It’s difficult to speak of Mount Athos. There are two temptations to resist: making an icon of it, seeing the divine light streaming everywhere and canonising the most superstitious and aberrant attitudes under the pretext of tradition; and making a caricature of it, speaking of Mount Athos like the newspapers that see only its simony, its perversions and ‘the sordidness that surrounds the blessed.’ We may have to recover the art of portraiture somewhere between icon-painting and caricature-drawing.
These ‘words’ of the monks are a synthesis of numerous conversations I was able to have with them on the Holy Mountain, more particularly with the hegumenoi of Stavronikita, Simonos Petras and Aghios Panteleimonos; the monk Chrysostomos of Xenophontos Skete; and a staretz or elder whose name I no longer know — he lived in the neighbourhood of Aghia Anna. The word isn’t only in the mouth of the one who speaks, it is also in the ear of the one who listens. Since my memory is not a built-in tape-recorder, you won’t find here a literal transcription of our talks. Here, rather, is the ripening fruit these words were able to awaken in me.
My questions were always the same:
- What is a monk?
- What is the goal of the monastic life?
- What are the means of reaching that goal? Fasting? Vigils? Obedience? Silence Poverty?
- What is hesychia? Apatheia?
- What is the experience of grace? How do you attain the grace of the Holy Spirit?
- What is prayer? The prayer of the heart? How do you pray without ceasing?
- How do you come to know the will of God? Become practiced in the discernment of thoughts?
After reporting a conversation with Father Dionysios, guest-master at Simonos Petras, I will present the answers given to me on each of these topics in short chapters.
Implicit or explicit references to Scripture, the Apophthegmata and the Fathers of the Church make these ‘words’ a living echo of the Tradition, in fact, the monks I met seemed more solicitous about ‘handing on what they themselves had received’ from their Fathers than about sharing a personal experience. The risk involved here is that of getting formal answers describing an ideal monastic life, without much connection with what is actually being lived. These words would thus succumb to what I’ve called the temptation of the icon. But the icon guides the portrait as the Good and the Beautiful guide our freedom: it is man’s true face, but this true face has yet to be born.
In these words there is an echo of man new-born, of man transformed by the Spirit of God; and there is an echo of the pangs of childbirth, of man torn between his good and evil desires. We must know how to laugh and how to cry. It is the song and the tumult of our own heart.
Father Dionysios: Guest-Master Monastery of Simonos Petras
What is a monk?
He is someone who wants to follow Christ to the end. Each day he lets himself be guided by the Holy Spirit and his obedience con- forms him to the obedient Christ. He is a new-born babe, a child turned toward the Father, a man in the Trinity.
How do you become a monk?
By denying yourself. The grain must be buried in the earth for it to bear fruit. You must fast, keep vigil in prayer, keep your- self pure, acquire humility, pray without ceasing.
How do you pray without ceasing?
It is a gift of God: you must ask Him for it. ‘If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him for it?’ We must ask the Mother of God and the saints to intercede for us.
What happens when you pray without ceasing?
‘It is not I who live, it is Christ Who lives in me.’ Jesus’ breathing in us is the Holy Spirit Who says ‘Abba’ and prays for everyone
How do you pray for everyone?
To pray for everyone, even for our enemies, is God’s love it- self in our heart; it is the fruit of prayer. We must sing the Offices, read the Psalms, meditate on the Gospels, say ‘Lord, have mercy!’ unceasingly. The heart is purified, it becomes humble and then it can pray for all, for sinners. It can shed tears and give its blood.
How do you love your enemies?
First of all, who are our enemies? The monk has no enemies except the demons. It’s impossible to pray for the demons; we must fight them–but we fight them by love. It is being crucified with Jesus. We go down with Him to hell. Only a pure heart, a child’s heart, can triumph over the powers of darkness . There must be no more hatred, no more lying in the heart; it must be the throne of Light and Love. That is what we are: the throne of God, the temples of the Holy Spirit. If that is what we are, then we love our enemies. But there is often something other than God in us. We’re not humble and Love can no longer live in us. And instead of praying, we judge others; our thoughts prey on us.
What is the experience of the Holy Spirit?
It is when we are dead to ourselves and Christ lives in us. Then we walk in the light, we are gods by grace, new beings.
What is hesychia?
It’s silence in our heart, our spirit, our body. One who never does his own will dwells in silence before God; he effaces himself in his body, his spirit and his heart before God. This man can walk in the city and live in the midst of noise: he is always before God . But that’s very rare. You must begin by silence, far from the world, far from all cares, and first of all taste how good the Lord is. How will someone who doesn’t know how to be silent before God in his cell be able to hear Him in the city squares? Many monks don’t experience hesychia even in their cells — they ‘ re too talkative, they lose themselves in their memories and imaginings; they create all sorts of cares for themselves concerning the morrow, which is contrary to the Lord’s command: ‘Be still and know that I am God.’
Is it hesychia that leads to apatheia?
Yes. Apatheia is the goal. Then man is like God. There are no more evil thoughts in him, he is no longer a slave to any passion; he has become love, without emotions, without desire: he IS. Then his prayer is truly efficacious, because he prays with the heart of God Himself Who creates and saves the world.
But who experiences that state?
If we hadn’t the witness of the saints, we would despair of com- ing to know that blessed state promised by Christ.
Do the saints have a big place in your life?
Yes; the Mother of God, all the saints. They are closer to us than our neighbours, our work-fellows. They’re really living persons. Gregory Palamas is at the heart of my heart; he is the gift Mount Athos has made to God
How do you discern the will of God?
If a thought comes from God, it’s a light in the heart: it makes us more humble, and makes us progress in love. If that thought on the contrary makes us self-satisfied and leads us to judge others, it comes from the enemy.
If you have great interior peace and a love for all your fellow-beings, the Holy Spirit dwells in you. The enemy detests hesychia , so don’t be surprised if this peace comes to you in the midst of trials and hardships. It is then that you understand St. Paul’s words: ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’
Christ said He hadn’t a stone on which to rest His head. Can’t Mount Athos become a place for the monk to rest his head?
For me, Mount Athos is like a rocket or an elevator. I don’t loiter in the elevator; I’m only here to get to heaven. I don’t bed down in the elevator; I remember the One Who is waiting for me at the door.
On the Monk and the goal of Monastic Life
‘So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:1-4).
Here, St. Paul describes the paradox of our condition well: we are dead, we no longer exist for the world, our old man has been crucified; we have renounced covetousness, pride, hatred; and little by little we are becoming participants in the life of Him Who is risen.
We live with Him, turned toward the Father in the Holy Spirit. This is the Christian’s life and the monk’s life.
The monk is a Christian who wants to live the exigencies and the call of his baptism to the maximum. Like all Christians, he must become another Christ, truly divine and truly human. The Holy Spirit , the King- dom of God, is the object of our desire. We must all let ourselves be transformed by Him so we can be recreated to the image and likeness of God. We are all sinners called to be saints. We have all been drawn from nothingness to participate in the life of Him Who IS.
The monk, more than others, knows the way that leads from darkness to light; and that way is Jesus Christ.
The monk has only one desire: to deny himself and follow Jesus Christ wherever He goes… and He is going to the Father. He is going toward resurrection through suffering, death, the abandonment of the Cross. But we have no fear, because the Holy Spirit has been with us since His coming at Pentecost. He gives us the strength and humility of Jesus; and the love He pours out in our hearts fills us with joy, even if we sometimes have to suffer very much and go through all kinds of trials.
If someone learns carpentry, it’s so that he can become a carpenter. If you study the Gospel and do not put it into practice, what good is it?
If someone learns carpentry, it’s not so that he can become a blacksmith. If you study the Gospel, the Bible, the lives of the saints, it’s not so that you can live a worldly life but so that you can live like Christ.
Our father Saint Basil has still another image: When a blacksmith must make an axe, he thinks first of all of the one who ordered it and keeps him well in mind. Then he reflects on the size and shape of the object, and does his work according to the will of the one who ordered it; because if he loses all of that from view, he will make something other than what was ordered, or he’ll make it differently.
It’s the same with the Christian when he directs all his activity, whatever it may be, toward the accomplishment of God ‘swill, the goal of it all, which is divinisation. While bringing perfection to his actions, he remains faithful to the thought of the One Who commands; he lives these words of Psalm 16: ‘I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved’ (Psalm 16:8). And he observes the precept, ‘ So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.’ (1 Corinthians 10:31)
We are guests passing through, ‘But our citizenship [or commonwealth] is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20); so how can you be concerned about earthly things and have worldly preoccupations? ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart also.’ — ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26). Christ doesn’t want us to loiter on this through-way. He doesn’t want us to become slaves to anything at all; and He wants us to be free from the deepest and most legitimate affections for the sake of a greater love.
What can be greater than this? We are called to become God, to become by grace what He is by nature. Such is the goal: our divinisation. ‘God became man that man might become God.’ This provocative statement, is from the church father Athanasius (ca. 298 – † 2 May 373), and is in his hugely influential On the Incarnation.
The goal of the monastic life is to recover once more a pure heart, docile to God’s will: there is the freedom of the children of God.
Insofar as we are in sin, we are not free. We must renounce everything within us that is not divine, and then we will be true men. We must reject lying, hypocrisy, pride, hatred. Let the Spirit of Jesus live in you, and you will find your true identity.
The goal of our life is found in the fulfilment of the Lord’s commandments: ‘Love God, love your neighbour.’ If we live that with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole spirit, we will be deified: we will be like Christ. God is Love, God is Light. Man created in His image must become entirely love, entirely light.
The Sacraments communicate God’s life to us, and the monastic life has no other purpose than to make us more and more receptive of God’s gift. The monk must leave everything that isn’t love, everything that isn’t light. That is what it means to renounce the world: so there will be no more room in us for vanity, ambition, jealousy; and satan will no longer have any throne, any place in us to extend his reign.
The monk’s rule is the Sermon on the Mount. The Spirit gives us the Beatitudes to live by, and trying to live these Beatitudes attunes us to the Spirit. To live the Beatitudes is to take on, little by little, the form of God and the form of the Servant; it is to become another face of the Son in Whom the Father was well-pleased.
‘… learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart.’ (Matthew 11:29) Our goal is to acquire the gentleness and humility of Christ. Gentleness and humility lead us to the heart of Christ in the Trinity. That is the divine learning that He came to teach us: the monk forgets all other learning to acquire that one. Thus he hopes to attain the wisdom of his Master.
Whatever it is you are doing, don’t forget that you are in the presence of God. Examine your thoughts, watch over your actions. You must think with Him, walk with Him, love with Him. The monk is one who is never without God. His heart is dwelt in by the Name of Jesus, and he tries to make the commandment ‘… abide in my love’ (John 16:9) an actuality.
Anything done without love serves no purpose. You can fast, keep vigil, dress in rags; if you don’t have the love of God in you, it is good for nothing. That is not the way you receive the inheritance and become God’s child, if it is not for God’s love that you’ve left the world and its influence you have left everything but found nothing. To what, purpose? First of all you should have given your heart, left yourself behind, and you would have received the Holy Spirit.
It’s easy to renounce the outside world; to renounce the inner world is hard labor. No longer to accept worldly thoughts and preoccupations — that is not possible without the help of the Holy Spirit Who makes the monk’s heart pure and free for God.
All the labours of the monastic life have no other goal but to divinise us.
How do you acquire humility and love of Christ? This is the problem the young man entering our house will have to solve with his whole life. What divinises us above all else is faith, hope and charity.
Faith heals our intellect. It reveals to that intellect the Being it was searching for in fragmentary things. Faith is the vision of the Creator, and by it we are delivered from the fascination of creatures. Faith teaches us to think like God, to see everything in His light. It truly divinises our intellect.
The Lord tells us ‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47). When someone believes in the love of God, how could his vision of the world and himself remain unchanged? In faith, everything appears transfigured, everything is a sign of His presence — painful events as well as pleasant ones. It’s only in faith that we can perceive the deep meaning of all these events, that we can perceive the de- sign of God Who divinises us through trials.
Faith prepares us for the blessed vision of God; but even here below, it already opens heaven to us and thus enables us to praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and to confess Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead’ (2 Timothy 2:8). The monk remembers neither his family, or the world, nor his past; he remembers only his Lord. The monk has died and is risen. He is not trying to realise a psychosomatic balance according to some human wisdom, nor is he learning to face death like Socrates and the philosophers. No, he wants to participate in the life of the One Who conquered death: he wants to share the life of the Risen One. The monk wants to be a man risen with Christ, and it is only the Holy Spirit Who can give him a share in the life of the Risen One. That is why he begs the Father constantly to grant him, and all His creatures, what He promised.
The monk doesn’t try to specialise in anything; he often has to change his job in the monastery. His work is continual prayer. Whatever he does, he must make everything ‘ascend‘ by prayer and everything will become a way to the Father for him, serving in the refectory as well as reading in the cell.
In everything the monk seeks unity, with others and in himself. His heart, his soul, his spirit, his impulses, must all be reunited in the love of God. One who fulfils the commandment ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30) is healed of his internal divisions; he recovers his likeness to the God Who is One. Then he can become a peacemaker and preach to others the Lord’s desire: ‘… that they may all be one.’ (John 17:21)
Each of us is a host of characters; we wear a host of masks. The monastic life simplifies. If it doesn’t make us more simple and less complicated, we should flee from it because we would no longer be consecrated to the quest for the one thing necessary. Our whole being would not be unified, simplified, by it.
As long as you have desires other than that of God and of following Him according to His will, you will lose peace. Monastic life frees us from desires. ‘… to live for the rest of your earthly life no longer by human desires but by the will of God’ we attain blessed hesychia.
We know the Gospel and the Fathers much too intellectually; we can understand them only by living and experiencing them: we must live what the Apostles and the Fathers lived. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit as they were, to understand something of Christianity. The Christian experience is the following of Christ, living His death and His resurrection in our own flesh.
Christ’s humility and His glory are the same mystery, and this mystery is the monk’s whole life: by humility, to receive the Holy Spirit; by the Cross, to enter into resurrection. That is what it is to follow Christ.
The monk must take heed not to return to Egypt and become like the sow Saint Peter speaks of: after washing, it returns to the mire.
It’s a great grace when the Lord purifies our memory and we no longer recall our past life, our relatives or our friends. From the time of Lot’s wife right up to this word from the Gospel ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey…’ (Galatians 3:10) God shows us that He walks ahead of us. All we have to remember is our sin and His mercy; that is. His Cross and His resurrection. How many monks, even after numerous years of monastic life, still delight in the memories of their youthful years.
May God purify our memory so that we may be entirely turned toward Him, and we will know true hope. It seeks no support either in human attainments or in friendships; true hope counts only on God’s mercy, and —you know it— it’s only by God’s mercy that we will be saved.
There is no monastic life outside the Church. The Church is the place of man’s divinisation. If you want to be one with God, don’t go anywhere else: Zen, yoga, all these things can only strengthen the old man in you, but can’t bring the new man to birth. Today mental balance is too much taken as the norm of holiness. Grace does not contradict nature, that’s true; but I know men of questionable mental balance who had within them a real desire for God, an authentic love of one’s neighbour.
The Church is not a Church of perfect beings, but of those who await their salvation not from their own efforts or from their technological marvels, but from Another’s mercy.
It is the love of God that saves us and deifies us. The Church is the place where that love is communicated to us. Why look elsewhere?
But the proud don’t like the Church. You have to be humble, you have to be a child to accept the fact that God comes to us through the Sacraments, these poor sensible signs, and through men — these poor men who often are not at the high level of the mysteries they celebrate and the Word they proclaim.
The Church is Christ’s flesh, and the proud always reject the Incarnation. It was only the thief who recognised the Lord of glory in this man crucified at his side.
We must look at the Church with the eyes of faith to discern in her the communication of the Holy Spirit and the coming Kingdom. If a monk didn’t have the eyes of faith, he would be like the atheist who sees in her only useless ceremonies, hypocrisy and scandals.
The Church is also the Church of saints. The frescoes, the iconostasis, are there to remind us of their presence. The Church in heaven and the Church on earth are not separated; there is only one Church. Although the monk sees her mediocrity and her powerlessness, he looks toward the saints and with their help he does not despair.
The first commandment is ‘Listen, Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord.’ ‘Listen.’ God is asking us to listen to Him…
Before prayer can be a word coming from ourselves, it must be a listening. A psychiatrist once told me, ‘The day a patient begins to listen to me or to really listen to others, to accept them, to welcome them, he is cured.’ If you listen to God, if you really welcome His Word, if you really embrace His Presence, then you’re cured, you’re saved. You become a mother of God — as Mary had done, who ‘pondered all these things in her heart.’
‘O God, give me a listening heart.’ The Fathers also say that the root of sin is the forgetfulness of God, lack of attention to Him. ‘Listen, be attentive.’ God is there. And you? ‘Adam, where are you?’
One day the brethren asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ He answered, ‘Forgive me, but I think that there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every-time a person wants to pray, his enemies, the demons want to prevent him; for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey.’ In truth, how could falsehood or vanity ever infiltrate a heart that prays? Pride no longer has an entry-way into the world where it would sow strife and dissension.
If we’ve sold all our goods, it’s so that we can buy a precious pearl. If we haven’t married, if we have renounced wealth and our own will, it’s so that we can acquire perpetual prayer. If we’ve been freed from all worldly cares, it’s so that we can pray to God with a pure heart. And besides, prayer should be the monk’s only occupation.
In order to reduce every temptation to nought, there’s nothing like the Lord’s command ‘Pray without ceasing.’ In order to recover our freedom as children of God and our primeval beauty according to His image and likeness, there’s nothing like the unceasing invocation of His Name.
Whatever you’re doing, in church, in your cell or at work, do all for God’s glory: that is, with a heart that loves Him and prays to Him. ‘Close your door and pray to the Father in secret.’ Close your mouth. Remember Jesus Christ present in your heart; remember His Spirit and may love teach you to pray in truth ‘Abba, Father.’
If you knew the gift of God, who He is, and whom desires to pray within you; you must, first of all, accustom your body and your lips to prayer. You can remain standing before an image of Christ and His Mother Mary, make prostrations and repeat aloud the Name of Jesus, the cry of the blind man and the publican. Prayer of the heart is a gift of God: it will be given to you when God pleases. Whilst we wait, we can prepare ourselves to receive God’s gift; we can offer Him our body, our lips, our thought, and He will shape us into temple’s of His Spirit.
The quality of our prayer does not determined by us; it’s God’s work. However, the quantity and regularity of prayer we undertake does depend on us. We can repeat the Name of Jesus tirelessly. Like the tax-collector, standing far off, and who would not even look toward heaven, but stood beating his breast and crying, we must declare ‘Lord God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ and God will show us His boundless mercy.
What use are conferences and debates on prayer, if you then. Make no effort to work on it? Only by praying will you be able to comprehend prayer. No one can teach you prayer, for each individual will have their own unique experience of prayer, guided by the Holy Spirit. Don’t worry about understanding what prayer amount to. Whatever the words may be —Liturgy, Psalms, invocation of His Name— don’t allow your mind roam and stray, discipline your mind. Stay fixed upon the words. ‘The One before Whom you stand is the Living One.’ דע לפני מי אתה עומד — Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed, ‘Know before Whom you stand’. For doing that, you will merit the life of the World-to-Come.’
Go to a quiet place, sit down, direct your mind toward your heart —toward what you feel is the deepest part within your very being— and embed within it the Name of Jesus. It can be arduous, but if you persevere Jesus will come and dwell within you; you will then be able to turn to His and our Father without futile aspirations, and you will be able to go to your brethren without useless words I ‘Praying … means shedding blood,’ said Saint Silvanus the Athonite. Only those who have loved a lot would understand the word. It is a very good approach to pray like this, because it is just how Jesus prayed to His Father before entering into His Passion.
Moses loved his brethren to the point of pleading to have his name expunged from the Book of Life —the book in which God records the names of every person who is destined for the World to Come— in which his name had been inscribed, if the people were not to be pardoned for their sin (Ex. 32:32). Paul wished to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his Jewish brethren. Look at the saints, and you’ll see that the roots of prayer are all within love.
The art of prayer, that art of loving of which the Gospel speaks so often to us, demands our undivided attention, all of our breath. therefore anyone who has not completely renounced themselves and their trivial yearning will not be able to achieve it. After all one does not become an accomplished cellist by learning to cook. If you wish to pray, earnestly pray, then you must not do anything else at all: allow your heart to be free of all concerns.
The prayer of the heart, ‘Lord God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ —this means ‘grant unto me, grant unto all men, Your infinite mercy.’ Lord Jesus, send Your Holy Spirit to guide me: meaning, ‘You Lord are there and here I am; may ‘Thy will be done’, I abandon myself to You.’ The Priest, Mystic, Martyr Hermit of the Sahara, Blessed Charles Eugène de Foucauld OCSO, put it most aptly in his prayer of abandonment:
Father, I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you: I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures — I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul: I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve, and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.
Prayer of the heart leads us toward silence. It’s futile to speak of what happens within this silence; but if you do not emerge from it with more love for your brethren and more gratitude toward God, it could not have been the silence of God but the silence of the devil.
If you wish to build a temple, it will require a firm foundations, which you will have to excavate yourself. God is the One Who builds the temple; your part is to occupy yourself with the foundations, or more precisely, to allow the foundations to be excavate within you. Offer Him a lot of your time, your lips, your breath. It is with all this that He hollows out within you a place of His rest.
Repeating the Name of Jesus is not like the continuous recitation of a Buddhist Theravada mantra. For you, the end is not merely the cessation of all thoughts; but it’s a meeting of the two, facing God.
A monk’s silence does not reunite with that nihility which is the substance of the universe. A monk’s silence is the silence of the beloved whom contemplates the Loved one. These are still images, you may tell me, and reality is beyond all images. Well that is true, however, this is the language of the Bible; those who dismiss the Bible typically reject Revelation as well.
The Infinite Being, the Eternal, the Unknowable, He who is Beyond everything, is revealed as Personal. A mystical experience we could say, in which case, it is no longer a merging, a merging of the waves with the oceans, but incomprehensible love: a union of liberties, of free wills. God does not obliterate the person and the person is not dissolved into God.
The Fathers often use the image of an iron blade plunged into the fire. In such a case you can say that the iron burns and the fire is sharp. They’re only one thing, and yet their natures are not mingled. This is how it is in the union of man and God.
There’s a lot of talk these days about techniques of prayer, and hesychasm or prayer of the heart is ranked among these techniques. There are many techniques for embracing someone, but without any doubt the best is to forget every technique and really love. It’s because we lack faith and love that we need techniques in our relations with God.
In hesychasm, the technical part tends to be forgotten as one progresses. What good is it to repeat someone’s name, if we don’t know him and don’t love him? The power of the Name of Jesus will only become perceptible to our heart according to our faith and our love.
While we shouldn’t expect everything from a prayer technique, neither should we deny its value. We’re not pure spirits, and it’s already a work of God’s mercy that we’re looking for ways to be united with Him.
To bring food to your mouth, you can use a fork or your fingers; but you don’t eat your fingers: like the fork, they’re only instruments.
Likewise, heeding the insights of one’s spiritual father, enables one to use a prayer technique to bring the Name of Jesus into the heart of one’s very being. It is critical that one never deifies the technique or method one uses and begin think that it’s efficacy deserves to be adulate itself. A paintbrush is effective when it’s perfectly supple within an artist’s hands; yet the brush itself is inanimate, it does not have the talent to draw your face on its own.
On Interior Struggles and Discernment
It’s true that here on Mount Athos we have fewer external occasions of sin; yet we’re at the heart of every temptation. You can ‘ imagine what battle we have to fight. As you can see from the life of Saint Antony, the desert is the arena where man confronts the demons and the ‘headquarters of the demonic in this world.’ If with God’s grace we leave this arena having won the victory, it’s the entire world that is purified. The monk must be a luminous point, a dawning glow of the new creation.
Above all, our struggles are against sinful thoughts. Sin cannot take a foothold in our lives unless we first give sin our consent. Prayer helps us to annihilate evil at its very root, as soon as sin begins to make propositions to our free will often in unnoticeable ways. The Name of Jesus is the Bedrock, the foundations against which the heads of the children of Babylon are destroyed; that is, evil thoughts newly-surfaced within our spirit.
When your heart and spirit are being eaten away by evil thoughts, already feeling passion, fear, or desire — rising up within you, fleeing like those Israelites bitten by the serpents in the desert. Look at the bronze serpent Moses erected upon the mountain: look at Jesus Christ raised on the Cross and ‘you will be healed of the venom injected into your hearts by the spiritual serpents’.
Listen to what another of our Fathers tells us on this subject: ‘When someone makes fun of you, fix your eyes on your Lord. For your sake, He too was dishonoured; they even treated Him like one possessed. If they scorn you, fix your eyes on your Saviour when they spat in His face. If you’re bitten by a vainglorious thought, remember this word: ‘… ‘when you have done all that you were ordered to do’, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’’ (Luke 17:10).
‘If, on the other hand, you are tempted to disdain your brother because he is weak and sinful, fix your eyes on Him Who was more solicitous for sinners, publicans and prostitutes than for the just who have no need of conversion. When you’re tormented by carnal desires or disgusted by our holy way of life, fix your eyes upon Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith —He ‘who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God’. (Hebrews 12:2). Look unceasingly toward the Cross and the glory of Him Who dwells within your heart; the serpents’ venom will be powerless, and the light of God will shine down into the secret places within your soul.’
Our thoughts can at times be extremely erratic, wandering from here to there without purpose, and to master our thoughts can be a difficult thing indeed. Evagrius of Pontus traces the eight patterns of evil thought to: gluttony, lust, greed, acedia [spiritual sloth or apathy], anger, vainglory, pride and believe it or not sadness. He further tells us, ‘Whether or not all these things trouble our soul does not depend on us. What does depend on us is whether they linger there and begin to move the passions.’ Examine yourself on these eight points, and see how these thoughts can come to birth in you to make you lose peace and the remembrance of God.
Our Fathers went further in the knowledge of the human person than any of our modern psychologists ever could. They saw the root of evil and disease in the assent of our free will toward evil thoughts. Their art consisted in the education of man’s freedom. They wanted men to have in them ‘that mind which was in Christ Jesus’; they didn’t lose much time in analysing their subjects’ early childhood. Instead, they told them, ‘You’re loved by God today as the person you are. If you want, you can change your life and become a new man, in the image and likeness of your Creator. Enter into the arena of your heart. Stand up and be counted, stand strong in the fight, and you will know peace. God is with you. Be cured of your illness; sin no more, lest worse should befall you.’
It is from the heart that evil schemes emanate: murder, adultery, debauchery, theft, the bearing of false witness, slander. There, according to the Gospel, is where you find the cause of evil. No greater service can be rendered to humanity than this purification of the heart. And the hope of one who carries on this fight is the beatitude promised by Jesus: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.’
These days there’s a great tendency to blame others for the evil we ourselves commit and those perpetrate in the world. ‘Oh, but that’s all in my past’, some people say, ‘the traumas of my early childhood made me this way’. It’s societies fault, I’ve not been taught properly, so and so forth.
The monk accuses only himself. You’re really free when you know you’re responsible for everything. If you learn there’s a war some- where, say ‘It’s my fault’ and fight against the pride and hatred in your own heart. If you learn there’s a famine somewhere, look at all the bread in your cupboard that you stole from the ones who are starving. When you see the Churches divided, say ‘It’s my fault so long as there remains in me a single bad thought against my brother.’
Pride is the most redoubtable thing: a single proud thought, and all the gifts God has given you, all your efforts to progress in virtue, go for nothing. Between you and God is an ‘I’ which is an idol. The happiest man is one who is no longer tormented by any proud thought whatsoever; the screen of the ‘I’ is no longer ‘between him and God, between him and others. Where before he was blind now he sees.’
Before everything else, ask God for discernment; it’s the origin of every good thing. Remember Solomon’s prayer: he didn’t ask for wealth or greatness, but for wisdom–an intelligent heart to discern what is good; and all the rest was given him besides.
Since Pentecost, Christ’s Law no longer consists in a code of external precepts. The New Law is the interior presence of the Holy Spirit, Who transforms our hearts by giving them a taste for and the will to accomplish what is pleasing to God. So you should remain extremely vigilant and listen for the Holy Spirit’s occasional and sometimes extremely subtle inspirations.
Much discernment is needed to recognise in an inspiration what comes from yourself and more or less your wholesome nature, what can also come from satan who is used to transforming himself into an angel of light, and what really comes from the Holy Spirit. It’s very important to discern the origin of the inspirations we receive, to discern what motivates us in our depths. A good act can be vitiated by an impure motive. You must be vigilant, but with- out surrendering yourself excessively to introspection. Trust in God, don’t delve into what is lofty, and ask your spiritual father for advice rather than torture your spirit.
If you pray with an unwavering attention and thus walk in God’s presence, you’ll feel instinctively what is in harmony or what is dissonant with the Spirit of God.
Always have at heart this desire to put into action what conforms to His love, and He will enlighten you. ‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that they should turn from their ways and live?’ (Ezekiel 18:23)
My spiritual father often reminded me that ‘any thoughts you may have, which are not predominantly calm and humble are not in harmony with God. Rather, it is evidently a so-called ‘good’ inspiration which came evil. The Lord approaches calmly; but everything from the enemy is accompanied by altercations, stress and disquiet —and always, you will notice, a concern for one’s own glory.
Sometimes rapacious wolves may appear in sheep’s clothing. Some thought or other seems inoffensive and pious to you. ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ The fruit of the Spirit is peace, humility, love, trust. The enemy’s fruit is disturbance, the bloat of pride; you feel divided within yourself, and then there rises within you this terrible distaste for the life which is the devil’s breath.
Before undertaking an important action or work, sit down and in accordance with the advice in the Gospel, ask the Lord for His Spirit and see if the work or action is in harmony with His will. If that work won’t make you progress toward Him in love, renounce it.
Everything should be done with discernment. The Fathers say that things which go beyond moderation come from the demons.
On the Spiritual Father and Obedience
You can’t look into your own eyes; to know yourself, you need another’s glance. No one is a good judge in his own case. A spiritual father is a mirror which God is pleased to give us so that we can know our own self; a mirror whose word is sometimes harsh, but only so that seeing our sins we may desire to discover our true face. The day you discover it, your mirror will be silent and together you will reflect the same Sun.
Without the help of others, it is very difficult to bring to our life the necessary discernments. Discernment of spirits is a charism that is generally accorded only to those whose heart is profoundly at peace.
It is difficult today to find a man of peace, someone who is not tormented either by ambition or desire for power, but is solicitous only for the salvation of those entrusted to him. He exists, though: look for him. And if you find that man to be understanding and yet demanding, tell yourself that this is a father whom God is giving you for your soul’s divinisation.
One who wants to do his own will is misguided. It is practically impossible for one who hasn’t a purified heart to follow the Holy Spirit’s inspirations. Look for someone who will help you to discern God’s will in everything.
The important thing in your relations with your spiritual father is that you should be able to open your heart to him and not hide any of your thoughts from him; this is the price at which you will obtain deliverance. But woe to that man if he proceeds to betray your trust and reveal your secrets.
God is the only Father; it is by way of grace that God allows certain people to share in His Fatherhood. The spiritual father is God’s co-worker; he works with the Spirit: he loves, struggles and suffers with Him so that the new man may be brought to birth in you. You are not his own son or his disciple, but the son of Him Who alone is good and the disciple of Him Who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The greater the spiritual father’s self-effacement, the greater is his humility —and the more Christ will be able to increase in you. ‘He must increase and I must decrease’— such is the rule of every spiritual father.
Today there are few spiritual fathers who can be our models in everything. There’s an old monk who used to give us this advice: ‘Be like the bee that gathers pollen from all kinds of flowers; it takes from each one the pollen it needs to make its honey. Go to your fathers or to your brothers—because we’re all brothers—and learn gentleness from one, strength from another, understanding from that one, humility from some other still, and make your honey from all these virtues.
Saint Paul told his spiritual children and his disciples, ‘Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.’ (1 Corinthians 11:1) Don’t imitate your spiritual father except insofar as he imitates Christ.
It’s a great blessing to meet along your way a man who will help you to even out the Lord’s paths: to lower what is exalted in you and to fill up what is pressed down. You will be delivered from the two most terrible demons: pride and despair. Thank God if you meet someone who truly cares for your soul. Open your heart to him and entrust yourself to his prayers.
An evil thought brought into the light loses all its venom. Don’t hide any of your thoughts from your spiritual father, and there will be no more darkness in you.
Discernment is acquired only by humility; and you begin to be humble by putting yourself under the judgment of another in everything.
The thing that prevents us from being united with God is our own will. The way of obedience is the shortest way to union: it removes the principal obstacle to divinisation, trust in ourselves.
A spiritual father doesn’t need extraordinary charisms, but he does need infinite patience and infinite love; it is in this that he resembles God.
In the spiritual father’s heart, sorrow and joy are always closely intermingled: the pain of childbirth (patience, exhortation, pardon); joy too, in seeing a child born in God, and in seeing him grow pp to man’s full stature in Christ.
Disobedience takes us away from God; we return to Him through obedience. To become obedient is to be divinised in the image of Christ, Who became obedient even unto death.
Remind yourself often that your spiritual father’s only concern is your salvation and divinisation. That’s the reason he prays to the Father in secret. That’s the reason he exhorts you, reproves you, corrects you. When he humiliates you, give thanks to God; this is the way he hopes to make you conformable to Christ and enable you to acquire humility, without which you can have no share in the Holy Spirit.
At times, a spiritual father can ask a disciple to do something absurd; for example, to water some bricks so that they’ll bloom. This is to help the disciple to bypass the stage of mere sensible reasoning, and make him penetrate through humility far into the light of God which is beyond intelligibility.
Spiritual masters are rare; rarer still are true disciples. Where can you find a humble man, a man who doesn’t do his own will but the Will of Him Who sent him?
God is not a principle, an abstract law, an order to be deciphered. He is a Person. Likewise, it isn’t a law or rule that we must obey, but a person. In our monasteries we don’t obey a particular rule; we obey our hegumen. Obedience is situated within a relationship; and the more one loves, the easier it is to obey the one who commands—it is even our greatest joy. One who loves God has no trouble at all fulfilling God’s law; he surges forward joyfully in the way of His commandments.
The Pharisees thought only of the letter of the commandments and forgot to love the One Who wanted their love more than their sacrifices. The one who loves his hegumen with fear and respect will find much sweetness in accomplishing what he asks, and will be freed from every care.
The spiritual father, more than the rule, is the medium God gave us to enable us to know His will. But the one who received this gift, and the charge of spiritual fatherhood, must not forget to be a gospel incarnate. If he lacks a single jot, God will take account of it on Judgment Day and will hold him responsible for the souls of those who were entrusted to him.
There are many who are loud in praise of their spiritual father holiness, but who assiduously refrain from imitating it. There are many who endlessly repeat their spiritual father’s words, but who carefully avoid putting them into practice. They are like apes: they mar their father’s comeliness by their grimaces.
There are two dangers inherent in relations with a spiritual father: idolatry and murmuring. He’s only a man and not God, but he’s a man God is giving you for your sanctification. If you murmur against him —or worse, if you judge him— how can you hope to be saved?
There are those who change their spiritual father often, so they can have the pleasure of telling their story anew and so that they won’t have to obey in depth. Don’t wear out your spiritual father with vain words; don’t tell him your past or your projects for the future. Tell him the state of your soul now, because it’s now that he wants you to be saved; it’s now that you have to receive the grace of forgiveness and the strength of the Spirit. If you talk to him about what is past or about what hasn’t happened yet, where is the present moment in which he can deposit God’s gift?
If you are not humble, you will never know the sweetness of obedience; you’ll say, ‘Why do this rather than that?’ and you’ll be disturbed. One who obeys is in peace, whatever he does.
If an assignment seems too burdensome for you, talk it over with the hegumen, but don’t rely on your own initiative. Our fathers were intransigent on that. One who wants to be a monk must absolutely not have any self-will in anything whatsoever. Freedom must be cured of all vanity and resemble the freedom of Christ, Who never did His own will but only the will of His Father. His obedience and His cross are the epiphany of His love for the Father. May your obedience and your renunciation in everything be the epiphany of your love for the Father, the manifestation of your divine sonship formerly lost and now regained.
Don’ t obey by halves: your heart would be torn to shreds. Have confidence, give yourself totally. God cannot remain untouched by confidence and humility. He will make you overflow with joy in the midst of tribulations.
If your hegumen is absent and no one in the monastery is assigned to give orders, be obedient to everyone, considering each one superior to yourself. Think of the One Who became the slave of all, and Who came into the world not be served but to serve. Be the image of the divine Servant; seek the last places. ‘The one who exalts himself will be humbled, the one who humbles himself will be exalted.’ Bow before your brother’s will, and you will find the freedom of the children of God.
Without the Holy Spirit we find no joy in obedience; thus, we must beg Him unceasingly to give us His love so that filial obedience may be re-established in us.
Eve fell because she doubted the goodness of God’s commandment. When you are asked to do something, tell yourself that it’s for your good, your salvation—and do your duty with peace and love.
How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’ (Matthew 12:34-37)
This warning from the Saviour has often closed my mouth; it has made me flee anything that resembles gossiping and slander. When I am asked to speak, I beg God to give me a pure heart so that the Holy Spirit can borrow my mouth.
The hesychast is a silent man, and it is only silent love that speaks well about God. Silence is a condition for praying well; it’s also the fruit of prayer. The more you pray, the more silence is wrought in you.
Our spiritual fathers were great men of silence. Otherwise, how would they be able to listen to us when we tell them our misery? Our spiritual father’s silence is the silence of God: it is His ear listening to us.
There are deathly silences, there are shameful silences. As for us, ‘We believed and that is why we speak.’ The hesychast’ s silence draws its value only from the love that dwells within it. ‘To speak for God is good; to be silent for God is also good.’ Very few have tasted the genuine silence without which there is no union with God. The one who has tasted it seeks it again unceasingly. God knows how idle words and the spirit’s ramblings exile us from His presence.
There are those who observe silence of the lips; but what good is it, if they let themselves go in their imagination and if they condemn their brothers in their heart? By contrast, there are those who talk from morning till night but keep their heart in silence before God. They speak to be useful to their neighbour. Love and renunciation of their self-will keep them in peace.
If you’re looking for silence, don’t make long speeches about its beauty and usefulness. There’s no need to set out for the desert; just keep quiet.
If you cut out every idle word, every judgment about your brothers and don’t talk about what you don’t know, you’ll be a silent man very quickly.
If a man errs not in speech, the same is a perfect man, says Saint James. He also shows what difficulty we have controlling our tongue. ‘It is a restless plague, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men made in God’s image.’
The monk must not only silence his tongue, he must also keep his spirit silent; that is, he must not judge. Then peace will reach even his bodily members, and he will know a still loftier silence which will not be the mere absence of words, thoughts and judgments: it will be the presence of God.
All the monastic observances lead the monk into a deeper silence:
silence of the lips, silence of the spirit, silence of the heart. Each of these silences demands a particular mastery. Silence of the lips depends on control of our will; silence of the spirit depends on our attention during prayer; silence of the heart is a gift of grace.
If you want Christ to live in you, seek His resting-place; in other words, keep yourself in silence.
The Word came forth from silence and has returned to silence. If we speak, and if our word really comes from the silence of God, then we will lead men to this same silence.
Some people understood Jesus’ words; very few understood His silence. Listen. Preserve silence and silence will keep you close to God.
The monk doesn’t love solitude and silence for themselves, but for the sake of God Whom he finds there. Chatterers won’t inherit the kingdom of God: how could they hear the call of the One Who wants to lead them into the desert and speak to their heart in silence?
Diadochos of Photiki († 486) has a beautiful image showing us how the observance of silence is an important work that leads us to union with God. ‘If you open the door of a bath,’ he says, ‘it soon loses its heat. So too, when a soul is fond of talking, even if she says only good things, she soon dissipates her memory and loses the remembrance of God: it evaporates abroad through that door whence so many discourses emanate.’ Silence is the father of all good thoughts.
Before speaking, Jesus was silent for thirty years; and when He speaks to us He says only short words. With Him you don’t find any speeches, and He doesn’t expound any philosophical system. His word comes out of silence and is inspired by love; thus all His words are words of salvation.
These days they need to teach preachers to be quiet before sending them out to preach; that would keep them from being clanging cymbals. Being quiet is the beginning of mindfulness. Silent persons are very mindful people — that’s how they never stray far from God.
Don’t be eager to speak to others under the pretext of edifying them with fine words. Remember Abba Pambo: they asked him to say a word to the Patriarch of Alexandria for his spiritual profit, and the elder replied, ‘If he doesn’t reap profit from my silence, neither will he reap any from my speech.’
A general rule for the monk is not to emerge from silence unless ordered to, or unless the word is within him like a fire that cannot be contained. Of course, he has to discern whether this fire is the one that urged Jeremiah to prophesy, or the fire of the passions and intemperance.
Don’t let your silence be an obstacle to charity towards the neighbour. Have some discernment: show him a cheerful face, be a kind word. Many seek their own glory through speech; if you keep quiet, you count for nothing. A silent heart and a closed mouth is the gift God is proposing to you so that you will acquire humility.
Speech was created in time; silence belongs to eternity. Love silence. By it you already enter the world to come.
We must love God with our whole heart and our whole soul, but with our whole body too. The body also has a right to love’s enlightenment. You love God with your whole body and all your strength by fasting, vigils and prostrations — but even more with the manual labor that frees you from many illusions and keeps you balanced and humble.
‘We worked night and day, so that we might not burden…’ says the Apostle (1 Thessalonians 2:9); and ‘I worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions’ (Acts 20:34).
Before busying yourself about asceticism, see that you carry out your work well. It’s a question of justice. People in the world are worried and wearied trying to feed spouse and children by their labor, pay taxes, make donations to the poor and the Church; and we, under the pretext of praying, would sit there like a lump on a log! Be sure of this: work accomplished in obedience, without the attraction of gain, shutting out all disturbance and all activism, doesn’t separate us from prayer; on the contrary: when the body is occupied in these humble tasks, the heart finds itself free and more attentive to God’s presence.
The Egyptian monks measured the intensity of their novices interior life, and their progress in patience and humility, by their application to work.
It is traditional in our monasteries to work not only for our own subsistence, but also to nourish the pilgrims and the guests passing through; we must also work to assist the poor. When your labor seems particularly burdensome and the sun is beating down on your shoulders, think of Judgment Day: ‘I was hungry and you gave Me food.’
Work: there’s your asceticism. Look for what is most laborious, what the brethren dislike doing. That’s where the Holy Spirit will come to visit you and place in your heart treasures of love and humility.
Don’t choose your work. Do what they ask you to do, and you will find peace. If they ask you to choose, pick what will keep you humble; otherwise, because of your vanity, your work will estrange you from God.
It’s useless to speak of asceticism, spirituality, love and humility when we don’t work. As Saint John says, ‘Let us not love in word, but in action and genuinely.’
Many monks are lost because of their idleness. The best remedy against evil thoughts and vain imaginings is work that is lowly and tiring for the body.
Don’t be watching to see if you’ re doing your work better than your brother. Why are you working — for your own glory or for love of God?
Do your work as best you can without worrying about the result. ‘Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ Above all, don’t wait for compliments. Remember the Lord’s word. Our service is useless: it has no value apart from the love we have for God and our brothers.
Disinterested work, done in peace and with love, is more pleasing to God than any ascetical prowess. You can fast and keep vigil, but if you’re a burden to your brothers, what good is it? This is a question of realism and common sense.
Neither the lure of gain nor success should motivate your work, unless you’re still seeking yourself. Be on guard too lest ‘worldly cares’ take possession of your soul on account of your work. If you do it with a disinterested heart, and so that your spirit remembers your coming death, cares will have no hold on you.
Very few monks can devote themselves to intellectual work and keep their heart turned toward God. If they demand it of you and you stay nailed to your study table and your books, you’ll find Christ’s abjection quite as well as you would in other work. But you’ll have a hard battle to wage preserving humility and keeping yourself from falling into the illusion that this learning will save you.
Fasts and Prostrations
The Spirit led Jesus into the desert and He fasted forty days and forty nights (Mt. 4:1-2). If the same Spirit animates you, don’t be surprised if you feel within yourself the desire to fast and do penance.
The purpose of fasts and vigils is to make you humble. You become more conscious of your limitations, and you suffer with those who are dying of hunger and those who no longer sleep at night.
Real fasting is when you forget to eat while you remain absorbed and sated with God. But if you’re forever thinking of the food you’re missing, your fasting is of no avail for the purification of your heart and mind.
When the Bridegroom is taken away from you, then you will fast.’ When you’ve lost the feeling and the taste of God’s presence, when you feel weighed down by passions and thoughts, when the Bridegroom is far away-then fast, and come back to Him by prayer.
Moderation in food helps the monk to strip himself of his carnal ego. This is a condition of the transfiguration of his body by the Holy Spirit.
Let everyone be given what he needs, ‘don’t worry about what you eat or drink’: this should be our rule, for ‘the Kingdom of God is not a matter of food and drink’. ‘If your body is weak’, says St. Barsanuphius, ‘do your best to put back a little bit of your food, and your drink too. Indeed, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.’ (Mark 12:42-44). Rest a bit on your hunger, say the Fathers again, stay a little hungry. The important thing is that you should always have the same desire to pray after the meal. Let not your heart be weighed down; let your flesh become spiritual.
If you make your fasting a source of pride, if you compare yourself to others, you distance yourself from Christ. In the matter of fasts and vigils, the important thing is discernment and not doing your own will. We must not do what pleases us because Christ didn’t seek His own pleasure.
‘So, whether you eat or drink, —or whatever you do—, do everything for the glory of God’ (1 Corinthians 10:31).
To keep watch is a great grace which God grants to some people. In the silence and recollection of the night, they forget everything; there is no more time for them, they are carried away into God, and their prayer is a pillar supporting the world. To keep watch without this special grace is particularly burdensome, but we must persevere and ask God for His strength.
Our Lord often went off by Himself at night to a place apart. The saints followed His example and often at night, in silence, far from everything, they would benefit from revelations and teachings for their conduct during the day.
‘At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances’ (Psalm 119:62) —thus the Psalmist; and we too get up very early each morning. We must conquer the world’s sleep and become watchers.
It does you no good to keep vigil at night and doze off all day; it would be better for you to follow nature. God created night for rest and day for work. The lives of the saints surpass nature. Our weak and powerless nature needs an added grace to be able to keep watch every night. If God refuses you this grace, without any doubt it’s because it would be a source of pride for you; it would be better to lead the common life with humility than to accomplish great prodigies without humility.
The saints kept vigil during the night, not out of asceticism or to do their own will, but because love kept them from sleeping. The presence of the Beloved was a light breeze that ceaselessly lifted the eyelids of their spirit and their heart.
It’s difficult to sleep in a light-filled room. That is why the heart of the saints did not know sleep.
If you want to keep vigil during the night, chant the Psalms, honour the icons, make lots of prostrations. The demon will undoubtedly urge you to go to bed, telling you that you’ll be sad tomorrow and won’t do your work well. It’s up to you, with God’s grace, to show him the opposite. If that’s not possible, then that’s the sign that it would be better for you to go to bed; but in all of that, abstain from doing your own will and entrust yourself to the discernment of your hegumen.
‘Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.’ Prostrations help us to watch and pray. Our bodies must take part in adoration too; prostrations free our bodies from torpor.
The traditional postures of Christian prayer are different from the physical exercises found in other religions. One prostration done with all our love and respect brings us closer to God and makes us more humble than an hour spent in the lotus position.
Remain on your feet in remembrance of Easter morning.
- Raise your hands to God in a sacrifice of praise.
- Prostrate yourself in the dust and remember your sins.
- Stay on your knees and adore Him Who is God, above all things.
- One genuflection made with love will teach you more than you could learn from a book.
- Remain seated on a stone, close your eyes or direct them toward your heart, and remember Him Whose temple you are.
- Prostrate, seated or standing, ‘He is living, the One before Whom you abide’; walk in His presence, be like the watchman waiting for the dawn.
The Gift of Tears
We can only love in the present. If you say ‘I loved’ or ‘I will love’, in this present moment you’re not loving; God is absent from your soul. You have only the present to love God: this work, in this monastery, with these brethren. The Enemy whispers in your ear that if things were better, if such-and-such a brother weren’t here, etc., you would love more. This is how he robs you of the present, the reality that God is giving you in which to thank Him and make His love grow in you.
Tears will help you to come back to the present, to come back into His presence. ‘The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit.’ God looks for tears; He wants to mingle His living water with them. After Peter’s denial, Jesus didn’t call him to account. He simply asked, ‘Do you love Me?’ If you hear that word and remember your sins, the fountain of tears will spring up in you.
Tears are a gift of God to purify the heart, the life-giving waters of humility. We shouldn’t confuse them with the tears that come from our feelings or from evil and worldly sadness. Worldly people weep because they’ve been robbed of some perishable thing or because their plans aren’t realised. The monk weeps because he has lost the Holy Spirit on account of his negligence and his sin.
He also weeps because he sees how much the Lord loves men and how hard-hearted and
unhappy men are, without love for God and neighbour.
To receive the gift of tears we must pray for God to deliver us from hardness of heart, and for humility and love of Christ to change our eyes of stone into fountains of living water.
Don’t weep in the presence of others. Pour out your tears in the privacy of your cell for those who have been commended to your prayers.
God is Father, but no one is more Mother than He, said a Father of the Church. It is tears that He listens to and understands more than words.
Christ wept over Jerusalem. If His heart lives in you, you will shed tears for all men.
True prayer occurs when you don’t know you’re praying. In the same way, true tears are the ones we shed beyond all awareness, when the sweetness and majesty of God seizes us through and through.
Spiritual tears destroy earthly thoughts and prepare the heart for vision.
- Tears have the power to renew the grace you received at baptism. ‘O happy tears, the soul’s new baptism’, said John Climacus.
- The tears which the Holy Spirit gives are gentle and silent; they flow from the eyes without pain and without noise, truly a river of peace. When you leave your cell, no one can tell you’ve been weeping-such great joy floods your features.
- The tears the Holy Spirit gives are the exact opposite of ordinary tears; they flow without any effort or contraction of the facial muscles. They are like a holy oil which makes the face shine and gives the eyes a divine brilliance.
There is nothing more terrible in monastic life than hardness and dryness of heart; and so monks ask God for the gift of tears to soften their hearts. It’s a horrible thing to have entered the monastery with a heart of flesh, and to leave it on the day of one’s death with a heart of stone hardened by pride, familiarity, indifference. The prophets and saints continually asked God to change their heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
Look at Jesus, and may His love for the Father and for all men wound your heart.
When you are invited to a wedding, don’t go and sit in first place… ‘The one who exalts himself shall be humbled, the one who humbles himself shall be exalted.’
Since your baptism, you’ve been invited to a wedding, called to be made one with God. As to your attitude in this nuptial chamber, look at Jesus Christ in Whom the perfect union of humanity and divinity is realised, and walk in His footsteps.
He is the eternal impassible God. He took flesh, humbled Himself, made Himself the servant of all, and He has been exalted. His Name is raised above all names. He took the last place, died the death of slaves and rose again. He didn’t associate with the well-to-do; He ate with the poor, with sinners; He made Himself all things to all men without expecting anything in return.
If we humble ourselves with Him, we will be exalted with Him. If we love like Him, even unto death, we will be raised up with Him. If you want to scale the heights, begin by descending. Only in humiliation will you find glory that does not pass away. Only in dying to yourself will you come to know eternal life, your risen life. It is humility that initiates us into the Mystery: look for it before everything else. Without this vessel you won’t be able to collect the living water. In fact, the Spirit, the nuptial Wine, can’t abide in one who isn’t humble.
Abba Antony saw all the snares of the Enemy deployed on earth, and he said with a groan, ‘Who can escape them?’ He heard an answering voice: ‘Humility.’ We know this story well, so why don’t we ask God for humility? We’re always asking for things that feed our own glory… If God didn’t love us, He’d hear our prayers!
To ask for humility is to ask to be counted as nothing. Here we’re sure of being heard, even before we’ve formulated the request, because this nothing is the reality that we are. We are nothing and we are loved. To ask God for humility is to become aware of this reality, to coincide all of a sudden with the truth of our being.
Angels are more humble than men because they’re more intelligent. The contemplation of the Being and the infinite Beauty of God is what makes us humble.The closer you come to God, the more you discover your nothingness.
Humility is truth-being just what you are before God and men. The opposite of truth is the lie-no longer being what we are, deforming the Creator’s image in us. The lie has its root in pride; we lie for fear of being recognised for what we are: that is to say, weak, sinful, incapable of loving all men. If you seek the truth, root out of yourself all pride. Humility is the mother of every good. Patience, gentleness, self-mastery, trust in others-all these gifts of the Spirit that St. Paul speaks of–develop on a tree whose roots are humility.
Everything said of charity can be said of humility: If I should speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not humility, I am only a cymbal, a trumpet sounding for my own glory. If I should have the gift of prophecy, and should know all mysteries and all knowledge; if I should have the fulness of faith, a faith to move mountains, and not have humility, all these things that are good in themselves are perverted in my intention. I’m looking for the glory that comes from men and not the glory that comes from God alone. If I should distribute all my goods in alms, if I should hand over my body to the flames and not have humility, it profits me nothing.
Only humility and love bring us closer to God. Without love and without humility, everything separates us from Him and only strengthens the old man in us.
The humble man is an abode of the Spirit. Love rules him. He is long-suffering, obliging; he is not envious, nor jealous nor boastful; he isn’t troubled by inconvenience, doesn’t seek his own interest, doesn’t get annoyed, keeps no account of wrongs; he has no joy in wrong-doing but rejoices in the truth.
The man deified by humble love excuses everything, believes all things, hopes all things, bears all things; like the innocent Lamb, he opens not his mouth when led to the slaughter and when suffering insults and outrages. The Lord is his strength. The Father is always with him and he prays for the forgiveness and salvation of his enemies.
Above all, the humble man doesn’t concern himself with appearing spiritual in the sight of others; on the contrary, he’ll do everything to be passed over-the tradition of the holy fool, the fool in Christ.
There was a monk in our monastery who seemed distracted at office and who always came in late. We mentioned this to him many times, suggesting he get up earlier… After his death we learned that this monk kept vigil every night and allowed himself only one or two hours’ rest. His spiritual father had commanded him to act this way in order to safeguard humility.
Humility frees us from concern about pleasing human beings, or from the vanity of their displeasure. What is, is; what is not, is not. If you do good, don’t talk about it to anyone. A little vanity makes you lose all the merit of your works. Don’t say anything to anyone about your fasts, your vigils, your ascetic labours. Act in secret. ‘Your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.’
‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1-4), when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And it won’t be long before you taste love’s sweetness.
If you want to know the hesychia that gives humility, look upon your brother as more intelligent than yourself and superior in everything. Like Jesus, place yourself at everyone’s feet; further, attribute to God everything in you that is true, good and pure. ‘What have you’, in fact, ‘that you have not received?’ Without Him we can do nothing.
A humble man doesn’t trust in his own judgment. Even if he is very advanced in the spiritual life, he’ll ask God to enlighten him by the mouth of his brethren more often than by direct revelation.
In this world there’s nothing to fear but flattery. Seek out more often the people who don’t think much of you they’ll be much more useful to your soul’s progress. Don’t flatter your brother: you would be an occasion of his downfall.
‘But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
Monks ought to be on the side of the foolish, not the wise; on the side of those who are not, who are counted as nothing, rather than on the side of those who are esteemed. Unfortunately, it’s often the other way around. On the pretext that we’re monks, we expect the greetings and respect of people in the town squares. Because we wear this habit, we think we deserve their service and a share of their goods. Woe unto us!
Unless we humble ourselves, we will not see God. The Lord reveals Himself through the Holy Spirit only to the humble. Humility is that light in which we are able to see Light.
If your glance has met the glance of Christ, if you have seen in the Holy Spirit how gentle and humble He is, you will have only one desire: to acquire the humility of Christ.
You say, ‘My life is full of suffering’, but who are you to complain? Does the clay complain to the potter for having made it one shape rather than another? Be humble and you’ll see that your trials will be changed into rest.
The remembrance of death will help you acquire humility. ‘What is man, O Lord, that You remember him?’ The humble man enjoys great peace; the proud man is tormented endlessly. Learn gentleness and humility from the Lord, if you seek hesychia. There is only one obstacle to love and peace: attachment to yourself-pride. What can also be said of the humble man is that he has conquered the Enemy.
One day the Lord showed Staretz Silouan how to be humble. ‘Keep your spirit in hell’, He told him, ‘and do not despair.’ We must descend lower than everything and everyone and there, in that place, hope in God’s mercy for all men.
On the Love of Neighbour
The surest way of knowing where we are with God is to look at our attitude with regard to our brethren. ‘The one who says ‘I love God’ Whom he doesn’t see, and doesn’t love his brother whom he can see, is a liar.’
When the Spirit of God dwells in you, you are full of compassion for everyone. If you feel movements of anger rising in you, or jealousy or contempt, quick! — cry out to the Lord, ‘Have mercy!’ so that He’ll put His mercy back into your heart.
Many people think they’re very spiritual; but just let a brother come and upset them or say a haughty word, and there they are with no more interior peace.
What good are ecstasies, renunciations, fasts, vigils, beautiful liturgies, if you don’t love your brother? Nothing has changed in your heart. You’re looking to please yourself; you’re not looking to please God Who asked us to love all men as He Himself loves them-God ‘Who makes His rain fall on the good and the bad alike.’ If you love only the people with whom you have affinities, who think like you, who believe as you do, you shouldn’t have bothered to become a monk; all you had to do was get married.
Remember Jacob’s words to his brother: ‘… for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God’ (Genesis 33:10). And the Fathers say, ‘The one who sees his brother sees his God.’ Only the Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see.
My God, how blind I am! I don’t see my brother’s beauty. ‘Son of David, have pity on me. Lord, that I may see.’ ‘Open my eyes so that I may see You, Jesus, in everything and in everyone.’ When you have trouble with a brother, or feel an aversion to some visit or other, pray like this and you will see…
Everything you do to the least of your brethren, you do also to Christ. If you understand that, you won’t let yourself grow slack in doing good.
All the vigour of the Gospel is in these simple precepts: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself. Everything you want others to do for you, do yourself for them.’
One wicked thought against your brother is enough to tarnish God’s image in you and deprive you of His peace.
How can we use the same tongue to praise God and speak ill of our brother? This is the sign of a double, divided heart; the love of God doesn’t fill it. The Spirit of unity isn’t in us and we become the instruments of the one who divides: the devil.
The one who sees God in his brother is divinised. The one who sees only evil can be said to be ‘demonised’. We don’t know all the evil we can do with our tongue: because of it there are those who have become their brothers’ murderers. We must pray very hard that God will deliver us from this mania of criticising everything, of seeing only the worst in each person. My spiritual father used to tell me to look only at what is beautiful, good and true in each one: that’s the image of God. ‘Don’t look at the rest’, he said. ‘You would risk having your glance cross that of the demons.’
Even in a sinner, look only at Jesus Christ: there’s nothing like it for putting the demons to flight. People may make a lot of faces, but that isn’t their true face. Look for the Face.
We must have the Holy Spirit within us to see Him in others. The one who sees only evil in his brother is himself possessed by an evil spirit.
Jesus was not violent except with the Pharisees, the proud, the hypocritical, those who judged their brothers. ‘Spiritual men can judge everything’, it’s true, but they judge everything with mercy like Jesus; that is, they take upon themselves their brother’s sin. Jesus was made sin for us; He asked forgiveness for our faults as if they were His own-He Who never knew sin.
This is how we must love our neighbour as ourselves. When the saints looked at the world’s sin, they didn’t say, ‘This world is rotten’, ‘such decadence’, civilisation is gone to the dogs’. They prostrated themselves in the dust and their heart was full of tears and compassion for all men. ‘Have mercy on me, a sinner!’ And you-you sneer, you look down haughtily on your brother’s misery, and you still want to bear the name of Christian!
You will never know peace if you don’t forgive your brother from the bottom of your heart. I know many Christians who have gone entire years without forgiving their brother. They were sad, and sometimes ill —the Holy Spirit could no longer penetrate within them. If we don’t forgive people all the offences they’ve committed against us from the bottom of our heart, love can no longer circulate in us–and that’s the greatest misfortune that could befall us. Every day, we have to forgive ‘even up to seventy times seven times’. It’s difficult, it’s daily. Only humble people know how to forgive. They consider themselves to be of so little account that not only do they forgive insults and slander, they think they deserve them. They scrutinise their own comportment for what could have grieved their brother, and they ask God to give everyone the joy of His Holy Spirit.
Martha compared herself to her sister Mary and she soon lost the one thing necessary, which was to love Christ and serve Him. Likewise, as soon as we compare ourselves to one another, we lose the Holy Spirit Who unites us to the Father and the Son. Don’t judge your brother’s works; don’t compare your fasts, your vigils, to his; don’t measure your life according to his. For what will be required of each one will be according to what he has received, and ‘who are you to judge your brother?’ ‘If God had not been gracious to you, you would be like Sodom and Gomorrah.’
It’s a real poison in our communities, this judging of one another. One who doesn’t judge his brother, who no longer has one malevolent thought against him, is like the angels.
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ (Matthew 5:38-42). If you put these words into practice, you will truly be divinised. By your mercy and your patience, you will be God for your brethren.
Saint Matthew said, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ Saint Luke said, ‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful.’ Perfection is mercy; all pursuit of a perfection which would not lead to mercy and love of enemies is a perfection of the demon.
We are never just in the matter of love. We never love God enough, we never love our brethren enough. Look at Christ and see that you haven’t even begun to love and to live according to the Gospel.
The Christian monk doesn’t flee the world out of distaste for the world, but out of love for the world. Like Christ, he has no condemnation in his heart but the desire for everyone’s salvation; he retires to the desert to pray for all men. He goes to the heart of the world. The more he is united to God, the closer he is to men. Likewise, the more united we are to our neighbour, the closer we are to God. To make people understand this, the Fathers had an image that we here very much like to recall: ‘Imagine a circle traced on the earth-that is, a line drawn circular with a compass and a center. The circle is the world, the center God, and the rays or spokes mankind’s different ways of life. When the saints want to approach God and walk toward the center of the circle, in the degree that they penetrate to the inside they come closer to one another at the same time that they draw closer to God. The more they approach God, the more they approach one another; and the more they approach one another, the more they approach God.’
Without charity, St. Paul says, even though we speak the languages of angels and hold the true Orthodox faith; even though we move mountains and give everything we have to the poor; even though we deliver our bodies to martyrdom by vigils and innumerable fasts-all that will be no good at all. The one who loves judges no one, injures no one, grieves no one, rejects no one: neither the unbeliever, nor the foreigner, nor the unchaste person, nor the scoundrel-nor.above all, his Catholic or Protestant brother who loves Christ as he does and calls God Father. The one who loves seeks out the company of sinners, the weak, the remiss. For them he suffers, weeps, prays. He is like Christ Who came into the world, not for the healthy but for the sick, not for the just but for sinners. The one who loves asks God to let him stay in hell alone, so long as all are saved.
THE DAY OF RESURRECTION! Let us be radiant with joy and embrace one another. Let us call even those who hate us ‘brother’. Let us forgive all offences because of the Resurrection.’ How can one whose heart is drunk with joy because of the Resurrection, how can he still judge his brother? ‘Remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead’, don’t despair and be careful not to grieve your brother. Don’t judge others according to your justice, but according to God’s mercy. You will experience tears and peace surpassing all understanding.
Rejoice in the favours God grants to others: this is the secret of a great peace. Thank God for all the good you see in your brethren and that you lack; you will be delivered from the hell of jealousy. Try to see that your brother is always honoured and appreciated more than you are, and jealousy will have no more control over you.
and the Gift of the Holy Spirit
Hesychia is an absence of all anxiety, according to the commandment of the Lord Who reproached Martha for her fretting and anxiousness. He told His apostles, ‘Don’t worry about tomorrow, about what you will eat and what you will put on.’ The monk has rejected all worldly cares to find the one thing necessary: the Holy Spirit.
To be worried and agitated about earthly things is the proof that we haven’t placed our trust completely in God and that we’re still a bit proud. This doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We must do all we can while realising that the result of our efforts belongs to God alone. The harvesting of the fruit belongs to Him, not to us.
Hesychia leads to apatheia, that state where man transformed by the Holy Spirit is like God. Christian apatheia is not the apatheia of the stoic philosophers. There’s nothing harsh in it, and a holy man is the opposite of an indifferent one. Humility has made him peaceful and nothing else burns in him but love, so everything is equal in his eye.
The hesychast is free from evil passions and evil thoughts. His will and intellect have not been destroyed but transformed, completely oriented to the Good. Whatever he does, wherever he goes, his only concern is to keep himself humble and to love more and more.
We can only know God through the Holy Spirit. Philosophy and theology can lead us to Him, but only like can know like. To know God, we must become God by the Holy Spirit. If you love your enemies you know God, for whoever loves dwells in God. You will be completely like Him when you see Him as He is, when you no longer see Him except with the Holy Spirit. Asceticism, tears, humility and love prepare us to become ‘all eye’–that simple glance which already simplifies us to God’s image.
The Holy Spirit is the same in heaven and on earth. One who has experienced theHoly Spirit in this life already knows the world to come; but the one who hasn’t seen God in this life — so says Simeon the New Theologian-won’t see Him in the other life either.
Through the Holy Spirit, we don’t return simply to the earthly paradise; we enter the Kingdom of the Blessed Trinity, and that is eternal life. Through the Holy Spirit we are sons with the Son Who is turned towards the Father.
The hesychast goes through the world doing good, and like Jesus he can say, ‘ The world must know that I love the Father.’ His life reproduces the Paschal Mystery: he died and he is risen. He unites in himself the visible and the invisible, created nature and uncreated grace.
Abba Paisios was praying for one of his disciples who had rejected Christ, and while he was praying the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Paisios, who are you praying for? Don’t you know that he has denied Me?’ But the holy man continued to have compassion on his disciple, and the Lord then said to him, ‘Paisios, through your love you have become like Me.’
This is how we find peace. There is no other way. Christ doesn’t give us peace as the world gives it. He overwhelms us with tribulations and difficulties so that we may feel the strength and sweetness of His love.
Our fathers experienced the Holy Spirit, they knew the peace which surpasses all understanding, and we-we consider all of that inconceivable. We’re so attached to the concepts of our pseudo- sciences. Who will give us the humility and the desire of the doe that thirsts for the living water?
Come, Holy Spirit! Come, Lord Jesus!