Spiritual Father of St. Paisy Velichkovsky
Commentary on St. Nil Sorsky
The holy fathers, who teach the suppression of the passions and purification of the heart from evil thoughts through the commandments of Christ alone, set forth two things as the mightiest weapons that strugglers can possess, namely, the fear of God and remembrance of God which are in keeping with the saying: "Through the fear of the Lord every man is turned from evil" (Proverbs 15:27) and "I beheld the Lord before me that I not bemoved" (Psalm 15:8). They also recommend to keep the remembrance of death and gehenna and to read the holy Scriptures.
All these things are good for good and reverent men. But for the insensible and hardened, were that gehenna itself-or even God Himself-to be revealed sensibly, even this would not strike any kind of fear into them. In addition, the very mind of beginning monks quickly grows numb to the remembrance of such things and flees from them like a bee from smoke.
While the memory of such things is good and beneficial in the hour of battle, nonetheless the most spiritual and skilled fathers have shown us an even greater good, one incomparably superior that can help even those who are extremely weak.
The likeness and image of the first mentioned are those who turn their millstones with their own hand power, but the latter are like those who mill with water power and ingenuity. Just as the water on its own moves the wheel and stone, so the sweetest name of Jesus, together with the memory of God, Who is present and lives in perfect fullness in Jesus, moves the mind to prayer. Of this that great theologian Hesychios spoke in the following terms:
The soul that is benefited and sweetened by Jesus, sends up praise to its Benefactor with a certain joy and love and with confession, giving thanks and entreating Him with gladness.
Just as it is impossible to live in this life without eating and drinking, so without guarding the mind it is impossible for the soul to attain to anything spiritual or pleasing to God or to be freed mentally from sin, even if one force himself out of fear of torment not to sin.And also:
When thoughts come into the heart, even when we do not desire them and are making every effort and are withstanding them, it is the Jesus Prayer from the depth of the heart which knows how to expel them.134Concerning the order and artful learning of this mystery the great elder, our holy Father Nil the desert-dweller of Sora, composed this little book in which he explains the beginning of noetic work, the victory and our conquest of invisible assailants.
As for the former way, while progress can be made without mental attentiveness, it is very slow and extremely painful. But through the latter, the struggler draws near to God swiftly and easily, says Gregory of Sinai.135 In the former there is only external prayer and training and the working of the commandments. But here there are both external and internal watchfulness.
A beginner monk, after denying the world and the great and mortal sins he committed, offers his vow before God to refrain not only from the minor and excusable daily sins about which the Lord Himself commanded to pray without ceasing (Luke 21:34; Matthew 26:41), but also from the action of the passions and of evil thoughts as well. When he enters into his heart with his intellect, he begins to summon the Lord Jesus against every assault and every evil thought.
If, through his weakness he agrees to a suggestion of the enemy or does something contrary to the commandments of Christ, he falls down before the Lord with heartfelt prayer repenting and rebuking himself. He continues this to his very death, falling and getting up again, being conquered and conquering, and begging day and night for vengeance against his adversary (Luke 18:1-8). Will this person not have a hope of good blessings and receive salvation?
Experience tells us that from time to time strugglers fall (these are not mortal falls) either in their thoughts or in their feelings-such as through the .intelligent or incensive or appetitive faculty of the tripartite soul136 or through their physical senses, that is by sight, hearing, speaking, taste, touch or smell. It is not possible even for the very greatest of men completely to avoid some fault in these daily sins which are not mortal and which consist of words, a .thought, ignorance, forgetfulness or being compelled willingly or unwillingly by circumstance. These are forgivenby the daily grace of Christ, says St. Cassian.137
If anyone lose courage and say of such things that St. Cassian means that only the saints are cleansed by the grace of Christ from such daily sins and not beginners and passionate persons, then let this opinion have its own place. But then again, take into consideration the teachings and resolution of such questions in the holy Scriptures, that if every beginner and passionate person be condemned through these daily sins and passions and be guilty of eternal torment, how is it that this same person is once again able to receive forgiveness through the grace of Christ just like the saints, through hourly repentance and confession to God?
St. Dorotheos says:
There are those whof ulfill their passions and those who oppose their passions. The one who fulfills a passion, when he hears an angry word is distressed or speaks five or ten words back for a single word. He becomes hostile and distraught and even after he calms down he still continues to think evil and harbor a grudge against the person that spoke that word. He regrets that he did not say more than he did, and in his mind prepares other words that are even more caustic to say to him, and he is always saying, "Why didn't I tell him this, and I'm going to tell him such and such," and he is constantly fuming.From such examples one can draw clear lessons about all the others, and also why it is that a passionate person cannot be cleansed by the daily grace of Christ from sins which seem small and which are not mortal.
This is one disposition, that is to have the habit of holding grudges. May God deliver us from such a disposition! For such a disposition is surely totally subject to torment.
Another person, when he hears an angry word is also distressed and he also says five or ten in exchange for one, and he grieves that he did not say other words that are even worse, and he is grieved and holds a grudge and acts this way for a few days, and then he mellows. Another acts this way for a week and then he mellows. Another acts this way for a day and then calms down. Another hurls insults, acts hostile, distressed and upsets others but quickly calmsdown.
How different these dispositions are, yet all of them are subject to hell as long as they remain in effect.138
Now let us resolve the question about how such sins can be forgiven for the beginner and the passionate person. This same St. Dorotheos said:
When a person hears an offensive remark, he grieves within himself not because he was insulted but because he did not show patience. This is the condition of a struggler who is opposing his passions. Another struggles and labors, but afterwards he is worn down by the passion and overcome. Another does not want to make an angry reply but he is carried away by habit. Another struggles never to say anything in anger and he grieves that he was offended, but he rebukes himself forgrieving and repents of this. Another does not grieve that he was insulted but neither does he rejoice. All of these are opposing the passion. In their intention they have left off the passion and do not want it to act in them and they grieve and struggle. Now the fathers say that everything that the soul does not desire is short-lived.This person, even though he is passionate, can none the less receive forgiveness through the grace of Christ for such daily sins which occur not by intention but involuntarily. It was these the Lord commanded St. Peter to forgive up to seventy times seven a day (Matthew 18:22]. Also, St.Anastasios of Sinai confirms this saying:
I will tell you a parable about the person who fulfills his passion and accepts it. He is like a man under enemy fire who grabs the arrows with his hands and plunges them into his heart. On the other hand, the person who opposes the passion is like a man under enemy fire who is armored with a breastplate and suffers no wounds.139
We understand and hold concerning those who receive the holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of the Lord, that if they have some small sins that are readily forgiven, such as being robbed by the tongue or hearing or sight or by vainglory or sorrow or anger or somesuch thing as these, that once they rebuke themselves and make confession to God, let them thus receive the holy Mysteries. We believe that the reception of the holy Mysteries for such persons is unto the cleansing of sins.140St. Poemen also said something similar:
I prefer a man who has sinned and repents to one who does not sin and is not repenting and so on.141
Since at the beginning we mentioned the fine art of suppressing the passions through noetic prayer and the commandments, we should now reveal more clearly the actual action of the mind's battle with the passion.
When a suggestion of the enemy comes through some passion or evil thought, the struggler calls on Christ against it, and the devil perishes with his suggestion. If someone falls through weakness of resolve either by word or by anger or by carnal desire, he prays to Christ, confessing to Him and repenting.
If one is enveloped by despair and sorrow which oppress his mind and heart, he lays hold on the memory of death and gehenna and God Who is present with him, and after laboring with these a little he calls on Christ. And thus finding peace after the fray he again prays Christ to be merciful to him for his sins, both voluntary and involuntary. He simply flees to Christ then, both at the time of battle and in peace of soul. Christ becomes all in all for him, in both good and evil circumstances. Such a person is not distracted by conceit as if he is doing something special by praying or pleasing God. All of his prayer stems from the fear of torment and has its beginning and end in repentance for his sins.
There is one concept underlying external prayer and another for this internal prayer. With the former a person fulfills a set amount of psalmody and puts his hope in this before God. When he leaves off his rule he condemns himself. But the other person, being smitten by his conscience for the hourly sins we have spoken about and suffering the onslaught of the enemy's suggestions, constantly cries out to Christ bearing this saying in mind, "Even if you climb the whole ladder of perfection, pray for the forgiveness of sins."142 And again, "I would rather speak five words with my .mind that ten thousand with my tongue" (Corinthians 14:19). And thus beyond any doubt, he carries out the opposition to the passions described by Dorotheos. Perhaps even more, because this saint prescribes resistance only to the point of grieving and resolves the matter with the parable of persons under enemy fire who are armored with the breastplate, and so they do not suffer wounds. The saint took this from the prophet who said, "For he was sorrowful and went away sad, and I will heal his way" (Isaiah 57:17-18). And Chrysostom also says, "Even if you only lament over your sins, even this will be a great medicine for you."143 But here there is not just grieving alone, but also prayer and contrition and repentance and a good resolve to keep the commandments plus sighing in confession. The prayers before sleep instruct us by saying, "If I have sworn by Thy name or blasphemed it in my thought or blamed or reproached anyone or in my .anger have detracted or slandered anyone or grieved anyone or if I have gotten angry about anything"144 and the further recollection of forgivable and involuntary sins which occur with those who are learning noetic work. Moreover many do not want even to lift up their eyes when they behold such hourly falls into sin and think that everyone who is learning this sacred activity ought to be pure of such things. But this is not how it is, as it turns out. Unless a person willfully fulfills his passions, these passions and sins can serve as a stench that repulses one person unto life but draws another to his death. In this way, then, the former comes to humility, to a realization of his .weakness and to repentance, but the latter to hardness of heart and eternal perdition because of his excessive boldness. If anyone says that it is possible to be cleansed of such sins without noetic work through the grace of Christ by repentance, we reply thus, repeating what is written here. Let such a person set before me the commandments of Christ on one side and on the other side constant prayer that He forgive us our debts. And let him give me a genuine resolve never to violate a single commandment, that is, never to feel carnal desire, be angry, judge, slander, lie, speak idly, and love his enemies, do good to the hateful, pray for troublemakers and also to avoid love of pleasure, love of money, carnal thoughts, sorrow, vainglory and scornfulness�in a word every sin and evil thought. With this resolve undertake the learning of noetic work and keep strict attention as to how many times every day you still break your resolution by violating the commandments being wounded by so many sins, passions and evil thoughts. Imitate that widow who followed the judge around day and night (Luke 18:1-8) and begin to cry out to Christ at every hour for every commandment that you violate and for every passion and evil thought that overcomes you. In addition, take the holy Scriptures as a good counselor. After spending some time in these activities come and tell me what you see in your soul. Will you yourself not then admit that it is impossible to keep such attentiveness in external prayer without noetic work? For this lesson is learned by the contender diligent for such mysteries and his soul is made aware that he is not breaking his rule when he leaves off the reading of numerous psalms, canons and troparia and turns all his effort to noetic prayer.
Quite the contrary, he is increasing his rule. For just as the power and purpose of the law was to bring all to Christ, even if the law itself seemed to be diminished thereby, so also prolonged psalmody leads the struggler on to noetic prayer and does not continue throughout his entire monastic life. Experience itself teaches such a person when he himself is praying and he realizes that there is a certain barrier between us and God, like a brasswall as the prophet says (Jeremiah 1:18) which does not permit our mind to look clearly to God in prayer nor to be attentive to the heart where all the faculties of the soul have their place and which is the source of thoughts both good and evil (Matthew15:19).
And since this holy little book teaches great caution to those who want to live in stillness and exposes the causes leading to delusion, we will refer the reader to it and speak about the following.
The holy fathers divide all monastic life into only three categories. The first is the community. The second they call the royal way or middle path, when two or three live together holding in common all their necessities, their food and clothing, their labor and handiwork and every other provision for their life, but above all each one cutting off his will and submitting to one another in fear of God and love. The third is the solitude of the anchorite, which is for perfect and holy men.
Nowadays, however, there are some who do not heed the power of the holy Scriptures and contrary to the will and traditions of the holy fathers they have concocted for themselves a fourth category or way of life. Each one lives alone in his own cell wherever he likes, either nearby or far away. Each one caters to his own will and chases after acquisitions with worldly cares, and so on. Formally, according to their way of life, they would appear to be anchorites, but because of their rejection of the holy fathers and the fearsome prohibition for anyone who is still afflicted with passions of soul to dare to enter into single combat with the demons, they liken themselves to the self-willed who stumble over themselves. They themselves concocted this way of life, and they themselves are tripped up thereby, being unable to live in peace and stability, because it does not correspond to their measure and stature.
The person who carefully goes through the book of St. Gregory of Sinai finds that nothing else there is labelled self-will and single combat except the solitary way of life with no association with anyone. Moreover, the writer of the life of this saint points out that he did not permit a single one of his disciples to live alone in his own cell either nearby or faraway.145 After gathering a multitude of monks both old and young in three lavras and two fortified monasteries, he gave them rule of cutting off their will and of .obedience. He taught all of them noetic work, saying:
Instruction is not suitable for some, but living in .obedience is appropriate for even the most crude and illiterate, since obedience contains a share of all the virtues, because of humility. But this is not granted to the insubmissive, so they not be deceived, whether they be crude or intelligent. For the self-willed cannot escape conceit and so on.146This blessed elder Nil, also, after breathing out many fearsome words against those who seek to live in solitude while they are still passionate, and after heaping praises on the royal way, says that this royalway and discipline exist on the Holy Mountain Athos, where down to the present day the physical structure of the cells, both old and new, serves as a divine model for the royal way for everyone. For the cells there, whether they have a church or not, are built for two or three and not just for one person. If the royal path were for each person to live alone, either nearby or far away, then what need or purpose would there be for dealing with two or three? But given the disposition of the fourth way, whether it is two or three or a multitude, it is all one and the same, because each person lives according to his own will and understanding.
An example and prescription for this way of life is that young brother who, after taking up his residence in a cell alone, replied to those who inquired, "See, I am already an anchorite." The fathers came and took him out of his cell and ordered him to go around and visit everyone saying, "Forgive me fathers, for I am not an anchorite."147 Likewise the elders said, "If you see a young man ascending into heaven, grab his feet and pull him back down to earth."148
But what about the following reason that these people give? am living alone so that I not lose my temper or be angered against my brother and to avoid dle talk and condemnation." Do you not know, my friend, that what you have just said and things like them especially humble and shame a person, as the fathers say, and do not exalt him. And also, that it is beneficial for youth to fall while vainglory, self-esteem, deceit and their likes harden a person and puff him up? For this reason it is better to learn your own weakness and measure by living with a brother and to rebuke yourself for this, praying with repentance before the Lord and being cleansed by the daily grace of Christ, as we have already said, rather than to conceal and nourish the vainglory and conceit you deceitfully bear within yourself, and because of which St. John Climacus, together with all the great fathers, says that you will never find a single trace of solitary stillness.149 The solitary life itself usually brings no little harm to the passionate person."For stillness," says the great Barsanuphios," offers an occasion for conceit."150 Now if stillness leads the weak person to conceit and in addition the very passions of his soul impel him to the same, then what hope can there be for a person who ventures into such single combat and does not submit to the teaching of the holy fathers that two or three living together in stillness is the royal path? If a person binds his intention and will by powerful faith in a brother�s counsel, such a person truly by this alone fulfills without labor the commandments of the Gospel that you not take care for your life or soul, what you eat or what you drink, nor for your body as to what you will wear (Matthew 6:25]. In this way of life, a person both when he stays at home and when he goes out, with the counsel and will of his brother and only for the necessities of life, shall escape kindling the fires of the suggestions and insolence of the enemy who twists and shakes every self-willed person like flour in a sieve.
The communal way of life, through the commandments of Christ alone, grants fervor to a monk against every matter in which Satan opposes him. There is no place here for the self-love and attachment which assail and afflict the enemy's burns on every passionate person who is living alone by himself to keep moving from one affair to the next and from one worry to another. And truly an awesome miracle has been observed in such people during these present times. Leaving their solitude, some of them joined a brotherhood which does not worry about what is "yours" and "mine", as the fathers put it. Here, when they told what a great amount of handiwork they were used to completing every day without supervision, they were assigned to do in the course of a week the same amount that they had previously done for themselves every day. They said, in despair, that this was hard for them. When the amount was cut in half again, they said that even that is impossible. When they were confronted and questioned about this,they replied that when they worked for themselves on their own, they had acertain fervor and zeal, but now complaining and sloth have taken its place.
It is also a true saying that every person who lives in a community with two or three brothers, by the very fact of living together, is set free from self-love and attachment. He must be inspired in everything by the commandments of Christ alone. Without such training and faith a person will think he is a slave or a hired man deprived of his pay and that his way of life is no way for a person to live. By the same token, for the weak and passionate person living alone, the burning fire and moving force in every external matter is self-love and attachment. At the same time, for the person in the community it is only the commandments or Christ Himself that inspire .fervor for the activity that is appropriate in his life. For this reason it is necessary and required of us passionate ones to keep to the royal path and live in stillness, two or three together, in order to escape delusion, not be enslaved by self-love and attachment and escape the vice of self-willfulness. In place of all these we will find an easy path and an open door forfulfilling the commandments of Christ and learning sacred noetic work.
St. Cassian said:
No one should be desirous of solitude in the desert. Only the perfect are to go, he that is purified of every passion, who in a community of cenobitic monks together with the others has boiled down and skimmed off his unrighteousness, and even then, not going off because of discouragement or out of zealous fervor, but only in order to attain divine vision, desiring the perfect and radiant vision of the Lord God; for this can be acquired by the perfect only in solitude. If a monk brings unhealed passions with him into the desert they will simply remain concealed within him but not be eradicated.Thus, in order to acquire perfection, it is not enough simply to live no longer among men with whomwe are filled with anger. For if we do not first acquire .patience within ourselves, we will vent our wrath even on inanimate and dumb objects at the slightest provocation.
For the desert only knows the man who has corrected his ways and who is about to open the entrance to gladsome vision and fulfill the beholding of radiant spiritual mysteries. But those who have not corrected their ways will retain their evil in the desert. Not only this, but they will become deceitful and greatly multiply their evils. Such a monk will think he is keeping patience as long as no one comes and associates with him. But as soon as he allows an occasion for this, he immediately returns to his former ways. Then the hidden passions will break loose and like unbridled horses attened by prolonged idleness will whisk their rider off to catastrophe all the more quickly. If we reject the instruction and chastisement of our brothers, the wild shoots of evil will grow up inside us, unless they are cleared out. Also the wall patience which we maintain when we live in common with our brothers, partly due to their respect and partly to avoid shame and scandal, keeping ourselves thus free from sorrow, will vanish from around us because of negligence.
Any poisonous snake or beast of prey, when it conceals itself and hides in the caves and hiding places of the desert, is it not fierce and harmful? But it does not work any harm at that time and does not know its measure, whether it is innocent or vicious, because there is nothing present to prey on. This is not because of the good disposition of the viper, but because that deserted and uninhabited place does not allow him to work evil. But if he finds an occasion for working harm, he pours out his hidden venom and bitter viciousness. Likewise, for those seeking perfection in the desert, it is not enough simply not to get angry at men. We remember that when we lived in the desert that we became so bitterly angered with the reeds which were either too thick or thin for handiwork and with the hatchet which was dull and did not cut the branches quickly,and also with the flint when it did not give off fiery sparks when we were hurrying to the chanting in the congregation. Our thoughts were so stricken over this that we cursed not only dumb creation but even the demon himself.151
The holy Climacus says:
He who is afflicted with passions of soul and undertakes stillness is like one who leaps off the ship into the deep and thinks that he will swim safely to dry land on a board. Those who are warring with dung will come to stillness at the proper time, if they have someone guiding them. Solitude, however, requires the might of the angels.152And again:
Solitude strangles the inexperienced.We have recollected in brief these writings from the holy fathers only for the sake of proving beyond all doubt that two or three living together is the royal path on which one does not fall easily, of which the ancient and later fathers write heaping blessing upon it. It has seemed to some that the middle and royal path is not the common life, but when each lives in his own cell separately, whether nearby or far away, and to gather together at times for counsel, but this is not so. No! For every way of life that is not communal, whether the cells are near or far from each other, is not the measure of this middle path. This is rather the solitary life and single combat with the demons. Such was the rule of the monastery of St. Gerasimos of the Jordan, and under such a rule both in ancient times and nowadays a great multitude of the passionate and ailing suffered harm.157 For this reason the saints command that two or three live together communally so that by submitting to one another in the fear of God we may be aware of our weakness.
All monastic discipline is arranged in three courageous formations: in martyric anchoritism and solitude; or living in stillness with one or two brothers; or sitting patiently in the communal life. "Do not turnaside," says the preacher, "either to the right or tothe left", but come by the royal way (Proverbs 4:27; Numbers 20:17, 21:22; Deuteronomy 5:32). For the middle one of the above three has been beneficial for many but, "Woe to him that is alone" (Ecclesiastes 4:10), for if he fall either into sleep or ethargy or despair there is no one of the human race to help him back up. But, "wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in their midst," says the Lord (Matthew 18:20).154
"Not so much a monk as amonk for a monk." That is, the solitary is not saved fromstumbling as much as he who has another monk with him.155
I have heard of men dwelling in stillness like caged falcons, raging in bitterness and fury to themselves and pouncing on anyone as if he were the cause of their misery. I respectfully counselled these men not to live alone, lest a man turn into a demon. 156
When two go to live a communal life, they lay down this covenant for themselves: They will undertake everything, be it spiritual or physical, only in keeping with their own strength and the requirements of necessity, not in excess or at the improper time, and in particular through discerning the writings of the holy fathers. Thus when one of them has an intention concerning some matter or of going out somewhere, he speaks to his brother about this, and the other gives the matter some consideration and does not agree to it, either because it is inappropriate or unnecessary. The former brother recognizes the other's good judgement and, not insisting on his own way and opinion, submits to his brother's counsel with the Scriptures as his witness. Is this not cutting off one's own will and spiritual counsel? And again, when he sees that it is necessary and appropriate, the other brother tells him this and agrees to his intention and desire. Then does this other one not cut off his will and submit to his brother's counsel? And so it is in every task and undertaking, either the one or the other, by cutting off his own will, gives a good acclaim to his brother's undertaking or he himself receives it from his brother,and they become accustomed to a good discipline, where one does not easily fall, having resolve and firm faith that there is great profit for their soul insofar as one cuts off his own will before his brother on every occasion, and no harm for the soul or violation of the commandments of Christ can be found in this. If at some time one slips into argumentative self-justification due to a lapse of attention to himself, because he believes this to be the fall of his own soul he turns to God and his brother with repentance and receives forgiveness through the daily grace of Christ, for he fell as a man and got back up again without harboring any doubt. The royal path where one does not fall easily is this and not where each person lives separately.
In addition, this same blessed elder of ours St. Nil describes the middle measure of food and drink and quotes from the writings of St. Gregory of Sinai, "Every man who wishes to find God should partake of sweets with abstinence."158 These "sweets� are a puzzle for many; does this refer to seeds and vegetables or to oil and fish? It would appear that the meaning is not seeds and herbs or vegetables and honey for all these are strictly Lenten food and no one has ever abstained from them. So it clearly means fish and oil and wine. This puzzle can be resolved by the words of St. Heraklides the bishop, who says the following:
By partaking of food with discernment and by abstaining with discernmentone will not sin in any way, for it is said, "The law does not apply to the righteous man"(Timothy 1:9).Now it is clear that for the angelic discipline of John the food is strictly lenten that is greens, vegetables, rusks and water. But for the divinely-manful discipline of Christ, the food is sweet, that is, seeds, oil, fish and wine. For both before His Passion and after His Resurrection Christ partook of all of these without disdain.
Now it is less offensive to drink wine with discernment than water with scorn. For I have seen holy men drinking wine with godly discernment and men who were corrupt and vile drinking water with pride like dumb beasts. Moreover, do not reproach or praise the kind of food and drink but praise or reproach the disposition of those who partake of it, whether it be good or bad. The Jews at one time reproached the Lord saying of His disciples, "Why do Your disciples not fast like those of John?" (Mark 2:18). They also reviled His disciples and said with disapproval,"Your Teacher eats and drinks with publicans and sinners" (Mark 2:16). The Saviour replied to them, "John came by the path of righteousness neither eating nor drinking"-meaning meat and wine, for it is impossible to live without any food or drink at all-"and they say he has a demon; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say this man is a glutton and a drunkard, the friend of publicans and sinners"(Matthew 11:18-19).
So what are we to do? We should follow neither the reproachful nor the flatterers. Shall we not fast with discernment together with John even if they say, "You have a demon"? And shall we not drink wine inmeasure with Jesus even though they say, "These men are gluttons and drunkards"? But let us understand that it is not the food or the drink that is really important but faith reaching out in love and deeds. When every action is done out of faith, he that eats and drinks out of faith shall not be condemned; but everything that is not done out of faith is a sin.
However, let none of the lovers of pleasure or those who sin in some other such manners ay, "It is in faith that I partake of food." Or when he is doing anything else in fulfillment of an animal desire or a corrupt conscience, let him not think that he can use he faith as a cover.
The Saviour commanded to know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). The fruit of those who live by the Divine Word and Spirit and discernment is love, peace, long-suffering, meekness and temperance (Galatians 5:22). However, when the flesh is robust, one should avoid rich foods. When the flesh is weak or ill, or when one is in sorrow or difficult circumstances, then let him have food and drink as healing nourishment and a cure for sorrows. Let everyone turn away from those things that harm the soul; I mean anger, jealousy, vainglory, slander and conceit.159
Concerning these sweet foods, there is a clear indication also in the life of the holyfathers Symeon the Fool for Christ and his brother John.160 Both of them ate and drank the food brought by an angel, white bread, fish and wine, together with a certain lover of Christ who visited them in the desert. Therefore St. Gregory of Sinai calls those foods sweet which are eaten on special occasions and with discernment to the glory of God. Some people sin against a correct understanding by using this for permissiveness and love of pleasure. There are yet others who are afflicted with a lack of faith and courage who shun these foods, thinking that such food and drink is an obstacle to attaining perfection. There is no contradiction, however, between the life of John and of Christ. Not so much because of our physical weakness as due to the weakness of our souls, the discerning fathers teach us to imitate the divinely-manful discipline of Christ and not the angelic way of John. Just as with the passions, as Climacus says, some humble us and some exalt, so it is with the virtues; they too can either humble or puff up those who are weak. One person may be afflicted with the passion, conceit and contempt, but another with lust and love of pleasure. For the first, excessive fasting is oil poured on the fire, but for the second permissiveness is cuddling a snake in his bosom.161 For those persons the prescription is measured and intelligent use of food, as the great Basil said,"He that partakes of food in measure is no different from the faster. In practice, such a person is constantly not eating because of his supremely prudent care for his body."162 And do not disdain this either, O zealot filled with every kind of scorn,says St. Cassian, for both excessive fasting and permissiveness can both be from the devil, but excessive and indiscriminate abstinence brings greater harm than eating to satisfaction.163
Our holy fathers were not digging a pit for us but rather were steering us away from the pit when they commanded us to pursue the middle path and not to run after lofty things out of season. Even those who lived a life surpassing nature attained this through various noetic insights that are totally unknown to us, by which they were moved to lofty fasting and labors. Some of them exhausted their flesh with great suffering out of love for Christ alone inimitation of His voluntary suffering for our sakes. Such was the elder of the great Pachomios, who never tasted cooked food or oil or wine, saying, "Christ was crucified and tasted gall for my sake, and how can I desire to take oil and wine into my mouth?"164 Others endured immeasurable fasting and labors because of their sins, such as Mary of Egypt165 and Paphnutios166 and others like them. Many fasted for the sake of self-control and passionlessness. Some, born according to a promise and consecrated to God from their mother�s womb, endured supernatural labors and fasting, such as the great wonderworker Nicholas,167 Theodore Sykeiotes168 and others like them. Others were touched by heavenly fire which kindled their souls to unspeakable labors and fasting so that they did not feel them; such was Symeon of the Wonderful Mountain169 and all the holy martyrs. In others, the memory of gehenna and of the terrible judgement of Christ so gripped their hearts with feeling that they not only did not feel pain and toil, but they even forgot themselves entirely.Such was that elder who went numb at the feeling of the memory of death and fell down as if dead,170and many others.
All of these perfected lofty virtues and fastings through the .grace of Christ with discernment and a good conscience, without being consciously aware that they were practicing some virtue. Indeed it was through this disposition of theirs alone that they maintained their own spiritual awareness, thus concealing every good work from their sight. For they did not regard their fasting or any other of their labors as a virtue. They were intent on one thing alone: to present themselves before Christ in that natural state in which we were created.
But some, who are of like passions but lack understanding, who not only lack any such awareness or, better to say, the gift of what we have just been discussing, who are totally unaware of such things, have become zealous for the fasting and labors of the saints without proper discernment and resolve while imagining to themselves that they are progressing in virtue. The devil stalks them like a hunting dog and sows in their belly the seed of profane self-satisfaction, by which the internal pharisee is conceived and nourished. Thus gaining strength from day today, these persons give themselves over to unmitigated pride, and because of this God abandons them to the power of Satan.
Even though Paul and Peter and those like them are holy and marvelous men, still they are human. Even the saints themselves are in need of great circumspection lest they slip into conceit. For there is nothing that so easily arouses a person to pride as a conscience aware of its many merits and a soul living with its hope in them. Those lacking in discernment give primary consideration to the kind of food and drink and ignore the disposition of those who abstain or partake of them well or badly.
It is truly for good and with prudence that the saints have given us the royal path and called it free from falls. Did any one�no matter what caliber of person he was�while living together with a brother in stillness ever pray to God to reveal to him what virtue he had not yet perfected? Do not all such persons, when they behold the height and perfection of the commandments of Christ, see how insufficient they are, even if they be holy and perfect? "For if," says the Theologian, "we say that we do not sin, we deceive ourselves" (John 1:8). Again the great Paul,"I glory in my infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (Corinthians 12:9).
Many solitaries and desert dwellers have done these things magnificently, some with simplicity and with a guileless mind and manners, but others with obvious conceit. For this reason, the Lord Himself, lifting some up to humility, sent them to virtuous men in the cities, such as the monk who pastured with wild buffalo whom He sent to an abbot who had been commanded to make him herd swine. Another He sent to submit himself to obedience in a community, and when he was unable to bear it, he realized his weakness and asked to be released again into the desert.171 But others, because they were incurably ill, He abandoned to the power of Satan. Moreover, Climacus says well that solitary stillness strangles the unskilled. The great Barsanuphios says, "Stillness provides the occasion for conceit," and so on.172 And let no one marvel at this: Everyone who practices fasting, prostrations and vigil, psalmody and lying on the bare ground and such things as these, if he thinks that he is practicing the virtues is committing sin thereby in his offering to God. If anyone of those who have tears and weep thinks that he is doing well, and especially if he scorns someone that does not have tears, he is laboring in vain, says Climacus. 173
QUESTION: One might say, how is it possible for aperson who does such things not to think that he is doing good?
REPLY: It was for this reason that we said abovethat we do not only lack a correct understanding and spiritual disposition, but we cannot even recognize these things when they are described in words. Yet we champ at the bit for solitude and the lofy discipline of the holy fathers. There exists, there actually does exist, a precipitous and adamantine resolve that not only does not see but does not even suffer the thought that anything it does is virtuous. We have already spoken more than a little about this. If this were not so, how could the saints have considered themselves to belower than all creation, or for a person, the more he draws nigh to God, to see all the more vividly how sinful he is, and so on? This is a difficult alphabet: To learn your place and measure and what understanding and resolve you need in order to acquire virtue. Moreover, although by the grace of God some receive a singular feeling or understanding which is the herald of humble mindedness, still it is natural that in every person his inclination or thinking disposes him either to humility or vainglory, to fear of God or to audacity, that is, offering a deviation either to the right or to the left. If a person says that very few attain such a state, the holy fathers reply, "Keep to the royal path, the middle way, which is free from falls, that is, the life in stillness of two or three living together communally." "For on many occasions the enemy gives fervor for the great fasting and labors of the saints," says St. Isaac,"for solitary stillness and quiet, so that from there he can prey on those who heed his advice." And St. Cassian says something similar about this:
The mortification of the flesh and abstinence of thoughts must not exceed one's natural strength; the Lord imparted a divine gift to many remarkable saints for struggles and extreme severity, through a special inspiration which drew them on.
But if you do not have these divine powers, do not kindle your desires to inherit the labors of the saints through severe and extraordinary mortification, but simply examine them and marvel and humble yourself, as the holy Climacus said of the poor:They behold the royal treasures and thus grow all the more aware of their poverty.174So also the soul, when it reads about the great virtues of the fathers, humbles its thinking in everyway. St. Justinsays, "Heavenly grace comes to all, but not in equal measure. The Lord wants to save all but not to make everyone a saint."
However, do not consider that you are unfortunate because you cannot in your flesh live in the discipline of severe asceticism like the saints. Even you are able to accomplish internal activity with humility through warm desire and diligence and thus please God. The prophet clothed in royal purple did not say, "I was hungry" or "I kept vigil" or "I lay on the bareground" but rather "I humbled myself, and the Lord saved me quickly" (Psalm 114:5]. And again St. Cassian says, "Let us seek after the gift of discernment with all diligence, for this has the power to preserve us."175 For the mother of the water springs is the abyss, and for discernment it is humility.
Where there is no light, all things are in darkness, and where there is no humility, all we have is in vain. And how can we acquire this? Hearken to the saying of the Lord,
"Without Me you can do nothing"(John 15:5). Let us therefore pray to the Lord with fervor that He grant us in all of our activities to have humility which comes from faith and fear of God, which is trained in meekness and total non-possessiveness, whereby perfect love is also practiced by the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.