On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination
by St John Cassian
On the Holy Fathers of Sketis And on Discrimination - Written for Abba Leontios
The promise I made to the blessed Bishop Kastor to give an account of the way of life and the teaching of the holy fathers has been fulfilled in part by the writings I sent him entitled ‘On Coenobitic Institutions’ and ‘On the Eight Vices’, and I now propose to fulfill it completely. But having heard that Bishop Kastor has left us to dwell with Christ, I felt I should send the remaining portion of my treatise to you, most holy Leontios, who have inherited both his virtuous qualities and the guardianship, with God’s help, of his monastery.
I and my spiritual friend, the holy Gemianos, whom I had known since my youth at school, in the army and in monastic life, were staying in the desert of Sketis, the centre of the most experienced monks. It was there that we saw Abba Moses, a saintly man, outstanding not only in the practice of the virtues but in spiritual contemplation as well. We begged him with tears, therefore, to tell us how we might approach perfection.
After much entreaty on our part, he said; ‘Children, all virtues and all pursuits have a certain immediate purpose; and those who look to this purpose and adapt themselves accordingly will reach the ultimate goal to which they aspire. The fanner willingly works the earth, enduring now the sun’s heat and now the winter’s cold, his immediate purpose being to clear it of thorns and weeds, while his ultimate goal is the enjoyment of its fruits. The merchant, ignoring dangers on land and sea, willingly gives himself to his business with the purpose of making a profit, while his goal is enjoyment of this profit. The soldier, too, ignores the dangers of war and the miseries of service abroad. His purpose is to gain a higher rank by using his ability and skill, while his goal is to enjoy the advantages of this rank.
‘Now our profession also has its own immediate purpose and its own ultimate goal, for the sake of which we willingly endure all manner of toil and suffering. Because of this, fasts do not cast us down, the hardship of vigils delights us: the reading and study of Scripture are readily undertaken; and physical work, obedience, stripping oneself of everything earthly, and the life here in this desert are carried out with pleasure.
‘You have given up your country, your families, everything worldly in order to embrace a life in a foreign land among rude and uncultured people like us. Tell me, what was your purpose and what goal did you set before yourselves in doing all this?’
We replied: ‘We did it for the kingdom of heaven.’ In response Abba Moses said: ‘As for the goal, you have answered well: but what is the purpose which we set before us and which we pursue unwaveringly so as to reach the kingdom of heaven? This you have not told me.’
When we confessed that we did not know, the old man replied: ‘The goal of our profession, as we have said, is the kingdom of God. Its immediate purpose, however, is purity of heart, for without this we cannot reach our goal. We should therefore always have this purpose in mind: and, should it ever happen that for a short time our heart turns aside from the direct path, we must bring it back again" at once, guiding our lives with reference to our purpose as if it were a carpenter’s rule.
‘The Apostle Paul knew this when he said: “Forgetting what lies behind, and reaching forward to what lies in front, I pursue my purpose, aiming at the prize of the high calling of God” (Phil. 3:13-14). We, too, do everything for the sake of this immediate purpose. We give up country, family, possessions and everything worldly in order to acquire purity of heart. If we forget this purpose we cannot avoid frequently stumbling and losing our way, for we will be walking in the dark and straying from the proper path. This has happened to many men who at the start of their ascetic life gave up all wealth, possessions and everything worldly, but who later flew into a rage over a fork, a needle, a rush or a book. This would not have happened to them had they borne in mind the purpose for which they gave up everything. It is for the love of our neighbor that we scorn wealth, lest by fighting over it and stimulating our disposition to anger, we fall away from love. When we show this disposition to anger towards our brother even in small things, we have lapsed from our purpose and our renunciation of the world is useless. The blessed Apostle was aware of this and said: “Though I give my body to be burned, and have no love, it profits me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). From this we learn that perfection does not follow immediately upon renunciation and withdrawal from the world. It comes after the attainment of love which, as the Apostle said, “is not jealous or puffed up, does not grow angry, bears no grudge, is not arrogant, thinks no evil” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:4-5). All these things establish purity of heart; and it is for this that we should do everything, scorning possessions, enduring fasts and vigils gladly, engaging in spiritual reading and psalmody. If, however, some necessary task pleasing to God should keep us from our normal fasting and reading, we should not on this account neglect purity of heart. For what we gain by fasting is not so great as the damage done by anger: nor is the profit from reading as great as the harm done when we scorn or grieve a brother.
‘Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’
To this Germanos rejoined: ‘What man, while in the flesh, can so fix his intellect on God that he thmks of nothing else, not even of visiting the sick, of entertaining guests, of his handicraft, or of the other unavoidable bodily needs? Above all, since God is invisible and incomprehensible, how can a man’s mind always look upon Him and be inseparable from Him?’
Abba Moses replied: ‘To look upon God at all times and to be inseparable from Him, in the manner which you envisage, is impossible for a man still in the flesh and enslaved to weakness. In another way, however, it is possible to look upon God, for the manner of contemplating God may be conceived and understood in many ways. God is not only to be known in His blessed and incomprehensible being, for this is something which is reserved for His saints in the age to come. He is also to be known from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His providence which governs the world day by day, from His righteousness and from the wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation. When we reflect on the measurelessness of His power and His unsleeping eye which looks upon the hidden things of the heart and which nothing can escape, we are filled with the deepest awe, marveling at Him and adoring Him. When we consider that He numbers the raindrops, the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, we are amazed at the grandeur of His nature and His wisdom. When we think of His ineffable and inexplicable wisdom. His love for mankind, and His limitless long-suffering at man’s innumerable sins, we glorify Him. When we consider His great love for us, in that though we had done nothing good He, being God, deigned to become man in order to save us from delusion, we are roused to longing for Him. When we reflect that He Himself has vanquished in us our adversary, the devil, and that He has given us eternal life if only we would choose and turn towards His goodness, then we venerate Him. There are many similar ways of seeing and apprehending God, which grow in us according to our labor and to the degree of our purification/
Germanos then asked: ‘How does it happen that even against our will many ideas and wicked thoughts trouble us, entering by stealth and undetected to steal our attention? Not only are we unable to prevent them from entering, but it is extremely difficult even to recognize them. Is it possible for the mind to be completely free of them and not be troubled by them at all?’
Abba Moses replied: ‘It is impossible for the mind not to be troubled by these thoughts. But if we exert ourselves it is withm our power either to accept them and give them our attention, or to expel them. Their coming is not within our power to control, but their expulsion is. The amending of our mind is also within the power of our choice and effort. When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage-in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come - the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place. But when we devote our time to worldly concerns and to matters of the flesh, to pointless and useless conversation, then these base thoughts multiply in us. just as it is impossible to stop a watermill from turning, although the miller has power to choose between grinding either wheat or tares, so it is impossible to stop our mind, which is ever-moving, from having thoughts, although it is within our power to feed it either with spiritual meditation or with worldly concerns.’
When the old man saw us marveling at this and still longing to hear more, he was silent for a short while and then said: ‘Your longing has made me speak at length, and yet you are still eager for more, and from this I see that you are truly thirsty to be taught about perfection. So I would like to talk to you about the special virtue of discrimination. This is a kind of acropolis or queen among the virtues; and I will show you its excellence and value, not only in my own words, but also through the venerable teachings of the fathers; for the Lord fills His teachers with grace according to the quality and longing of those who listen.
‘Discrimination, then, is no small virtue, but one of the most important gifts of the Holy Spirit. Concerning these gifts the Apostle says: “To one is given by the Spirit the principle of wisdom; to another the principle of spiritual knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing… to another discrimination of spirits’ (ICor. 12:8-10). Then, having completed his catalogue of spiritual gifts, he adds: “But all these are energized by the one and selfsame Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:11). You can see, therefore, that the gift of discrimination is nothing worldly or insignificant. It is the greatest gift of God’s grace. A monk must seek this gift with all his strength and diligence, and acquire the ability to discriminate between the spirits that enter him and to assess them accurately. Otherwise he will not only fall into the foulest pits of wickedness as he wanders about in the dark, but even stumble when his path is smooth and straight.
‘I remember how in my youth, when I was in the Thebaid, where the blessed Antony used to live, some elders came to see him, to enquire with him into the question of perfection in virtue. They asked him; “Which is the greatest of all virtues - we mean the virtue capable of keeping a monk from being harmed by the nets of the devil and his deceit?” Each one then gave his opinion according to his understanding. Some said that fasting and the keeping of vigils make it easier to come near to God, because these refine and purify the mind. Others said that voluntary poverty and detachment from personal possessions make it easier, since through these the mind is released from the intricate threads of worldly care. Others judged acts of compassion to be the most important, since in the Gospel the Lord says: “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food” and so on (Matt. 25: 34-36). The best part of the night was passed in this manner, taken up with a discussion in which each expressed his opinion as to which virtue makes it easiest for a man to come near to God.
‘Last of all the blessed Antony gave his reply: “All that you have said is both necessary and helpful for those who are searching for God and wish to come to Him. But we cannot award the first place to any of these virtues; for there are many among us who have endured fasting and vigils, or have withdrawn into the desert, or have practiced poverty to such an extent that they have not left themselves enough for their daily sustenance, or have performed acts of compassion so generously that they no longer have anything to give; and yet these same monks, having done all this, have nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.
' “What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path? In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity. Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as is said in the gospel passage: “The light of the body is the eye; if therefore your eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness’ (Matt. 6:22-3). And this is just what we find; for the power of discrimination, scrutinizing all the thoughts and actions of a man, distinguishes and sets aside everything that is base and not pleasing to God, and keeps him free from delusion.
“We can see this in what is said in the Holy Scriptures. Saul, the first to be entrusted with the kingship of Israel, did not have the eye of discrimination; so his mind was darkened and he was unable to perceive that it was more pleasing to God that he should obey the commandment of Samuel than that he should offer sacrifices. He gave offence through the very things with which he thought to serve God, and because of them he was deposed. This would not have happened had he possessed the light of discrimination (cf 1 Sam. 13: 8-9).
“The Apostle calls this virtue ‘the sun’, as we can see from his saying: ‘Do not let the sun go down upon your anger’ (Eph. 4:26). It is also called ‘the guidance’ of our lives, as when it is written: “Those who have no guidance fell like leaves” (Prov. 11:14. LXX). Scripture also refers to it as the ‘discernment’ without which we must do nothing- not even drink the spiritual wine that ‘makes glad the heart of man’ (Ps. 104:15. LXX); for it is said: ‘Drink with discernment’ (Prov. 31:3. LXX): and: ‘He that does not do all things with discernment is like a city that is broken down and without walls’ (Prov. 25:28. LXX). Wisdom, intellection and perceptiveness are united in discrimination: and without these our inner house cannot be built, nor can we gather spiritual wealth; for it is written: ‘Through wisdom a house is built, through understanding it is established, and through good judgment its storehouses will be filled with wealth’ (Prov. 24:3-4. LXX). Discrimination is also called the ‘solid food’ that ‘is suitable for those who have their organs of perception trained by practice to discriminate between good and evil’ (Heb. 5:14). These passages show very clearly that without the gift of discrimination no virtue can stand or remain firm to the end, for it is the mother of all the virtues and their guardian.”
‘This was Antony’s statement, and it was approved by the other fathers. But in order to confirm what St Antony said by means of fresh examples from our own times, we should recall Abba Hiron and how a few days ago, as we ourselves saw, he was thrown down from the height of the ascetic state to the depths of death by the deception of the devil. We know how he spent some fifty years in the nearby desert, following a life of great severity and the strictest self-control, seeking out and living in parts of the desert wilder than those inhabited by any of the other monks there. This same man cast all the fathers and brothers of the nearby desert into inconsolable grief because, after so many labors and struggles, he was deceived by the devil and suffered such a disastrous fall. This would not have happened to him had he been armed with the virtue of discrimination, which would have taught him to trust, not his own judgment, but rather the advice of his fathers and brethren. Following his own judgment he fasted and isolated himself to such a degree that he did not even come to church for the Holy Pascha, lest by meeting the fathers and brethren and feeding with them he would be obliged to eat lentils or whatever else was brought to the table, thereby appearing to fall short of the target which he had set himself.
‘He had already for long been deceived in this way by his own willfulness when, coming upon an angel of Satan, he bowed before him as if he were an angel of light. The angel commanded him to hurl himself, around midnight, into a very deep well so that he might then know by experience, because of his great virtue and ascetic efforts, that he would never again be subject to any danger. His darkened mind failed to discern who was suggesting this to him, and he hurled himself into the well during the night. Soon afterwards the brethren, discovering what had happened, were only just able to pull him up half dead. He lived for two more days and died on the third, plunging his brethren and the priest Paphnoutios into great grief. The latter, moved by feelings of compassion and remembering Hiron’s numerous labors and the many years during which he had persevered in the desert, mentioned his name in the oblation for the dead so that he should not be numbered among those who have taken their own lives.
‘And what am I to say about those two brethren who hved beyond the desert of the Thebaid, where the blessed Antony once hved? ImpeUed by a thought the real nature of which they could not discern, they decided to go into the vast, uncultivated inner desert: and they even made up their minds to refuse food offered them by man, and to accept only what the Lord would give them in a miraculous fashion. Finally they were seen in the distance wandering about the desert, weak with hunger, by the Mazikes who, though fiercer and wilder than almost all other savage peoples, now providentially exchanged their natural wildness for humane feelings and went to meet them carrying loaves of bread. One of the two brethren accepted the bread with joy and thanksgiving, since his power of discrimination had returned and he realized that such wild and fierce men, who normally rejoice at the sight of blood, would not have felt sympathy with them in their exhaustion and brought them food if God had not moved them to it. The other, however, refused the food on the grounds that it was offered him by men arid, persisting in his undiscnmmatmg judgment, he died from the weakness brought on by his hunger.
‘Both monks at first showed total lack of judgment and made a senseless and destructive plan. One of them, however, when his power of discrimination returned, corrected the decision he had made so recklessly. But the other, persisting in his stupid and. undiscriminating plan, brought upon himself the death which the Lord had wanted to avert.
‘What am I to say about another monk whose name I do not wish to mention because he is still alive? He frequently entertained a demon as if he were an angel and received revelations from him, often seeing what looked like the light of a lamp in his cell. Later, he was ordered by this demon to offer his son as a sacrifice to God - his son was staying with him in the monastery - on the grounds that he would as a result be deemed worthy of the honor accorded to the patriarch Abraham. He was so led astray by the demon’s advice that he would have carried out the sacrifice of his son, had the latter not seen him, contrary to his normal practice, sharpening a knife and preparing the bonds with which he was going to tie him up like a burnt offering. This enabled the son to make his escape.
‘It would take me a long time to give an account of the deception of that Mesopotamian monk who, having shown great self-control, shutting himself up in his cell for many years and surpassing all monks in those regions in asceticism and virtue, was then so deluded by demonic dreams and revelations that he reverted to Judaism and circumcision, in order to deceive him, the devil often showed him dreams that turned out to be true, in this way making him more ready to accept his final act of deception. One night he showed him the Christian people with the Apostles and martyrs, downcast and filled with shame, wasting away with dejection and grief, while on the other side he showed him the Jewish people, with Moses and the prophets, surrounded by light and living in joy and gladness. The deceiver then advised him to be circumcised if he wanted to share in the blessedness and joy of the Jewish people. He was deceived and followed this advice. From all this it is clear that none of these people would have been deluded in this pathetic and miserable fashion had they possessed the gift of discrimination.’
In reply to this Germanos said: ‘By means of these recent examples and the statements of the fathers of old, you have made it clear that discrimination is the source, root, crown and common bond of aU the virtues. But we would like very much to know how we can acquire it, and how we can recognize the true kind of discrimination which comes from God and distinguish it from the false and fictitious kind that comes from the devil.’
Abba Moses then said: ‘True discnmination comes to us only as a result of true humility, and this in turn is shown by our revealing to our spiritual fathers not only what we do but also what we think, by never trusting our own thoughts, and by following in all things the words of our elders, regarding as good what they have judged to be so. In this way not only does the monk remain unharmed through true discrimination and by following the correct path, but he is also kept safe from all the snares of the devil. It is impossible for anyone who orders his life on the basis of the judgment and knowledge of the spiritually mature to fall because of the wiles of the demons. In fact, even before someone is granted the gift of discrimination, the act of revealing his base thoughts openly to the fathers weakens and withers them. For just as a snake which is brought from its dark hole into the light makes every effort to escape and hide itself, so the malicious thoughts that a person brings out into the open by sincere confession seek to depart from him.
‘In order to give you a more accurate understanding of this virtue by means of an example, I shall tell you of something that Abba Serapion once did and which he used to speak about to those who came to him for help. He used to say: “When I was a young man I lived with my spiritual father, and at mealtimes, prompted by the devil, I would steal a rusk as I got up from the table and eat it without my father’s knowledge. Because I persisted in this habit, I was utterly overcome by it and was unable to conquer it. Though I was condemned by my own conscience, I was ashamed to speak of it to my father. But through God’s love it happened that certain brethren came to the old man for advice and asked him about their thoughts. The elder replied that nothing so harms a monk and brings such joy to the demons as the hiding of one’s thoughts from one’s spiritual father. He also spoke to them about self-control. As this was being said I came to myself and, thinking that God had revealed my past mistakes to the elder, I was pricked with compunction and began to cry, throwing from my pocket the rusk which I had stolen as usual. Casting myself to the ground I begged his forgiveness for my past faults and his prayers for my future safety. Then the old man said:
‘My child, your confession has freed you, although I was silent. You have slain the demon that was wounding you because of your silence, by expressing openly what you were keeping to yourself. Until this moment you ensured that he would be your master by not opposing or rebuking him. From now on, however, he will no longer find room in you, since he has been brought out of your heart into the open.’ The old man had not finished speaking when the energy of the demon could be seen coming out of my breast like the flame of a lamp. It filled the room with a nasty smell, so dial those present thought that a lump of sulphur was burning. Then the elder said: ‘Look, through this sign the Lord has borne witness to my words and to your deliverance.’ Thus, as the result of my confession, the passion of gluttony and the demonic energy left me and I never again felt any such desire.”
‘From what Abba Serapion said, we can learn that we shall be granted the gift of true discrimination when we trust, no longer in the judgments of our own mind, but in the teaching and rule of our fathers. The devil brings the monk to the brink of destruction more effectively through persuading him to disregard the admonitions of the fathers and follow his own judgment and desire, than he does through any other fault. We should learn from examples provided by human arts and sciences. If we cannot accomplish anything in them by ourselves - in spite of the fact that they deal with things we can touch with our hands, see with our eyes and hear with our ears - but still need someone who will instruct us well and guide us, how can it be anything but foolish to think that the spiritual art, the most difficult of all the arts, has no need of a teacher? It is an invisible, hidden art which is understood only through purity of heart, and failure in it brings, not temporary loss, but the soul’s destruction and eternal death.’
Gennanos then said: ‘Certain fathers who have listened to the thoughts of the brethren have often not only failed to heal them, but have even condemned them and driven them to despair. This has provided us with an excuse for shameful and harmful caution: for we ourselves know of cases of this kind in the region of Syria. A certain brother revealed his private thoughts to one of the elders living in those parts, unashamedly laying bare the hidden things of his heart with complete simplicity and trath. When the elder heard these things, however, he at once began to be angry with the brother and to attack him, rebuking him for having such base thoughts. As a result, many who heard of this were ashamed to tell their thoughts to the elders.’
AbbaMoses said: ‘It is a good thing, as I said, not to hide your thoughts from the fathers. But you should not tell them to just anyone, you should confess them to spiritual masters who have discrimination, not simply to those whose hair has grown white with age. Many who have looked to age as a guide, and then revealed their thoughts, have not only remained unhealed but have been driven to despair because of the inexperience of those to whom they confessed. There was once a very zealous brother who was greatly troubled by the demon of unchastits’. He went to a certain father and confessed his private thoughts to him; but this father, being inexperienced, became angry when he heard about them and told the brother that he was contemptible and unworthy of the monastic habit for having entertained thoughts such as these. When the brother heard this, he lost heart, left his cell and set off back to the world. Through God’s providence, however, Abba Apollos, one of the most experienced of the elders, chanced to meet him and, seeing him over-wrought and very despondent, asked him why he was in this state. At first the brother did not reply because he was so depressed but, after the elder had pleaded with him, he told him what was wrong, saying: “Because I was often troubled by evil thoughts, I went to tell them to the elder: and as he said I have no hope of salvation, I have given up and am now on my way back to the world.”
‘When Abba Apollos heard this, he comforted and encouraged him, saying: “Do not be surprised, my child, and do not lose hope. I too, old and grey as I am, am still much troubled by these thoughts. Do not be discouraged by this burning desire, which is healed not so much by human effort as by God’s compassion. Please do this for me: go back to your cell just for today.” This the brother did; and Apollos, after leaving him, went to the cell of the elder who had caused his despair. Standing outside he implored God with tears and said: “0 Lord, who puts us to the test for our own benefit, let this elder be given the brother’s battle, so that in old age he may leam through experience what he has not been taught over these many years: how to feel sympathy with those who are under attack by the demons.” As he finished his prayer, he saw a dark figure standing near the cell shooting arrows at the elder. Wounded by the arrows, the elder at once began to stumble back and forth as though drunk. Unable to withstand the attack, he finally left his cell and set off for the world by the same road that the young monk had taken.
‘Seeing what had happened, Abba Apollos confronted him, and asked him where he was going and why he was so troubled. Although he realized that the holy man knew what was wrong with him, he was too ashamed to say anything. Abba Apollos then said to him: “Return to your cell, and in the future recognize your own weakness. The devil has either not noticed or has despised you, and so not thought you worth fighting. Not that there has been any question of a fight: you could not stand up to his provocation even for a day! This has happened to you because, when you received a younger brother who was being attacked by our common enemy, you drove him to despair instead of preparing him for battle. You did not recall that wise precept: ‘Deliver them that are being led away to death; and redeem them that are appointed to be slain’ (Prov. 24:11. LXX). You did not even remember the parable of our Saviour, which teaches us not to break a bruised reed or quench smoking flax (cf Matt. 12:20). None of us could endure the plots of the enemy, or allay the fiery turmoil of our nature, if God’s grace did not protect our human weakness. Seeing, then, that God has had this compassion for us, let us pray to Him together and ask Him to withdraw the whip with which He has lashed you. ‘For He wounds but binds up; He strikes but His hands heal’ (Job 5:18). “The Lord kills and gives life; he brings down to the grave and raises again. … He brings low and lifts up’ (1 Sam. 2:6-7).” After Abba Apollos had said this and had prayed, the attack which had been launched against the elder was at once suspended. Finally, Abba Apollos advised him to ask God to give him “the tongue of the learned” so as to know “how to speak a word m season” (Isa. 50:4).
‘From all that has been said, we may conclude that nothing leads so surely to salvation as to confess our private thoughts to those fathers most graced with the power of discrimination, and in our pursuit of holiness to be guided by them rather than by our own thoughts and judgment. Nor should the fact that we may encounter an elder who is somewhat simple-minded or lacking in experience either prevent us from confessing to the fathers who are truly qualified, or make us despise our ancestral traditions. Many texts from the divine Scriptures make it clear that the fathers did not say these things according to their own-hghts, but were inspired by God Himself and by the Scriptures to hand down to their successors the tradition of asking advice from those who had traveled far along the spiritual path. This is borne out especially by the story of the holy Samuel, who from infancy was dedicated by his mother to God and was granted communion with Him. He still did not trust his own thoughts, and in spite of having been called three times by God, he went to the elder, Eli, and was instructed and guided by him about how he should answer God (cf. 1 Sam. 3:9-10). Although God called him personally, none the less He wanted Samuel to receive the guidance and discipline of the elder, so that by means of this example we too might be led towards humility.
‘When Christ Himself spoke to Paul and called him. He could have opened his eyes at once and made known to him the way of perfection: instead He sent him to Ananias and told him to learn from him the way of truth, saying: “Arise and go into the city, and there you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6). In this manner He teaches us to be guided by those who are advanced on the way, so that the vision rightly given to Paul should not be wrongly interpreted; otherwise it might lead later generations presumptuously to suppose that each individual must be initiated into the truth directly by God, as Paul was, and not by the fathers.
“That this is the correct interpretation of these incidents can be seen not only from what is said here, but also from St Paul’s own actions. He writes that he went up to Jerusalem to see Peter and James, and “laid before them the gospel I preach … in case I was running or had run in vain” (Gal. 2: 2): and he did this even though the grace of the Holy Spirit was already with him, as can be seen from the miracles which he performed. Who, then, can be so proud and boastful as to be satisfied with his own judgment or opinion, when St Paul himself admits that he needs the advice of those who were Apostles before him? All this shows with complete clarity that the Lord reveals the way of perfection only to those guided to it by their spiritual fathers. This accords with what He Himself has said through the Prophet: “Ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you” (Deut. 32:7).
‘We should therefore make every effort to acquire for ourselves that gift of discrimination which is able to keep us from excess in either direction. For, as the fathers have said, all extremes are equally harmful. It is as dangerous to fast too much as it is to overfill the stomach; to stay awake too long as to sleep too much; and so on. 1 myself have known monks who were not defeated by gluttony, but were undermined by immoderate fasting and lapsed into gluttony because of the weakness caused by this fasting. Indeed, I can remember having experienced this one myself. I had kept such strict control over my food that I forgot what it meant to be hungry, remaining without food for two or three days and still feeling no desire for it whatsoever, unless prompted by others. Then, through the wiles of the devil, I was so tormented by insomnia that, having remained awake for many nights, I begged God to grant me a little sleep. Thus I was in greater danger because of my immoderate fasting and insomnia than I was from gluttony and too much sleep.’
Abba Moses so cheered us with teaching of this kind that we could not help glorifying the Lord who grants such great wisdom to those who fear Him; for to Him belong honor and power through all the ages. Amen.