St Nilus of Sora
by G. P. Fedotov (1886-1951)
Russian Spirituality: The Teacher of Spiritual Prayer.
Nilus The great monastery of the Holy Trinity founded by St. Sergius, although set in the midst of a virgin forest, was only fifty-odd miles to the North, from the city of Moscow. The disciples of St. Sergius took different directions, founding distinct schools of spiritual life which can even be located geographically. The school later called after the name of St. Joseph of Volotsk - ascetical, liturgical, social, and disciplinarian - built monasteries in and around Moscow, or in towns directly subject to the authority of the prince of Moscow. The lovers of silence and contemplation, on the other hand, withdrew into Northern Russia, where a vast territory, almost totally uninhabited, was open to their solitary settlements. Since the series of cells and monasteries which they built extended to the North, beyond the Volga River, the hermits were called Transvolga “startzy” (“elders”), or simply Transvolgians.
The dwelling which they preferred was a solitary cell in the wood with a small chapel nearby. But the world from which they fled overtook them in the persons of their disciples and the peasants who would settle down close by the hermit’s cell, which would be gradually transformed into a monastery; then a large settlement would arise, and even, in the course of time, a town. Yet the practice of contemplation and mystical prayer did not die out in these areas, but only receded deeper into the wilderness. By far the greater proportion of Russia’s canonized saints of the fifteenth century belong to the Transvolgians. No one of them, with the exception of Nilus, left any writings; to St. Nilus' treatises only a few letters of St. Cyril of Belozersk can be added. The numerous Lives which have been preserved are, for the most part, only traditional accounts of their spiritual experience. Sometimes the occurrence in a Life of one or two sentences couched in the technical terminology of Greek mysticism leads the modern scholar to the conclusion that the subject belonged to the Hesychast school of prayer. The descriptions of celestial visions, such as those in the Life of St. Sergius, confirm the induction from the religious terminology. The true “holy Russia,” the mystical one, remained silent, and in this she was faithful both to her deeply instinctive kenotic humility and to the mystical appreciation of silence as the necessary school of prayer.
The only exception to this rule is St. Nilus. He left a treatise on the spiritual life and prayer based upon the Greek fathers, and a short instruction or rule for the monastic life. Some personal letters are of further assistance in the reconstruction of his moral character and his religious ideal, but there is no extant biography of this saint; his Life is supposed to have been lost in the sixteenth century. This age, as we know, suppressed the school of Nilus and could have little interest in the preservation of his memory. Not until the nineteenth century was there a revival of his cult and a fresh interest in his literary remains.
Thus biographical data concerning Nilus are very scanty. He was probably of peasant origin and surnamed Maikov. After he had renounced the world and entered the famous monastery of St. Cyril, he journeyed to Greece in order to study monastic life at its sources. Here he was initiated into the Hesychast doctrine and practice. It is highly probable that he knew Greek, although the bulk of Greek ascetical and mystical literature had already been translated into Slavonic. He returned to Russia saturated with spiritual erudition; undoubtedly he was one of the most learned men in the Russia of his day. For a time Nilus lived again in the monastery founded by Sergius' disciple St. Cyril, which was second in greatness and influence only to the Holy Trinity of St. Sergius. St. Cyril’s monastery, a large cenobitical brotherhood, was the center for the contemplative hermits of Northern Russia who settled down, nearby or at a distance, in the surrounding wilderness. Nilus chose for his solitary dwelling a wild and lonely spot in the forest bordering the River Sora (whence his monastic surname), about ten miles from St. Cyril’s. A handful of his disciples, or “friends,” settled in huts around him, forming what is called a “skete” (or “skit”). This was the type of life of which Nilus was most in favor: neither eremitical nor cenobitical, but a middle way which avoided the disadvantages of both.
In this retreat Nilus spent the remainder of his life. That his withdrawal from the world was not complete is evidenced by the letters which he addressed to disciples, some of whom were laymen, but the only established fact in his biography is his presence, towards the end of his life, at a council held in Moscow in 1503, to which he and the other outstanding abbots (St. Joseph among them), had been invited.
In the presence of this gathering, quite unexpectedly, Nilus began to inveigh against the holding of land by monasteries, declaring that it was contrary to the principle of spiritual poverty and labor. This daring attempt at reform was obstructed by Joseph and the majority of the other abbots, and the resentment which it aroused was the main reason for the subsequent persecution of the Transvolgian hermits.
The bulk of Nilus' literary work can only with reservations be considered original. He has composed a mosaic of quotations from the Greek fathers. He provides the framework, adds his own explanations of the difficult passages, especially of philosophic definitions, and some practical exhortations. He displays no inconsiderable art in achieving a unit), of this heterogeneous material, so that it reads as the work of one mind and spirit. The author has a living knowledge of his sources; obviously, he has tested his authorities in practice, and he has given an unique form to the collective experience of the praying Church.
One can distinguish among the sources of St. Nilus those which belong to the ancient monastic tradition and those which represent the later Hesychast school of mystical experience. The former, of which Nilus' main teachers in the present work are John Climacus, Nilus of Sinai and John Cassian, laid the foundations of asceticism. The latter was the Latin intermediary of the Egyptian tradition in the West, particularly recommended by St. Benedict of Nursia in his rule. In accordance with these authorities, the Russian author emphasizes, not bodily asceticism, but the interior struggle against the passions and the temptations of the mind, in the perpetual spiritual work of self-examination.
The mysticism of the Hesychasts reveals to him the positive aim of the spiritual life - the ecstatic union with God achieved by a particular method of prayer, beginning with the constant repetition of a short invocation of Jesus and ending in prayer without words, purely of the mind or spirit. The necessary condition is a specific manner of controlling respiration and the beating of the heart (perhaps after the Indian pattern), It is accompanied by the experience of ineffable joy and the vision of uncreated light, all other visions being excluded. Simeon the New Theologian, a Byzantine mystic and poet of the eleventh century, provides Nilus with the most sublime expression of the mystical love attained in the union with Jesus.
What, then, can we determine to have been the spiritual character proper to the Russian Nilus himself? Without question, he is a strong personality. Although the very depth and complexity of his nature may give the reader the impression of sharp contradictions, his character presents a finely wrought integration, but of a kind remote from the experience of the modern mind.
On the one hand, Nilus is terribly aware of the reality of sin in all its ramifications in human nature. The most natural, innocent-seeming motions of the human heart contain mortal dangers for him: devout conversations with fellow-monks defile the soul; the soul, enraptured by Divine Love, longs to hide itself in a pit, burying itself alive in order to escape the world; not only is the possession of monastic property sinful, but even the delight of the senses in the beauty of church ornaments. In repudiating the spiritual value of estheticism in liturgical worship, Nilus is unique among the Russian saints. This is the most radical direction taken by kenoticism; it verges on iconoclasm.
On the other hand, this world-denying ascetic is a great friend of liberty. He protests against the persecution of heretics. He does not wish to be called teacher or abbot by his disciples; they are his friends; he speaks, not of teaching, but of sharing the spiritual experience. He does not think highly of living authorities; the only true authority for him is the “divine writings” -by which, however, he means not Scripture only but the whole Church tradition in written form. In transcribing the lives of saints, he even tries to exercise moderate criticism. He holds the human intellect of all his readers and followers in high esteem, and as for human charity, his letters are instinct with a fiery, vibrant love which is scarcely surpassed or even equalled in all Russian religious literature. It was such characteristics as these that made Nilus the favorite saint of the Russian liberal intelligentsia.
Nilus is the consistent representative of kenoticism among the saints of Russia, but as in the case of St. Sergius, his kenoticism was purified and elevated by the Divine Love, and ennobled by lofty conceptions of human dignity and freedom.
The Tradition to the Disciples.
The grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and by with the assistance of our Lady, I have written a teaching for the profit both of my soul and the souls of my lords, who are truly related to me in the brotherhood of one spirit. I therefore call you brothers instead of disciples. We have but one teacher, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave us the Scriptures and sent the holy apostles and the venerable fathers to teach the way of salvation to the human race. These saints began by doing good, only afterwards did they teach. As for me, I have done no good whatsoever, but I expound the teaching of the Holy Scriptures for those who desire salvation.
A great number of the devout brothers who have come to me with the desire to live here I have sent away, because I am myself a sinful and ignorant man, full of infirmities of soul and body. Nevertheless those whom I reject will give me no rest, but constantly return to harass me, and this is the occasion of great distress.
It is my conviction that if it is by God’s will that we are gathered together, then we should be faithful to the traditions of the saints and the holy fathers and to our Lord’s commandments, instead of seeking to exempt ourselves by saying that nowadays it is impossible to live according to the Scriptures and the precepts of the fathers. We are weak indeed, but we must nevertheless follow, according to the measure of our strength, the example of the blessed and venerable fathers, even though we are unable to become their equals. And anyone who does not hold this principle must cease to harass me, wretched sinner that I am. I send such persons away and give them nothing, as I have said before. I have no desire to be their master, yet they would force me to teach them. As for those who live with us, if they do not attend to our teaching, which we derive from Holy Scripture, I will not answer for them, for I am not responsible for their self-will. But those who have the desire to follow our way of life freely and without worldly care, I do accept, imparting to them the word of God, even though I do not accomplish it myself, in the hope that with God’s grace and the prayers of those who have profited by my words, I may be in a condition comparable to that described by John Climacus of the Ladder when he says: 2 “Men sunk in a mire warn passers-by of their own danger, and for the sake of those who are thus preserved, Our Lord will rescue the fallen also.”
If a brother falls away from the precepts through sloth or negligence, he must confess this to a senior, who will then correct his fault in a suitable manner. This must be done whether the sin is committed within the cell or outside it. When a brother leaves his cell, he must be especially cautious and adhere to the precepts more closely. But there are many who hate to give up their own will in the name of God and seek to justify themselves with evasions. Of these St. John of the Ladder says: “It is better to send them away than to allow them to act according to their own will. For if you send such a man away, you will humble him and teach him to give up his will; but if, under the pretext of brotherly love, you treat him with indulgence, you will be bitterly reproached by him at the hour of death.”
We have been instructed by the holy fathers to gain our daily bread and other necessities by manual labour, as Our Lord and His Immaculate Mother have commanded. “If any man will not work, neither let him eat,” says the Apostle. This work must be performed indoors, for Holy Writ specifies that whereas the monks of a community may drive a pair of oxen in the open fields in order to plough the land, this is culpable in the case of hermits living apart from other men. If, because of physical disability, or for some other good reason, we cannot earn a sufficient livelihood by our own efforts, we may accept a few donations from laymen, but these alms must never be excessive. It is not to be thought of that we should take the fruit of other men’s labor by force, for then how should we, who are a prey to our passions, be able to keep God’s commandment that “if a man will contend with thee in judgment and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him”? We must resist and avoid like deadly poison the desire to possess earthly goods.
In buying or selling necessary commodities, we should not bargain to the disadvantage of our brother, but should prefer to suffer a loss ourselves. If we employ laymen, we should never withhold what we owe them, but should give them their pay, with our blessing, and let them go in peace. It is not good to have anything in excess. As for giving alms or lending, St. Basil stipulates that this is not expected of a monk, since a man who has nothing in excess of his needs is not obliged to give. And anyone who says, under such circumstances, “I have nothing to give,” is not lying, according to Barsanuphius the Great. True monks are dispensed from alms-giving, since they may honestly say: “We have given up all things to follow Thee.” St. Isaac writes: “Non-covetousness is above charitable gifts.” The monk’s alms are a helpful word spoken to his brother and the spiritual advice with which he gives comfort in the time of sorrow or any other necessity. And even this applies only to monks who are able to give as much. As for novices - “their patience in bearing with the annoyances, humiliations and rebukes inflicted upon them by their brothers will be spiritual alms of a higher order than any material offerings, in proportion as the soul is superior to the body,” says St. Dorotheus. If a traveler visits us, let us accommodate him as well as we can. After we have given him bread with our blessing, we should allow him to go his way. As to leaving our hermitage, this should not be done indeliberately or in indulgence of a whim, but only in case of wellestablished necessity. It is not proper to leave our cell without a reason or inopportunely, St. Basil tells us: “It is the duty of the superior to assign each monk his task, and he may send on various errands such monks as he sees fit. The monk who receives a commission should not withdraw from obedience to God by making his journey the occasion for laxity, but should go on his way in a sober and God-fearing manner, for his own good and that of others.”
All that I have said in the present writing I wish to be observed during my lifetime as well as after my death.
In our cells, brethren and visitors should be instructed only by monks of proved merit in whose capacity to direct souls we have complete confidence; let them be men who know the art of listening and of giving useful advice. All that I have written is to be done in so far as it is pleasing to God and helpful to souls; if such is not the case, let us do something better.
With regard to the decoration of churches, St. John Chrysostom writes: “If a man wishes to donate sacred vessels or other furnishings to a church, tell him to give them to the poor. “For,” he adds, “no one has ever been condemned for not decorating a church.” The teaching of other saints concerning this matter is the same. St. Eugenia the Martyr, for example, would not accept the sacred vessels of silver which were brought to her, for she said that it was not proper for religious to possess silver. Therefore neither should we have gold and silver and other unnecessary ornaments in our possession, but only what is necessary to the church. The great Pachomius would not even allow the interior of a church to be decorated. After he had built the church of the Mochos monastery with brick pillars of great beauty, he came to the conclusion that it was not right to admire the work of human hands and to take pride in the beauty of a building, so he tied ropes around the pillars and kept exhorting the brethren to pull hard, until the pillars began to lean and the beautiful proportions were destroyed. And he then said: “This has been done so that our infirm spirit may not fall into the snare of the devil through vainglory.” If so great and saintly a man spoke and acted in this fashion, how much the more should we, who are weak-minded and enslaved by our passions, do likewise?
With regard to eating and drinking, let the practice of each monk be adjusted to his physical and spiritual capacity, avoiding satiety and greediness. We should never seek intoxication in any kind of beverage. Those who are young and healthy should chastise their body as much as they can by abstinence from food and drink and by work. The old and the infirm may permit themselves some relaxation.
We should keep no vessels or other valuable objects in our cells. Likewise the hermitage and other lodgings should be built of poor materials and left undecorated, according to the instructions of Basil the Great; indeed every article should be made of stuff that is easily purchased and everywhere available. Women should not be allowed to enter our monastery, nor should we keep within our enclosure any female beast for work or other uses. We should have no youths in our service and should beware of all beardless and womanish faces.
The Monastic Rule. Introduction.
From the writings of the Holy Fathers on “mental doing.” Wherein its profit consists and how zealously we should seek to attain to it.
Many of the holy fathers have spoken of the “doing of the heart,” the “guarding of the spirit,” and “mental concentration,” each using the words which came to him under the inspiration of divine grace; but one thing is to be understood by these various expressions, for the writers first of all received the divine words: “from the heart come forth evil thoughts to defile a man; therefore we must purify the inner vessel and worship God in spirit and truth.” St. Agathon says: “Bodily action is like a leaf; interior action - that is, spiritual labor - is the fruit.” Terrible are the pronouncements quoted by the saints with regard to this. “Every tree that does not bring forth good fruit, shall be cut down and cast into the fire.” And the fathers say, in addition, that if prayers are only uttered by the lips, while the spirit is negligent, it is like offering prayer to the empty air; for God listens to the spirit. The great Barsanuphius says: “If interior action does not fortify a man with the help of God, his exterior labors will have been in vain.” And St. Isaac writes: “Bodily action in the absence of spiritual action may be compared to barren loins and dry breasts, for God’s wisdom is inaccessible to it.” Many of the fathers have made similar observations, and all are in agreement upon this point. Blessed Philotheus of Sinai describes certain monks who, owing to their lack of experience, are content with performing good works, but know nothing of spiritual contests, victories and defeats, and who therefore neglect the mind; and he counsels us to pray for these monks and to teach them, while they guard themselves against evil actions, to purify the mind, which is the eye of the soul.
In the past it was not only the holy fathers living as hermits in the solitude of the desert who kept themselves under spiritual restraints and attained grace and purity of soul; this discipline was likewise maintained by monks leading a community life, and even by those who had not removed from the world but lived in large cities, such as Simeon the New Theologian, and his staretz, Simeon the Studite, of the great Studion monastery in so vast and populous a city [as Constantinople], whose spiritual gifts shone like stars. Blessed Hesychius of Jerusalem says: “Just as it is impossible to preserve life without eating and drinking, so it is impossible to achieve anything spiritual without that guarding of the mind which is also called ‘sobering,’ even for those who force themselves to avoid sin for fear of the pain of hell.” The technique of this exquisite, light-giving action, according to Simeon the New Theologian, is communicated to many souls through instruction; but there are some who are enabled by ardent faith to receive it directly from God. The same statement is made by Gregory of Sinai and by other fathers who say that it is no easy task to find a sure and trustworthy teacher to guide a soul in this wonderful operation; for a trustworthy guide, they explain, must be one who is grounded in practice and wisdom tested by the holy writings, and who has acquired spiritual discretion. Even in the days of those saints such teachers were hard to find, and in our sterile times they must be sought with even greater diligence. However, if such a teacher cannot be found, then the holy fathers order us to turn to the Scriptures and listen to our Lord Himself speaking. “Study the Scriptures, and you shall find eternal life in them.” For the saints, who have labored bodily and have exercised themselves in the vineyard of the soul, and have purified their minds of sensuality, have found our Lord and attained spiritual wisdom. As for us, who are inflamed with desires, we are told to draw the waters of life from the sources of the divine writings, which will quench the fires of our concupiscence and guide us towards the grasping of truth. And so, although I am a sinner confirmed in my folly, I, too, have applied myself to the Holy writings in accordance with the advice of the god-inspired fathers. Like a dog picking up scraps from under the table, I have gathered the words uttered by those blessed fathers and have written all this down as a reminder to us to be their imitators, if only in a small way.
Of the different spiritual battles waged against us, of our defeats and victories and how passions should be strenuously resisted.
The fathers describe a variety of conflicts by which the soul is engaged, with their victories and defeats. First there is the assault of thoughts and imaginings, then there is conjunction with them, then acceptance, then, enslavement, and finally, passion. The assault, say the fathers, John Climacus and Philotheus of Sinai and others, is a bare thought or image concerning some object or event entering our heart and presenting itself to our mind; Gregory of Sinai says that such a thought may be inspired by the devil suggesting that we do this or that, as he tempted our Lord to command that stones should be turned into bread. In simpler words, this is an ordinary thought fleeting through our minds. Such a thought, the fathers say, is no sin, for it is impossible for us to be immune from the thoughts and imaginings inspired by the devil. It is the privilege only of those who have made great progress in perfection to remain unmoved, and even they are occasionally troubled. “Conjunction” or “intercourse” the fathers tell us, occurs when a thought or image has been suggested by the devil to a man, and he enters wilfully, with or without passion, into conversation with it; in other words, when he ponders and reflects on a thought which may happen to enter his mind. Such intercourse, the fathers say, is not always sinless; however, it may be made the occasion of merit if discrimination is employed in making the issue pleasing to God. If we do not cut off the first impulse of the evil thought, but begin intercourse with it, and the enemy makes us think of it with passion, let us then strive to turn it to good. How this should be done, will be explained hereafter, with the help of God.
“Acceptance” the fathers define as the voluptuous inclination of the soul towards the thought or image which has arisen; in other words, when, after the devil’s suggestion has been received, we not only enter intercourse with it, but decide in some way that the conditions suggested by our adversary should take on reality. The degree of guilt in this acceptance, the fathers say, is to be judged according to the stage of spiritual advancement which the soul has reached. If a person is in a state of progress, enjoying divine assistance in preserving recollection, and yet grows slothful and negligent in turning away evil imaginations, he will not be without sin. But one who is still inexperienced and can make but feeble efforts to divert these imaginings, and who therefore accepts them momentarily, yet immediately confesses his sin to God, repenting and reproaching himself-such a person will be forgiven by God in the name of His mercy and because of human weakness. According to the fathers, mental acceptance of this kind means that a man has been defeated against his will while wrestling with the baneful thoughts; yet he remains firmly resolved in the depths of his soul not to sin and to abstain from evil in action; but, on the other hand, it often happens that a man wilfully accepts the thoughts inspired by the enemy, enters intercourse with them and is defeated by them; then, ceasing to resist passion, he makes up his mind to commit sin. Now even if it falls out that this man is prevented from realizing his intention, either by circumstances of time or place or by some other obstacle, his sin is a grievous one subject to excommunication.
As for “enslavement,” this may be either an involuntary diversion of the heart or a sustained preoccupation with certain harmful thoughts, and this is most detrimental to our high purpose.
The first - that is, involuntary diversion - occurs when the mind is captured by a thought or image and is drawn into malicious reflections against its will, but, with the help of God, returns to itself. The second occurs when, as on the waves of a storm, we are carried away from our good dispositions into evil imaginations and are unable to return to peace and tranquillity. This is most often occasioned by idle conversations and useless sociability. Now the first kind of captivation is judged according to whether it occurs during prayer, or outside the time of prayer, and whether it is inspired by thoughts which are essentially wicked or such as are of an inferior nature. If the mind becomes enslaved by evil thoughts during prayer, this is serious sin. For at such a time, we should hold our mind in attention to our prayer, turning away from all other thoughts. But if distraction occurs outside the time of prayer and concerns such matters as are necessary for our existence, it is no sin, for the saints themselves legitimately accomplished the actions essential to their livelihood. No matter what our thoughts may be, the fathers say, if the mind is in a pious disposition, it is with God; nevertheless we must drive away all evil thoughts.
The second form of enslavement - that is, passion - is when an evil thought becomes nested in the soul and, by force of habit, is made part of a man’s nature. He has admitted it by his own choice, and now he is constantly disquieted by thoughts inspired by the enemy: again and again an image which exercises upon the agitated soul, willing or unwilling, an attraction above all others, is presented to it, and a spiritual defeat is sustained. Now this usually occurs when a man has attended to this thought through negligence and has entered intercourse with it - that is, has willingly given way to improper thoughts. This is a sin which incurs either repentance in proportion to its gravity or the torments of the future life. That is, we should repent and ask in prayer for deliverance from this perturbation. For our future punishment will be incurred by our failure to repent, and not by the fact that we have been assaulted by temptations. Otherwise no one could receive forgiveness unless he were perfectly impassible.
A man who is attacked by a passion must resist it vigorously, and in a way which we shall describe in speaking of the passion of lust. If he is assailed by passion concerning anyone, he should avoid that person in every way-and this applies to the person’s presence and conversation, the touch of the clothing or its very fragrance. A man who does not follow this rule yields to passion and commits fornication in his mind, kindling the fires of sensuality and allowing impure thoughts to enter into him like wild beasts.
Of our struggle against these temptations of the mind, which are to be vanquished through the thought of God and through the guarding of the heart, that is, through prayer and spiritual silence. And furthermore of spiritual gifts.
The fathers counsel us to put forth a resistance equal to the force of the attack, whether we are to triumph or to suffer defeat. In other words, we should fight against evil thoughts with all the energies at our command. By conflict we shall either obtain the crown of life or be led to torment - the crown, to those who conquer; the torment, to those who have sinned and have not repented in this life.
A wise and excellent means of struggle, the fathers tell us, is to uproot at the very first impulse - that is, at the assault - the thought which comes to us. They also advise us to pray constantly. For by resistance in the beginning, we cut off the whole sequence. A man who struggles in this prudent manner, turns away the mother of all evil - that is, the baneful assault. Especially should he strive to render his mind deaf and dumb in prayer, as Nilus of Sinai says, keeping his heart silent and aloof from any thought whatever, even if it be a good one. For after the dispassionate thoughts come the passionate, as experience demonstrates, and it is to the entrance of the former that the latter owe their admittance. It is for this reason that we should endeavor to maintain our mind in silence, remote even from such thoughts as may seem legitimate. Let us constantly look into the depths of our heart, saying: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Some of the time we should repeat only part of this prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me,” then again, resuming, say: “Son of God, have mercy upon me”; since, according to Gregory of Sinai, this is easier for beginners. However, due order should be observed in this, and such alternations not made too frequently. The fathers in our day add still another sentence: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” This is also good, and most appropriate for us sinners. Recite the prayer attentively in this manner, standing, sitting, or reclining. Enclose your mind in your heart and, moderating your respiration so as to draw breath as seldom as possible (as Simeon the New Theologian and Gregory of Sinai teach us), call upon God with fervent desire, in patient expectation, turning away all thoughts.
The saints teach us to refrain from the frequent drawing of breath because, as experience will demonstrate, this exercise is most effective in bringing the mind under control. Nevertheless, if you are unable to pray without thoughts, in the silence of your heart, and are conscious of their increase, do not lose courage, but continue to pray. In the certain knowledge that we, who are wrought upon by passion, shall experience difficulty in conquering evil thoughts, Gregory of Sinai says that no beginner can hold his mind in check and turn away the thoughts which assail him without God’s help. It is the privilege of the strong to preserve control over their minds and to divert imaginations, and even they do not deflect the attacks by their own strength, but with God’s assistance, armed with His grace. If you glimpse the impurity of malignant spirits in the representations of your mind, do not fear, do not wonder, and even though they seem good to you, pay no attention to them, but forcibly restraining your breathing and gathering your mind into your heart, call Jesus Christ to your aid, arming yourself with Him, appealing to Him frequently and laboriously, and the imaginations will dissolve, burnt invisibly by the Divine Name. But should these thoughts continue to harass you, then rise to your feet to pray against them, and resume your exercises with determination. How you should pray against your thoughts I shall now further describe with the help of God.
When, despite these exercises, thoughts develop and multiply, and your mind is powerless to defend your heart, you should recite an oral prayer with intense application and patience. And if you should grow weary and sluggish, then call upon God for help and compel yourself to go on praying with all your forces, never once turning from your purpose, and the imaginings will leave you immediately with the help of God.
When you are free from such delusions, then listen once more to your heart and do the prayer of the heart or mind. For although there are many good exercises, the good of the others is partial; the prayer of the heart is the source of all good, which refreshes the soul as if it were a garden, according to Gregory of Sinai. The achievement of this action - that is, this containing of the mind within the heart, free of all imaginings - is difficult not for beginners alone, but even for experienced and well-practised souls, if the latter have not yet received and preserved the sweetness of prayer in their hearts through the effects of grace. And we know from experience that, for weak souls, it is even more arduous and painful. But one who has acquired grace prays easily and lovingly, comforted by this very grace. And when the action of prayer begins to take effect, then, as the Sinaitas says, it encompasses the mind within the heart. making it joyful and free.
The fathers say that if the mind and the body nevertheless grow weary, and the heart begins to ache from the effort of this continual invocation of our Lord Jesus, then we may sing a little, and this will provide some relaxation. This is, in fact, an excellent rule, prescribed by wise teachers both for those who pray in solitude and those who are attended by a disciple. If you do have a faithful disciple, let him recite the psalms while you listen in your heart. But pay no attention whatever to the dreams and images which may present themselves, lest you be seduced. For dreamlike fantasies occur even when the mind is motionless in the heart, generating prayer, and only the soul that is perfect in the Holy Spirit, having achieved freedom through Jesus Christ, can exercise control over them. One of the saints tells us from his own experience that we should concentrate all our efforts on the prayer itself, reciting psalms only to dissipate accidie, or dejection, with the addition of a few penitential troparia but without any chanting. For “the pain of the heart born of piety will suffice for their joy,” says St. Marcus, “and the warmth generated by the spirit will bring them comfort.” St. Marcus instructs us always to say the trisagion and alleluia. He also has given us a rule for these exercises; he tells us to pray for an hour, then read for an hour, and in this manner to spend the day. This is a good practice within the limitations of time and the resources of each monk. You may do as you think best, either observing the rules given above, or practising constant recollection, which is to pursue God’s work always.
But if your prayer is filled with the sweetness of divine grace, and you are conscious of its action in your heart, then it is advisable for you to persevere in it. When you are aware of the continuous action of prayer in your heart, do not interrupt it or rise for singing, for fear that it should forsake you because of your own negligence. For to leave God within you in order to appeal to Him from without is like stooping from a height. Moreover, such a distraction agitates the mind and draws it away from silence. For silence is the absence of noise; it is attained through tranquillity and peace, and God is peace beyond all noise of utterance.
On the other hand, those who do not know this prayer, which is the source of all virtues and, according to the Ladder, waters the gardens of the soul, should practise singing frequently and live according to other rules and standards. For the action of prayer in monks observing silence differs from that in the monks of a community. There is a due measure in all things, according to the sayings of wise men. When the sails of a ship are filled with wind, no oars are required to bring it across the sea of passion. But when the ship is at a standstill, we must use oars or launch a rowboat for our passage.
To those who, for the sake of controversy, cite the holy fathers with reference to celebrating the all-night service or practising continuous chanting, Gregory of Sinai permits us to make this answer: “Not all souls attain perfection in all things because of the defects of our human nature, the lack of zeal, bodily exhaustion. But what is small in the great ones is not entirely small, and what is great in the small ones is not entirely perfect; indeed, not all the ascetics of present or past have walked the same way or followed it to the end.” Those who are in progress and in a state of enlightenment are not asked to recite psalms; they must practise silence, abundant prayer, and contemplation, for such souls are united with God and should not detach their mind from Him and permit it to be troubled; for the mind which turns away from the thought of God and busies itself with inferior matters commits adultery.
St. Isaac, speaking sublimely of such things, writes as follows: “When men are visited by this ineffable joy, it cuts the very prayer from their lips; the mouth and the tongue are stilled; silenced are the heart, guardian of imaginings, and the mind, guide of the senses, and the thoughts, swift as boldly soaring birds. Then thought does not govern prayer, nor has it any free movement, but instead of instructing, it is itself instructed by a power which holds it captive. It dwells on things ineffable and knows not where it is.”
St. Isaac calls this the awe and vision of prayer and says that it is prayer no longer. For the mind no longer communicates itself by means of prayer but is lifted above utterance. Prayer is abandoned, a superior good having been attained. The mind is in ecstasy, and knows not whether it is in the body or out of the body, as the Apostle says. St. Isaac says moreover that prayer is the seed, and this the harvest; the harvesters are stunned at a vision so incommunicable, that from a seed poor and naked such fruit of grain should suddenly have sprung.
The fathers call such a condition prayer because this great gift has its wellspring in prayer and is bestowed on the saints during prayer, but no man knows the real name for it. For when, by this spiritual operation, the soul is drawn to what is divine, and through this ineffable union becomes like God, being illumined in its movements by the light from on high, and when the mind is thus allowed a foretaste of beatitude, then it forgets itself and all earthly things and is affected by nothing. And it is said elsewhere that during prayer the mind rises above desire, entering a realm of incorporeal ideas which are inaccessible to the senses. Of a sudden, the soul is infused with joy, and this incomparable feast paralyzes the tongue. The heart overflows with sweetness, and while this delight endures a man is drawn unwittingly from all sensible things. The entire body is pervaded with such joy as our natural speech is unable to describe; all that is earthly takes on the semblance of ashes and dung. When a man is conscious of this sweetness flooding his entire being, he thinks that this indeed is the kingdom of heaven and can be nothing else. And it is said in another place that one who has discovered this joy in God, not only knows no stirring of passion, but is forgetful of his very life, since the love of God is sweeter than life, and the knowledge of God sweeter than honey, and the honey-comb, and love is born of it.
“But this is incommunicable,” says Simeon the New Theologian: “What tongue could express it? What words could describe it? This is formidable, indeed, formidable; it surpasses the understanding. I behold a light which the world does not see, glowing in my cell, as I sit on my couch. Within my own being I gaze upon the Creator of the world, and I converse with Him and love Him and feed on Him, am nourished only by this vision of God, and I unite myself with Him. And I rise above heaven: this I know surely and for certain. But where, at such a time, is the body? I do not know.” And further, speaking of God, Simeon the New Theologian says: “He loves me and receives me unto Himself and folds me in His embrace; while He is in heaven, He is at the same time in my heart, and I behold Him, here and there.” And Simeon addresses God: “This, O Lord, shows me to be equal to the angels, and even above them, for your substance is invisible to the angels, and your nature is inaccessible to them. Yet to me you are wholly visible, and your substance is fused with my nature.” It is this that St. Paul describes when he says that “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard.” In this state, not only am I without desire to leave my cell, but I long to hide in a pit deep in the earth, for there, removed from the whole world, I should gaze upon my immortal Lord and Creator.”
In accordance with this testimony, St. Isaac also writes: “When the veil of the passions is lifted from the eyes of the mind and a man discerns this glory, he is elevated and filled with awe. If God did not place a limit to such a state, how long would one not dwell in it? And if it were permitted to last throughout a man’s life, he would never wish to turn away from this wondrous vision.” But God in his mercy diminishes His grace for a while in His saints, to let them care for the brethren through preaching and example, as St. Macarius says, speaking of those who have attained perfection. And he gives this illustration: “A man is ready to stand in the twelfth degree of perfection, but grace decreases, and so he descends and stands in the eleventh degree; full measure shall not be granted to such souls, in order that they may find time to attend to their brethren.”
But what shall we say of those who, in their mortal body, have tasted immortal food, who have been found worthy to receive in this transitory life, a portion of the joys that await us in our heavenly fatherland? Such men no longer look for the pleasures and sights of this world, nor do they fear its sorrows and sufferings, for now they dare to say, with the Apostle: “Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ?”
But we who are burdened with many sins and preyed upon by passions are unworthy even of bearing such words. Nevertheless, placing our hope in the grace of God, we are encouraged to keep the words of the holy writings in our minds, so that we may at least grow in awareness of the degradation in which we wallow: of the folly in which we are engrossed, squandering our resources in worldly purposes, exposing ourselves to the dangers of the world to obtain perishable goods; for the sake of these things, we are drawn into conflict and disorder, to the damage of our souls. And we think that this activity is good and praiseworthy! But woe to us if we neglect our souls and forget our calling, as St. Isaac says, and if we come to think that this life, its joys and sorrows, has some meaning. Woe to us if, because of our sloth and relaxation, we conclude that the way of life that was suitable for the saints of old is neither right nor possible for us. No indeed, this is not so. Such practices are impossible only to those who are engulfed by passions of their own will, who have not the desire to repent sincerely and labor for God, but are absorbed in the vain preoccupations of this world. But all who do repent sincerely, God will forgive, for he favors and glorifies those who seek this goal with great love and fear. Have this only before your eyes, and obey His commandments, living constantly in prayer.
It is most expedient that we should employ ourselves in this spiritual exercise during the night. For, as blessed Philotheus of Sinai tells us, it is especially at night that the mind is capable of purification. And St. Isaac teaches that prayer offered at night is the most salutary of all, for the joy which the penitent receives during the day has its source in nocturnal exercises. And other saints are likewise of this opinion. Therefore St. John Climacus instructs us to give more time to prayer at night and less to singing. And if we grow drowsy, we should rise to our feet for prayer.
Now in this prayer, too many words disperse the mind, but a few words assist in recollection. When we are assailed by imaginings, St. Isaac advises us to turn to reading. When our mind is scattered, we should occupy ourselves more with reading than with prayer, or we should apply ourselves to some manual work, as the angel taught the great St. Anthony.
Manual labor, or some other assigned task, is most profitable to souls who have not had much experience of the assaults of imaginations, and especially in the course of accidie. Blessed Hesychius of Jerusalem prescribes four methods of this mental exercise: to guard oneself consciously against the impetus of thought; or to keep the heart silent in its depths, free from all imaginings, and to pray; or to call Jesus Christ to one’s aid; or to think of the hour of death. All these methods, says the father, conquer evil thoughts; whichever way is chosen, all of them are called “sobering,” in other words, “mental doing.” Examining all these methods, each of us has to fight according to his own way.
Through what means we may be fortified in repelling the attacks of evil thoughts. There is a way of fortifying ourselves in our struggle described in all writings, and that is to keep up our courage when we are most fiercely assailed by evil thoughts, not to yield in the midst of our conflict. For it is one of the malicious devices of the devil to fill us with shame at the prospect of being defeated by evil preoccupations, so that we shall be hindered from lifting our eyes to God in contrition and praying to be freed of them. But let us, by our continual repentance and uninterrupted prayer, conquer these delusions; let us never turn our back to the enemy, even if he deals us a thousand wounds each day. And let us firmly resolve never to give up this life-giving exercise, even to our death.
For along with these trials we receive secret visitations of God’s mercy. Indeed it is not only those of us who are infirm and wrought upon by passions that are subject to falls in our mind; even souls who have reached a high degree of purity and lead most exemplary lives in the places of silence under the protection of God’s wisdom are liable to these falls, followed by peace and comfort and by chaste and gentle thoughts, as St. Isaac tells us. How much the more, then, shall a man who is weak and ignorant be wounded and thrust to the ground and laid bare in his helplessness? But then will come the time when this man shall take the standard from the hands of giant warriors; on that day his name is to be praised above the names of men who have won brilliant military victories, the reward which crowns his endeavors is greater than that of his companions. Of this the saints assure us with complete certainty, removing all doubt, so that we shall not falter in the battle of our minds against wicked thoughts, or fall into despair.
When we are conscious of the infusion of grace, we should not grow careless or become too easily elated, but should turn to God and thank Him, recalling the sins he has allowed us to commit. we should remember how low we fell at such a time, how bestial our thoughts became. We should also remind ourselves of the wretched condition that our nature is in, considering the impure images and the hideous idols which arose before our disordered minds during that period so lately passed when our souls were racked in blind turmoil. Understand that all this has been brought upon you by Divine Providence, to humble you. For, as blessed Gregory of Sinai says: Until a man has experienced forsakenness and defeat, until he has been wounded and enslaved by every passion and conquered by the thoughts of his mind, so that he can find help neither in his own powers nor in God, nor in anything else, and is driven to the brink of despair with no avenue of escape: until then no man can have true contrition, nor can he realize that he himself is the least of slaves, more evil than the very fiends that have beset him and conquered him. But this is an exemplary humiliation effected by Providence for our instruction. And souls who have suffered it are granted a second favor: they are elevated by an infusion of power from God, in the name of which they can do all things, even to the working of miracles, always in the consciousness that they are His instruments. Take warning! If you will not humble your mind, grace will abandon you, and you will fall in real life after you have been tempted in your mind by mere thoughts. For it is not your doing that you stand in virtue, but the effect of grace, which holds you in God’s hand and preserves you from all your enemies.
General Conduct of Our Life
We must observe this general rule in our life: to be about the work of God perpetually, and in every undertaking, in body and soul, in word, thought, and action, according to the measure of our strength.
When we rise from sleep, we must first of all glorify God and make our confession to Him, and then we must turn to prayer, chanting, reading, manual labor, and various minor occupations. We must continually keep our mind in a disposition of great reverence, piety and trust in God, and do all we can to please Him, and not for the sake of vainglory or to please other men; for we know for certain that God is with us, since He is everywhere and fills everything. He Who has created the ear, hears all, and He Who has created the eye, sees all. If you enter into conversation, let it be one that will please God; refrain from murmuring, from judging others, from idle words and quarrels. Also, take food and drink with the fear of God. Most of all during sleep, be piously recollected, and let your body recline in decency. For our sleep is the fleeting image of the eternal sleep - that is, of death - and resting on your couch prefigures lying in your coffin.
Let him whose body is healthy mortify it with fasting, vigils and strenuous labor. Our movements during work, and our genuflections, must be made with energy, so that the body may be mastered by the soul and freed from sensuality by the grace of Christ. But if the body is sick, it should be treated according to its weakness. As for prayer, it should never be neglected, whether the body is healthy or ill. Even when we are engaged in necessary occupations, our minds should be secretly absorbed in prayer and filled with the fear of God. Physical work is required of those whose bodies are robust, according to the strength of the individual. But the work of the mind, which consists in preserving the disposition of fear and trust and love of God, should be pursued by everyone, even in the event of serious illness. Likewise we must love our neighbors in obedience to our Lord’s commandments. To those who are close to us, we should show our love in word and deed, uniting it with our love of God. And to those who are far from us, we should unite ourselves spiritually, effacing all antagonism towards them; let us humble our souls before them and serve them by our good will. For if God sees this, He will forgive our sins and accept our prayers as worthy offerings, and He will send us the riches of His Grace.
Of the different ways of fighting and conquering the eight principal temptations, those of the flesh and others.
The fathers tell us that there are various methods of resisting the temptations of the mind and various ways of defeating them, according to the strength of the one who struggles: one may either pray against evil thoughts or enter into contention with them, or else turn them away by contempt. The last method is that of the most perfect souls. As for contending with our thoughts, this too is a method suitable to those who are in progress. Beginners and weak souls should pray, evoking good thoughts, against evil imaginings, for St. Isaac teaches that passions should be circumvented by the guile of virtues. When we are assailed by delusions, so that we cannot pray humbly and in interior silence, we should take arms against them, displacing evil thoughts by good ones. And how this can be done, we shall further explain from the holy writings. The fathers say that there are eight principal vices of the soul, of which numerous temptations are the offspring; these are: Gluttony, Fornication, Covetousness, Anger, Sadness, Accidie, Vainglory, and Pride.
First Vice: Gluttony.
When we are besieged by thoughts tempting us to gluttony, either by the alluring imagination of various delicious foods or by the desire to eat more than we need and at improper times, we should first of all call to mind the words of Scripture which instruct us not to burden our hearts with an excess of eating and drinking. And we should pray, imploring God to come to our aid and pondering the writings of the fathers, who teach us that in a monk gluttony is the root of all other evils and especially of fornication.
Of the Measure To Be Observed in Food - The fathers teach us that the measure to be observed in food should be determined in the following way: if a monk discovers that the amount of food which he has permitted himself in the course of a day causes him any feeling of heaviness, he shall immediately reduce it. But if he sees that this quantity is not sufficient to sustain his energies, he shall increase it. And when he has gained the necessary experience in this manner, he should fix upon an amount of food that will preserve his body, eating not for the pleasure involved but out of strict necessity. And he should be satisfied with this and thank God for it. But at the same time he should realize that he has done nothing to merit even this small measure of bodily comfort. It is impossible to make one rule for everyone, since the physical capacities of individuals differ as sharply as copper and iron differ from wax. As a general rule, a novice should rise from his meal still somewhat hungry; yet if he feels satisfied, this is no sin. But if he has reached satiety, he should reproach himself for it and thus turn his failure into a victory.
Of the Time When Food Should Be Taken - Now with regard to the duration of the daily abstinence from food: the fathers prescribe fasting until the ninth 30 hour. Anyone who wishes to fast longer, may do so. As a general rule, we should wait until the decline of day - that is until two hours after noontime according to the sun. This is the ninth hour in spring and autumn, but in summer and in winter, in northern countries, the hours of sunrise and sunset are different from those in the countries around the Mediterranean, in Palestine and Constantinople. Therefore we should fast in accordance with the season and the rule of right reason. On the days when no fasting is prescribed, we may advance the hour of meals and if necessary partake of a small collation in the evening.
Of Different Kinds of Food - Concerning the various kinds of food: we should take a little of everything, even sweets. This is a wise rule, says Gregory of Sinai. We should never pick and choose or push our food aside, but should thank God for everything and perfect ourselves in humility. We shall thus avoid the pride which disdains the good fruit created by God. Nevertheless it is useful for those who are weak in faith or unstable to abstain from certain meats, especially the palatable ones, because they have not enough faith in the protection of God; the Apostle says: “For one believeth that he may eat all things, but he that is weak, let him eat herbs.”
Second Vice: Fornication.
The conflict which we must undergo with the vice of fornication is especially painful and fierce, for it engages both body and soul. Therefore we should strive ceaselessly and with all our strength to keep our heart sober and free of sensuality. This is most imperative during the Mass, when we are about to receive Holy Communion, for it is then that the enemy essays every sort of device in order to soil our conscience. When these thoughts of fornication attack us, we should hold ourselves fearfully in the presence of God, remembering that nothing, not even the subtlest movement of our heart, can be hidden from Him, and that He will be our judge and prosecutor. We should also keep in mind the vows we have taken before angels and men, to preserve purity and chastity. These vows bind us, not in our exterior conduct alone, but in the secret depths of our interior. A heart free from impure thoughts is most honorable and pleasing in the sight of God.
Those who permit the befouling thoughts of fornication to frequent their minds, fornicate in their hearts, the fathers assert. Moreover, it sometimes ensues that the sin is actually committed. In that event, the consequent disaster may well give us pause; for it is this sin, and no other, that is so often spoken of by the fathers, who call it the fall, because it deprives the sinner of hope and leads him to despair.
When we are harried by the temptation to fornication, I believe that it is salutary also to think of our monastic state; for we have assumed the form of angels, and how can we trample on our conscience and defile this holy form with such an abomination? We may likewise picture to ourselves the shameful and scandalous example that we should present to the eyes of men, and this too might help us to resist these unworthy thoughts. For should we not rather die than be seen in this shameful condition? Thus the means by which, with zeal and perseverance, these wicked thoughts may be cut off are various.
When the assault is particularly violent, however, we should rise to our feet, and lifting our eyes and extending our arms, we should pray, as Gregory of Sinai instructs us, and God will disperse these evil imaginings. St. Isaac suggests the following prayer: “Thou art mighty, O Lord, and this is Thy battle. Do Thou wage it and gain the victory for us.” It is with the name of Jesus that we must lay siege to our enemy, for no weapon is as powerful, either on earth or in heaven. The fiend selects for his most furious attacks the time when we feel unable to pray. Oh monk, take warning, and never fail to pray during these assaults in the manner we have described!
There are other times when, in remorse of conscience, we take these thoughts of fornication as a subject of meditation to reproach ourselves for having desires which bring us close to the beasts - although the unnatural lust by which we are worried is most uncommon among animals! However? novices should guard themselves even against these meditations, for fear that they should linger upon such thoughts in the belief that they are struggling against them, whereas in reality they are succumbing to passion. Therefore it is best to cut off all impulses to thoughts of this kind. Only the strong may entertain them for salutary examination.
Avoid all conversation with women, and indeed the very sight of them; shun youthful, beardless and effeminate faces, for the devil lays these snares for monks. If it can possibly be avoided, never be alone with such persons, however necessary it might seem, St. Basil the Great tells us. For, as the father goes on to explain, nothing is more essential than the soul for which Christ died and rose from the dead. Nor should we listen to improper conversations, for they stir the passions.
Third Vice: Covetousness.
Covetousness, the fathers teach us, is contrary to nature; it issues from stupidity and lack of faith. Therefore it may be fought off without much difficulty by a man filled with the fear of God and sincere in his desire for salvation. Yet once covetousness has taken root in us, it is the worst of all vices; if we succumb to it, it brings us to perdition. Indeed the Apostle has said that it is not only the root of all sins-anger, sadness, and the others-but is in itself idolatry. The fathers say that a man who sets store by the gold and silver he can amass does not believe that there is a God who provides for him. And the holy writings declare that if a man is enslaved by pride or covetousness, the devil need seek no further weapon against him, for either of these passions will suffice to accomplish that man’s destruction. We must restrain our desires not only for gold and other riches, but also for all other things beyond our essential needs. We must not covet clothes and footwear or the accommodations of our cells or vessels or any kind of implement. We may use only such things as have no intrinsic value, are unembellished and easily acquired. Nothing we have should be such as will give rise to comment, lest we be exposed to the seductions of the world. For covetousness has been genuinely conquered, not when we possess nothing, but when, in addition, we have no desire to possess anything. Thus do we learn to be pure of spirit.
Fourth Vice: Anger.
When the spirit of anger assails us, we are moved to remember the wrongs done us and to take revenge on the offenders. At such times we should bring to mind the divine words: if we will not forgive from our heart the brother who has wronged us, even so, our Heavenly Father will not forgive us our sins. Moreover, we should be aware that even though we believe ourselves to be acting justly, if we do not guard ourselves against anger, we offend God. For the fathers say that even if an angry man should bring the dead to life, his prayer would not be accepted. The fathers do not mean by this that an angry man actually could restore life to the dead; they are only trying to represent the abomination that such a man’s prayer is. This is why we should not give way to anger or injure our brother by any word or action-not even by a look, for a mere glance may be an injury to him, according to the fathers. Therefore let us turn away all thought of anger from our mind.
“Now this is forgiveness from the heart; this, the great victory over the spirit of anger: to pray for the brother who has offended you,” says Abba Dorotbeus. And we should pray as follows: “O Lord, help my brother (name) and forgive me, a sinner, for the sake of that brother’s prayer.” It is an act of charity and mercy to pray for our brother; and to ask for the help of his prayers is humility. Furthermore, one should do him kindnesses, as far as possible. In this manner shall God’s commandment be obeyed: “love your enemies; do good to them that hate you; and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” To those who obey this commandment, God has promised a reward above all others: not only a kingdom in heaven or a particular comfort or gift, but the sonship of God: “That ye may be children of your Father who is in heaven.” Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who gave us this commandment and promised us this great reward, has given us an example in order that we might imitate Him, each within the measure of his strength.
Fifth Vice: Sadness.
It is in no mean contest that we must engage the spirit of sadness, for this temptation can drive us to despair and perdition. Nothing that happens to us is contrary to the will of Providence, and everything that is sent us by God is for our good and the salvation of our soul. Even if it does not seem beneficial at the present moment, we shall understand later that it is what is willed by God, and not what we ourselves desire, that is useful to us. God sends us trials out of His mercy, so that after we have suffered these ordeals we may be crowned by Him. Without temptation, no one has ever been crowned. This is why we should offer thanks for all this to God, as our Benefactor and Savior. “Lips that utter frequent thanksgivings shall be blessed by God, and the grateful heart is visited by grace,” says St. Isaac. We should abstain from murmuring against those who have offended us. Although God bears with all the weaknesses of men, he will not tolerate one who is forever complaining, but will punish him.
There is, of course, a wholesome kind of sadness which is inspired by our sins and is associated with contrition and trust in God. Since we know that there is no sin which overreaches God’s mercy, which He cannot forgive in those who repent and pray, this sadness is shot through with joy; it prepares a man for all that is good and enables him to bear misfortune patiently.
The other kind of sadness, which is inspired by the devil, should be vigorously dispelled from our heart along with the other evil passions. If this sadness takes root in us, it will rapidly overwhelm the soul with despair, rendering it empty and dejected, impatient and weak, lazy in prayer and in reading.
Sixth Vice: Accidie.
When accidie has become firmly rooted in us, a great battle must be waged by the soul. This cruel, oppressive spirit is either combined with the spirit of sadness or follows after it, and its especial victims are the hermits. When fierce waves of this passion rise and sweep through a man’s heart, he cannot think that he will ever be free of it; for the enemy inspires him with the thought that if he endures this suffering today, it will increase in the days that follow, because God has forsaken him and is indifferent to his need. Or else the man believes that he suffers this in spite of Divine Providence, that he alone suffers in this manner, no one else. But no, this is not so. Not on us sinners alone, but on His very saints, who have pleased Him, does God inflict this spiritual rod, like a loving father chastising his children in order to increase their virtue.
But presently a change comes, and we are comforted by the touch of God’s mercy. And when this alteration comes about in a man, he realizes all the benefits he has received, and the sufferings he has undergone appear to him as nothing. He zealously sets about the task of growing in holiness, and wonders at his alteration and his progress. Now he fervently hopes never to stray from the path of virtue; he understands that God has sent him this ordeal for his profit and instruction, and out of His love. And so this man is inflamed with the love of God, since he knows for certain that God is faithful and never sends us a temptation which surpasses our strength. As to the enemy, he can do us no harm without God’s permission. Nothing furthers a monk’s advancement in grace as much as the spirit of accidie, St. John of the Ladder declares, provided that he strenuously and unfalteringly pursues his spiritual exercises. But when the contest becomes fierce, we should strongly arm ourselves against the spirit of ingratitude and blasphemy. For at such a time the enemy avails himself of all these devices, so that a man is penetrated by doubt and fear. And the fiend whispers in his ear that it is impossible for him to obtain God’s forgiveness and the remission of his sins, to be spared the pain of hell and gain heaven. And many other evil thoughts join forces in this assault, which cannot be recorded. These thoughts do not leave a monk, whether he reads or recites the Office.
It is now that we must resist despair with the utmost fortitude and coerce ourselves into prayer, with all the forces at our command. If possible we should prostrate ourselves and pray in the fashion prescribed by the great Barsanupbius: “O Lord, behold my dejection and have mercy on me, a sinner.” Simeon the New Theologian advises the recitation of the following prayer: “O Lord, do not permit temptations and sufferings to exceed my strength, but set me at liberty, so that I can endure this with gratitude.” From time to time, raise your arms, extending your hands to heaven, praying in the way that Gregory of Sinai recommends for one in the grips of this passion. For he says that the spirits of fornication and accidie are the most savage of all.
Moreover, persevere in reading with as close attention as possible, and occupy yourself with manual labor, for this is of great help during such an ordeal. It sometimes happens, however, that accidie does not leave us even during this occupation. Then we must pour all our energies into our will to pray. Against the spirit of ingratitude and blasphemy, we should pray as follows: “Begone, Satan, I will adore my Lord God, and Him alone will I serve; I will accept with gratitude all the suffering and dejection sent to me for the healing of my sinfulness. May your ingratitude and blasphemy return to you, Satan. The Lord will say to you: ‘Begone, God has created me in His image and likeness, that you may be destroyed.'”
God never abandons a soul that puts its trust in Him, even though it is overpowered by temptations, for He is aware of all our weaknesses. A man knows the weight that can be placed on the back of an ass, a mule or a camel, and burdens each beast with as much as it can carry; the potter knows how long he must keep his clay in the fire, for if he exposes it too long to the flames, the pot will crack, and if he does not bake it long enough, it will not be fit for use. Now if a man has judgment as precise as this, how infinitely greater is the wisdom of God in judging the degree of temptation which a soul is able to bear? With this knowledge, we should suffer our trials courageously, within doors and in silence. Nevertheless there will be times when we need to converse with a man who is experienced in the spiritual life and prudent in his words. St. Basil the Great has this to say concerning the matter: “Often, when our heart is filled with accidie, we can disperse these thoughts by leaving our cell and entering into innocent and measured conversation. Strengthened and refreshed, we may then return with greater zeal to our pious struggles.” But if we are able to suffer this ordeal in silence and without leaving our cell, this is even better, the fathers assure us from their own experience.
Seventh Vice: Vainglory.
We must exercise ourselves vigilantly against the spirit of vainglory, for it steals away our good resolutions with many allurements; it impedes the monk’s progress by corrupting his actions, so that instead of being ordered to God, they are motivated by vanity and the desire to please men. That is why we should constantly probe our thoughts and feelings, so that our actions may be in harmony with God’s will; we should shun what is human, keeping in mind the words of David: “God hath scattered the bones of them that please men.” This should be our method: when tempted to vainglory, we should weep and bring the Last Judgment to mind by special prayers if we know any; if not, we should think of the hour of death and repress all shameful ambitions. And if we are unable to do this, let us then think of the humiliation that follows upon ambition. For, as St. John of the Ladder remarks, he who exalts himself shall be humbled even in this life. If someone begins to praise us, or if our invisible enemy precipitates us into vainglory with the suggestion that we deserve the honors due to greatness and the position of highest authority, let us quickly recall the number and the gravity of our sins, or else select one sin in particular, which is especially serious, and ask ourselves whether anyone who has sinned in this way deserves to be praised. And if we have nothing with which to reproach our conscience, let us meditate on perfection, and we shall see ourselves as inadequate as a small fountain compared to the immensity of the sea. And so we must strive perpetually to guard ourselves against vainglory. If we are not sobered by our reflections, but are frequently stirred by vainglorious thoughts, our insolence will grow inveterate, giving birth to pride, which is the beginning and end of all evil.
Eighth Vice: Pride.
What shall we say of arrogance and pride? Although the terms which the fathers use in describing the sin of pride vary -presumptuousness, haughtiness, conceit, and the like-they all refer to the same thing. Whatever form this sin may take, it is the greatest of iniquities. Holy writings say that God resists the proud, that a haughty man is repulsive in His sight. Now if a man has God for an adversary and is foul in his sight, from what source can he hope to obtain any benefit? Who is there to forgive his sin and purify him? It is painful even to speak of this. For anyone who falls prey to this sin is an enemy to himself, a devil who carries his destruction inside him.
It is for this reason that we should tremble with fear of the passion of pride and flee from it, taking refuge in the certitude that no good whatever can be done without God’s help. Remember that when God forsakes us we are like leaves, or dust, swirling in the wind, in which the fiend buffets us with insults, so that other men weep at the sight of us. Since we realize this, it behooves us to preserve our humility.
And this is the very first rule: Let us consider ourselves to be beneath everyone else, the least among men, the most perverse of all creatures, since we are addicted to unnatural vices, in a worse state than the devils who take us by force. And this is what we should do: Choose the last place at meals and other gatherings with our brethren; wear the poorest clothes and prefer the most menial tasks; upon meeting a brother, bow low and devoutly before him; love silence; have no desire to shine in conversation, nor any delight in discussions; avoid insolence and ostentation. Do not try to put in a word of your own, even if you think it a good one. For the fathers say, in speaking of the novice, that the inner man is formed according to exterior actions. And St. Basil the Great observes that when a man is unguarded as to his exterior, we have no reason to believe that his interior disposition is good.
The pride of monks is discussed as follows in the holy writings: If a man has undergone considerable suffering for the sake of his many undertakings and good works, he is tempted by the spirit of pride because of the piety of his life. And if pride is based upon the good name of the monastery and the number of the brethren, the fathers call this worldliness. Pride may also be occasioned by the acquiring of land and other property, or even, in the case of certain monks today, by success in the world - what shall we say of them? Yet there are others who have nothing to be proud of but their proficiency in the art of chanting, reading aloud, or reciting the Office. But what praise do they deserve from God for the natural gifts which they could not have acquired by their own efforts? Then there are those who pride themselves on their handicraft, and they are like these others. Some monks are proud of belonging to families who are powerful in the world, or of being related to distinguished men, or of having enjoyed honor and rank themselves when they were still in the world. This is the height of folly. Such distinctions should be concealed. It is greatly to be deplored that those who have renounced the world should have an appetite for the honor and glory received from men. They should be ashamed instead of proud, for their prominence is disgraceful. But those who are harassed by thoughts of pride because of their pious life have no resort but the prayer: “My Lord God, take the spirit of pride away from me, and give Thy servant the spirit of humility.”
Of Vices in General.
Against all harmful thoughts we should invoke God’s assistance, for we cannot always resist them by force. Moreover this should be done deliberately, not in any way that occurs to us, but by the name of God and in accordance with the methods described in the holy writings. Addressing ourselves to each vice, we should say: “May God forbid you entrance.” And again: “Depart from me, all of you, workers of iniquity. Turn back, all you wicked thoughts, so that I may be instructed in God’s commandments.” Let us avail ourselves of the example of that holy staretz who used to say: “Depart, evil one; come, beloved!” Once a brother who overheard his words and supposed that the staretz was speaking to another man asked him: “With whom are you conversing, father?” And the staretz answered: “I am driving away evil thoughts and calling the good ones to my side.” And so, if we are tempted, let us use the words of that staretz, or others like them.
Of the Thought of Death and of the Last Judgment. How we should learn to keep this thought in mind.
The fathers say that in our mental prayer the thought of death and the Last Judgment is most salutary and effective. Philotheus of Sinai prescribes a definite rule. In the morning, we should spend the time before our meal in thinking of God - that is, in praying and holding our heart in recollection. Then, after we have said grace, our thoughts should turn to death and judgment. The Great Anthony, the first of the fathers, says that we should constantly preserve the disposition which we should have if we were not going to live through the day. And St. John of the Ladder says that if we think of our last hour, we shall never sin. And in another place he commands us to keep the thought of death always with us. St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Man, may you always carry in your heart the thought that you will pass away. Not the fathers alone, but the teachers of profane philosophy also, teach us to remember death.”
How can we, who are weak and sensual, learn to keep this thought in mind? - that is, so far as our human limitations permit, for, as St. Isaac says, to be fully occupied with this thought is a gift of God and a marvellous grace. I think that it helps if we bring to mind various deaths that we have witnessed or have heard of, or which have occurred in our time. For it is not only among laymen that unexpected death is common. Monks in excellent circumstances, who were attached to this life and hoped to live for a long time, since they ad not yet reached old age, have been suddenly harvested by death. And some among them had no time in their hour of death to say even the prayers of the dying, but fell where they were standing or sitting; others died as they were eating and drinking; and still others were walking, and fell dead, or they passed away in their bed, where they were seeking a brief rest for their bodies and fell into eternal sleep. There were some who in their last hour were visited by awful visions. Such reflections will suffice to fill us with fear. They will inspire us with such thoughts as these: “Where, at this hour, are the friends and acquaintances we made on earth? What if some of them were famous and eminent, rulers in this world? Has not all this corrupted into ashes and stench? This life is like a cloud of dust that is seen for a moment and then is gone, for it is less substantial than a cobweb, as St. Chrysostom says. Now a traveler, preparing for a journey, may wish to visit this or that country, and he goes there; and if he changes his mind, he does not go. And when he stops at an inn, he knows, when he enters it, at what time he intends to leave; he comes in the evening and goes in the morning; or, if he wishes, he may stay on at the inn. But whether we will it or not, we have to leave this life, and we know not when. Death’s awful mystery comes upon us suddenly, and soul and body are violently severed, divorced from their natural union by the will of God.
What shall we do at that hour if we have not thought of it beforehand, if we have not been instructed concerning this eventuality and find ourselves unprepared? In that bitter hour we shall grasp in full the ordeal which the soul must undergo when it is separated from the body. Alas, what anguish it experiences at that hour, and there is no one to take pity on it. It looks up to the angels and prays in vain. It stretches out towards men and there is no one to help it; there is nothing but the good it has done in God’s sight. We look upon the coffin, and we see our created beauty become hideous and abominable, its shapeliness gone. And as we gaze at the naked bones, let us say to ourselves: “Who is this skeleton? - king or beggar, hero or outcast? Where is the beauty and delight of the world? Is not all become hideousness and stench? All that was honored and desired on earth has become useless. Like a flower withering, like a shadow passing, all that is human awaits destruction.”
And we should also keep in our minds the thought of Our Lord’s second coming and our resurrection and the Last Judgment, foretold in the very words of God by the inspired voice of St. Matthew; “And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened and the moon shall not give her light and the stars shall fall from heaven and the powers of heaven shall be moved. And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven. And then shall all tribes on the earth mourn; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty. And He shall send His angels with a trumpet and a great voice; and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens, to the utmost bounds of them.”
Brethren, what can plunge us into bitterer dread and remorse than the vision of that terrible judgment, when we shall witness the sinners who have never repented being sent to eternal torment by God’s righteous judgment, trembling and crying out and weeping in vain. How can we restrain our own cries as we picture to ourselves the dreadful torments described in Scripture - everlasting fire, the outer darkness, the fathomless abyss, the dragon, cruel and ever-vigilant, the gnashing of teeth, all the tortures in store for those who have sinned and have angered God by their malicious dispositions, and I am the first among these wretches! My brethren, who can possibly describe the dreadful majesty of the second coming of our Lord and the horror of this unbribable judgment? Certain fathers have said that were it possible to die at that hour, then the whole world would die of fear. It is for this reason that we should preserve holy fear and keep the thought of the judgment in our mind. And if our heart is reluctant to ponder upon these things, we should nevertheless constrain it to do so, addressing ourselves to our soul in the following words: “Alas, miserable soul, the time of your departure from this life is close by. How much longer will you defer the renunciation of your ways and lie in abasement? Why will you not ponder upon the terrible hour of death?”
O Lord, have mercy on my soul which has been wounded by the passions of this life, and receive it, cleansed by contrition and confession. And may Thy power conduct me until Thy judgment is at hand. When Thou shalt descend upon earth with glory, O Lord, and sit upon Thy throne, O merciful One, in order to execute Thy judgment, we shall stand before Thee, naked, like the condemned. On that day, most gracious One, do not expose my secret thoughts, do not disgrace me in the eyes of the angels and of men, but spare me, O God, and have mercy on me. For I meditate on Thy terrible judgment, most gracious Lord, and the day of my trial before Thee fills me with fear and trembling. My conscience condemns me and the evil I have done fills me with the sharpest remorse, and I am seized with confusion when I ask myself how I shall answer Thee, Immortal King, I who have incurred Thy wrath. How shall I dare to lift my eyes to Thee, base fornicator that I am? Yet, O Lord, Glorious and merciful Father, only-born Son and the Holy Ghost, do Thou forgive me and save me on that day from the undying fire; and mercifully permit me to stand at Thy right hand, O equitable Judge!
Of Tears. What the acts should be of those who wish to acquire this gift.
Now if, in the course of the foregoing practice, and during other, similar exercises of prayer and meditation, we have been moved to tears by the grace of God, we should not restrain our weeping. For the fathers tell us that by our tears we may be preserved from the eternal fire and other torments. And if we are unable to weep, we should at least seek painfully to shed a few tears. Indeed, as St. John Climacus assures us, our good judge judges tears, like all other things, according to a man’s natural capacity: “I have seen men shedding a few tears as if they were blood, with tremendous effort, whereas I have observed others whose tears flow painlessly, like a torrent. And I judge not according to the tears, but by the effort entailed, and it seems to me that God does the same.”
Now if we cannot force out the smallest tear because of our weakness or our negligence, or for some other reason, we should not fall away or be discouraged. Let us grieve and sigh, deploring our insufficiency in this endeavor, but keeping up our hope, for grief of mind is superior to bodily actions, as St. Isaac tells us. It may be that the absence of tears is due to fatigue, as St. Isaac goes on to say. This is experienced not only by those who are seeking the gift of tears, but even by those who have acquired it; the flow of their tears may stop, and their fervor may diminish because of bodily exhaustion. St. Simeon the New Theologian writes of these things with great subtlety: “It is not salutary to war against nature; if you force the body to accomplish a thing that is above its strength, weakness ensues.” “Confusion increases in the soul, and it grows more troubled than before,” writes St. Isaac, and many other fathers agree with him.
But what they mean is genuine weakness, not that false enervation which has its source in our mind. It is good to employ force against that, according to St. Simeon. This father, as well as the others who have treated the subject, gives us the following instruction: “If our soul is in such a disposition, it will not be impossible to produce tears. As to those of us who are incapable of attaining a great measure in these things, let us try to accomplish at least a little, and let us ask this of our Lord God with a contrite heart. For the fathers say that the grace of tears is one of the greatest gifts, and that we should beseech God to confer it on us.” Blessed Nilus of Sinai teaches that we should pray for this gift before all others, and blessed Gregory, the most holy Pope of Rome, writes: “If a man has persevered in good deeds and has deserved other gifts, but has not received the gift of tears, he should pray to obtain it, either through the fear of judgment or through the love of the kingdom of heaven; for in the first case, those who have done evil shall weep, and in the second, those great souls who are filled with ardent love shall enter the heavenly kingdom.” And other saints have written accordingly.
There are some men who have not yet acquired the gift of tears in its plenitude, and who may obtain it in different ways: either by contemplating the mystery of God’s Providence, or by reading about the lives of the saints, their labors and teachings, or merely by reciting the prayer of Jesus or other prayers composed by the saints, for in this manner they will attain to contrition. Still others may reach this condition by reading the prayer-canons and the troparia or by recalling their sins, or by thinking of death and the day of judgment, or by longing for the joys of eternity, and in many other ways.
And if a man acquires the gift of tears by one of these methods, he should retain this disposition so long as the tears have not ceased to flow. Simeon the New Theologian says: “The virtues may be compared to an army, and contrition and tears to a king and a general; for they arm us and encourage us, and teach us to struggle against the enemy in all our enterprises, and they guard us against hostile forces. Even when our mind is absorbed in thoughts which are unsuitable or inspired by the enemy, or if we have been excited to tears by something heard or seen or by feelings of natural love and vain grief, we should convert these emotions into a salutary exercise: to praising God, to confession, or to the thought of death and judgment; and so doing, let us weep. For to pass from unvirtuous, or natural, tears to spiritual ones is a meritorious action.”
Now if the movement of contrition arises spontaneously in the soul and tears likewise conic without our willing them, this is God’s action in us, and these are tears of piety. We should cherish them as the apple of our eye and yield ourselves to them until they leave us; for these tears have a greater power to destroy sin and vices than the tears brought about by our own effort and study. And when, as the result of concentration - that is, keeping guard over the heart - spiritual action is manifested in prayer by the grace of God, kindling the heart and diffusing its glow throughout our being, comforting the soul, inflaming us with an ineffable love of God and men, delighting the mind and producing joy and interior sweetness - then tears flow freely and without our effort, springing forth, as St. John Climacus describes it, like those of an infant weeping and smiling at the same time. May God deign to send us such tears, for since we are beginners and inexperienced, there is no greater comfort for us than this gift. And when it is increased in us, through the grace of God, then our conflicts are eased and our imaginings quieted, and the mind is abundantly fed and delighted with prayer, and the heart distills an ineffable complacence which flows through the whole body, and relaxes the pain of our limbs in sweet repose. “This is the comfort of mourning,” says St. Isaac, in confirmation of Our Lord’s words, “and it is given to each individual in the measure of the grace that is in him. Then a man rests in a joy unattainable in this world, and no one can taste of it, except those who have given all the powers of their soul to this spiritual exercise.”
Of renunciation and true detachment from all care, which means dying to all things.
The condition of this wonderful practice is the renunciation of all care, which means dying to all things. According to the great fathers, who have attained wisdom and are experienced in the practice of prayer, it entails active concentration on the task of God alone. St. Basil the Great says that the beginning of purity of heart is silence. And St. John Climacus further defines silence as first of all, detachment from concern with regard to necessary and unnecessary things; second, as assiduous prayer; and third, as the unremitting action of prayer in the heart.
Now St. John Climacus does not call necessary those things which are generally considered to be such in our time, as, for example the acquisition of land and the maintenance of many properties, and other worldly involvements; these in reality are unnecessary. By things necessary, St. John means conversations with good and spiritual fathers and brothers, which we may believe to be conducive to our spiritual improvement. But even conversations of this kind should be pursued within measure and at suitable times, for if we are unguarded in this matter, we shall involuntarily be drawn into needless turmoil. Nevertheless we do call these conversations necessary. Now unnecessary conversations are quarrels, discussions, complaints, accusations, humiliating remarks, rebukes, and the like which may arise during conversations of the previous sort - that is, the necessary ones.
St. Isaac gives the following instruction to those who want to observe true silence and to purify the mind through prayer: “Retire from the sight of the world and cut off conversations; do not let friends enter your cell, even under the pretext of a well-meaning visit, unless they have the same spirit and intention as yourself and are likewise practising mystical prayer. Fear promiscuity between souls - against this we can warn from experience. For after we have emerged from intimate conversations, even when they have seemed to be good, our souls are troubled against our will, and these preoccupations continue with us for a long time. Therefore it is unnecessary and imprudent, even in the case of persons whom we love and who are dear to us, to exchange words that may subsequently trouble us, disturbing our recollection and hindering the operation of mystical understanding.”
O brothers, how many who break their silence are tempted! Even as a garden is withered by frost, so human conversations, though they be within bounds and seemingly good, wither the flowers of virtue that blossom tenderly in the atmosphere of silence, pervading with fragrance the garden of the soul which has been gently and freshly planted and watered with the rising fount of repentance. And if the conversation of those who are under discipline, yet deficient in it, troubles the soul, how much greater is the disturbance which results from our intercourse with the obtuse and uninitiated, to say nothing of the worldly. For just as wine loosens the tongue of a decent man, so that, forgetting his good reputation, he disgraces himself, and is laughed at for the outlandish thoughts which his intoxication causes him to express, so human entanglements diminish purity of spirit; the soul neglects to guard itself against desires, and its steadfastness is uprooted.
Of the necessity of discretion in performing this exercise and of observing a fitting measure.
St. Basil teaches that this admirable exercise should be performed with discretion and within due measure. All our actions should be submitted to reason, for otherwise actions that are good in themselves can be turned to evil because they are done at the wrong time or in excess. But when reason fixes both the time and the measure, then the resulting benefit is truly marvelous. And St. John Climacus, echoing the Scriptures, says: “There is a time for everything under heaven: a time for silence and a time for quiet conversation, a time for ardent prayer and a time for the devout recitation of the holy Office. For if we are tempted by too great zeal, we seek to anticipate the right moment and have achieved nothing when the time is at hand. For there is a time to sow the seeds of labor and a time to harvest ineffable grace.”
The great Barsanuphius relates how a brother had read in the Patericon, that one who desires salvation must first of all suffer at the hands of other men all vexations and insults and ignominies, and other tribulations, in the likeness of our Lord, and come in this manner to perfect silence, which is hanging on the Cross-in other words, complete mortification. And the staretz said to him: “The fathers have spoken well, and it is not otherwise.” Yet to another man he said: “Silence breeds pride before a man has found himself.” Now, to find oneself means to be perfect in humility.
Thinking of God, that is, mental prayer, is above all other actions and is the chief of all the virtues, for it is love of God; and those who have the temerity to introduce themselves into God’s presence arrogantly, desiring to converse with Him often and to acquire friendship with Him by force, are quickly annihilated by devils if they are abandoned to them. It is the prerogative of the strong to draw the sword - that is, the word of God-and struggle in solitude against: the demons. The weak and the beginners who take refuge in the fortress of holy fear and decline the contest until the time is ripe for it, avoid death. This knowledge should preserve us from the error of seeking an elevation in advance of our progress, lest we wreak havoc in our soul and bring about our perdition. We should pursue the middle way, at a fitting time. The holy writings testify that the middle way has no pitfalls. And the fitting time is after we have acquired wisdom in the company of other men. For the middle way it is required that one, or at the most two, brothers share our abode, according to the teaching of St. John Climacus. He tells us that there are three excellent forms of monastic life; the life of solitude, cohabitation with one or two brothers observing silence, and community life. The middle way - that is, silence in the company of one or two brothersis the most practicable, for it is perilous for a man to be alone. If he is plunged into accidie, or overcome by sleep or indolence or despair, there is no one to lift: him up. And St. John Climacus quotes the words of our Lord Himself: “Where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Those who are defeated by the spiritual passions should not undertake the life of silence, and even less that of solitude, the fathers say. Now, the spiritual passions are: vanity, conceit, malice, and others like them. “A man subject to these infirmities, who attempts to live in silence, is like one who leaps from a ship and tries to reach the shore on a plank,” says John Climacus. And a man who is still unable to cleanse himself of dung - that is, the passions of the body - should likewise refrain from seeking solitude, except at a suitable time, and then only if he has a spiritual adviser, for solitude requires the power of an angel. We find that all the holy writings praise the life of silence with one or two brothers. I myself have witnessed it on holy Mount Athos, and in the country about Constantinople, and in other countries there are numerous examples of such a mode of life: a staretz, who is a spiritual guide, with one or two disciples-or sometimes three, if need be - living in silence and at no distance from him and coming to him to be instructed through spiritual conversations.
As for us beginners, who have not yet acquired wisdom, let us be edified and defended by each other, for it has been written that a brother aided by his brother is like a strongly fortified city. And may the holy writings be our unerring teacher. Let us flee from all vain agitation, and from other things displeasing to God, and live according to His commandments, providing for our necessities by labor. And if we fail in this, we may accept small donations, seeing in them God’s mercy, but shunning all excess. We should avoid like deadly poison all quarrels, disputes and lawsuits for the sake of material profit. And let us accomplish all the things that are pleasing to God: singing, prayer, reading, spiritual instruction, manual labor, and service of every kind, living in interior communion with God. Thus we shall glorify by our good works the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, One God in the Holy Trinity, now and for ever and ever, amen. We the unwise have now written what is within the resources of our poor mind, as a memorandum to ourself and others like us who are in need of instruction, if they wish it. And as I have said above, it is not from my own wisdom, but from the Godinspired writings of the enlightened holy fathers that I teach. For what is set down here is not without authority from the holy writings. And if there is something here which is not pleasing to God or salutary to souls, owing to our lack of wisdom, let it not stand, but may God’s perfect and beneficent will be done. As for myself, I beg forgiveness, and if anyone knows any better and more practicable ways of accomplishing these things, may he do as he sees fit, and we shall rejoice. And if someone finds this writing useful, let him pray for me, a sinner, that I may deserve mercy before God.
St. Nilus’ last will.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, I leave the following will to be executed by my lords and brethren who are of the same spirit as myself. I pray you, cast away my body in the desert, to be devoured by the beasts and birds, for that body has greatly sinned before God and is unworthy of burial. If you will not do this, then dig a pit on the grounds where we live and bury me in it with every kind of dishonor. Take heed of the words with which the great Arsenius charged his disciples: “I will prosecute you if you give up my body to anyone; I have done all I could not to be granted fame and honor either in life or in death.” I ask everyone to pray for my sinful soul, and I beg everyone to forgive me, as I myself forgive; may God forgive everyone. I leave to my lords and brethren, who will continue to labor on these grounds, the large cross containing the passionstone, as well as the little books that I have written. I earnestly and humbly request that prayers be said for me until the fortieth day after my death. The small volumes of John Damascenus, the breviary, the Irmologion, I also leave to them. The psalter in quarto copied by Ignatius shall be sent to the Kirillov monastery: other books and objects belonging to that monastery which were given to me for the love of God, should likewise be returned, and the rest distributed to the poor, to other monasteries, and to laymen; to whomsoever these things belong, let them be returned.
source: A Treasury of Russian Spirituality