Ascetic Discourse to the Monks in India
St John of Karpathos Ascetic Discourse Sent at the Request of the Same Monks in India
Never think that a person in the outside world - someone living contentedly with a wife and children - is more blessed than a monk because he is able to do good to others and to give generous alms, and seems never to be tempted by demons at all. Do not suppose that you are less pleasing in God’s sight than he is; do not torture yourself, imagining that you are doomed. I do not say that your life is beyond reproach simply because you persevere in the monastic state; but even if you happen to be a very great sinner, the anguish of soul and hardship that you endure are more precious in God’s sight than surpassingly great virtue on the part of someone living in the world. Your deep dejection and despondency, your tears and sighs of distress, the torments of your conscience and your doubts, your feelings of self-condemnation, the sorrow and lamentation of your intellect and heart, your contrition and wretchedness, your gloom and self-abasement - such experiences as these, which frequently overwhelm those cast into the iron furnace of trials and temptations, are far more precious and acceptable to God than any good actions by a person living in the world.
Take care, then, not to fall under God’s rebuke like those who said: ‘What have we gained by going as suppliants before the Lord, passing our time continually in his house?’ (cf. Mal. 3:14. LXX). Obviously any slave who is near the master of the house receives from time to time a thrashing or a savage reprimand. But a slave who works outside avoids punishment for the time being, because he is not part of the household and so escapes his master’s notice. What have we gained, they ask, we who suffer affliction in soul and body, always praying and singing psalms? Do not those who neither pray nor keep vigil enjoy happiness and success throughout their lives? Again they complain: ‘Behold, the houses of others are built up, and we call others blessed’; and the Prophet adds: ‘And servants of God who were not ignorant said these things’ (cf. Mal. 3:15-16. LXX). Yet we should not think it strange that monks endure affliction and various forms of sorrow, patiently awaiting through many trials and temptations whatever their Master gives. For they have heard Him say in the Gospels: ‘Truly I tell you, that you who are near Me shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice. Yet after a little while I will visit you through the Paraclete and drive away your despondency; I will renew you with thoughts of heavenly life and peace and with sweet tears, of all of which you were deprived for a short time when you were being tested. I will give you the breast of My grace, as a mother feeds her baby when it cries. When your strength fails in battle I will fortify you with power from on high, and I will sweeten you in your bitterness, as Jeremiah says in his Lamentations, speaking of the Jerusalem hidden within you. I will look upon you, and your hearts will rejoice at My secret visitation; your affliction will be turned to joy, and no one shall take that joy from you’ (cf. John 16: 20-22).
So let us not be blind or short-sighted, regarding those in the world as more blessed than ourselves; but, knowing the difference between true sons and bastards, let us rather embrace the apparent misery and afflictions of the monastic calling, since they lead to eternal life and to the Lord’s unfading crown of glory. Let us, then, welcome the tribulations we endure as sinful ascetics (for we should not claim to be righteous). Let us choose to be ‘an outcast in the house of God! - that is, to be a monk serving Christ continually -rather than to ‘dwell in the tents of sinners’ (Ps. 84:10. LXX) and associate ourselves with those in the world, even though they perform acts of great righteousness.
Listen, monk, to the words of your heavenly Father, who in His infinite love afflicts and oppresses you with various trials. ‘Know this well, you pitiful monk,’ He warns you, ‘that as I said by My Prophet, I will be your chastiser (cf. Hos. 5:2. LXX). I will meet you on the road in Egypt, testing you with afflictions. I will block your evil ways with the thorns of My providence, pricking and obstructing you with unexpected misfortunes, so that you cannot fulfill the desires of your foolish heart. I will shut up the sea of your passions with the gates of My mercy (cf. Job 38:8); like a wild beast I will devour you with thoughts of guilt, condemnation and remorse, as you perceive things of which you were ignorant. All these tribulations are a great gift of grace from God. And I will be to you not only a beast of prey but a goad, pricking you with thoughts of compunction and with sorrow of heart. Anguish shall not depart from your house - that is, from your soul and body - but they will both undergo the salutary harrowing of the bitter-sweet torments of God.’
But all the grim things that befall us on the ascetic way — torments, pain, confusion, shame, fear and despair - lead finally to endless joy, inexpressible delight and unutterable glory. ‘For this reason have I afflicted you,’ God says, ‘that I may feed you with the manna of spiritual knowledge; I have made you go hungry, so that at the end I may grant blessings to you and bring you into the kingdom on high.’ When that time comes, lowly monks, you will skip like young calves loosed from their bonds (cf. Mal. 4:2. LXX), for you will be set free from carnal passion and the temptations of the enemy; you will trample on the wicked demons who now trample on you: ‘they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet! (Mal. 4: 3). For if you fear God and are humble - not puffed up with vanity, not headstrong, but in compunction and contrition regarding yourself as a ‘useless servant’ (cf. Luke 17:10) - then your sinfulness, monk, is better than the righteousness of those who live in the world, and your filthiness is more compelling than their purity.
What is it that so distresses you? No stain is intrinsic. If a man has tar on his hands, he removes it with a little cleansing oil; how much more, then, can you be made clean with the oil of God’s mercy. You find no difficulty in washing your clothes; how much easier is it for the Lord to cleanse you from every stain, although you are bound to be tempted every day. When you say to the Lord, ‘I have sinned’, He answers: ‘Your sins are forgiven you; I am He who wipes them out and I will remember them no more! (Matt. 9:2; Isa. 43:25); ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far have I removed your sins from you; and as a father shows compassion to his sons, so will I show compassion to you’ (cf. Ps. 103:12-13). Only do not rebel against Him who has called you to pray and recite psalms, but cleave to Him throughout your life in pure and intimate communion, reverent yet unashamed in His presence, and always full of thanksgiving.
It is God who, by a simple act of His will, cleanses you. For what God chooses to make clean not even the great Apostle Peter can condemn or call unclean. For he is told: ‘What God has cleansed, do not call unclean’ (Acts 10:15). For has not God in His love acquitted us? ‘Who then will condemn us?’ (cf. Rom. 8:33-34). When we call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is not hard for our conscience to be made pure, and then we are no different from the prophets and the rest of the saints. For God’s purpose is not that we should suffer from His anger, but that we should gain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us. So then, whether we are watchful in virtue or sometimes fall asleep, as is likely to happen because of our failings, yet shall we live with Christ. As we look up to Him with cries of distress and continual lamentation, it is He Himself that we breathe. Let us therefore put on the breastplate of faith, and take as our helmet the hope of salvation; then the arrows of dejection and despair will find no chink through which to wound us (cf. 1 Thess. 5:8-10).
You say: ‘I feel infuriated when I see that those in the world are not tempted at all.’ But realize this: Satan has no need to tempt those who tempt themselves, and are continually dragged down by worldly affairs. And know this too: the prizes and crowns are given to those who are tested by temptation - not to those who care nothing about God, to the worldly who lie on their backs and snore. ‘But’, you say, ‘I am severely tempted by many things and my loins “are filled with mockings (Ps. 38:7. LXX); I am bowed down in my distress and there is no healing for my flesh, no “remedy for my bones’” (Prov. 3:8. LXX). Yet in fact the great Physician of the sick is here beside us, He that bore our infirmities, that healed and still heals us by His wounds (cf. Isa. 53:5), He is here beside us and even now administers the medicine of salvation. ‘For’, He says, ‘I have afflicted you by My absence, but I will also heal you. So do not fear: for when My fierce anger has passed, I will heal you again. As a woman will not forget to care for the offspring of her womb, even so will I not forget you’, says the Lord (cf. Deut. 32:39; Isa. 7:4 and 49:15. LXX). ‘For if a bird devotes itself with tender love to its nestlings, visiting them every hour, calling to them and feeding them, how much greater is My compassion towards My creatures!
How much more do I in tender love devote Myself to you, visiting you when you are forgetful, speaking with you in your intellect, feeding your reason when it opens wide its mouth like a young swallow. For as food I give you the fear of Him who is mightier than you; I give you longing for heaven and sighs that console you;
I give you compunction and song, deep knowledge and divine mysteries. If I your Lord and Father am lying when I say these things to you, then convict Me of guilt and I will accept it.’ It is in this way that the Lord always speaks to us inwardly.
I know that this letter is excessively long, but it is your request that has made it so. I have written at length in order to strengthen those in danger of falling away through apathy. For, as you wrote to me, there are certain brethren among you in India who find themselves more heavily oppressed by temptations than they expected; they have even renounced the monastic life, saying that it completely stifles a man and involves innumerable dangers. You told me that they openly regarded those in the outside world as more blessed than themselves, and cursed the day on which they took the habit. For this reason I have been compelled to write at length, using plain words, so that even a simple and unlettered person can understand what is said. And my aim in writing all this is to show that monks should not consider anything worldly as superior to their own monastic vocation; for, without any contradiction, monks are higher and more glorious than crowned monarchs, since they are called to be in constant attendance upon God. And, having written these things, I beseech you out of love to remember me continually in your prayers, that in my wretchedness I may be given grace from the Lord, so as to close my present life in holiness. May the Father of mercies and the God of all blessings grant you a hope well founded and everlasting blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and dominion through all the ages.