The Ascetic Discourse
by Saint Neilos
The Ascetic Discourse
St Neilos the Ascetic was abbot of a monastery near Ankyra (Ankara) in the early decades of the fifth century, and seems to have died around the year 430. Possibly he was a disciple of St John Chrysostom. According to the traditional biography of Neilos - accepted as authentic by St Nikodimos, but now considered legendary - he was originally from Constantinople, and after serving as prefect of the city during the reign of Theodosios the Great (379-95) he became a hermit near Sinai. There seems in fact to be no good reason for connecting him with the Sinaite peninsula.
The Ascetic Discourse of Neilos contains a valuable section on the relationship between the spiritual father and his disciples. In other of his writings, although not in this work, St Neilos refers to the invocation of the name of Jesus. Along with St Diadochos of Photiki, his younger contemporary, Neilos is the earliest writer to refer explicitly to the Jesus Prayer.!
Many Greeks and not a few Jews attempted to philosophize; but only the disciples of Christ have pursued true wisdom, because they alone have Wisdom as their teacher, showing them by His example the way of life they should follow. For the Greeks, like actors on a stage, put on false masks; they were philosophers in name alone, but lacked true philosophy. They displayed their philosophic calling by their cloak, beard and staff, but indulged the body and kept their desires as mistresses. They were slaves of gluttony and lust, accepting this as something natural. They were subject to anger and excited by glory, and they gulped down rich food like dogs. They did not realize that the philosopher must be above all a free man, and not a slave of the passions who can be bought or sold. A man of upright life can be the slave of others and yet suffer no harm; but to be enslaved to the passions and pleasures brings a man into disgrace and great ridicule.
Some of the Greeks imagined themselves to be engaged in metaphysics, but they neglected the practice of the virtues altogether. Some were star-gazers, explaining the inexplicable, and claiming to know the size of the heavens, the dimensions of the sun and the movement of the stars. At times they even tried to theologize, although here the truth lies beyond man’s unaided grasp, and speculation is dangerous, yet in their way of life they were more degraded than swine wallowing in the mud. And when some of them did try to apply their principles in practice, they became worse than those who only theorized, for they sold their labors for glory and praise. Usually their only object was to show off, and they endured hardships simply to gain cheap applause. Moreover, what can be more stupid than to keep silent continually, live on vegetables, cover oneself with ragged garments of hair and spend one’s days in a barrel, if one expects no recompense after death? If the rewards of virtue are restricted to this present life, then one is engaged in a contest where no prizes are ever offered, wrestling all one’s life for no return but the toil and the sweat.
Those of the Jews, on the other hand, who hold philosophy in honor - the Rechabites, the descendants of Jonadab (cf. Jer. 35:6) - do indeed encourage their disciples to follow an appropriate way of life. They always live in tents, abstaining from wine and all luxuries; their fare is frugal and provision for their bodily needs is moderate. While devoting fall attention to the practice of the virtues, they also attach great importance to contemplation, as their name ‘Essene’ indicates. In short, they pursue the goal of philosophy while avoiding the things that conflict with their calling. But what do they gain from their arduous ascetic contest, since they deny Christ, who acts as judge and gives the award? So they, too, fail to gain from their labors, falling short of the true goal of philosophy.
For philosophy is a state of moral integrity combined with a doctrine of true knowledge concerning reality. Both Jews and Greeks fell short of this, for they rejected the Wisdom that is from heaven and tried to philosophize without Christ, who alone has revealed the true philosophy in both His life and His teaching. For by the purity of His life He was the first to establish the way of true philosophy. He always held His soul above the passions of the body, and in the end, when His death was required by His design for man’s salvation. He laid down even His soul. In this He taught us that the true philosopher must renounce all life’s pleasures, mastering pains and passions, and paying scant attention to the body: he must not overvalue even his soul, but must readily lay it down when holiness demands.
The apostles received this way of life from Christ and made it their own, renouncing the world in response to His call, disregarding fatherland, relatives and possessions. At once they adopted a harsh and strenuous way of life, facing every kind of adversity, afflicted, tormented, harassed, naked, lacking even necessities; and finally they met death boldly, imitating their Teacher faithfully in all things. Thus through their actions they left behind a true image of the highest way of life.
Although all Christians should have modeled their own life on this image, most of them either lacked the will to do so or else made only feeble efforts. There were, however, a few who had the Strength to rise above the turmoil of the world and to flee from the agitation of cities. Having escaped from this turbulence, they embraced the monastic life and reproduced in themselves the pattern of apostolic virtue. They preferred voluntary poverty to possessions, because this freed them from distraction; and so as to control the passions, they satisfied their bodily needs with food that was readily available and simply prepared, rather than with richly dressed dishes. Soft and unnecessary clothing they rejected as an invention of human luxury, and they wore only such plain garments as are required for the body. It seemed to them a betrayal of philosophy to turn their attention from heavenly things to earthly concerns more appropriate to animals. They ignored the world, being above-human passions.
They did not seek excessive gain by exploiting each other; nor did they bring lawsuits against one another, for each had his own conscience as an impartial judge. One was not rich while another was destitute, nor did one overeat while another starved. The generosity of those who were well off made good what others lacked, this willingness to share eliminating every anomaly and establishing equality and fairness - though even then inequality still existed, produced not as it is now by the mad struggle for social status, but by a great desire to live more humbly than others. Envy, malice, arrogance and haughtiness were banished, along with all that leads to discord. Some were impervious or dead to the coarser passions; they had so firmly repudiated all traces of them from the start that now, through daily asceticism and perseverance, they had acquired inner stability and did not even have fantasies of them in their dreams. In short, they were lights shining in darkness; they were fixed stars illuminating the jet-black night of life; they were harbor walls unshaken by storms. They showed everyone how simple it is to escape unharmed from the provocations of the passions.
But this strict and angelic way of life has suffered the fate of a portrait many times recopied by careless hands, until gradually all likeness to the original has been lost. Though we are crucified to the world, though we have renounced this transitory life and our purely human limitations, aspiring to the state of the angels by sharing their dispassion, yet we have relapsed and fallen back. Because of our material concerns and shameful acquisitiveness, we have blunted the edge of true asceticism; and by our negligence we discredit even those who through their genuine sanctity truly deserve to be honored. Wearing the monastic habit, we have ‘put our hand to the plough’, yet we look back, forgetting and even strongly rejecting our duties, and so do not become ‘fit for the kingdom of heaven’ (cf. Luke 9:62).
So we no longer pursue plainness and simplicity of life. We no longer value stillness, which helps to free us from past defilement, but prefer a whole host of things which distract us uselessly from our true goal. Rivalry over material possessions has made us forget the counsel of the Lord, who urged us to take no thought for earthly things, but to seek only the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 6:33). Deliberately doing the opposite, we have disregarded the Lord’s commandment, trusting in ourselves and not in His protection. For He says: ‘Behold the fowls of the air: for they do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them’ (Matt. 6:26); and again: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they do not toil or spin’ (Matt. 6:28). When He sent the apostles out to declare the good news to their fellow men. He even forbade them to carry wallet, purse or staff, and told them to be content with His promise: ‘The workman is worthy of his food’ (Matt. 10:10). This promise is to be trusted far more than our own resources.
Despite all this we go on accumulating as much land as we can, and we buy up flocks of sheep, fine oxen and fat donkeys - the sheep to supply us with wool, the oxen to plough and provide food for us and fodder for themselves and for the other animals, the donkeys to transport from foreign lands the goods and luxuries which our own country lacks. We also select the crafts which give the highest return, even though they absorb all our attention and leave no time for the remembrance of God. It is as if we accused God of being incapable of providing for us, or ourselves of being unable to fulfill the commitments of our calling. Even if we do not admit this. openly, our actions condemn us; for we show approval of the ways of worldly men by engaging in the same pursuits, and perhaps working at them even harder than they do.
Thus, like so many others, we look on the ascetic way as a means of gain, and follow the once unworldly life of blessedness merely in order to avoid hard work through a feigned piety, and to gain greater scope for indulging in illusory pleasures. We shamelessly revile those who live simply, and sometimes even our own superiors, as though we thought the spiritual life was a matter of aggressiveness, not of humility and gentleness. As a result, instead of being respected, we are regarded as a useless crowd, involved in buying and selling just as much as the man in the street. Nothing marks us out as it should from others, and we distinguish ourselves merely by the habit that we wear, not by our way of life. We reject all ascetic effort, but madly desire a reputation for asceticism. We have debased the truth into play-acting.
Today, a person wears the monastic habit without washing away the stains on his soul, or erasing the marks which past sins have stamped upon his mind; indeed, he may still take lustful pleasure in the fantasies these sins suggest. He has not yet trained his character so as to fit his vocation, nor does he grasp the purpose of the divine philosophy. Already he has developed a Pharisaic superciliousness, being filled with conceit by his robes. He goes about " “carrying various tools the use of which he does not understand. By virtue of his outward dress he lays claim to a knowledge -which in reality he has not tasted even with the tip of his tongue. He is a reef, not a harbor; a whited sepulcher, not a temple; a wolf, not a sheep; the ruin of those decoyed by his appearance.
Unable to endure the strictness of life in their monastery, such monks run away and swarm into a city like a party of revelers. Then, when they get hungry, they begin to deceive others with an outward show of piety, and are ready to do anything to satisfy their needs; for nothing is more compelling and inventive than the demands of the body, especially when one is idle. Their techniques get more and more cunning and ingenious. They hang about the doors of the wealthy like parasites, and like slaves they dance attendance on them through the streets, shoving people out of the way and clearing a path for them. All this they do for the sake of a meal, never having leamt to control their gluttony. Nor do they obey Moses and carry on their girdle a trowel for covering their excrement (cf. Deut. 23:13. LXX). They do not realize that indulgence in gluttony leads only to further hunger, and that they should satisfy the needs of the body only with whatever food is at hand, thus quelling their shameful and disordered appetites.
This is why the name of God is blasphemed, and the ascetic way of life, instead of inspiring men, fills them with disgust. The attainments of genuine ascetics are dismissed as trickery. Cities are full of vagabonds, and people are pestered at home, revoked by the very sight of these monks, seeing them standing at their doors more shamelessly than beggars. Many have even been admitted into people’s homes, where for a little while they make a pretence of piety, deceitfully concealing their wicked plans; then they rob their hosts and make off, thus bringing the whole monastic life into disrepute. Once the monks taught self-restraint; now they are banished from cities as a corrupting influence, and shunned like lepers. People would rather trust thieves and burglars than those who follow the monastic life, thinking straightforward criminals easier to guard against than plausible tricksters.
These monks have not so much as begun the ascetic life, far less learnt the value of stillness. Perhaps they came to the monastic life because of some pressure, not realizing what is involved; so they regard it merely as a way of earning their living. This attitude might change to something more spiritual, if only they would stop knocking on every door and if, shamed by their monastic habit into restraining their gross acquisitiveness, they were willing to impose a much-needed curb on their body. But, being self-indulgent, they do not realize how their soft living constantly breeds new and extravagant desires.
It is difficult to treat those who suffer from chronic diseases. For how can you explain the value of health to people who have never enjoyed it, but have been sickly from birth? Because this is their customary state, they regard it as a misfortune of nature, and even as perfectly normal. It is useless to offer advice to those who have no intention of taking it, but continue regardless on the downward path. In particular, those with a lust for any kind of gain, however shameful, are completely deaf to advice.
As for ourselves, who claim to have renounced Worldly life and its desires in our longing for holiness, and who profess to follow Christ, why do we entangle ourselves once more in worldly distractions? Why do we wrongly build again what we have rightly torn down? Why do we share in the folly of those who are disloyal to their vocation? Why in our pursuit of empty trivialities do we kindle the appetites of our weaker brethren and fill them with greed? The Lord has commanded us to watch over those who are easily misled, not inciting them to evil, and " “preferring their advantage to our pleasure. In this way, by not following our own unconsidered impulses, we help many of our simpler brethren to be more careful, and set them an example by our attitude to worldly concerns.
Why do we attach such value to material things, seeing that we have been taught to despise them? Why do we cling to money and possessions, and disperse our intellect among a host of useless cares? Our preoccupation with such things diverts us from what is more important and makes us neglect the well-being of the soul, leading us to perdition. For we who profess to be philosophers and pride ourselves on being superior to pleasure are seen to pursue material gain with more zest than anyone else. Nothing brings such severe punishment on us as our persuasion of others to imitate our own evil ways.
Let no one despise these words. Either correct your evil conduct, which brings disgrace upon the divine philosophy, leading others to indifference, or else give up all claim to be a philosopher. For the true philosopher possessions are superfluous, since he detaches himself from bodily concerns for the sake of the soul’s purity. If your aim is material riches and pleasure, why pretend to honor philosophy while you act in a manner which entirely conflicts with it, cloaking your conduct under fine words?
So great is our preoccupation with material things that we feel no shame when, on breaking the Savior’s commandments, we are rebuked even by those whom we despise because they still live ‘in the world’, for they now teach us instead of us teaching them. When we are quarrelling, they remind us that ‘the servant of Christ must not engage in strife, but be gentle to all men’ (2 Tim. 2:24); when we are disputing about money and possessions, they quote to us the text, ‘If anyone . . . takes away your coat, let him have your cloak also’ (Matt. 5:40). They ridicule and deride us because of the incongruity between our actions and our vocation. Indeed, is it ever right to engage in disputes in order to protect our property? Suppose that someone destroys the boundary of our vineyard and adds it to his own land: someone else lets his animal loose in it; and someone else diverts the water supply from our garden. Must we then lose all self-control in such situations, and become worse than madmen? But in that case our intellect, which should be engaged in the contemplation of created beings, must now give its attention to lawsuits, turning its contemplative power to worldly cunning, so as to defend a quantity of unnecessary possessions.
Why do we try to make other people’s property our own,' weighing ourselves down with material fetters, and paying HO attention to the prophet’s imprecation: ‘Woe to him who gathers what is not his own, and heavily loads his yoke’ (cf. Hab. 2:6. LXX). Those who pursue us are, as Jeremiah says, ‘swifter than the eagles of heaven’ (Lam. " “4:19); but we weigh ourselves down with worldly things, move slowly along the road and so are easily overtaken by our pursuer, covetousness, which Paul taught us to flee (cf. Col. 3: s). Even if we are not heavily laden, we must still tun as fast as we can, or else the enemy will overtake us.
Attachment to worldly things is a grave obstacle to those who are striving after holiness, and often brings ruin to both soul and body. For what destroyed Naboth the Israelite? Was not his vineyard the cause of his death, because it roused the jealousy of his neighbor Ahab (cf. 1 Kgs. 21:1-16)? What made the two and a half tribes stay outside the promised land, but their huge herds and flocks (cf. Num. 34:15)? What divided Lot and Abraham? Was it not also their huge herds and flocks which caused continual quarrels among the herdsmen, and in the end forced them to part (cf. Gen. 13:5-11)?
So possessions arouse feelings of jealousy against their owners, cut off their owners from men better than themselves, divide families, and make friends hate one another. Possessions, moreover, have no place in the life to come, and even in this present life have no great use. Why, then, do we abandon the service of God and devote ourselves entirely to empty trivialities? For it is God who supplies us with all that we need. Human efforts inevitably fail unless God helps us; while God in His providence bestows every blessing without man’s assistance. What benefits were gained from their efforts by those to whom God said: “You sowed much and gathered little, and I blew it away out of your hands' (cf. Hag. 1:9)? And what did the righteous lack, though they gave no thought at all for their needs? Were not the Israelites fed in the desert for forty years, without cultivating the land? They always had enough to eat, for in a strange and miraculous way quails came in from the sea and manna fell from the sky (cf. Exod. 16), and a dry rock, when struck, gushed water (cf. Exod. 17:6); and throughout the whole forty years their clothes and shoes never wore out (cf. Deut. 8:4). What land was tilled beside the brook Kerith where Elyah hid? Did not the ravens bring him food (cf. | Kgs. 17:6)? And when he came to Sarepta, did not the widow, despite her desperate need, give him bread, snatching it from the mouth other own children (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:10-16)? All this shows that we should seek holiness, not clothing, food and drink.
Strange though all these things may seem, they are by no means impossible. A man can live without eating if God so wills. For how did Elijah complete a journey of forty days with the strength received from a single meal (cf. | Kgs. 19:8)? And how did Moses remain on the mountain in communion with God for eighty days without tasting human food? After forty days he came down and, enraged by the image of the calf which the Israelites had made, immediately he broke the tablets of stone engraved with the Law and went back up the mountain, remaining there for another forty days; and only then, after receiving two further tablets of stone, did he go down again to the people (cf. Exod. 24:12-18; 31:18-34: 3 5). How can the human mind explain this miracle? How did his bodily nature survive without anything to replenish its daily loss of strength? This enigma is solved by the divine Logos, when He says: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God’ (Matt. 4:4).
Why, then, do we drag the monastic way of life down from heaven to earth, burying ourselves in material anxieties? Why do we who once were ‘brought up in scarlet’ now ‘embrace dunghills’, as Jeremiah says in his Lamentations (Lam. 4:5)? For when we are refreshed with radiant and fiery thoughts, we are ‘brought up in scarlet’; but when we leave this state and involve ourselves in material things, we ‘embrace dunghills’. Why do we abandon hope in God and rely on the strength of our own arm, ascribing the gifts of God’s providence to the work of our hands? Job considered that his greatest sin was to raise his hand to his mouth and kiss it (cf. Job 31: 27), but we feel no qualms in doing this. For many people are accustomed to kiss their hands, saying that it is their hands which bring them prosperity. The Law refers to such people symbolically when it says: ‘Whatever goes upon its paws is unclean’, and ‘whatever goes upon all fours or has many feet is always unclean! (cf. Lev. 11:27, 42). Now the phrase ‘goes upon its paws’ indicates someone who relies on his own hands and places all his hope in them, while to ‘go on all fours’ is to trust in sensory things and continually to seduce one’s intellect into worrying about them: and to have ‘many feet! signifies clinging to material objects.
This is why the author of Proverbs, speaking figuratively, does not wish the perfect man to have even two feet, but only one, and this one seldom involving him in material things; for he says:
‘Seldom set your foot within your friend’s house, lest he grow weary of you, and so hate you’ (Prov. 25:17. LXX). “You are my friends’, says the Savior to His disciples (John 15:14); and if we try not to worry our friends about our bodily needs, then we should only seldom trouble Christ about such matters; for if we keep worrying our friends they will come to hate us. What will our fate be, and how shall we escape condemnation, if we are constantly occupied with these bodily needs, and never stand upright or straighten our legs, so as to raise ourselves from the ground? For our two legs together carry the whole mass of the body, and by crouching a little we are able to spring upwards; and in the same way our faculty of discrimination, after stooping to attend to the needs of the body, can once more look upwards unimpeded, separating itself from all worldly thoughts.
Standing upright, then, is characteristic of men who do not constantly indulge their lower impulses; it is also characteristic of the angelic powers, because they have no need of physical things and feel no longing for them. That is what Ezekiel meant when he said: “Their legs were straight and their feet were winged’ (Ezek. 1:7. LXX). This signifies the unbending steadfastness of their outlook and the swiftness of their movement towards spiritual things. Men, on the other hand, have been given legs that bend: in this way they can descend sometimes to fulfill the needs of the body, and at other times ascend to fulfill those of the soul. Because of the soul’s kinship with the heavenly powers, we should for the most part dwell with them on high; as regards the body, we should turn our attention to material things only in so far as some necessity forces us to do so. But always to be creeping on the ground in search of pleasure is defiling and degrading for someone with experience of spiritual knowledge.
Strictly speaking, we should call someone unclean, not because he goes on all fours, but only if he does so continually; for God allows those who are in a body to attend from time to time to their bodily needs. Thus Jonathan, when fighting Nahash the Ammonite, gained the victory over him by moving on all fours (cf. 1 Sam. 14:13); but he did this solely because he had to. When fighting the snake that creeps on its belly - for this is what the name Nahash means - he was forced for a short time to do the same by going on all fours; and then, standing up again in the usual way, he easily defeated his opponent.
The story of Ish-bosheth also teaches us not to be over-anxious about bodily things, and not to rely on the senses to protect us. He was a king who went to rest in his chamber, leaving a woman as door-keeper. When the men of Rechab came, they found her dozing off as she was winnowing wheat; so, escaping her notice, they slipped in and slew Ish-bosheth while he was asleep (cf. 2 Sam. 4:5-8). Now when bodily concerns predominate, everything in man is asleep: the intellect, the soul and the senses. For the woman at the door winnowing wheat indicates the state of one whose reason is closely absorbed in physical things and trying with persistent efforts to purify them. It is clear that this story in Scripture should not be taken literally. For how could a king have a woman as doorkeeper, when he ought properly to be guarded by a troop of soldiers, and to have round him a large body of attendants? Or how could he be so poor as to use her to winnow the wheat? But improbable details are often included in a story because of the deeper truth they signify. Thus the intellect in each of us resides within like a king, while the reason acts as door- keeper of the senses. When the reason occupies itself with bodily things - and to winnow wheat is something bodily - the enemy without difficulty slips past unnoticed and slays the intellect. This is why Abraham did not entrust the guarding of the door to a woman, knowing that the senses are easily deceived; for they take pleasure in the sight of sensory things, and so divide the intellect and persuade it to share in sensual delights, although this is clearly dangerous. But Abraham himself sat by the door (cf. Gen. 18:1), allowing free entry to divine thoughts, while barring the way to worldly cares.
What advantage do we gain in life from all our useless toil over worldly things? ‘Is not all man’s labor for the sake of his mouth! (Eccles. 6:7)? Now, according to the Apostle (1 Tim. 6:8), ‘food and raiment’ are all we need to maintain our humble flesh. Why, then, as Solomon asks, do we labor endlessly ‘for the wind’ = (Eccles. 5:16)? Through our anxiety about worldly things we hinder the soul from enjoying divine blessings and we bestow on the flesh greater care and comfort than are good for it. We nourish it with what is harmful and thus make it an adversary, so that it not only wavers in battle but, because of over-indulgence, it fights vigorously against the soul, seeking honors and rewards. What in fact are the basic needs of the body that we use as a pretext when indulging an endless succession of desires? Simply bread and water. Well, do not the springs provide running water in abundance, while bread is easily earned by those who have hands? In this way we can satisfy the needs of the body, while suffering little or no distraction. And does our clothing call for much care? Again, no - if we reject a stupid conformity to fashion, and consider only our actual needs. For what fine-spun clothing, what linen or purple or silk did the first man wear? Did not the Creator command him to wear a coat of skins and to eat herbs (cf. Gen. 3:18, 21)? Such were the limits He set to the needs of the body - far different from the civilized shamelessness of today.
I am not arguing here that He who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field with such glory will certainly provide also for us if we pursue holiness; for those who are still far from real faith in God cannot as yet be persuaded by this argument. But who, when asked, will refuse to give what is needful to one who lives a holy life? The barbarous Babylonians who took Jerusalem by force showed respect for the holiness of Jeremiah (cf. Jer. 40:4- 5), and provided him abundantly with all his bodily requirements, giving him not only food but the vessels with which it was the custom to serve guests. Surely, then, our own fellow-countrymen, since they are not totally barbarous, will appreciate goodness and admire what is holy, and so will show respect for our ascetic life. Even if they themselves cannot follow the ascetic way owing to the weakness of their nature, at least they hold this way in honor and venerate those who pursue it. What persuaded the Shunammite woman to build a chamber for Elisha, and to put there a table, bed and candlestick (cf. 2 Kgs. 4:10)? Was it not Elisha’s holiness? And what made the widow, when the whole country was ravaged by famine, place the needs of the Prophet before her own (cf. 1 Kgs. 17:10- 16)?
Had she not been amazed by Elijah’s spiritual wisdom, she would not have deprived herself and her children of what small material solace still remained to them, and given it to him. She expected in any case to die before long, but in her generosity to the stranger she was ready to do so even before the time came.
Men such as Elijah and Elisha became what they were through their courage, perseverance and indifference to the things of this life. They practiced frugality; by being content with little they reached a state in which they wanted nothing, and so came to resemble the bodiless angels. As a result, though outwardly insignificant and unnoticed, they became stronger than the greatest of earthly rulers; they spoke more boldly to crowned monarchs than any king does to his own subjects. In what weapons or strength did Elijah trust when he rebuked Ahab, saying: ‘It is not I who have troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house! (1 Kgs. 18:18)? How was Moses able to withstand Pharaoh when he had nothing but holiness to give him courage (cf. Exod. 5)? When the armies of the kings of Israel and Judah were gathered for war, how did Elisha dare to say to Jehoram: ‘As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward you, nor see you’ (2 Kgs. 3:14)? He was afraid neither of the assembled troops nor of the king’s anger, which was likely to flare up for no good reason in time of war, when his mind was confused and anxious. Can any king achieve what holiness achieves? What robe of royal purple divided a river, as did the mantle of Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:8)? And what royal crown cured diseases, as did the handkerchiefs of the apostles (cf. Acts 19:12)? A solitary prophet once censured a king for his unlawful acts, when the king had his whole army with him. Incensed by the criticisms, the king stretched out his hand to seize the prophet; yet not only did he fail to catch hold of him, but he was unable to draw his hand back again, for it had withered (cf. 1 Kgs. 13:4). Here was a contest between holiness and a king’s power; and victory went to holiness. The prophet did not fight; it was holiness that routed the enemy. The combatant himself did nothing while his faith acted. The king’s allies stood by as judges of the contest; and the king’s hand stuck fast, showing that holiness had won.
These holy men achieved such things because they had resolved to live for the soul alone, turning away from the body and its wants. The fact of needing nothing made them superior to all men. They chose to forsake the body and to free themselves from life in the flesh, rather than to betray the cause of holiness and, because of their bodily needs, to flatter the wealthy. But, as for us, when we lack something, instead of struggling courageously against our difficulties, we come fawning to the rich, like puppies wagging their tails in the hope of being tossed a bare bone or some crumbs. To get what we want, we call them benefactors and protectors of Christians, attributing every virtue to them, even though they may be utterly wicked. We do not investigate how the saints lived, although supposedly it is our aim to imitate their holiness.
Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, came to Elisha with many gifts. And what did the prophet do? Did he go out to meet him? Did he run towards him? No, he sent a lad to find out why Naaman had come, and did not even admit him to his presence. This was to prevent anyone thinking that he had cured Naaman in return for the gifts that he brought (cf. 2 Kgs. 5:8-16). This story, without teaching us to be arrogant, shows us that we should not flatter, because of our needs, those who value highly the very things it is our vocation to despise.
Why do we forsake the pursuit of spiritual wisdom, and engage in agriculture and commerce? What can be better than to entrust our anxieties to God, so that He may help us with the farming? The soil is tilled and the seeds are sown by human effort; then God sends the rain, watering the seeds in the soft womb of the earth and enabling them to develop roots. He makes the sun rise, warming the soil, and with this warmth He stimulates the growth of the plants. He sends winds tempered to their development. When young shoots begin to come up, He fans them with gentle breezes, so that the crop is not scorched by hot streams of air. Then with steady winds He ripens the milky substance of the grains inside the husks. At threshing-time He provides fiery heat; for winnowing, suitable breezes. If one of these factors is missing, all our human toil is wasted; our efforts achieve nothing when they are not sealed by God’s gifts. Often, even when all these factors are present, a violent and untimely storm of rain spoils the grain as it is being threshed or when it has been heaped up clean. Sometimes, again, it is destroyed by worms in the granary: the table, as it were, is already laid and then the food is suddenly snatched from our very mouths. What, then, is the use of relying on our own efforts, since God controls the helm and directs all things as He wills?
We are apt to say that in sickness the body needs some relief. But is it not much better to die rather than do something unworthy of our vocation? In any case, if God wishes us to go on living, either He will give our body enough strength to bear the pain of the illness, and will reward us for our courage; or else He will find some way to relieve the pain, for the Fountain of Wisdom never lacks a remedy.
What we need to do above all else is to return to the blessed way of life followed by the first monks. This way can easily be attained by all who wish. And then, if any suffering comes, it will not be fruitless; for there is this consolation: that it corrects our faults and enables us to make progress. Such suffering also confers great benefit on those who have embarked on the spiritual path but then abandoned it, in that it makes them return to this path once more.
Let us avoid staying in towns and villages; it is better for their inhabitants to come and visit us. Let us seek the wilderness and so draw after us the people who now shun us. For Scripture praises those who ‘leave the cities and dwell in the rocks, and are like the dove’ (cf. Jer. 48:28). John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and the population of entire towns came out to him. Men dressed in garments of silk hastened to see his leather girdle; those who lived in houses with gilded ceilings chose to endure hardship in the open air; and rather than sleep on beds adorned with jewels they preferred to lie on the sand. All this they endured, although it was contrary to their usual habits; for in their desire to see John the Baptist and in their wonder at his holiness they did not notice the hardships and discomfort. For holiness is held in higher honor than wealth; and the life of stillness wins greater fame than a large fortune. How many rich men there were at that time, proud of their glory, and yet today they are quite forgotten: whereas the miraculous life of this humble desert-dweller is acclaimed until this day, and his memory is greatly revered by all. For the renown of holiness is eternal, and its intrinsic virtues proclaim its value.
Let us give up our flocks and herds, and so become real shepherds. Let us abandon sordid commerce, and so acquire the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matt. 13:46). Let us stop tilling the earth which ‘brings forth thorns and thistles’ (Gen. 3:18), and so become cultivators and keepers of paradise. Let us give up everything and choose the life of stillness, and so put to silence those who now reproach us for owning possessions. The best way to abash our critics is discreetly to correct in ourselves the faults for which they revile us; for such a change in those reproached puts their reproachers to shame.
There is another thing which in my opinion is truly disgraceful, and for which with good reason we are ridiculed by all. When someone has just entered the monastic life and has leamt merely about the outward practices of asceticism - how and when monks pray, what they eat and how they dress - at once he claims to teach others concerning things he has not mastered himself. He goes about with a bevy of disciples, although himself still needing instruction; he thinks it easy to be a spiritual guide, not realizing that the care of other men’s souls is of all things the most difficult. For men must first be purified from old defilements, and then with close attention must learn about holiness. But when a person imagines that there is nothing beyond bodily ascetic practice, how will he correct the moral character of his pupils? How will he refashion those enslaved to evil habits? How will he help those attacked by the passions, when he knows nothing about mental warfare? How will he heal the wounds they receive when fighting, since he himself lies wounded and is in need of aid?
To master any art requires time and much instruction; can the art of arts alone be mastered without being leamt? No one without experience would go in for farming; nor would someone who has never been taught medicine try to practice as a doctor. The first would be condemned for making good farmland barren and weed-infested; the second, for making the sick worse instead of better. The only art which the uninstructed dare to practice, because they think it the simplest of all, is that of the spiritual way. What is difficult the majority regard as easy; and what Paul says he has not yet apprehended (cf. Phil. 3:12), they claim to know through and through, although they do not know even this: that they are totally ignorant.
This is why the monastic life has come to be treated with contempt, and those who follow it are mocked by everyone. For who would not laugh when he sees someone who yesterday served in a tavern, posing today as a teacher of virtue, surrounded by pupils? Or when he sees a man who has just left a life of civic dishonesty now swaggering all over the market-place with a crowd of disciples? If such people realized clearly how much painful toil is required to guide others on the spiritual way, and if they knew the risks involved, they would certainly abandon the task as beyond their powers. But because they remain ignorant of this and regard it as a glory to be the guide of others, they will when the moment comes tumble headlong into the pit. They think nothing of leaping into a burning furnace. They provoke laughter in those who know their previous life, and arouse God’s anger by their foolhardiness. Because Eli failed to correct his children, nothing could avert God’s wrath from him - neither his venerable old age, nor his past freedom of communion with God, nor the honor due to his priesthood (cf. 1 Sam. 2:12, 29; 4:18). How, then, will they escape His wrath whose previous actions have not commended them to God, who understand neither the workings of sin nor how to correct it, and who embark on this dangerous task without experience, incited by love for glory?
At first sight it seems that the only teachers our Lord had in mind were the Pharisees when He said: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you scour sea and land to gain one proselyte, and when he is gained, you make him twice as much the child of hell as yourselves’ (Matt. 23:15) But in reality, by rebuking the Pharisees in this way, He was warning those who in the future would fall into the same mistake; so that, heeding His words ‘Woe to you. . .’, from fear of His condemnation they would restrain their improper desire for human glory. They should also recall the example of Job, and either care for their disciples as he cared for his children, or else renounce all claim to give spiritual direction. Wishing his sons to be free from sins in their mind, Job offered sacrifices every day on their behalf in case, as he said, ‘my sons have thought evil in their minds against God’ (Job 1:5. LXX). But these men cannot discern even outward sins, because their intelligence is still obscured by dust from the battle which they are Waging against the passions. How, then, do they rashly take upon themselves the direction and cure of others, when as yet they have not cured their own passions, and when they cannot lead others to victory, since they have not yet gained the victory for themselves? First we must struggle against our own passions, watching and keeping in mind the course of the battle; and then on the basis of personal experience we can advise others about this warfare, and render victory easier for them by describing the tactics beforehand.
There are some who gain control over their passions by practicing great austerities, but, as happens in skirmishes by night, they do not know how victory was won, and have no clear idea of the snares laid against them by the enemy. This is indicated symbolically by what Joshua did: while his army was crossing the Jordan at night, he ordered his men to take stones out of the river, set them up on the bank, and then cover them with whitewash and write on them how they had passed over the Jordan (cf. Josh. 4: 2-9). By this he signified that the hidden thoughts underlying our passionate behavior should be brought into the open and pilloried, and that we should not mind sharing this knowledge with others. In this way, not only will the one who has crossed know how he did it, but others who wish to do the same will cross more easily because they have been instructed. Through such experience the first teaches others.
But these self-appointed teachers lack personal experience, and do not even listen when others speak to them. Relying solely on their own self-assurance, they order their brethren to wait on them like slaves. They glory in this one thing: to have many disciples. Their main objective is to ensure that, when they go about in public, their retinue of followers is no smaller than those of their rivals. They behave like mountebanks rather than teachers. They think nothing of giving orders, however burdensome, but they fail to teach others by their own conduct. Thus they make their purpose obvious to all: they have insinuated themselves into a position of leadership, not for the benefit of their disciples, but to promote their own pleasure.
They should learn from Abimelech and Gideon that it is not words but actions that inspire people to follow a leader. Abimelech prepared a load of wood, then laid it on his own shoulders, saying: ‘Make haste, and do what you have seen me do! (Judg. 9:48). Gideon also shared tasks with his men and by his. own example showed them what to do, saying: ‘Look at me, and do the same’ (Judg. 7:17). Similarly, the Apostle said: ‘These hands have ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me’ (Acts 20:34), while the Lord Himself first acted and then taught. All this proves that it is more convincing to teach through actions than through words.
But false teachers are blind to such examples, and arrogantly tell men what to do. Imagining that they know something about these matters at second hand, they are like the inexperienced shepherds who were rebuked by the prophet for carrying a sword on their arm: ‘The sword is on their arm … and their right eye will be blinded’ (cf. Zech. 11:17. LXX). For in their foolishness they have neglected right action, and so they have extinguished the light of contemplation. Yet as shepherds they are harsh and inhuman whenever they can inflict punishment. So their contemplative understanding is immediately destroyed, and then their actions, deprived of this understanding, prove misguided; for those who do not gird their sword to their thigh but carry it on their arm can neither do nor see anything. To ‘gird the sword to the thigh’ means to use the incisive power of the intelligence to cut off one’s own passions, while to bear it ‘on the arm’ means to have punishment ready for the sinful acts of others. Thus Nahash the Ammonite, whose name means ‘snake’, threatened the Israelites gifted with contemplative insight, that he would put out all their right eyes (cf. 1 Sam. 11:2), thus depriving them of any right understanding to lead them to right action. He knew that when people proceed from contemplation to action, this right understanding enables them to make great progress. The action is good because it has first been contemplated by the clear-sighted eyes of spiritual knowledge.
Experience shows that the task of guiding others should be undertaken by someone who is equable and has no personal advantage in view. For such a person, having tasted stillness and contemplation, and begun in some measure to be inwardly at peace, will not choose to entangle his intellect with bodily cares; he will not want to turn it away from knowledge and drag it down from the spiritual to the material. This point is underlined in the well- known parable which Jotham told the men of Shechem: ‘Once upon a time the trees went out to anoint a king over them; and they said … to the vine, “Come and reign over us.” And the vine said to them: “Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?"’ Similarly, the fig-tree declined because of its sweetness, and the olive because of its own good qualities. Then a bramble, a barren plant full of thorns, accepted the sovereignty which they offered, though it possessed neither a special good quality of its own, nor those of the trees that were to be subject to it (cf. Judg. 9:7-15). Now in this parable the trees which sought a ruler were not cultivated but wild. The vine, the fig-tree and the olive refused to rule over the wild trees, preferring to bear their own fruits rather than to occupy a position of authority. Likewise, those who perceive in themselves some fruit of virtue and feel its benefit, refuse to assume leadership even when pressed by others, because they prefer this benefit to receiving honor from men.
The curse which befell the trees in the parable also falls on these people who act in a similar way. ‘Let fire come out of the bramble,’ it says, ‘and devour the trees of the forest; or let. it come out of the trees and devour the bramble.’ For when these people make a harmful agreement, inevitably it proves dangerous not only to those who place themselves under an inexperienced teacher, but equally to the teacher who assumes authority over inattentive disciples. The teacher’s ineptitude destroys the disciples, and the disciples’ negligence endangers the teacher, especially when, because of his ineptitude, they grow lazy. For it is the teacher’s duty to notice and correct all his disciples’ faults, and it is the disciples’ duty to obey all his instructions. It is a serious and dangerous thing both for them to commit sins and for him to overlook them.
Let no one imagine that to be a spiritual guide is an excuse for ease and self-indulgence, for nothing is so demanding as the charge of souls. Those who have charge of horses and other animals keep them under control, and so they generally achieve their purpose. But to govern men is harder, because of the variety of their characters and their deliberate cunning. Anyone undertaking this task must prepare himself for a severe struggle. He must treat the faults of all with great forbearance, and patiently teach them things of which in their ignorance they are not aware.
This is the reason why, in the temple, oxen support the basin for washing (cf. 1 Kgs. 7:25), and why the whole candlestick was made of solid enchased gold (cf. Exod. 25:31). Now the candlestick signifies that whoever intends to enlighten others must be altogether solid and firmly based, and have nothing about him empty or hollow; everything in him which is superfluous and cannot serve others as an example of holiness must be cut away. And the oxen supporting the basin signify that anyone undertaking this work should not avoid what comes to him, but ought to bear the burdens and the defilement of those weaker than himself, so long as it is safe for him to do so.
For if he is going to purify the actions of those who come to him, he must to some degree himself share their defilement, just as a basin of water, while cleaning the hands of those who wash, itself receives their dirt. For one who speaks about the passions and wipes others clean of their stain cannot escape undefiled, since the act of dis- cussing them inevitably defiles the mind of the speaker. And even though he does not depict the sins in vivid colors, yet by speaking about them he stains the surface of his intellect.
The spiritual director must also possess knowledge of all the devices of the enemy, so that he can forewarn those under his charge about snares of which they are unaware, thus enabling them to gain victory without difficulty. Such a person is rare and not easily found. It is true that Paul says of himself: ‘We are not ignorant of Satan’s devices’ (2 Cor. 2:11); but Job asks in perplexity: ‘Who will reveal the face of his garment? And who can enter within the folds of his breastplate? Who will open the doors of his face?’ (Job 41:13-14 [41:4-5. LXX]). What he means is something like this: Satan has no visible Face, for he conceals his cunning beneath many garments. He deceitfully entices men with his outward appearance, while lying in wait secretly and devising their destruction. And Job, to show that he himself is not ignorant of Satan’s ways, speaks clearly about his sinister powers, saying: ‘His eyes are like the morning star, but his inward parts are asps’ (Job 41:18 [41:10, 6. LXX]). All this he says to expose the devil’s wickedness. For Satan entices men by simulating the beauty of the morning star, and when they draw near, he schemes to kill them with the asps inside him.
There is a proverb which emphasizes the hazards involved in undertaking spiritual direction: ‘He who chops wood is in danger if the head of the axe flies off’ (Eccles. 10:9-10. LXX). For when someone makes distinctions between things that are generally thought to be the same, trying to show the fundamental difference .between what is apparently and what is really good, he runs a grave risk: if he makes a mistake, he will lead his hearers into error. Remember how one of Elisha’s followers was cutting wood by the Jordan, and the head of his axe flew off and fell into the river. Realizing that he was in trouble - for the axe had been borrowed - he cried out to his teacher: ‘Alas, master!’ (2 Kgs. 6: 5). The same thing happens to those who try to teach on the basis of what they have wrongly understood from others, and who cannot complete the task because they do not speak from personal experience. Half-way through they are discovered to be contradicting themselves; and then they admit their ignorance, finding themselves in trouble because their teaching is merely borrowed.
In the Biblical story Elisha then threw a stick into the Jordan and brought to the surface the axe-head his disciple had lost (cf. 2 Kgs. 6:6); that is to say, he revealed a thought which his disciple believed to be hidden deep within him and he exposed it to the view of those present. Here the Jordan signifies speaking about repentance, for it was in the Jordan that John performed the baptism of repentance. Now if someone does not speak accurately about repentance, but makes his listeners despise it by failing to communicate its hidden power, he lets the axe-head fall into the Jordan. But then a stick - and this signifies the Cross - brings the axe-head up from the depths to the surface. For prior to the Cross the full meaning of repentance was hidden, and anyone who tried to say something about it could easily be convicted of speaking rashly and inadequately. After the Crucifixion, however, the meaning of repentance became clear to all, for it had been revealed at the appointed time through the wood of the Cross.
My aim in saying all this is not to discourage people from assuming the spiritual direction of beginners, but to urge them first to acquire the inward state needed for so great a task, and not to undertake it without adequate preparation. They should not think of the pleasures they will enjoy - disciples to wait on them, praise from outsiders -and so overlook the dangers involved. Before peace has been established, they should not turn the weapons of war into tools for cultivation. When a man has subdued all the passions, is no longer troubled by warfare, and is not forced to use weapons in self-defense, then he may properly undertake the direction of others. But so long as the passions oppress us and we are involved in carnal war against the will of the flesh, we should constantly keep hold of our weapons; otherwise our enemies will take advantage of our relaxation and overpower us without a fight.
In order to encourage those who have Struggled successfully to attain holiness, but who in their great humility think that they are not yet victorious, Scripture says: ‘Beat your swords into ploughshares, and your spears into pruning hooks’ (cf. Isa. 2; 4). This means that they should stop worrying pointlessly about their defeated enemies, and should for the benefit of others re-equip the powers of their soul, diverting them from warfare to the cultivation of those still rank with the weeds of wickedness. But Scripture gives the opposite advice to those who, before reaching this stage, through inexperience or foolishness undertake what lies beyond their power: for to them it says: ‘Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears’ (Joel 3:10). For what is the use of farming when there is war in the land, and the produce will be enjoyed by the enemy, not by those who did the work? This is probably why the Israelites, so long as they were fighting various nations in the desert, were not permitted to take up farming, since this would have hindered them as soldiers. But once they had made peace with the enemy, they were allowed to engage in farming; for they had been told that until they entered the promised land they should do no planting. Understandably, the entry must precede the planting; for when a man has not yet reached perfection and lacks stability, the qualities he tries to implant in others will not take root.
In the spiritual life, more than anywhere else, the proper order and sequence must be observed from the start. Guests at a dinner may not like the introductory dishes and may feel more attracted by what comes later, but they are forced to comply with the order of the courses. Likewise Jacob despised Leah’s ugly eyes and was more attracted by Rachel’s beauty; but first he had to serve seven years to gain Leah (cf. Gen. 29:15-28). To become a true monk a man should not work backwards from the end to the beginning, but start at the beginning and so advance towards perfection. In this way he will himself gain what he seeks, and will also be able to guide his disciples to holiness.
Most people, however, without exerting any effort or making any real progress, small or great, in the practice of virtue, simply chase after the status of spiritual director, not realizing how dangerous this is. When others urge them to undertake the work of teaching, they do not refuse; indeed, they even wander about the back streets, recruiting anyone they find, and they promise all kinds of perquisites, as if making a contract with servants about food and clothing. Spiritual directors of this kind like to appear in public supported by a large crowd of attendants, and to have all the outward pomp of an abbot, as if playing a part on the stage. So as not to lose the services of their disciples, they are forced to keep on gratifying their whims. They are like a charioteer who drops the reins and lets his horses go where they like. Their disciples are allowed to run wild: carried away by their desires, they fall over precipices or stumble at every obstacle in their path, because there is no one to stop them or to restrain their disordered impulses.
Such teachers should note how Ezekiel condemns those who indulge the pleasures of others. In giving way to everyone’s wishes they are treasuring up future punishment for themselves. ‘Woe to the women that sew patches on every elbow,’ says Ezekiel, ‘and put veils on the heads of people of every age … so as to slay souls for a handful of barley and a piece of bread’ (Ezek. 13:18-19. LXX). These false teachers are acting similarly, for they supply their bodily needs from the contributions of their disciples and wear clothes sewn together as it were from rags. By making others put veils on their heads they bring shame upon them, for men ought to pray or prophesy with their heads uncovered (cf. 1 Cor. 11:4); they render them effeminate and destroy souls that ought not to die.
Instead of doing this they ought to obey the true teacher Christ, and to refuse, as far as possible, to assume the direction of others. For He says to His disciples: ‘Do not be called Rabbi’ (Matt. 13:8). And if He admonished Peter and John and the rest of the apostles to avoid such work and to consider themselves unworthy of such a position, how can anyone imagine himself superior to them and claim for himself the office from which they were debarred? For in saying ‘Do not be called Rabbi’, He does not mean that we are free to assume the office so long as we avoid the title.
But what if someone, not from any choice of his own, is obliged to accept one or two disciples, and so to become the spiritual director of others as well? First, let him examine himself carefully, to see whether he can teach them through his actions rather than his words, setting his own life before them as a model of holiness. He must take care that, through copying him, they do not obscure the beauty of holiness with the ugliness of sin. He should also realize that he ought to work as hard for his disciples' salvation as he does for his own; for, having once accepted responsibility for them, he will be accountable to God for them as well as for himself. That is why the saints tried to leave behind them disciples whose holiness was no less than their own, and to change these disciples from their original condition to a better state. Thus Paul the Apostle changed Onesimus from a runaway slave into a martyr (cf. Philem. 10-19); Elijah turned Elisha from a ploughman into a prophet (cf. 1 Kgs. 19:19); Moses transmitted special gifts to Joshua, though he was younger than all the rest (cf. Deut. 31:7-8); and Eli made Samuel greater than himself (cf. 1 Sam. 3:19-20). In each of these cases the disciple was helped by his own efforts, but the chief cause of his progress was the fact that he had found a teacher capable of fanning the smoldering spark of his zeal and of kindling it into flame. So these teachers became God’s spokesmen, communicating His will to others; for God says: ‘If you bring forth the precious from the vile, you shall be as My mouth! (Jer. 15:19).
God also showed Ezekiel what the teacher’s attitude should be, and what kind of change he should bring about in his disciples: ‘Son of man,’ He says, ‘take a tile, and lay it before you, and portray upon it the city, even Jerusalem! (Ezek. 4:1). This means that the teacher should transform his disciple from clay into a holy temple. The words ‘and lay it before you’ are particularly significant, for the disciple will quickly improve if he is continually in the sight of his teacher. The constant influence of a good example marks other souls with its own impress, so long as they are not completely stubborn and insensitive. The reason Gehazi and Judas succumbed, the first to theft and the second to treachery, was that they withdrew from the sight of their teachers: had they remained under the restraining influence of their teacher’s eye, they would not have sinned.
God likewise indicates that the disciples’ negligence endangers the teacher himself, when He says: ‘And you shall set a frying-pan between yourself and the tile, and it shall be a wall between the tile and you’ (cf. Ezek. 4:3). For if the teacher wishes to avoid the punishment suffered by a lazy disciple whom he has changed from clay into a city, he should tell this disciple of the chastisement that awaits those who relapse, and then his words of warning will serve as a wall, separating the innocent from the guilty. That is what God means when He says to Ezekiel: ‘Son of man, I have set you as a watchman over the house of Israel; and if you see the sword threatening one of them and do not give him warning, and he dies, I will require his soul at your hand’ (cf. Ezek. 3:17-18).
Moses made such a wall for himself when he said to the Israelites: ‘Watch yourselves, so that you do not try to follow them after they have been destroyed before you’ (Deut. 12:30. LXX). For if someone does not watch his mind attentively, he will find that, after he has cut down the passions, the images of past fantasies begin to emerge again like young shoots. If he constantly allows these images to force their way into his intellect and does not bar their entry, the passions will once more establish themselves within him; despite his previous victory, he will have to struggle against them again. For, after being tamed and taught to graze like cattle, the passions can become savage once more through our negligence and regain the ferocity of wild beasts. It is to prevent this that Scripture says: ‘Do not try to follow them after they have been destroyed before you’; that is, Wwe must not allow our soul to form the habit of taking pleasure in fantasies of this kind, and so to relapse into its previous wickedness.
Realizing this, Jacob hid the images of the strange gods at Shechem, and ‘destroyed them up to the present day’ (Gen. 35:4. LXX); for he knew that to look at such things and constantly to think about them harms the mind by impressing upon it clear and distinct images of shameful fantasies. Our struggle against the passions should hide and destroy them, not just for a short time, but ‘up to the present day’, that is, for all time; since ‘the present day’ is co- extensive with every age, always referring to the present moment. Now Shechem means ‘to shoulder’, thus signifying the struggle against the passions. Joseph was sent to Shechem and fought an arduous battle there against the passions (cf. Gen. 37:12-28). Likewise Jacob said that he took Shechem by sword and bow (cf. Gen. 34: 26), meaning that he subdued the passions after a hard struggle, hiding them in the earth at Shechem.
Now there is evidently a difference between hiding gods at Shechem and placing an idol in a secret place. The first action is praised while the second is condemned, for Scripture says: ‘Cursed is he who puts an idol in a secret place’ (cf. Deut. 27:15). To hide something completely in the earth is not the same as putting it in a secret place; for what is hidden in the earth and no longer perceived by the senses is in time erased even from the memory, whereas what is put in a secret place may escape the attention of others, but it is constantly seen by whoever put it there, and so the memory of it is kept fresh, since it is carried about secretly as an image in the mind. Every shameful thought formed in the mind is a secret idol. If it is disgraceful to disclose such thoughts to others, it is also dangerous to set them as an idol in a secret place; and it is even more dangerous to search for images that have already been made to disappear, since our mind readily inclines towards a passion that we have previously expelled, and we are drawn towards it by sensual pleasure.
From this we may understand that virtue is a thing most delicately balanced, and that if neglected it quickly turns into its opposite. Scripture seems to refer to this symbolically, saying: ‘The land into which you go so as to inherit it is a land subject to change through the movement of the peoples’ (Ezra 9:11. LXX). For as soon as someone who has attained the state of virtue inclines towards its opposite, his virtue is thereby altered, being ‘a land subject to change’. So from the moment that harmful fantasies appear we should deny them entry into our mind. We should not allow it to ‘go down into Egypt’, for from there it is led away into captivity by the Assyrians (cf. Jer. 42 :19; 43:2-3). For when the mind descends into the darkness of impure thoughts — and that is what Egypt means — then the passions drag it forcibly and against its will into their service.
This is why the Lawgiver, symbolically commanding us to deny entry to sensual pleasure, told us to watch the head of the serpent, because it is watching our heel (cf. Gen. 3:15). Its aim is to bite our heel and so to poison us; whereas our aim is to crush every provocation to sensual pleasure, for when the provocation is crushed, sensuality has little power over us. Samson surely would not have been able to bum the Philistines’ crops unless he had first turned the foxes' heads in opposite directions, tied their tails together, and put a burning torch between them (cf. Judg. 15:4). This means that we should learn to detect the attack of deceitful thoughts from premonitory signs and to watch their first beginnings, which they contrive to make attractive in appearance so as to attain their end; then we can expose the wickedness of these thoughts by comparing their first beginnings with the final results. This is to tie the tails together and to set between them a torch, thus showing things up for what they are.
To clarify what has been said, let us take two examples. Often the vice of unchastity has its first beginning in self- esteem; the gateway at the entrance appears attractive, but hidden behind it lies the destructive path that leads the mindless into the realm of death. Under the influence of self-esteem, a man may perhaps enter the priesthood or the life of monastic perfection, and because many come to him for help, his self- esteem makes him think highly of himself thanks to what he says and does. So, by beguiling him with such thoughts, self-esteem draws him far away from the inner watchfulness that he should possess. Then it suggests to him that he should meet a woman of supposedly holy life, and so leads him to assent to an act of carnal lust, depriving his conscience of its intimate communion with God and plunging it into abject disgrace. To ‘tie tail to tail’ like Sampson, let us reflect how this man’s thought began and where it led him; and let us consider how he was punished for his self-esteem by falling into a shameful act of unchastity. Then we shall see clearly the contrast between the beginning and .the end, and the way they are linked together.
To take a second example: the vice of gluttony can lead to that of unchastity; and this in turn can lead to the vice of dejection. For as soon as one who has been overcome by the vice of unchastity regains the state of inner watchfulness, he is filled with despondency and dejection. When pursuing the spiritual way, therefore, we should not be influenced by the pleasures of eating or the allurements of sensuality, but should consider where they both end up. And when we find that they lead to dejection, we have ‘tied tail to tail’ and, by showing things up for what they are, we have set the crops of the Philistines on fire with a burning torch.
Since warfare against the passions requires such knowledge and experience, anyone who assumes the task of spiritual direction should realize how much he needs to know in order to lead those under his charge to ‘the prize of the high calling’ (Phil. 3:14), and to teach them clearly all that this warfare entails. He should not pretend to gain the victory by shadow-boxing, but must engage in a real battle with the enemy and inflict deadly wounds upon him. This struggle is far harder than any gymnastic contest. When an athlete’s body is thrown to the ground, he can easily get up; but in the spiritual warfare it is men’s souls that fall, and then it is very difficult for them to rise once more.
If a man, while still battling against the passions and stained with blood, tries to build a temple of God out of souls made in the divine image, he should listen to these words: ‘You shall not build Me a temple, because you are a man of blood! (cf. 1 Chr. 22:8). To build a temple for God one must be in a state of peace. Moses took the tabernacle and pitched it outside the camp (cf. Exod. 33:7): this shows that the teacher must be far removed from the tumult of war and the confusion of the camp, and must have attained a peaceful and unwarlike state.
But even when such teachers have been found, they require disciples who have renounced themselves and their own will, so as to become exactly like dead bodies or the raw material in the craftsman’s hand. Just as the soul acts as it wishes in the body, without the body offering any opposition, and just as the raw material does not resist the craftsman when he demonstrates his skill by working upon it, so disciples should be obedient to their teacher when he is guiding them to holiness, and should not contradict him in any way. If they become over-curious about the manner in which he is performing his task and start questioning his instructions, they hinder their own progress.
What seems reasonable and convincing to the inexperienced is not necessarily correct. The skilled craftsman judges things quite differently from the unskilled man, for the first is guided by precise knowledge, the second by what seems to him probable. Now probability relies on guesswork and is usually wrong, for it is closely related to error. For example, when a ship is sailing close to the wind, the helmsman tells the people on board to do what seems the more improbable: to leave the side of the ship which has risen up out of the water and against which the wind is exerting greater pressure, and to sit on the side which is dipping down into the waves. Considerations of probability would lead us to expect exactly the opposite advice. Nevertheless, those who are in the ship obey the helmsman rather than their own ideas; of necessity they defer to the skill of the man in charge, however questionable his instructions may appear. Surely, then, those who have entrusted their salvation to others should abandon all notions of probability and submit to the skill of the expert, judging his knowledge more trustworthy than their own opinions.
Those who renounce the world should in the first place make sure that they keep back nothing. They should fear the terrible example of Ananias, who thought that no one would notice if he kept back something for himself, and who was condemned by God for stealing (cf. Acts 5:1-10). They should renounce not only themselves but everything they have, knowing that whatever they retain will form an object of continuing attraction to their minds, and so will draw them away from higher things and eventually cut them off altogether from the brotherhood. Let us recall the lives of the men of old, written by the Holy Spirit: here appropriate examples can be found to bring each man to the truth, whatever his way of life. When Elisha placed himself under his teacher, how did he renounce the world? Scripture says that he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and that he killed the cattle, made a fire of their harness, and roasted them (cf. | Kgs. 19:19, 21). This gives us some idea how eager he was. He did not say, ‘I shall sell the harness and distribute the money appropriately’; he did not calculate that the things would do more good if sold. Entirely absorbed by his desire to join his teacher, he despised all visible things and sought to get rid of them, because they would distract him from his intention;
and he knew that delay often leads to a change of mind. And why did the Lord, when He spoke to the rich man about the life of perfection ordained by God, instruct him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, keeping back nothing for himself (cf. Matt. 19:21)? Was it not because He knew that anything kept back would give rise to all kinds of distractions? And I think that when Moses requires those who wish to sanctify themselves through intense prayer to shave their entire body, he is likewise demanding the complete renunciation of possessions (cf. Num. 8:7).
In the second place, those embracing the monastic life should forget their relatives and friends to such an extent that they are never troubled at all by memories of them. When the Ark was being pulled in a cart by two cows, it made them forget their own nature. Their calves had been taken from them and shut up at home, and there was no one driving the cows; yet they finished the journey without making a mistake, turning aside to neither right nor left (cf. 1 Sam. 6:12). Though distressed by the separation from their calves, they did not moo; though laboring under the weight of the Ark and subject to the tyranny of their natural instincts, they kept to the direct route as though walking along a straight line, so overwhelming was their reverence for the Ark that was in the cart. If cows acted in this manner, should not equal reverence be shown by those who have undertaken to carry the spiritual Ark? Indeed, their reverence should be far greater; otherwise human nature formed in God’s image would be surpassed by the beasts, for men would be failing to do by conscious choice what animals did by necessity.
Perhaps the reason why Joseph wandered in the desert was because he sought to attain perfection without renouncing the bonds of kinship (cf. Gen. 37:15-16). Thus the man who asked him the reason for his wandering gathered from his answer that it was his attachment to his relatives, and not the fact that he was a shepherd; for he said: ‘I seek my brethren; tell me, I pray you, where they feed their flocks.’ But had he possessed a true understanding of the shepherd’s art, he would have said ‘tend’ and not ‘feed’. The man answered: ‘They have gone away; for I heard them say. Let us go to Dothan’ (Gen. 37:17). Now Dothan means ‘sufficient detachment’; and so the man’s answer teaches one who is still wandering because of attachment to his relatives that it is not possible to attain perfection unless one has fully abandoned all such attachment. It is not enough to depart from Haran (cf. Gen. 29:4), a name which means ‘caves’, and so signifies the senses. Again, it is not enough to go put from the valley of Hebron (cf. Gen. 37:14), that is, of humble works, and to leave the desert in which those who seek perfection are still wandering. For unless we reach Dothan — that is, attain sufficient detachment - we gain nothing from our efforts; if bonds of kinship still hold us under their spell, we shall fail to attain perfection. Indeed, the Lord himself strongly urged us to abandon bonds of kinship; for He rebuked Mary the Mother of God because she sought Him among His relatives (cf. Luke 2:49), and He said that whoever loves father and mother more than Him is unworthy of Him (cf. Matt. 10:37).
After they have succeeded in these two things, those who have only recently escaped from the agitation of the world should be advised to practice stillness; otherwise, by frequently going out, they will reopen the wounds inflicted on their mind through the senses. They should take care not to add new images to their old fantasies. Those who have only just renounced the world find stillness hard to practice, for memory now has time to stir up all the filth that is within them, whereas previously it had no chance to do this because of their many preoccupations. But, though hard to practice, stillness will in time free the intellect from being disturbed by impure thoughts. Since the aim is to cleanse the soul and purify it from all defilement, such people should avoid everything that makes it unclean. They should keep their intelligence in a state of profound calm, far from all that irritates it, and should refrain from talking with men of frivolous character. They should embrace solitude, the mother of wisdom. If these people mix freely with the confusion of the outside world, it is easy for them to be caught again in the snares from which they thought they had escaped. When one is aiming at holiness it is useless to indulge in the very things one has condemned and run away from. But such is the force of habit that they are in danger of losing the stillness which they have acquired with so much effort, and of reverting to their shameful ways, reviving memories of forgotten sins. The intellect of someone who has lately withdrawn from sin is like a body that has begun to recover from a protracted illness: when the physical organism is in this state, something quite trivial is enough to cause a relapse, since it has not yet fully regained its strength. Likewise, when a man has only just embarked on the monastic life, the sinews of his intellect are weak and flabby and there is a danger that his passions will return, for they are naturally aroused by contact with the tumult of the world outside. That is why Moses ordered those who wished to escape the destroying angel to stay indoors, saying: ‘None of you shall go out of the door of his house, lest the destroyer touch him’ (cf. Exod. 12:22-23). Jeremiah, too, seems to give the same advice: ‘Do not go out into the field, or walk by the way, for the sword of the enemy … is on every side’ (Jer. 6:25).
A veteran of tested courage goes out to engage the enemy at close quarters, but anyone incapable of fighting should stay at home out of harm’s way, keeping safe from danger by remaining quiet and in stillness. Joshua, the son of Nun, acted in this way; for it is written: ‘His servant Joshua, a young man, did not go out of the tabernacle! (Exod. 33:11). He knew from the story of Abel that those who go out into the battlefield and engage prematurely in the fight are killed by their relatives and friends (cf. Gen. 4:8). The same lesson may be learnt from the story of Dinah (cf. Gen. 34: 1ff). It is the mark of a girlish mind for one to attempt things beyond one’s power, and falsely to imagine that one’s own resources are adequate. If Dinah had not rashly gone to see what was going on in the neighborhood, supposing herself strong enough to resist its attractions, her soul’s judgment would not have been seduced by sensory things and corrupted before growing to maturity; for her lawful husband, the spiritual power of the intelligence, was not yet known to her. Wishing to uproot this passion of presumption that has established itself within man, God said to Moses: ‘Fill the children of Israel with a spirit of reverence! (Lev. 15:31. LXX). For rashly to undertake tasks beyond one’s power is contrary to the spirit of reverence.
Before we are properly trained, then, we should avoid the agitation of city life and keep our minds far from all distracting noise. It is no great gain to renounce things, and then to listen all the time to gossip about them - to leave the city and its activities, and yet to sit at the gate like Lot (cf. Gen. 19:1) and be filled with the tumult that comes from inside. But like Moses we should abandon the city altogether, avoiding not only its activities but also any talk about them. ‘When I depart from the city’, says Moses, ‘and stretch out my hands, the sounds will cease’ (Exod. 9:29. LXX).
When we not only refrain from worldly actions but no longer call them to mind, we have attained true tranquility. This gives the soul the opportunity to look at the impressions previously stamped on the mind, and to struggle against each one and eliminate it. So long as we go on receiving new impressions, our intelligence is occupied with them and so it is not possible to erase the earlier ones. In consequence our struggle to eradicate the passions is inevitably far harder, since these passions have become strong through being allowed to increase gradually; and now, like a river in full flood, they drown the soul’s discernment with one fantasy after another.
If we want to make a river-bed dry, perhaps to investigate something of interest, it is no use drawing off the water in the particular place where we imagine the thing to be, since more water keeps flowing down. But if we cut off the flow from above, the river-bed becomes dry without any further effort on our part: the water automatically runs away, and so we can examine what interests us. Likewise, as soon as the senses are no longer supplying material from outside, it becomes easy to empty our mind of the impressions that produce the passions. But when the senses keep conveying a constant stream of impressions, it ‘is not just difficult but completely impossible to free the intellect from this inundation.
Now when we are continually meeting other people, we are not consciously troubled by the passions, because they lack the opportunity to become active; yet they persist unnoticed within us, and the longer they remain, the stronger they grow. If the ground is constantly trodden underfoot, the weeds, though present in it, do not rise above the surface; but they thrust vigorous and thriving roots deep into the earth, and then, as soon as they get the chance, they shoot up above ground. Similarly, if we are always meeting other people, the passions are prevented from emerging into the open; nevertheless they grow steadily more powerful and then, taking advantage of the life of stillness which we have begun to pursue, they attack us with great force. Our struggle with them is hard and dangerous because we failed to fight against them when they first occurred.
That is why the prophet commanded the Israelites to ‘destroy the seed from Babylon’ (Jer. 50:16 [27:16. LXX]), meaning that we should erase sense-impressions before they penetrate into the mind. For if we let them enter the earth of our mind and grow, and if we allow them to be watered with violent rains by repeatedly thinking about them, they will produce a plentiful crop of evil. The Psalms praise those who do not wait for the passions to grow to full strength but kill them in infancy: ‘Blessed is he who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rock’ (Ps. 137:9). Perhaps Job, too, is hinting at some such thing when, reflecting on the course of his life, he says that the rush and the flag flourish in the river, but wither when deprived of water (cf. Job. 8:11). And his statement that the ‘ant- lion has perished for lack of food’ (Job 4:11. LXX) would seem to have a similar significance. Wishing to show how the passions ensnare us, he coined this composite name from the boldest of all creatures, the lion, and the most trivial, the ant. For the provocations or the passions begin with trivial fantasies, creeping up unnoticed like an ant; but eventually the passions grow to an enormous size and their attack is as dangerous as a lion’s. One who is pursuing the spiritual way should therefore fight the passions when they approach like ants, hoping to deceive him by their trivial appearance. For if they are allowed to gain a lion’s strength, it is hard to resist them and to refuse them the food they demand.
Now the food of the passions, as we have already stated many times, consists of sense-impressions. They nourish the passions by attacking the soul with a succession of mental fantasies or idols. This is why Moses put screens of latticework round the altar in the tabernacle (cf. Exod. 27:4), signifying that if we wish to keep our mind pure like a tabernacle we should do the same. Just as the lattices round the altar prevented anything unclean from entering, so we should weave a mental barrier against the senses by reflecting on the terrors of the coming judgment, and so bar the entry to unclean impressions. Ahaziah became ill because he fell from a lattice-window (cf. 2 Kgs. 1:2); and to fall from a lattice-window means to succumb to sensual pleasure because, when tempted, we did not reflect seriously about the future retribution. And what can be worse than this kind of illness? For the body falls ill when the balance of its constituent elements is impaired, because one of them has come to predominate in a manner contrary to nature. But the soul falls ill when its right judgment is impaired and it is overcome by the passions which cause disease.
Solomon wove such lattices for the eyes of all those capable of understanding his meaning when he said: ‘When your eyes see a strange woman, your mouth will speak crooked things’ (Prov. 23:33. LXX). By ‘crooked things’ he means the answer which, after sinning, we shall give at the time of retribution; but when we judge things in the right way, this prevents any dangerous gazing with our eyes and saves us from the confusion we should otherwise be in at that time. Solomon continues: ‘Be like someone who lies down in the midst of the sea, and like a pilot in a great storm’ (Prov. 23:34. LXX). Now if someone at the actual moment of temptation resists the sight which is tempting him, he is struggling to escape future punishment like a man battling in a storm at sea. Then he easily overcomes his assailants, not noticing the wounds they inflict, and he is able to say: “They struck me, but I felt no pain; they mocked me, but I paid no attention’ (Prov. 23:35. LXX). “They struck me,’ he is saying, ‘and thought they had made a fool of me; yet I did not notice the wounds - for they were like children’s arrows - and I paid no attention to their tricks, but behaved as if they were not there.’ David also despised such adversaries, for he said: ‘When the evil one turned away from me, I did not notice! (Ps. 101:4. LXX). By this he means: ‘I perceived them neither when they approached nor when they withdrew.’
Many of us, however, do not even realize that through the senses we enter into close association with sensory objects, and that such association leads easily to deception. We do not suspect the harm that results from this, but are unguardedly carried away by these sense-impressions. How, then, at the moment when we are being deceived will we recognize the trap that has been laid for us, since we have not been trained to discern such things? The war fought by the Assyrians against the men of Sodom (cf. Gen. 14:1-2) shows how the senses fight against sensory objects, and how the latter exact tribute from the senses when these are defeated. The Scriptural narrative records the agreement, truce and peace-offerings made at the Dead Sea by the four kings of the Assyrians and the five kings of the regions round Sodom; then the bondage of the five kings for twelve years; then their revolt in the thirteenth year, and the war that ensued in the fourteenth year when the four kings attacked the five and took them captive.
Such was the external course of events. Now this story teaches us something about ourselves and about the warfare of our senses against sensory objects. The five kings represent the five senses and the four kings the objects of sense-perception. All of us, from birth up to the age of twelve, uncritically allow our senses to be controlled by the objects of sense-perception, because our power of discrimination has not yet been purified. We let our senses obey sensory objects as if they were the masters; our sense of sight is controlled by things visible, our hearing by sounds, our taste by flavors, our sense of smell by odors, and our sense of touch by physical objects. Because we are children, we cannot discriminate between the various things we perceive or offer any opposition to them. But when our judgment starts to mature and. we become aware of the harm we are suffering, we at once begin to think of rebelling against this slavery and escaping from it. And if we continue firm in this resolve, we can escape from these cruel masters and remain for ever free. But if we waver in our decision, we betray our senses into captivity once more: they are overcome by the power of sensory objects, and from then on they endure a tyrannical servitude without any hope of escape. This is why the five kings in the story, after being defeated by the four, were driven to wells of pitch (cf. Gen. 14:10. LXX); in other words those who are overcome by sensory things turn with each of their senses to the objects proper to that sense, as if to pits and wells. Henceforth they think about nothing except visible objects, because they have fixed their desire upon what is earthly and are more attached to the things of this world than to those of the intellect.
Similarly, when a slave has come to love his master and his own wife and children, he may reject true freedom because of his bonds of physical kinship; and so he becomes a slave for ever, allowing his ear to be pierced through with an awl (cf. Exod. 21:6). He will never hear the word that can set him free, but will remain perpetually a slave in his love for present things. This is why the Law commanded that a woman’s hand should be cut off if she seized hold of the genitals of a man who was fighting with another (cf. Deut. 25:11); in other words, when there was a battle between her thoughts, whether to choose worldly or heavenly blessings, she failed to choose the heavenly and grasped those which are subject to generation and corruption - for by the genitals the Law signifies the things which belong to the realm of change.
We gain nothing, therefore, by our decision to renounce earthly things if we do not abide by it, but continue to be attracted by such things and allow ourselves to keep thinking about them. By constantly looking back like Lot’s wife towards what we have renounced, we make clear our attachment, to it. For she looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt, remaining to this day an example to the disobedient (cf. Gen. 19:26). She symbolizes the force of habit, which draws us back again after we have tried to make a definitive act of renunciation.
What does the Law mean when it commands anyone entering the temple not to return, after finishing his prayers, by the door through which he entered, but to go straight out through the opposite door without changing direction? It means that we should keep to the path that leads straight to holiness, not allowing any doubts to make us turn back. By habitually thinking about what we have left behind, we undermine our determination to advance and we are pulled in the opposite direction, returning to our old sins. It is a terrible thing when the force of habit holds us fast, not allowing us to rise to the state of virtue which we possessed initially. For habit leads to a set disposition, and this in turn becomes what may be called ‘second nature’; and it is hard to shift and alter nature. For though it may yield a little to pressure, it quickly reasserts itself. It may be shaken and forced to give way, but it is not permanently changed, unless through prolonged effort we retrace our steps, abandoning our bad habits and returning to the state of virtue we possessed when we first made our renunciation.
The soul that succumbs to past habits and gives all its attention to material things, which lack true reality, is like Rachel sitting on Laban’s idols; it does not listen to the teaching which would raise it up to higher things, but says like Rachel: ‘I cannot rise up before you, for the custom of women is upon me’ (Gen. 31: 35). For the soul which has long been brooding on the things of this life is indeed ‘sitting on idols’. Insubstantial in themselves, these idols are given substance by human artifice. Wealth, fame and the other things of this life all lack substance, for there is nothing clear and distinct about them. They possess a specious resemblance to reality, but change from day to day. We ourselves give them substance when in our thoughts we shape fantasies about things that serve no real purpose. With our fertile imagination we exceed the basic needs .of the body to the point of impossible luxury; we lavish innumerable sauces on our food; to show off, we dress up in expensive and luxurious clothes, and when criticized for this useless extravagance we answer that we are merely doing what is fitting and proper. What else are we trying to do in all this but to give substance to what in itself lacks reality?
We rightly spoke of such a soul as ‘sitting on idols’. For when the soul becomes firmly attached to these unreal objects, it is enslaved to habit instead of serving truth, and through habit it is defiling the real nature of things, as though with menstrual blood. Scripture uses the expression ‘sitting’ to signify both failure to do what is right and also love of pleasure. It has in mind failure to do what is right when it speaks of ‘those that sit in darkness and the shadow of death, fettered by poverty and iron’ (Isa. 9:2; Ps. 107:10. LXX), for darkness and fetters prevent us from taking action. And it has in mind love of pleasure when it speaks of those who in their hearts turned back toward Egypt and said one to another: ‘We remembered how we sat by the flesh-pots and ate our fill of meat! (cf. Exod. 16:3). Those who love pleasure, keeping their appetites hot and humid, are indeed sitting by the flesh-pots; for gluttony engenders love of pleasure and many other passions as well. It is the root from which the rest of the passions spring up in vigorous growth, little by little developing as suckers alongside the mother tree, and putting out branches of evil that reach up to the sky.
Avarice, anger and dejection are all offshoots of gluttony. For the glutton needs money first of all, so as to satisfy his ever-present desire — even though it never can be satisfied. His anger is inevitably aroused against those who obstruct his acquisition of money, and in turn gives place to dejection when he proves too weak to get his way. He is like the snake which goes ‘on its breast and belly’ (Gen. 3:14. LXX). For when he possesses the material means for " “pleasure, he goes on his belly; but when he lacks these he goes on his breast, since this is where the incensive power has its seat. For those who love pleasure, when deprived of it, grow angry and embittered. Moses therefore made the priest wear a breastplate, intimating through this symbol that he should inwardly restrain every impulse to anger by means of the intelligence; for it is termed ‘the breastplate of judgment’ (Exod. 28:15). Now the priest must control this passion by means of the intelligence, for he is imperfect. Moses, however, being perfect, totally removed from himself the impulse to anger; figuratively speaking, he does not wear a breastplate but removes, as it were, his own breast. Thus Scripture says: ‘Moses removed the breast, and brought it as an offering before the Lord’ (Lev. 8:29. LXX). There are others who neither eliminate anger completely nor control it with the intelligence, but who overcome it by laborious efforts. They are said to remove the breast ‘with their arm’, the arm being a symbol of toil and work. Similarly, to go ‘on the belly’ is a very apt symbol for the life of pleasure, since the belly is the cause of virtually all the pleasures: when the belly has been filled, our desires for other pleasures are intensified, but when it is not full they subside.
Here is another illustration of the difference between one who is perfect and one who is still making progress. Moses, completely rejecting the pleasures of food, ‘washed the belly and the feet with water’ (Lev. 8:21). Here ‘belly’ signifies pleasure, and ‘feet’ a man’s ascent and progress. He who is still progressing, on the other hand, washes what is inside the belly, but not the belly as a whole. Note that in this passage it says ‘he washed’, not ‘they shall wash’. The first represents something voluntary, while the second indicates an action performed in obedience to a command. He who is perfect does what is right, not because of any command, but by his own free choice; whereas he who is still progressing acts in obedience to his superior. With very great care he removes, as it were, the breast in its entirety, but he does not remove the belly - he only washes it. The wise man is able altogether to renounce and eradicate wrath, but he is unable to eliminate the belly, since nature compels even the most ascetic to eat a bare minimum of food.
When, however, the soul does not submit to the true and stable guidance of the intelligence, but has been corrupted by impure pleasures, the belly becomes distended; for even when the body is sated, desire is unsatisfied. And if the belly is swollen, the thigh will rot (cf. Num. 5:22); for when the belly is inflamed by luxurious foods, the mind loses all power to conceive what is good and is paralyzed in its spiritual efforts. It is to these spiritual efforts that the Law is referring when it talks about the thigh.
The lover of pleasure, then, goes on his belly, wallowing in sensual indulgence. But one who is beginning to pursue the spiritual way gets rid of the fat round his belly by giving up rich food. One who has progressed further cleanses what is inside his belly, while he who is perfect washes the whole of the belly, entirely rejecting what is superfluous to his basic needs. Very appropriately, Scripture applies the word ‘goes’ (Gen. 3:14) to the man who has sunk down upon his chest and belly, for sensual pleasure is characteristic of those who are restless and fall of agitation, not of those who are still and calm.
Sexual desire is even more closely related to gluttony than are the passions of anger and dejection mentioned above. Nature herself has indicated the intimate connection between the two by placing the organs of sexual intercourse immediately below the belly. If lust is weak, it is because the belly has been made to go in want; while if lust is easily excited, it is from the belly that it derives its strength.
As well as nursing and feeding these passions, gluttony also destroys everything good. Once it gains the upper hand, it drives out self-control, moderation, courage, fortitude and all the other virtues. This is what Jeremiah cryptically indicates when he says: ‘And the chief cook of the Babylonians pulled down the wall of Jerusalem round about’ (cf. 2 Kgs. 25:9-10; Jer. 52:14. LXX). Here the ‘chief cook’ signifies the passion of gluttony; for a chef makes every effort to minister to the belly, devising innumerable ways of giving it pleasure, and gluttony does just the same. A great variety of different foods overthrows the fortress of the virtues and razes it to the ground. Sauces and condiments are the siege-engines that batter against virtue and overthrow it, even when it is already firmly established. And while over-indulgence destroys the virtues, frugality destroys the stronghold of vice. Just as the chief cook of the Babylonians pulled down the walls of Jerusalem (and Jerusalem means a soul that is at peace) by encouraging fleshly pleasures through the art of cooking, so in the dream the Israelite’s cake of barley bread, rolling down the hill, knocked down the Midianite tent (cf. Judg. 7:13); for a frugal diet, steadily maintained - gathering impetus, as it were, from year to year - destroys the impulse to unchastity. The Midianites symbolize the passions of unchastity, because it was they who introduced this vice into Israel and deceived a great number of the young people (cf. Num. 31:9). Scripture aptly says that the Midianites had tents while Jerusalem had a wall; for all the things that contain virtue are well-founded and firm, whereas those that contain vice are an external appearance - a tent - and are no different from fantasy.
In order to escape such vice, the saints fled from the towns and avoided meeting a large number of people, for they knew that the company of corrupt men is more destructive than a plague. This is why, indifferent to gain, they let their estates become sheep-pastures, so as to avoid distractions. This is why Elijah left Judea and went to live on Mount Carmel (cf. 1 Kgs. 18:19), which was desolate and full of wild animals; and apart from what grew on trees and shrubs there was nothing to eat, so he kept himself alive on nuts and berries. Elisha followed the same mode of life, inheriting from his teacher, besides many other good things, a love of the wilderness (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:25). John, too, dwelt in the wilderness of Jordan, ‘eating locusts and wild honey’ (Mark 1:6); thus he showed us that our bodily needs can be satisfied without much trouble, and he reproached us for our elaborate pleasures. Possibly Moses was instituting a general law in this matter when he commanded the Israelites to gather daily no more than one day’s supply of manna (cf. Exod. 16:16-17), thereby ordaining in a concealed fashion that men should live from day to day and not make preparations for the morrow. He thought it right that creatures made in the divine image should be content with whatever comes to hand and should trust God to supply the rest; otherwise, by making provision for the future, they seem to lack faith in God’s gifts of grace and to be afraid that He will cease to bestow His continual blessings upon mankind.
In short, this is why all the saints, ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, left the inhabited regions and “wandered in deserts and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth’, going about ‘in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented’ (Heb. 11:37-38). They fled from the sophisticated wickedness of men and from all the unnatural things of which the towns are full, not wishing to be swept off their feet and carried along with all the others into the whirlpool of confusion. They were glad. to live with the wild beasts, judging them less harmful than their fellow men. They avoided men as being treacherous, while they trusted the animals as their friends; for animals do not teach us to sin, but revere and respect holiness. Thus men tried to kill Daniel but the lions saved him, preserving him when he had been unjustly condemned out of malice (cf. Dan. 6:16-23); and when human justice had miscarried, the animals proclaimed his innocence. Whereas Daniel’s holiness gave rise to strife and envy among men, among the wild animals it evoked awe and veneration.
All of us, then, who long to make spiritual progress should strive to imitate the holiness of the saints. Let us nd ourselves of enslavement to the body’s demands and pursue freedom. The wild ass was made by the Creator to run free in the wilderness: he does not hear the chiding of the driver and laughs to scorn the crowds in the town (cf. Job 39:5-7). But until this moment we have made him carry burdens, placing him under the yoke of passion and sin. Let us now loose him from his bonds, despite the objections of those who through long habit have acquired control over him, even though they are not his masters by nature. Certainly when they hear us say, not with our tongue alone but in all sincerity, ‘The Lord has need of him’ (Mark 11:3), they will at once release him. Then, covered with the apostles’ garments, he will become the bearer of the divine Logos. Set loose in his original place of grazing, he will be able to ‘search after every green thing’ (Job 39:8) - which means he will seek the riches of Holy Scripture and so be led to the life of perfection, gaining nourishment and joy. But why, we ask, does the wild ass, created by God to live in the salt land of the desert, ‘search after every green thing’, since generally such land is not suitable for the growth of plants? The answer must be that, where the moisture of the passions has dried up and there is a desert, it is possible to seek the inner truth contained in Scripture.
Let us leave behind worldly things and raise ourselves towards the soul’s true good. How long shall we continue with trivial playthings? Will we never assume a manly spirit? We are more feeble than tiny children, and unlike them we make no progress towards greater things. When they grow up, they abandon their games, readily relinquishing their attachment to the things they played with - nuts, knucklebones, balls and so on. They are attached to these and prize them so long as their understanding is immature; but when they grow up and become men, they drop such things and devote their full attention to the affairs of adult life. We, however, have remained children, enchanted by what really deserves mockery and derision. Abandoning all effort to attain higher things and to develop an adult intelligence, we are seduced by worldly amusements, making ourselves a laughing-stock to those who judge things at their true value. It is disgraceful for a grown man to be seen sitting and drawing pictures in the dust to amuse children; and it is equally disgraceful - indeed much more so - for those whose professed aim is the enjoyment of eternal blessings to be seen groveling in the dust of worldly things, shaming their vocation by incongruous behavior.
Probably the reason why we act like this is because we never think about anything superior to the visible objects around us. We do not appreciate how much better the blessings of the spiritual world are than the tawdry attractions of this present world, which dazzle us with their specious glory and draw all our desire to them. m the absence of what is better, what is worse will take its place and be held in honor. If only we had a deeper understanding of the realities of the divine world, we would not be taken in by the attractions of this world.
Let us begin, then, to withdraw from the things of this world. Let us despise possessions and money and all that swamps and drowns our intelligence. Let us cast overboard our cargo, so that our ship may float more buoyantly. Hard-pressed by the storm, let us jettison the greater part of our equipment; then our helmsman - the intellect, together with its thoughts - will be saved. Those who travel by sea, when overtaken by a storm, do not worry about their merchandise but throw it into the waters with their own hands, considering their property less important than their life. Why, then, do we not follow their example, and for the sake of the higher life despise whatever drags our soul down to the depths? Why is fear of God less powerful than fear of the sea? In their desire not to be deprived of this transitory life, they judge the loss of their goods no great disaster; but we, who claim to be seeking eternal life, do not look with detachment on even the most insignificant object, but prefer to perish with the cargo rather than be saved without it.
Let us strip ourselves of everything, since our adversary stands before us stripped. Do athletes compete with their clothes on? No, the rules require them to enter the stadium naked. Whether it is warm or cold, that is how they enter, leaving their clothes outside; and if anyone refuses to strip, he excludes himself from the contest. Now we too claim to be athletes, and we are struggling against opponents far more skilful than any that are visible. Yet, instead of stripping ourselves, we try to engage in the contest while carrying countless burdens on our shoulders, thus giving our opponents many chances of getting a grip on us. How can someone encumbered with material possessions contend against ‘spiritual wickedness’ (Eph. 6:12), since he is vulnerable from every angle? How can someone weighed down with wealth wrestle with the demon of avarice? How can someone clothed in worldly preoccupations race against demons stripped of every care? Holy Scripture says, “The naked shall run swiftly in that day’ (Amos 2:16. LXX) - the naked, not the one who is hindered in running by thoughts about money and material possessions.
A naked person is hard or even impossible to catch. If Joseph had been naked, the Egyptian woman would not have found anything to seize hold of, for the Scriptures say that ‘she caught him by his garment, saying: “Lie with me” ' (Gen. 39:12). Now ‘garments’ are the physical things whereby sensual pleasure seizes hold of us and drags us about; for whoever is encumbered with such things will of necessity be dragged about by them against his will. When Joseph saw that, because of his body’s need for clothes, he was being dragged into intimacy and union with sensual pleasure, he abandoned them and fled; he realized that, unless he was naked, the mistress of the house would seize him and hold him back by force. So when he left he was naked except for his virtue, like Adam in Paradise; for God allowed Adam to go about naked as a special privilege, but after the fall he needed to wear clothes. So long as Adam resisted the enemies who urged him to break God’s commandment, he stood naked like an athlete in the arena; but once he had been defeated in the contest, it was appropriate for him to put on clothes. This is why the writer of Proverbs says to the intelligence, our trainer: ‘Take away his garment, for he has entered’ (Prov. 27:13. LXX). So long as someone does not compete but stays outside the arena, he will of course remain clothed, smothering beneath the garments of sensory things the manly strength required for the contest, but once he enters the contest, his garment is taken away, for he must compete naked.
Indeed, we must be not only naked but anointed with oil. Stripping prevents our opponent from getting a grasp on us, while oil enables us to slip away should he in fact seize hold of us. That is why a wrestler tries to cover his opponent’s body with dust; this will counteract the slipperiness of the oil and make it easier for him to get a hold. Now what dust is in their case, worldly things are in the case of our own struggle; and what oil is in their case, detachment is in ours. In physical wrestling, someone anointed with oil easily breaks free from his opponent’s grip, but if he is covered with dust he finds it hard to escape. Similarly, in our case it is difficult for the devil to seize hold of one who has no worldly attachments. But when a man is full of anxiety about material things the intellect, as though covered with dust, loses the agility which detachment confers upon it; and then it is hard for him to escape from the devil’s grip.
Detachment is the mark of a perfect soul, whereas it is characteristic of an imperfect soul to be worn down with anxiety about material things. The perfect soul is called a ‘lily among thorns’ (S. of S. 2:2), meaning that it lives with detachment in the midst of those who are troubled by such anxiety. For in the Gospel the lily signifies the soul that is detached from worldly care: ‘They do not toil or spin … yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of them! (Matt. 6:28-29). But of those who devote much anxious thought to bodily things, it is said: ‘All the life of the ungodly is spent in anxiety’ (Job 15:20. LXX). It is indeed ungodly to pass one’s whole life worrying about bodily things and to give no thought to the blessings of the age to come - to spend all ‘one’s time on the body, though it does not need much attention, and not to devote even a passing moment to the soul, though the journey before it is so great that a whole lifetime is too short to bring it to perfection. Even if we do seem to allot a certain amount of time to it, we do this carelessly and lazily, for we are always being attracted by visible things.
We are like people enticed by ugly prostitutes who lack true beauty but conceal their ugliness with the help of cosmetics, producing a counterfeit beauty that ensnares those who see it. Having once been overcome by the vain things of this present life, we are unable to see the ugliness of matter, for we are fooled by our attachment to it. For this reason, we do not remain content with basic necessities, but become dependent on all sorts of possessions, ruining our lives by our greed. We do not see that our possessions should be limited according to our bodily needs, and that what exceeds these is in bad taste and unnecessary. A cloak measured to fit the body is both necessary and in good taste, while one which is too long, getting entangled in our feet and dragging on the ground, not only looks unsightly, but also proves a hindrance in every kind of work. Similarly, possessions superfluous to our bodily needs are an obstacle to virtue, and are strongly condemned by those capable of understanding the true nature of things.
We should therefore pay no attention to such as are deceived by sensory things, and should not uncritically follow those who remain attached to what is worldly because they have never given thought to spiritual realities. To rely upon such men, and to consider that they have made a wise choice in pursuing transitory pleasures, is to put our trust in those who lack any criterion for making a sound judgment; it is like using the blind as judges of color or the deaf as music critics. For those whose intelligence is crippled are truly blind, since they lack the basic criterion whereby to distinguish between the important and the trivial. One such man was Achan, the son of Carmi, who confessed to Joshua that the stolen things were hidden in his tent, buried in the ground, with the silver underneath them (cf. Josh. 7:21). For he who assigns a higher position to the varied attractions of material things and buries his intelligence beneath them, is led astray like a fool, yielding to whatever takes his fancy, because he has. deposed his intelligence from its royal throne and assigned it a place among those it should be ruling - or, rather, among condemned criminals. But if his intelligence were established in its proper position and entrusted with the judging of sensory matters, it would deliver a just and sound verdict, punishing the impulse that chases after deceptive things.
We should remain, then, within the limits imposed by our basic needs and strive with all our power not to exceed them. For once we are carried a little beyond these limits in our desire for the pleasures of this life, there is then no criterion by which to check our onward movement, since no bounds can be set to that which exceeds the necessary. Pointless effort and endless labor wasted on what is unnecessary only serve to increase our longing for it, adding more fuel to the flames. Once a man has passed beyond the limits of his natural needs, as he grows more materialistic he wants to put jam on his bread; and to water he adds first the modicum of wine required for his health, and then the most expensive vintages. He does not rest content with essential clothing, but starts to purchase clothes made from brightly-colored wool of the very best quality; next he demands clothes made from a mixture of linen and wool; next he searches for silken clothes - at first just for plain silk, and then for silk embroidered with scenes of battles and hunting and the like. He acquires vessels of silver and gold, not just for banqueting but for animals to feed from and for use as chamber-pots. What need is there to say more about such absurd ostentation, extending as it does to the basest needs, so that even chamber-pots must be made of nothing less than silver? Such is the nature of sensual pleasure: it embraces even the lowliest things and leads us to invest the meanest of functions with material luxury.
All this is contrary to nature, for the Creator has ordained the same natural way of life for both us and the animals. ‘Behold,’ says God to man, ‘I have given you every herb of the field, to serve as food for you and for the beasts’ (cf. Gen, 1:29-30). Thus we have been given a common diet with the animals; but if we use our powers of invention to turn this into something extravagant, shall we not rightly be judged more unintelligent than they? The animals remain within the boundaries of nature, not altering in any way what God has ordained; but we, who have been honored with the power of intelligence, have completely abandoned His original ordinance. Do animals demand a luxury diet? What chef’s and pastry-cooks pander to their bellies? Do they not prefer the original simplicity, eating the herbs of the field, content with whatever is at hand, drinking water from springs - and this only infrequently? In this way they diminish sexual lust and do not inflame their desires with fatty foods. They become conscious of the difference between male and female only during the one season of the year ordained by the law of nature for them to mate in, so as to propagate and con- tinue their species. The rest of the year they keep away from one another as if they had altogether forgotten any such appetite. In men, on the other hand, as a result of the richness of their food, an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure has grown up, producing in them frenzied appetites which never allow this passion to be still.
Since, then, possessions are the cause of great harm and, like a source of disease, they give rise to all the passions, we must eliminate this cause if we are really concerned for the well-being of “our souls. Let us cure the passion of avarice through voluntary poverty. By embracing solitude let us avoid meeting those who do us no good, for the company of frivolous people is harmful and undermines our state of peace. Just as those who live in an unhealthy climate are generally ill, so those who spend their time with worthless men share in their vices.
What do those who have renounced the world still have in common with the world? ‘In order to please the leader who has chosen him, the soldier going to war does not entangle himself in the affairs of this world’ (2 Tim. 2:4). Preoccupation with business hinders military training; and if we are untrained, how can we stand our ground when fighting against experienced troops? Rather, to tell the truth, we fight so half-heartedly that we do not withstand the enemy even when he is lying on the ground. We who stand upright are the prey of him who is fallen. We suffer the same miserable fate as those who, out of avarice, despoil corpses in wartime. After the battle has been won, they come up to someone who lies half-dead and start searching his body; and then, taken unawares, they receive a mortal blow from him, foolishly bringing disgrace upon themselves after their glorious victory. In the same way, when we have overthrown the enemy through our self-control and restraint - or rather, when we think we have overthrown him -we become attracted by his clothes, that is, by the different things men prize: wealth, power, good living, fame. We approach our fallen enemy in our longing to take his things; and so we are killed, having led ourselves to the slaughter. That was how the five virgins came to grief (cf. Matt. 25:1-13); through their purity they had destroyed the enemy, but because of their hardness of heart, which is engendered by avarice, they drove the enemy’s sword through their own bodies, when he himself lay helpless.
Let us not seek anything that belongs to the enemy, lest in so doing we lose our own life. For even now he is urging us to take what is his, especially when he finds us ready to comply. He even urged the Lord himself in this way, saying: ‘All these things will I give Thee, if Thou wilt fall down and worship me’ (Matt. 4:9). So with the specious allurements of this life he tried to deceive the Son of God, who has no need of any such things. How, then, could he fail to think of deceiving men who are easily led astray and attracted to the enjoyment of sensory things?
Once we have learnt to train our body, let us also train our intellect in true devotion. For ‘bodily asceticism has only a limited use’, in this respect resembling elementary education; whereas ‘true devotion is useful in all things’ (1 Tim. 4:8), and brings well-being to the souls of those who seek to defeat their enemies, the passions. Children who are training for sports need to exercise their bodies, to move their limbs constantly, to make every effort to gain an athlete’s strength, and to anoint themselves with oil in preparation for the sacred games. Likewise those who are beginning the life of holiness should try to hinder the activity of the passions. At this stage they are still driven frantic by the pleasures that accompany the passions, and habit forces them into sin, almost without any act of choice on their part; they have therefore done well if they can control the passions. But those in whom the practice of the virtues has become established can also direct their attention to the mind. They should make every effort to keep watch over their intelligence so that it does not get out of control and go astray. In short, beginners try to train their body, while the more advanced attempt to restrain the impulses of their intelligence, so that its workings may accord solely with the teachings of wisdom, and no worldly fantasy may distract it from thoughts about God.
One who is pursuing the spiritual way should direct all his desire towards the Lord whom he loves; then human thoughts will find no opportunity whatever to activate within him the corresponding passions. Each passion, when active within someone whom it controls, holds his intelligence in chains; why, then, cannot zeal for holiness keep our mind free from everything else? When an angry man fights in his imagination against the person who has offended him, is he conscious of anything external? Is not the same true of the man who desires material possessions, when he imagines ways of getting what he wants? And the lustful man, even when in the company of others, often becomes oblivious of his surroundings and sits like a block of stone, saying nothing, thinking only of the women he desires; turning in upon himself, he is completely absorbed by his own fantasies. Perhaps it is a soul such as this that the Law describes as ‘sitting apart’ (Lev. 15:33. LXX); sitting far from the senses, it concentrates all its activities within itself, totally unconscious of external things because of the shameful fantasy that dominates it.
Now if our attachment to such things gives them this power over our intelligence and stops the senses from functioning, how much more should the love of wisdom cause our intellect to renounce both sensory things and the senses themselves, lifting it up and concentrating it upon the contemplation of spiritual things? Just as someone who is cut or burnt can think of nothing else because of the intense pain, so a man who is thinking passionately about some object has no thoughts for anything else; the passion that dominates him affects his whole intelligence. Intense pain makes hard work impossible; sorrow excludes joy, and dejection mirth; hard work in its turn excludes sensual pleasure. Thus opposing passions are mutually exclusive and will never unite, co-operation between them is impossible, because of the implacable enmity and opposition that separates them by nature.
Do not, therefore, let the purity of your virtue be clouded by thoughts of worldly things: do not let the intensity of your contemplation be disturbed by bodily cares. Then true wisdom will stand revealed in its full beauty and it will no longer be maligned by insolent men because of our shortcomings, or mocked by those who know nothing about it; but it will be praised, if not by men, at any rate by the angelic powers and by Christ our Lord. It was His praise that was desired by the saints, such as David, who despised human glory but sought honor from God, saying: ‘My praise shall be from Thee’, and ‘My soul shall be praised by the Lord’ (Ps. 22:25; 34:2. LXX). From malice men often speak slanderously of what is good; but the tribunal on high gives judgment with impartiality, and delivers its verdict in accordance with the truth.
Let us, then, bring joy to this heavenly tribunal, which rejoices in our acts of righteousness. We need not worry about men’s opinions, for men can neither reward those who have lived well nor punish those who have lived otherwise. If because of envy or worldly attachment they seek to discredit the way of holiness, they are defaming with deluded blasphemies the life honored by God and the angels. At the time of judgment those who have lived rightly will be rewarded with eternal blessings, not on the basis of human opinion, but in accordance with the true nature of their life. May all of us attain these blessings through the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and through all the ages. Amen.