On another delusion: An Epistle to a Hesychast Hermit [Elder Joseph the Hesychast]

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On another delusion.

Hear, my child, about yet another delusion so that you will be on your guard. Many monks attended to a single virtue and applied all their strength to accomplish it. For example, consider fasting; that is, not to eat oil or cooked food or other such things. They bound their freedom by believing that everything depends on fasting. While practicing this virtue they advise others that this is the only way, the fullness of all virtues, and that it secures the soul’s salvation. They rely on the fact that they have lived so many years without eating oil or cooked food or whatever else.

But we say that such a person has become a slave of his willful fasting and thinks that whoever does not do likewise will not be saved or is off the right path. Let us ask such a person, “O man of God, tell me: in your many years of fasting, what have you gained? Show me the fruit of your lengthy fast, and I shall be convinced. Through your fasting you have excluded the mercy of God from others who cannot fast as much. So where have you put the infinite mercy of the Lord’s goodness? Or do perhaps all men have the same temperament and physical strength as you do, so that you can demand that all should become like you? Well then, since you can’t rule yourself well, you strike the anvil of fasting for so many years without any results, because you have no discernment.” The cure for such a person is to abandon his so-called fasting and to seek from a spiritual father guidance how to live.

Likewise, another person counts on his vigil and teaches about it alone. He counts the years that he keeps vigil and thinks that anyone who does not live like him is walking in the darkness. Such a person should give up his vigil and follow a spiritual guide.

And yet another person trusts in his tears, and he teaches others as though it were his own invention: “Woe to him who does not weep!” He thinks that if he only weeps, that is perfection. His remedy is to recognize that tears must be accompanied by humility, and not to presume that he is doing the work of God, or that God owes him grace. But then again, even if he weeps properly, let him know that he is practicing only one virtue, and that he still lacks ninety-nine.

Similarly, another one trusts in his prayer and teaches others that if one behaves like him, one will keep one’s nous from wandering. He, too, asserts this as an invention of his own knowledge. And another one trusts in his hesychia, that all perfection lies therein. He thinks that if someone wants to, he is able to have hesychia. But what can I say? There are people who hope merely in the number of years that they wear the monastic schema and boast of them.

Now, concerning all these virtues, we certainly say that these are the tools without which we cannot reach perfection. However, we must work at all of them along with all the other virtues that we have not mentioned until we shed our blood.

Hesychia is the best aid that helps us accomplish all the virtues. But we say that no one is able to withstand the burden of hesychia in knowledge and discernment unless the Lord sends the grace of hesychia as a gift and mercy. So he who practices hesychia must recognize that it is a gift of God and must thank Him.

Likewise, we would say to him who prays: “The Apostle says, ‘No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.’ [1 Cor. 12:3] Now, how can you say that you pray purely and keep your unrestrainable nous from wandering, and teach that if a man exerts himself, he can keep his nous from wandering and pray purely?” So we remark that prayer is the best aid that assists in purifying the intellect, and that without it we are unable to live spiritually. However, no one is able to keep his nous from wandering and pray purely if the grace of divine and spiritual knowledge, or a good and divine supernatural thought, or another action of divine grace does not come. So he should realize that it is not he, but divine grace that keeps his nous, and according to the amount of divine grace, he prays purely. Such a person should know that this is not from himself but from God, and so he should thank Him. And let him teach others that we ought to use whatever methods and ways we can to show God our good intentions and our desire to pray purely, but for grace to come is up to God.

Likewise, we would say to him who has tears that tears are the best weapon against the demons, and a bath that washes away sins, if one weeps cognitively. However, they are not from him. Although he exerts himself showing his intention and will to weep, whether or not tears come depends on Him Who “bringeth clouds up from the uttermost parts of the earth.” [Ps. 134:7] Let practice teach him that he does not weep whenever he wants but whenever God wants, and let him thank God Who gives. He should not judge those who have no tears, for God does not give to all equally.

Similarly, we say about vigil that it assists in the purification of the nous, if it is done with knowledge and discernment. However, if the Lord does not help, there is no fruit from it. Therefore, he who is able to keep vigil should ask for knowledge from God and conduct himself with discernment. For without divine aid he will remain without fruit.

The same holds for him who fasts and all the others, if they govern themselves well. These are virtues that we strenuously cultivate. In this way we show God our good intentions and also wrestle with the desires of the passions. For if we do not force ourselves in these virtues, we will commit sins without fail. This is the plain truth, our duty, our human effort. As with the farmer: he digs the earth, clears, sows, and awaits the mercy of God. But if God does not send rain and favorable winds at the appropriate time, the farmer loses all his labor as well. Since his field fills with thorns, he reaps nothing, and what he sowed becomes food for irrational animals. It is the same with us. If the Lord does not send the purifying waters of His divine grace, we remain without fruit, and our works become food for the demons. For our passions choke them, and we reap nothing. Moreover, the virtues that were not practiced properly turn into vices.

So then, above all we need spiritual discernment, and we must arduously seek it from God, to Whom be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.

—Elder Joseph the Hesychast. Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast. An Epistle to a Hesychast Hermit. Chapter VIII. Page 369-372