—You have just now revealed to me that the devil fights against us fiercely. Why does he fight us, in what way and by which method? How can we discern people’s thoughts concerning the “Jesus prayer”? Many people claim different things and we do not know to what extent these are thoughts that the devil puts in their mind. I shall listen to your opinion eagerly.
Without speaking, the holy and wise hermit took again in his hands the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, opened it with slow movements, and started reading: “The brethren also asked him, (Abba Agathon) “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest efforts?” He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man want to pray his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that they can hinder his journey whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath”.
He closed the book and went on.
—The Holy Fathers teach that man finds himself, if not always under the domination of the demons, then, in any case, under their influence and persistent hostility. The demons continually revolve around the soul and try, by any means, to make the faithful sin, either through the senses (when the object is near), through the imagination (when the person or the object is far away), or through the rebellion of the flesh. For the whole of man who is made up of soul and body, tolerates the influence of Satan and gets captured by him. The hostile tactics of the evil one, however are more apparent during prayer. Those who engage in this spiritual warfare see evil fighting war against them furiously at every step. They see the devil clearly using all means to distract their nous from God. They see all the cunning devices of the evil demon, who hates the good and kills man. According to St. Mark the Ascetic: “When the devil sees that the nous is praying in the heart, then he incurs great and malicious temptations”. He hates men exceedingly, and his hatred increases when he sees that they tend to become angels through prayer, and occupy the place the demons had before their fall. St. Gregory of Nyssa describes this malicious envy of the devil, caused by the theosis of man: “The demons are consumed by envy and jealousy when men are ready to acquire kinship with God, whereas they (the demons) have fallen from their relationship with the good”. Thus every ascetic has much to say about this warfare of the devil. However, watching this behaviour of his, the ascetics pity him.
—They pity him? Forgive me, but I cannot understand how and why?
—They feel pity for him, for his fall and his wretched state. Although he was created to serve and glorify God, he came to the point of fighting against His divine work and against man, whom God loves so much. The devil seeks to destroy unity. He embodies the spirit of long lasting destruction and is the originator of heresy. God wants to unite; the devil wants to divide. God wants to save; the devil wants to destroy. He always makes man rebel against God and against the Church …
—And where do the ascetics find all this strength to love him?
—They find it in the rich gift of grace that they have.
They have so much grace within them that they want to love all and to do so forever. Their heart has become spacious as a result of the dismissal of passions, about the tactics of the devil against those who are attracted to the Jesus prayer.
—When we prepare ourselves for prayer the devil, at the same time is preparing to wage a defensive and attack. The athlete of prayer must be aware of this so that he will not be alarmed when he undergoes the devil’s first sudden attacks and later his daring ploys when he will hurl at the prayerful one all the munitions he has at his disposal. (While the hermit was talking I had the feeling that I was in front of an experienced general of spiritual warfare, who has won many medals and glorious victories and who has been crowned with many wreaths). In the beginning he (the devil) distracts him from prayer. He causes him to be engaged in other social activity. Then he introduces events, various persons, situations …
—I should like to hear some specific methods that we living in the world, do not know. Allow me to confide something to you. You made me, now, hate the devil or rather his work and at the same time feel pity for him.
—Yes, my father, we, too, experience this daily. We feel hatred for what he is doing, but love for him, which is expressed as sorrow for the deceiver! But, to give an answer to your question, I will say the following: The purpose of the Jesus prayer is to bring Christ the King, Jesus, into our hearts; to make manifest within us the ruling power [vasileia] of God; to light up the spark of grace which is now covered by the ashes of sin. It is in this way that the request, e.g. the cry “Thy Reign and Rule [vasileia] come” will be fulfilled. However, the heart now, as we said before, is darkened by the cloud of sin and the demons act over it. On the heart’s surface (not in its centre, because only the uncreated energy of the Holy Spirit, being uncreated, can be united with the soul) the devil has declared his authority and controls everything. Believe me, my father, sometimes I feel my heart is like a zoo. All the passions within are like howling animals. The God-bearing St. Gregory Palamas describes it well: “Man, who was destined to be a child of God, alas, has become a murderer; being comparable not only to the wild beasts but also to the reptiles and venomous animals, he becomes a scorpion, a snake, an offspring of vipers. Through the Jesus prayer, then, — after the mind has assimilated the sweetest name of Jesus — we strive for Him (Christ) to descend into the heart in all His glory and grandeur and to expel the devil, who darkens the soul with the various passions after covering again the grace which he finds there. Thus, the soul is illumined by the presence of Christ. It receives “grace for grace”. Well, then. The more the Lord descends into the heart, the more the devil disappears with cries and woes for the defeat he underwent, and the echoes of these cries are the temptations that he causes for us.
—As you presented this to me, father, I remembered those possessed by the devil who, as soon as they saw Christ, started crying out: “What have you to do with us a Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time” (Matt. 8. 29). I remembered also that other incident of the young man possessed by the devil. The Lord said: You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again”. And the demon “after crying out and convulsing him terribly came out” (Mk. 9. 25—26). I think this is related to what you have said, or am I wrong?
—Yes. you are right. But there are still other occurrences which make it obvious. When the Lord went down to Hades, He freed the righteous who believed in Him. In the worship service of our Church, the suffering of Hades is represented, vividly: “Today hades groans and cries aloud: “It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass … I am deprived of those whom once I ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs;” (The Lenten Triodion). After all did not Christ Himself say: “Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house” (Man. 12.29). That is, the descent of Christ into the heart, where the devil acts now, is connected with his (the devil’s) fleeing and him being bound. It is, then, natural for him to howl, to roar and cry out aloud. The Lord came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John. 3. 8). In the 103rd Psalm (LXX) the following is found: “When the sun rises, they (all the beasts of the forest) flee and lie down in their dens”; the neptic Fathers also teach that just as when the sun rises the beasts hide in the caves and the rocks, e.g. their dens, in the same way do the demons go away and hide when the Sun of grace rises in our heart.
—Since the devil is bound, it is natural that he remains quiet.
—Actually, the contrary happens. He hates man even more and pursues him now attacking from outside (the heart) to gain victory over the faithful by all means and then to return to the heart when the grace of God is hidden. “Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself to fight (Matt. 12. 45). The entire meaning of the temptations is apparent precisely at this point. Imagination is the most cunning weapon of Satan; imagining the past and imagining the future; imagining good works, imagining bad ones. Various thoughts come and preoccupy the nous, so that it ceases to meditate on the name of Jesus. He tries to make man not to show interest in God and express his love. Primarily he coaxes him to call to mind of the various faults he has committed in his former and recent life. The Holy Fathers say that the war is usually as fierce as the passions were before. For every pleasure he must pay the proportionate pain. There is a close connection between pleasure and pain in the ascetic life of the Fathers. Pleasure brought about both the Fall and pain; and it is precisely this pain which restores man to his original state and cures him. Thus, man suffers a lot. He pays for each thought and evil pleasure the proportionate amount of suffering, so that an equilibrium may be restored. Events that happened many years ago which he felt pleasure for, being forgotten in the mean time, appear now in all their intensity and range. He may even reach the point of disgust and despair. Blasphemous thoughts come upon the athlete of prayer, the experienced Gerondas went on; incredulity about the great matters of faith, like the divinity of Christ and the purity of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Saints, etc. Many times these thoughts are expressed and verbalized during prayer, without the wrestler of this struggle knowing it or wanting it.
Other times the demon of slothfulness comes; or the persistent thought to leave that place and go away from his Gerondas with the thought that somebody else is better than him. Many times a fierce hatred is aroused within him against his Gerondas. There are cases when the disciple comes to his Gerondas and tells him in tears and with sighs: “I cannot explain this well but I will say it as I feel it. I hate you. I do not want to see you. The more I see you, the more a terrible rebellion takes place within me”. Many times sleep also comes to interrupt prayer. There are still other temptations but I shall expand on the following.
—Oh, how the ascetic endures so much suffering! How is he to endure such a fierce attack? I asked. Tell me Gerondas. Do not keep silence.
The champion father …. was immersed into deep silence. Who knows how many holocausts he endured? Who knows what temptations …
—Gerondas, do not stop. Tell me ways of facing them.
—In this case, patience, endurance and bravery are needed. Mostly bravery. The athlete of prayer must not let himself be shaken. He must oppose imagination with the continuous invocation of the name of Jesus, and he must be concentrated within the words of the Jesus prayer. He must stand bravely in the conciseness of the Jesus prayer. He must not think of anything during prayer, either of wrong or even good works. When he feels pain he must have the certainty, as we said above, that therapy has begun. “When a woman is in travail she has sorrow because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16.21). The same happens here. Through pain a new man is created, a new life is born; the life of Christ. As the God-bearing Fathers say, the blasphemous thoughts must be opposed with contempt. Only in this way do they disappear. Blasphemous thoughts are inspired by the devil —they are not ours. Here we can affirm that the Lord’s word has validity: “You cannot serve God and mammon”, (Matt. 6. 24) that is, the nous cannot do two things simultaneously. It cannot be enchanted by the sweetest nectar of the Jesus prayer on the one hand and on the other hand, while it is praying, doubt the power of prayer or dogmatic truths. The latter is the attack of the devil. Contempt then, is needed and if the blasphemous thought continually attacks us. it needs confession to the spiritual father. Then it disappears immediately. Moreover, the same happens with persistent thoughts. A thought that persists, especially during prayer, needs to be confessed. Thus the devil who hides under it, immediately disappears, like the snake when we lift up the stone. Special struggle is required for drowsiness. Here, on Mt. Athos there are many fathers who have made a stool with one leg and when they fall asleep they fall to the ground and so they wake up. In fact they fight against the devil and not against their body. I also met a monk who had a vessel full of water in his cell and when he was sleepy he would carry it from one side of the room to the other, struggling in this way against the evil spirit of drowsiness.
The athlete of prayer must also see his Gerondas “in the type of Christ”, as a Moses. And through the Gerondas’ power and prayers he is freed from the slavery of Egypt and is delivered from the tyranny of Pharaoh (passions). The athlete of prayer must not see the weaknesses of his Gerondas, which the devil exaggerates, but he must see his love towards God and his good properties. And if by chance he realises that his Gerondas has many sins and passions, even then he must avoid judging him, he must consider them as his own sins and shed abundant tears for them. St. Symeon the New Theologian describes this attitude very vividly. “If you live in a monastery, you must never will to be against your spiritual father who ordained you, even if you see him fornicating or getting drunk and you think that the matters of the monastery are conducted badly; even if you are beaten and disgraced by him and you undergo many other afflictions. Do not sit with those who insult him, neither walk together with those who have in mind bad things against him. Endure him to the end without scrutinizing any of his misdoings. But put into your heart the many good things you see him doing and force yourself to remember only those; put the blame on yourself for all the improper or wrong things you see him doing or saying and consider them your own sins and repent for them with tears, taking him as a holy man and asking his blessing”. The athlete of prayer should do this to avoid judging the Gerondas, in which case obedience and humility (the latter of which is the base and end result of obedience) are lost and so salvation itself is forfeited. The athlete of the prayer must oppose slothfulness and escapism with persistent denial and great patience; patience is, also, necessary when you face personal attacks.
—Personal attacks! What do you mean?
—Here, allow me not to go on, because you cannot under stand me. It may seem strange to you, because you do not know ascetic life.
—Gerondas. I want to learn. I entreat you, in the name of Jesus Christ teach me. Now that I have found you, I do not want to miss the opportunity to learn. Tell me.
I understood, though, his great difficulty. What could he tell us, we who are covered with the garments of skin of reasoning?
—I shall not tell you many things, only a few. Voices, fits of laughter, a great noise outside the cell, as if a lot of people are gathered, there can be heard. And this happens so that he (the devil) can distract our attention from the Jesus prayer. Many times the devil himself approaches the athlete of prayer. In such cases he (the athlete) feels a terrible fear. Both his soul and body are seized by great pain, not to be compared with the fear we feel in the presence of criminals. For Hell itself, approaches him. The devil takes the shape of various animals to intimidate the athlete. In the life of St. Sabbas it is said that Satan took the form of a snake, a scorpion, a lion, etc. “While he was sitting on the sand, in the middle of the night, Satan changed into a snake and a scorpion, trying to frighten him. Another time, Satan appeared to him again in the shape of a terrifying lion which approached and threatened him”. Sometimes the demons appear holding fire in their hands and threaten to burn the athlete of the Jesus prayer with it, as St. Symeon says:
“Standing away from me they thought they would frighten me, by holding in their hands fire and threatening to burn me; they would shout loudly and make noises … “.
At other times still, while the athlete is repeating the Jesus prayer silting on his stool, he feels two hands ready to strangle him. They have a tight grip on him and do not let him continue the prayer. Although he starts the Jesus prayer, he cannot continue after the word “Lord”; he finds it difficult to proceed to the saving word “Jesus”. He stammers out J,J,J,Je, Je,Jes, … However as soon as he pronounces the whole word with great effort, the devil disappears. Monks, coming from various monasteries, tell me that the devil even makes, “en masse” attacks, so as to intimidate and frighten them; especially while they are preparing for an all night vigil.
—Will you allow me to make a small suggestion?
—What does “en masse” attacks mean?
—It means that he attacks two, five, ten monks at the same time, trying to strangle them or do something else to harm them. One monk became so frightened, that he left his cell and waited outside the Gerondas’ cell scared and terrified, until he woke up. For this reason people in the world are not able to understand the importance of a vigil. A vigil burns up the cunning devil and destroys him. The devil then does everything possible so that the vigil will not take place, because he knows he is going to be beaten by the all night prayers. And he stirs up thoughts in journalists and other people to hinder the carrying out of vigils. That is why I ask you not to omit this work in the area where you live. Do many vigils because in this way the devil is repulsed.
—We are so sinful, Gerondas, that we do not feel these bodily attacks of the devil. Since he has dominion over us, why should he attack us? We are so very sinful.
—Certainly I will, I said. You not only have my permission but also my request to make it.
—You should not express this idea —that you are sinful and that the devil does not assail you in person because it is deceptive. The devil may use it against you.
—How can he?
—When you say that you are unworthy of being personally assaulted by the devil because of your sins, the devil hears it and, when by chance you do something good –for example when you practise a virtue– then he can appear to you, giving you the impression (since you have seen him) that you are someone important, causing pride and vainglory.
I bent quickly, took his hand and before he quite realised it, I kissed it out of love and respect; out of respect for the spiritual wisdom he had and which he acquired after many years of spiritual warfare.
—Many times the devil, he continued, appears and talks to the athlete of prayer. He challenges him and tries to open a dialogue with him. Sometimes he blames the athlete, sometimes he praises him, sometimes he scoffs at him, sometimes he interprets certain acts wrongly. The inexperienced in this spiritual contest start talking with the devil and answer his questions and his assaults. However, this is an error, especially for the beginners, because the inexperienced in these situations are defeated even if it seems that the devil was put to flight by their replies. Confusion and fear remain. And later, when they recall this scene and all that was said, they will be shaken and troubled. The Fathers recommend that those who do not have the experience and the necessary strength should not answer. They must be indifferent to the devil and despise him. They must do the same in the war against their thoughts. Thus contempt against the devil and perseverance in the Jesus prayer are needed.
He continued after a pause.
—We need to persevere in the Jesus prayer during all of these temptations, and in general, we need to remain in a state of prayer. When we say “state of prayer” we include reasonable fasting, vigil, physical hardships, silence —all these put into the context of obedience. We must do all of this with the blessing of our spiritual director.
—Why is asceticism (fasting, vigil, silence, prostrations) so closely associated with prayer and considered a state of prayer?
—The body participates in the work of prayer. Since the body, too, will receive grace, it must struggle. Moreover we create the necessary conditions for receiving grace through ascetic practice and suffering. St. Gregory Palamas refers to the mystery of priesthood to support this view. During the sacrament of the priesthood, divine grace is imparted to the future deacon or priest or bishop not only through prayer, that is noetically, but also, by the cooperation of the body, through the laying upon of hands. The bishop does not simply pray so that the divine and life—giving grace comes, but also puts his hand on the head of him who is being ordained. The same happens with the Jesus prayer. It is not enough to say it only noetically so that we receive grace, but the body must cooperate, since the whole of man consists not only of soul but also of body, which must be saved, too. So, relying on the Fathers, we can claim with assurance, that he who refuses the rudiments of prayer, fear, tears, pain, sighing, silence, refuses the essence of prayer itself. I repeat, though, that all of this must be done with the blessings of our spiritual father, so that the devil will not exploit us.
—This is a hard fight, I confessed. The work of prayer, as you have described it to me, is a difficult one. The enemy wages such a war against us, crushing us with the foaming waves of his guile and of his entire satanic kingdom; how can anyone endure?
—Well, I feel it my duty to enlighten you a little more on this point. The ascetics know the guile of the devil, but they also know his weakness and his failure. They know, by experience, the hatred of Satan but also the sweet love of Christ for mankind. The love of God for man is stronger in this war. The Lord comes gently into the soul and according to the measure of His approach, He spreads grace and joy. After each battle, there comes incomprehensible and inexpressible grace, joy, serenity and calmness. “The genuine start of prayer is the warmth in the heart which consumes the passions and brings rejoicing and gladness to the soul”, according to St. Gregory of Sinai. We feel this strongly because we experience a condition that we did not know before. Everything within us becomes calm and still! The prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” becomes a doxology: “Glory be to Thee, O God”. Then, we must stop primarily at the word Jesus, because Jesus is present. The remembrance of Jesus with the mind centred within the heart, is achieved now without toil and with a lot of zeal. Each time that the name of Jesus is pronounced, how it sweetens the heart! We do not want, at any price, to miss this divine hour and we long for it extremely. My ever-memorable Gerondas was saying the Jesus prayer for six hours, and it seemed to him that only a quarter of an hour had passed… Joy comes like waves. Then the heart pounds. Many Fathers talk about this leap of the heart.