but live heedlessly and commune with men who have no fear of God, and we are presumptuous. This last is the worst of all -- it is utter ruin -- for nothing drives the fear of God away from the soul more than presumptuousness. Abba Agathon, when asked about it, once said, "Presumptuousness is like a strong scorching wind, from which all flee when it begins to blow, and which kills all the fruit on the trees." May God save us from this all-destructive passion -- presumptuousness. END

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NEXT WEEK -- ABBA DOROTHEUS DISCUSSES "PRESUMPTUOUSNESS" 
AND HOW TO FIGHT IT 
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from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 158 - 160

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part III


In this issue we will continue our study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abbas Barsanuphius and John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abaa Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

We will continue our multi-part study today of these teachings, and will follow these with a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church will provide us with the guidance we need to start the new year with a commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead. Today's study focuses on the conscience.

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DIRECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE -- ST. ABBA DOROTHEUS
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17. In creating man God implanted in him something Divine -- a certain thought, like a spark, having both light and warmth, a thought which illumines the mind and shows what is good and what bad. This is called conscience and it is a natural law. By following this law -- conscience -- the patriarchs and all the saints pleased God, even before the law was written. But when, through the fall, men covered up and trampled down conscience, there arose the need of written law, of the holy Prophets, of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, to uncover and raise it up, to rekindle this buried spark by the keeping of His holy commandments.

18. So not it is in our power either to bury it again or to let it shine in us and illumine us, if we obey. When our conscience tells us to do something and we disregard it, and when it tells us again but we continue to trample on it and not act on it, we bury it. Then it can no longer speak to us clearly for the weight which presses upon it, but like a lamp shining behind a curtain it begins to show us things more and more dimly. Just as no one can recognize their face in water muddied with slime, so we, after transgression, fail to apprehend the voice of conscience, so that it seems to us not to exist in us at all.

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THE CONSCIENCE AS THE "ADVERSARY"
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19. Conscience is called the adversary, because it always opposes our evil will; it reminds us of what we ought to do but do not, and condemns us if we do something we ought not. That was why the Lord called it adversary and commanded us: "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him" (Matthew 5:25), that is, while you are in this world, as Basil the Great says.

20. So let us guard our conscience, while we are in this world; let us not allow it to accuse us in something, nor disregard it in anything however small. For you must realize that from disregarding this small and insignificant thing we pass to neglect of big things. If someone begins to say "What does it matter if I eat this scrap? What of it if I look at this or that?", then from this "What matters this, what matters that?" he will fall into a bad habit and will begin to neglect big and important things and trample down his conscience. Thus becoming hardened in evil, he will be in danger of falling into complete insensitivity.

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GUARDING THE CONSCIENCE
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21. Conscience should be guarded towards God, towards one's neighbor and towards things. In relation to God, he guards his conscience who does not neglect God's commandments and who, even in things not seen by men and that no one demands of us, guards his conscience towards God in secret. Guarding conscience towards our neighbor demands that we should never do anything which, to our knowledge, would offend or tempt him, whether by word or deed, look or expression. Guarding conscience towards things means not to misuse a thing, nor let it be spoiled nor throw it away needlessly. In all these respects conscience should be kept pure and unblemished, lest one should fall into the calamity against which the Lord warns us (Matthew 5:26). END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 157 - 158

Sunday, April 7, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part II


In this issue we will continue our study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abbas Barsanuphius and John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abaa Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

We will continue our multi-part study today of these teachings, and will follow these with a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church will provide us with the guidance we need to start the new year with a commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead. Today's study focuses on humility.

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DIRECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE -- ST. ABBA DOROTHEUS
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9. We have left the world, so let us leave also our attachment to it. For attachments tie us again to the world and unite us with it, even if they concern insignificant, ordinary and worthless things. If we wish to be completely transformed and freed from attachments, let us learn to cut off our own desires, even in the least important things. For nothing brings more profit to men than renouncing their own will, since in truth a man gains a greater benefit from this than from any other virtue. Indeed, the cutting off of one's own will and desires can be practiced at every moment. Suppose a man is walking; his thought says to him, "Look at this and at that," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He meets some people talking; his thought says to him: "have a few words with them," but he cuts off his desire and says nothing. He comes to the kitchen; his thought says: "let us go and see what the cook is preparing," but he cuts off his desire and does not go, and so on and so on. But cutting off his desires in this way he acquires a habit of cutting them off and, beginning with small things, ends by easily and calmly cutting them off in big things as well. Thus, finally he begins to have no will of his own at all and remains unperturbed, whatever may happen. Thus by cutting off their own will men acquire non-attachment and from non-attachment, with God's help, they rise to complete passionlessness.

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THE NEED FOR HUMILITY IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
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10. A certain staretz [NOTE: this is a Russian term which literally means, "old man," but in religious literature it refers to a spiritual father of great wisdom and insight] said: "Above all we need humility." Why did he say this? Why did he not say that above all we need self-mastery, since the Apostle says, "Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things" (I Corinthians 9:25). Or why did he not say that above all we need the fear of God, since the Scriptures say, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7). Or why did he not say that above all we need mercy or faith, since it is said, "By mercy and truth iniquity is purged" (Proverbs 16:6) and, "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11:6). Why then, laying aside all these which are so needful, does the staretz stress only humility? He shows us by this that neither fear of God, nor mercy, nor faith nor self- mastery, nor any other virtue can be achieved without humility. Moreover, humility destroys all the arrows of the enemy. All the saints followed the way of humility and labored at it. "Look upon mine affliction and my trouble; and forgive all my sins" (Psalms 24:18), and again, "I was brought low, and he delivered me" (Psalms 114:6).

11. The same staretz said, "Humility is neither angered nor angers anyone. Humility attracts God's grace to the soul; and God's grace, when it comes, delivers the soul from these two grievous passions. For what can be more grievous than to be angry with one's neighbor or to anger him? But what am I saying, that humility delivers from only two passions? It delivers the soul from every passion and every temptation."

12. When St. Anthony saw all the nets of the devil spread out, he sighed and asked God, "Who can escape them?" God answered him, "Humility escapes them" and, what is still more wonderful, added, "They will not even touch it." Do you see the power of this virtue? Indeed there is nothing stronger than humility, for nothing can conquer it. If some affliction befalls a humble man, he immediately blames himself for deserving it and will not reproach or blame another. Thus he endures everything that may befall (him) untroubled, without grief, with perfect calm; and so he is angered by no one and angers none.

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THE TWO KINDS OF HUMILITY
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13. There are two kinds of humility, as there are two kinds of pride. The first kind of pride is when a man reproaches his brother, condemns and reviles him as someone of no account, regarding himself as his superior. If such a man does not speedily come to his senses and try to mend his ways, he comes, little by little, to the second kind of pride, which puffs itself up in the face of God Himself and ascribes to itself its achievements and virtues, as though the man has done it all himself, with his own intelligence and knowledge, and not with the help of God. From this can be seen what constitutes the two kinds of humility.

14. The first humility consists in considering that one's brother has better judgment and is in all things superior to oneself -- or in considering oneself below all men. The second humility consists in ascribing one's achievements to God. This is the perfect humility of the saints.

15. No one can describe in words what humility is and how it is born in the soul, unless he learns this from experience. From words alone no one can know it. One day Abba Zossima was speaking of humility, when a sophist who was present asked him: "Do you not know that you have virtues? After all, you see that you are obeying the commandments: how then in that case do you regard yourself as a sinner?" The staretz could not find how to answer him but said simply, "I do not know what to say to you, but I consider myself a sinner." And when the sophist went on bothering him with the question "How?", the staretz continued to repeat the same thing: "I know not how, but I truly regard myself such. Do not confuse me." Or again, when Abba Agathon was nearing death the brethren asked him, "Are you not afraid, father?" He answered, "As far as I could I have made myself keep the commandments, but I am a man, and how can I know whether what I have done is pleasing to God. For God's judgment is one thing and man's another.

16. A staretz once said about what brings a man to humility, "The ways to humility are bodily labors done intelligently, considering oneself below all others, and ceaseless prayer to God." Bodily labors bring the soul to humility, because the soul suffers with the body and shares in all that happens to it; as bodily labors humble the body, the soul is humbled with it. Considering oneself lower than all is a distinctive feature of humility, and if a man practices it and becomes accustomed to it, this by itself implants humility and uproots what we have called the first pride. For how can a man puff himself up before anyone, or blame or belittle anyone if he regards himself as lower than all? In the same way the practice of unceasing prayer obviously goes against the second kind of pride. For it is clear that a man inclines himself towards humility if, knowing that he can achieve no virtue without God's help, he never ceases to pray, asking God to show him mercy. Thus a man who prays without ceasing, if he achieves something, knows why he achieved it, and can take no pride in it; for he cannot attribute it to his own powers, but attributes all his achievements to God, always renders thanks to Him and constantly calls upon Him, trembling lest he be deprived of help. Thus he prays with humility and is made humble by prayer. The more he progresses in virtue the greater becomes his humility, and as his humility grows he receives help and again progresses in humility. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 154 - 157

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

ABBA DOROTHEUS - Directions on the Spiritual Life, Part I


In this issue we will start off a new study on the teachings of Abba Dorotheus of Gaza, one of my own personal favorites among the Desert Fathers. Abba Dorotheus lived at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries. As a wealthy young man, he was an ardent student of the secular sciences and was quite well educated by the standards of his day. After completing his secular education, Abba Dorotheus lived for a while near his birthplace, not far from the monastery of Abba Serid, located in either Ashkalon or Gaza. He soon made contact with Abbas Barsanuphius and John and became a ardent student of their teachings. He soon became convinced to renounce everything and take monastic vows in Abaa Serid's monastery. Abba Dorotheus soon completed his monastic education under Barsanuphius and John and served in the monastery's hospice and infirmary. After Abba Serid and Abba John died, and the great Barsanuphius shut himself up completely in his cell, renouncing all contact with the outside world, Abba Dorotheus left the monastery and became the abbot of another monastery. It was at this point in his life that Abba Dorotheus began to deliver homilies to his disciples -- 21 in all -- which were preserved and passed on to us by his followers. The date of his death is not known.

We will begin a multi-part study today of these teachings, and will follow these with a multi-part series from St. Isaac of Syria. Together, the teachings of these two great spiritual fathers of the Early Church will provide us with the guidance we need to start the new year with a commitment to growing spiritually in the weeks and months ahead.

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DIRECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUAL LIFE -- ST. ABBA DOROTHEUS
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1. In His loving-kindness God has given us purifying commandments so that, if we wish, we can by their observance be cleansed not only of sins but also of passions themselves. For passions are one thing and sins another. Passions are: anger, vanity, love of pleasures, hatred, evil lust and the like. Sins are the actual operations of passions, when a man puts them into practice, that is, performs with the body the actions to which his passions urge him. For it is possible to have passions and yet not to act from them.

2. The (old) law had as its purpose to teach us not to do what we did not want done to us; consequently it forbade only the actual doing of evil. Now however (in the New Testament) we are required to banish the passion itself, which urges us to do evil -- hatred itself, love of pleasures, love of fame, and other passions.

3. Listen to what the Lord says: "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29). He shows here the root and cause of all ills and their cure, the cause of all good, namely, that self-exaltation has brought us down and that pardon cannot be obtained except through its opposite, humility. What has brought all our afflictions upon us? Was it not pride? Man was created for every kind of enjoyment and was in the Garden of Eden. But one thing he was forbidden to do, yet he did it. You see the pride? You see the disobedience (the daughter of pride)?

4. Thereupon God said: man does not know how to delight in joy alone. If he does not experience afflictions he will go still further and will perish completely. If he does not learn what are sorrow and labor he will not know what are joy and peace; and so God banished him from he Garden of Eden. Here he was surrendered to his own self-love and his own will, that they might break his bones and thereby teach him to follow not himself but God's commandments, and that the very sufferings of disobedience should teach him the blessings of obedience, as the Prophet says: "Thine apostasy shall correct thee" (Jeremiah 2:19). So now God's mercy calls: "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). He says, as it were: you have labored and suffered enough and have experienced the evil results of disobedience, come now and be converted: restore yourselves to life by humility, in place of the arrogance by which you put yourselves to death. "Learn of me; for I am meek and lowly of heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:29).

5. Some God-loving men, having cut off the actions of passions after their holy baptism, desired to vanquish passions themselves and become passionless. Such were St. Anthony, St. Pachomius and other holy fathers. They conceived the good intention to cleanse themselves "from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit" (II Corinthians 7:1). But realizing that this is hard to achieve while living in the world, they devised for themselves a special form of life, a special form of activity, that is, a solitary life withdrawn from the world; and they began to flee the world and to live in the wilderness, practiced fasting and vigil, slept on bare earth, and endured various other privations, having completely renounced their kith and kin, their goods and possessions.

6. Thus they not only kept the commandments, but also brought gifts to God. Commandments are given to all Christians and it is the duty of every Christian to obey them. It is the same as the tribute that in the world is due to the king. But as in the world there are great and distinguished people, who not only pay tribute to the king but also bring gifts to him for which they are granted special honors, reward and rank, so too the fathers not only paid tribute to God by obeying the commandments, but also brought Him gifts, such as virginity and poverty, which are not commandments but acts of their own will. For it is said of the first: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matthew 19:12), and of the second: "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give it to the poor" (Matthew 19:21).

7. They crucified the world unto themselves, and thereupon strove to crucify themselves unto the world, imitating the Apostle who says, "The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6:14). For when a man renounces the world and becomes a monk, leaves his parents, possessions and all worldly affairs and cares, he crucified the world unto himself. And when, being made free from external things, he fights also against the very enjoyment or the very desire of things, when he struggles against his own wishes, and mortifies the passions themselves, he crucifies himself unto the world and can boldly say with the Apostle, "The world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world."

8. Our fathers, having crucified the world unto themselves, have also crucified themselves unto the world by their efforts. But though, by renouncing the world and retiring into a monastery, we have seemingly crucified the world unto ourselves, we do not want to crucify ourselves unto the world, since we still love its pleasures, are still attached to it, are moved by its glory, have kept in ourselves a fondness for foods, clothes and other vanities. Yet we should not do so, since just as we have renounced the world and its things, so too should we renounce our very attachment to those things. END

from E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer, "Early Fathers from the Philokalia," (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 152 - 154