The Ancient Fathers of the Desert: Section 6
V. Rev. Chrysostomos, trans.
In an age when political considerations and supposed historical determinants mark so much the study of the history of God's people, we people of the modern times seldom understand the dedication of the Orthodox forefathers, whether Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, or whatever, to the great Orthodox monarchies. We are told that this dedication was nationalistic only, anchored in unworthy social and political mores having their roots in the corrupt Byzantine system. But a great Russian Father captures, in his pious words, an image of Byzantium, of Holy Russia, and of all the Orthodox realms that we seldom see today. His words should create in our hearts a nostalgia for what modern scholarship, in its spiritual poverty, has so often denied us - a nostalgia for the noble idea of a society based on the vision of God:
"Our native land is dear to us in its political entirety, in its immense geographical space and in the strength of its State institutions. But this is only a shell for its spiritual content, its inner treasure, which is called Holy Rus. If a master puts aside the precious wine, then he will also take care to preserve the vessel without which it would spill on the floor. If a good Christian loves God and is zealous in prayer, he protects and adorns the Church in which the gifts of grace are granted to him. But the vessel is precious only because in it is stored the finest liquid; in the same way the Church is holy because in it we learn to know God.
"Thus we love Russia because she preserves within herself the Russian idea, the Russian spiritual character, the Russian way of life. This idea is God's Kingdom, this character is the striving for holiness, this way of life expresses in itself the efforts of the 700-year life of the country and the 900-year life of the people to establish in the land the godliness of the Gospels, to reject everything so as to find Christ and to apply His will and the canons of the Church as the law of social life.
"Various and innumerable are those everyday spiritual occurrences in which this historical idea of Russia is expressed. Few manage to note and define them, but this striving for inner, spiritual truth in personal and social life, this alienation from Western pride and self-love (which are the main factors of life in the West), this indifference to material prosperity - all of these features of our Russian life and our Russian soul, even though distorted by individual downfalls, constitute a special attitude of mind which is expressed in distressing dissatisfaction with westernized principles of life and in a tender, though vaguely realized, filial love for everything of one's own and for the Motherland.
"Even such inveterate westernizers as Nekrasov, Hertzen, and Turgenev experience this love, despite themselves, and if they and contemporaries like them rebuke Russia, then they only skim over the surface of their souls like teenagers talking scandal to their parents, but ready to die of grief when their parents are exposed to dangers or terrible sufferings. So in both cases, there comes to light a hidden, natural deep feeling which is difficult to get rid of by idle calumny.
"Our Motherland is embodied in the character of the people, in the Gospel way of life of the people; it embodies the Kingdom of God. Our Rus is not only a legal entity or a state-no, she is a universal, all-embracing idea.
"To love her, to understand her, to take her into our soul and into the sphere of life which is dependent on each of us-therein lies our duty, therein lies our true joy, therein lies the reconciliation of everything with life in general and with our lot, therein lies the need for our general prayer to rise on high."
Thus spoke Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) in 1904, before the demise of Holy Russia.
* * *
It once passed through the mind of Antonios the Great to wonder what measure of holiness he had attained. God, however, Who wished to humble his mind, showed him in a dream one night that a certain cobbler, who had a shop on one of the out-of-the-way streets of Alexandria, was better than he.
As soon as day broke, the Saint took his staff and set out for the city. He wanted to meet this renown cobbler himself and to see his virtues. With great difficulty, he found his shop, went inside, sat down beside him on his bench, and began to ask about his life.
The simple man, who could not figure out who this old monk who came so suddenly to interrogate him was, answered him ever so slowly and calmly, without taking his eyes from the shoe that he was mending.
"I do not know, Abba, if I have ever done any good. Every morning I get up and do my prayers and then I begin my work. However, I first say to myself that all the people in this city, from the very least to the very greatest, will be saved, and only I will be condemned for my many sins. And in the evening when I lie down, again I think about the same thing."
The Saint stood up in wonderment, embraced the cobbler, kissed him, and said to him with emotion: "You, my brother, like a good merchant, have easily gained the precious pearl. I have grown old in the desert, toiling and sweating, but I have not attained to your humility."
* * *
"A blossom is the beginning of fruit bearing," Saint Ephraim writes, "and submission the beginning of humility. The humble man is, as a rule, obedient, respects the lowly and the great, and shows leniency and kindness."
* * *
Abba Poimen said: "A man may seem silent, but if in his heart he condemns others, he is talking ceaselessly. Yet there may be someone else who talks from morning until night, who, because he says nothing unprofitable, is truly silent."
* * *
"The monk should wear a garment of the kind that, if he threw it away outside his cell, no one would steal it for three days" (Abba Pambo).
* * *
"The saints are like various trees, each bearing different fruit, but watered from the same source. The practices of one saint differ from those of another, but the same Spirit works in them," said one great Father.
* * *
A certain brother asked one of the great Fathers what humility is.
"Humility, my child, is always to feel yourself sinful and worse than all other people," the elder explained. "This is a great and difficult feat. But you can accomplish it by applying yourself with unceasing labor."
"But how is it possible to see yourself as worse than all others continuously?" the brother wondered.
"Learn to see the good qualities of others and to see your own faults, asking each day for forgiveness from God for them, and you will accomplish it," the Saint advised.
* * *
"There are people," Antonios the Great said, "who, having used up all of their bodily powers in excessive asceticism, do not succeed in drawing near to God, since they lack discretion."
* * *
The Fathers call discretion the greatest of all virtues.
* * *
"A festival for the spiritual man," Saint Ephraim the Syrian writes, "is the observance of the divine commandments, and his consolation abstinence from evil. His pride is the fear of God, his real joy the day when the Heavenly King calls him to inherit His eternal riches."
"The eyes of the pig," says one Father, "are so situated that they look only at the ground. The man who has been seized by the desire for foods suffers from the same thing; he looks down all the time and is not capable of anything lofty."
* * *
"Why do the demons tremble before you, Abba?" a young monk asked Saint Isidore the Pelusian.
"Because, since the time I became a monk, I have not let any enjoyable thing enter my throat."
* * *
A wise elder gives the following advice to monks and youth alike: "Avoid eating foods which are to your liking, but, preferably, eat the simplest foods, and be thankful to God, Who also sends you these."
* * *
It is said of Abba Agathon that he lived for three years with a stone in his mouth, until he learned silence.
* * *
"Unless a man keeps the commandments of God, he cannot progress, even in a single virtue" (Abba Agathon).
* * *
As Abba Agathon and his disciple were returning to their cell one day, the young man found a green bean on the road.
"May I take it, Abba?" he asked the elder.
"Did you perhaps put it there yourself?"
"Ah, then how is it that you think you can take it?"
* * *
The devil frequently went to the cave of a certain hermit, in order to terrorize him and make him leave there. The monk not only did not lose courage, but he treated the evil spirit scornfully. So the devil, to lead him astray, appeared to him in the form of Christ.
"I am Christ," he said to him. The hermit closed his eyes.
"Why are you closing your eyes?" the devil shouted to him with irritation. "I told you that I am Christ."
"I do not wish to see Christ in this world," the hermit answered, keeping his eyes shut. With the bold reply of this man of God, the devil disappeared and never again dared to tempt him.
* * *
An elder prescribes the following rule of conduct for the monastic table: "When you sit to eat, brother, do not be overcome by the demon of gluttony, which compels you to eat in a disorderly way and in haste and to desire to taste many kinds of food together. Learn to eat modestly and in an orderly way and maintain a measure of restraint."
* * *
Saint Ephraim the Syrian, the renown teacher of asceticism, once decided to leave, for a time, his beloved silence in the desert and go down to the city. He desired to venerate the holy relics which were then found in Edessa, as well as to meet with men of the church, so as to discuss doctrinal truths with them. He lived in an age when the correct faith was assailed on all sides by fearful heresies.
"Lord," he prayed before setting out, "Put before me a person to instruct me, when I pass through the city gate."
But at the moment that he reached the populous city of Edessa, the first person that he encountered on his way was a woman of the street, who stood and stared at him shamelessly. The Saint complained to the Lord that He had deigned to let him find the opposite of what he had asked for. Afterwards, he turned to the woman and, to evoke some shame in her, told her brusquely: "I am amazed that you do not turn red with embarrassment for daring to stare at me so persistently."
She promptly told him: "I am doing that which suits me. Being created from your rib, I should look at you. As for you, however, who were created from dust, you would do well to have your gaze constantly fixed on it."
Receiving such an exact response, the Saint thanked God with gratitude. A more beneficial lesson than this he surely could not have wanted.
* * *
A young monk, who had only shortly before left the world, was overcome by the desire to see his parents. He asked his elder for permission to go for a few days to his home. He, seeing the weakness of his disciple, sighed deeply and told him: "I am going to let you go, my child, but keep well in mind what I am going to tell you: When you set off from your home for here, you had God with you as a fellow traveler. Leaving here for your home, you will be completely alone."
* * *
Abba Longinos was once asked which virtue he considered most important of all.
"Just as pride is the greatest of all evils, since it succeeded in casting the angels from heaven to the abyss, so humility is the greatest of all virtues. It had the power to raise the sinner from the abyss up to heaven. For this reason, the Lord blesses, before all others, the poor in spirit."
* * *
"I prefer collapse with humility to victory with pride," says another Father.
* * *
And Abba Sarmatias said: "I prefer a sinful person, who knows his faults and is humbled, over a self-complacent person of virtue."
* * *
"Humility, with no extended labors, has saved many," another elder says. "This is verified by the tax collector and the prodigal son, who were received by God because of the few humble words that they said."
* * *
A monk of a large monastery, negligent in spiritual things, fell gravely ill and the hour of his death arrived. The abbot and all of the brothers gathered around him, to give him courage in his last moments. To their surprise, however, they observed that the brother was facing death with great quietude and calmness of soul.
So the abbot said, "My child, all here know that you were not so diligent in your duties. How is it that you leave for the other life with such courage?"
"It is true, Abba," murmured the dying monk, "that I was not a good monk. I have, however, observed one thing with exactness in my life: I never judged anyone. Because of this, I intend to say to the Master Christ, when I present myself before him, 'You said, Lord, not to judge, in order not to be judged,' and I hope that He will not judge me strictly."
"Go in peace on your eternal journey, my child," the abbot told him with wonderment. "You have succeeded, without toil, in saving yourself."
* * *
Abba Iperechios gives the following counsel to those who are abstinent and practice fasting: "Eat meat and drink wine and do not devour your brother's flesh with slander."
And further: "By slandering God, the serpent was able to cast the first-created out of Paradise. He who slanders his neighbor does the same thing; he burdens his own soul and leads the one who listens to him to evil."
* * *
A holy elder, seeing with his own eyes a certain brother fall into deep sin, not only did not judge him, but wept and said: "He fell today; without doubt I will fall tomorrow. But he certainly will repent, whereas for myself, I am not so sure of this."
* * *
"If you are ever slandered," Saint Ephraim the Syrian writes, "and your innocence is (subsequently) revealed, do not be arrogant. Serve your Lord with humility and thank him for freeing you from the calumnies of men, observing his commandments faithfully and from the heart."
* * *
"If a Christian," Abba Agathon said, "kept the judgment which follows death in mind every moment, he would not sin with such ease."
* * *
A hermit, who was living the ascetic life in the desert of Jordan, had not been tempted by the devil for many years. This had given him courage, and he frequently asserted that the enemy would not dare to tempt strugglers, but went only to those who were negligent and lazy. Once the devil appeared before him and complained to him: "What have I done to you that you play me down so? Did I ever tempt you?"
"Get out of here, evil spirit," the hermit fearlessly yelled, picking up his staff to strike him. "You have no right to bother the servants of Christ. Go to those who invite you with their inattentiveness."
"So that is what you think?" the devil said maliciously. "Do you think I will not find an opportunity, in the forty years you still have to live, to prove you wrong?"
Sure, now, that the bait had all but succeeded, the devil became invisible, leaving a shuddering laugh in the air. From that moment then, the hermit's thoughts were confused.
"Forty more years of life; Oh, that is an awfully long time!" he said to himself continually. Then, after a while: "Should I not go into the world to see my relatives? Let me give my tormented body a little rest. When I return, I will continue my ascetic life. I have years before me ..., forty years of life!"
He came to a decision and one morning, with his staff in his hand, he set out for the city. But God, in his benevolence, regretted the loss of so many years of labor and sent his angel to stop him.
"Where are you going, Abba?" the angel asked, stopping him on the road.
"To the city," the hermit hastened to say.
"Dear man, now, at the end of your life, you let the devil deceive you? Hurry and return to your but and bemoan your foolishness, before it is too late for you."
Embarrassed by his setback, the old hermit returned to his cell and died three days later.
* * *
The man who succeeds in having death continually before his eyes conquers faint-heartedness," an elder said to the younger brothers, who asked him for some beneficial advice. And another time, as he was spinning, he assured them: "I have brought death to mind as many times as this spindle has turned, up to the present."
* * *
"When you undertake to begin any task whatever," a certain elder advises, "conscientiously ask yourself this question: 'If I were visited by the Lord at his moment, what would I do?' Take care to listen well to what your conscience answers you. If it reproves you, immediately forsake what you had decided to do and begin some other task of which it approves and which, so as assuredly to complete it, is intrinsically rewarding. The virtuous worker must at every moment be ready to face death.
"When you fall into your bed to sleep, or get up from sleep, when you eat or work, when you are thinking or your mind is idle, constantly say to yourself: 'If the Lord were to call me at this moment, would I be ready?' Listen also with care to what your conscience tells you and do not fail to comply with its directions. Your heart will, indeed, assure you that God has had mercy on you."
* * *
"Take away temptations and no one will be saved" (Abba Evagrios).
* * *
In modern times, a rich man told a certain monk of his philanthropy: "I have given away most of my riches, so that, without growing a beard, wearing monastic garb, and sacrificing myself, I have done everything that is needed to be saved. In essence, I have gained monasticism without your abnormal way of life."
Remembering the words of Saint Basil regarding a great official who had abandoned his wealth, yet kept some money for his needs and had no desire to submit himself to monastic discipline, the monk answered the rich man as Saint Basil did the ancient official: "You have given up your senatorial rank, but you have not become a monk."
* * *
A present day monk tells the following beneficial story: "I was once walking with a very pious and humble man, when we were stopped on the street by an old man distributing small pamphlets. The old man asked us, 'Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus?'
"My humble companion said, 'I only know that I am a sinner.'
"The old man answered my friend: 'Jesus has saved me. I have the assurance of his salvation. I have conquered pride, lust, and sin. Praise God.'
"At these words, my companion very abruptly grabbed me by the arm, saying to the old man, 'Leave us alone.' But as we walked my humble friend began to cry bitterly. Embarrassed that others were watching, he controlled himself.
"I asked him: 'Why are you crying like this?'
"He quietly answered, As that man told us that, a strange voice in my mind translated his words, so that he said, "I have saved myself. I have assured myself. Pride, lust, and sin no longer bother me, for they have conquered me. God must praise me." The mere thought of his blasphemy and the state of his soul crushed me. God forgive us all."
* * *
When Arsenios the Great fell ill and understood that at last he had reached the end of his earthly life, he began to cry.
"Are you afraid, Abba?" his disciple asked with perplexity.
"This fear, my child, has never left my heart, since the time I became a monk," this great friend of God answered, his wise lips closing forever.
* * *
"A Christian has great difficulty in attaining three things," Abba Isaias the Anchorite says, "grief (over sins), tears, and the continual memory of death. Yet these contain all of the other virtues."
Of the remembrance of death specifically, he writes: "He who succeeds in saying each day to himself, 'today is the last day of my life,' will never willingly sin before God. He, however, who expects to have many years to live, without fail entangles himself in the nets of sin. God sanctifies the soul which is always prepared to give an accounting for its deeds. Whoever forgets the Judgment remains in the bondage of sin."
* * *
A monk in our times tells us that his own grandfather, who had wished to be a monk, but turned against his deep desire, told him the following before he died: "All that has befallen me is the result of a wrong choice. God placed it in my heart to be a monk, yet I ignored Him. I introduced my family to other faiths. Out of my many children, few lived. My wealth brought me no happiness. And now my mind and body are wasted. By removing myself from His grace, I lost the knowledge of God. I willingly cast myself into the cruelty of a demonic world. I only hope that, not blaming Him for my suffering, God will have compassion on me and call me in my heart, at my last breath, once again."
* * *
An old hermit once became gravely ill. He had no one to take care of him. With great difficulty, he would fix a little food for himself, thanking God for the trial which He had sent him. An entire month passed and no one knocked at his door or brought him relief. God, however, saw his patience and sent a divine angel to serve him. In the meantime, the brothers remembered the old hermit and went to his but to see how he was. As soon as they knocked on the door, the angel withdrew.
From inside, the hermit shouted pleadingly: "For the love of God, go away from here, brothers."
They, however, hastily opened the door to see what had happened, and he shouted: "For thirty days I suffered completely alone and no one thought to come to see me. So, the Lord sent me an angel to keep me company. And now you come and chase the angel away."
And as soon as he said these things, the elder died in a sweet manner.
* * *
One Father says: "The nearer a man draws to God, the more he sees himself a sinner."
* * *
"Happy is the monk who considers himself the outcast of all," says another Father.
* * *
One holy woman tells us: "Imitate the publican and you will not be condemned along with the Pharisee."
* * *
A modern monk heard it said, and taught his brothers, that money is like manure. Unless it is quickly spread around, it does no good, but scorches and defiles what it covers.
* * *
A monk in our day tells us that he was taught the following by something internal: "Taking pride in not accepting money from others leads one to far worse sins than greed. Accepting money too willingly from others leads to pride and greed. This is why it is said that evil is rooted in money."
* * *
One of the Fathers of the desert offered the following vivid lesson to the younger monks: "Imagine, my brother, that at this moment I am taking on the person of the just Judge, and I am ascending the throne of judgment. Then I ask you, 'What do you want me to do with you?' If you were to say, 'have mercy on me,' I would reply, 'and you have mercy on your brother.' And if, further, you told me, 'forgive me,' I would answer, 'and you forgive the faults of your neighbor.'
"Is the Judge perhaps unjust? God forbid!
"Brother, gaining the sympathy of the Judge is in your hand: it is enough to have learned to forgive."
* * *
"A monk," said one of the ancient Fathers, "means a truthful mouth, a holy body, and a pure heart."
* * *
A brother went to consult a certain elder: "Is it all right, Abba, for me to keep two gold coins which are left over from my handicraft sales, so as to have them for my old age, or if I happen to get ill?"
"No, it is not at all correct for you to keep them," the elder answered, "for in this way you learn to set your hopes on them and cease to have the protection of God."
* * *
A monk who fled from the unholy attacks against Orthodoxy in present-day Eastern Europe said the following: "There they threatened us and almost took our lives. We lost our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, and our brothers. We lost our homes and our worldly hopes. But here, many times, we are now losing more than that. We are not allowed to be what we are. Calling what we were monstrous, because they have no spiritual eyes, they call what we are now nothing. May God save us from then and from now."
* * *
A certain simple believer in our own times told the following: "I once went to a beautiful church with some friends. The music was melodious. The priest was pious and learned. The faithful were orderly, very pious in their behavior, and quiet. My friends were very moved and spoke continuously of their experience that day.
"Yet another time, I was in a small, humble church. The priest of the church was negligent in his spirituality. The psalmody was not pleasing. The faithful constantly talked and moved about. They seemed uninterested, if not distracted. The friends I had with me were disgusted by these circumstances.
"At the first service I felt a warmth and happiness in seeing my friends happy with the church. I felt proud. At the second service, I felt shame. I was embarrassed by the behavior of the faithful and I was deeply shaken by the disappointment of my friends.
"Asking that God forgive me for this revelation, there were other differences between these two services. At the first, beautiful service, I had tears in my eyes, as did many others. I looked up and imagined that I could see angels above me. At the second service, my eyes were almost completely dry. I thought of nothing above me. Yet, at the second service, my heart was burning with tears and I felt the souls of those who worshipped with me. Truly on every side, in our midst, were beings so gentle and full of peace that I was lost in wonderment at God's beauty. I did not see the external irregularities.
"Such is the strange chasm which separates the beauty of men from the beauty of God."
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