Asceticism, Discernment, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Empirical Dogmatics, Patience, Purification, St. Mark the Ascetic, The Spiritual Law, Theoria, thoughts
The Law of Changes in Our Practical Life
By Elder Joseph the Hesychast (+1959)
Every rational nature undergoes countless alterations, and changes come upon every man at every hour.
When in the course of various changes we were alarmed by unforeseen transformations, the Elder would explain to us the mysteries of these operations from the experience of the Fathers, with detailed descriptions. He would often draw our attention to the subject of changes, and tell us, ‘In changes you should be courageous in both of the main phases. Firstly, you must remain unmoved amidst the pressures and transformations which they produce in you; and secondly, you must discern the causes which have given rise to them.
‘The main causes of changes, according to the great Makarios, are the following four — and there are also the various complications from passions and satanic interventions which stimulate and reshape them: (a) natural changes, resulting from climatic conditions, which cause a change in a person’s mood; (b) a diet which is not appropriate to our constitution transforms our disposition; (c) a pang of conscience resulting from some omission or excess in our duties in general, caused principally by an unregulated life, in which case the spiritual law permits an earth tremor in order to wake us up; (d) the devil himself, who, in his envy for anyone who is making progress, makes war against him as far as God allows. This is the nature of changes, whereas their properties are beneficial if rightly used.
‘Changes and trials form an almost indistinguishable union in which either one may provoke the other, and the two of them lead those who are prudent to profit and advancement. Whether the trial produces the change or the change the trial, we reach the same conclusion: that we must face them philosophically and with patient endurance. Abba Mark says, “Afflictions that come to us are the result of our own sins. But if we accept them patiently through prayer, we shall again find blessings.”
‘Included in the mystery of changes are also events that come from the right hand side, especially in those who are struggling in the proper way. When someone carries out a commandment or performs some other good deed in full conscience, he must certainly expect the seal to be set on his action. Many have kept up the labour of doing the commandment without a murmur, and yet — through inexperience — have been unable to bear the trial when the seal is set on their noble toil, and so have suffered harm.’
Here the Elder, who was insistent about these details, would often say to us, ‘As night follows day, so successes are followed by trials that test us.’
Patient endurance of the testing which follows a good work proves the person’s willing and conscious intention, showing that he carried out this action not accidentally, but by choice and purely for the sake of God’s commandment. This is one aspect; the second is that it increases mindfulness of God within him, and in a certain way he receives a good addition to his spiritual workshop. On the other hand, the person who loses heart in the trial that follows his action has lost the boldness of firm faith which he had, and through failure has produced forgetfulness in his mind.
Where there is love and self-control and — according to the ever-memorable Elder — repentance and prayer, every difficulty and perplexity evaporates.
Particularly in the beginning, when the repentant embarks on his spiritual struggle, he is quite paralyzed by changes. This is because he does not expect or realise that changes shift as a natural rule, particularly when lie is careful and does not of himself give them any occasion. The Elder was always telling us, ‘You should take advantage of good changes and cry out to God, like David, that He may remember you when you yourselves will forget.’ The outcome of changes is forgetfulness of God, complete lassitude of one’s members and a loss of appetite for anything good. It was with this in mind that the prophet said, ‘So even to old age and grey hairs and when my strength deserts me, O God, do not forsake me’ (Ps. 71:18).
The Elder also explained, ‘Don’t be misled into thinking that these dry, graceless states can be overcome by effusiveness and meeting people and joking; they are overcome only by patient endurance, prayer and hope. For younger people it helps to call to mind the things to come, death and eternal Life, and — to some extent — to consider in detail God’s economy for the salvation of the world.’
When we asked him if and how far he had been troubled by these changes, he told us, ‘If I describe to you the struggle I have had here, you will not be able to bear hearing it. But God’s goodness and our Lady the Mother of God, who always protected me, gave me a kind of perseverance and toughness and I did not give way. Here it is tears that help us and save us most of all. Everything depends on the divine goodness.’
On other occasions he would tell us, ‘Fear, too, provokes changes, but beginners can be seriously harmed by their neighbour’s seeming prejudice against them or ill-disposition towards them. When there is someone present who you know speaks ill of you and slanders you, it is almost impossible for this not to produce a change, however much you try not to be affected. But after forgiveness and prayer for that person, you regain your equilibrium after the trauma of grief.’
One of the most consoling features of our life at the beginning was the Elder’s explanation and description of the repeated changes which occur inevitably, so it seems, in our everyday life. To beginners’ zeal — or rather ‘beginners’ piety’, as St John Climacus calls it — the transformation that occurs in one’s character seems strange, and it makes people who are inexperienced and unknowing feel uneasy. They do not see why such an alteration has for no reason changed the disposition of their inner world, and even of their bodily members. They search for faults in their own conduct and have difficulty finding anything, because according to the measure of their strength they have left nothing undone. So why the alteration? Why do they experience dryness, lack of will, the quenching of their fervour, an unnatural exhaustion in their limbs and the withering of their prayer? And yet these things happen!
The fall of our forefathers has left us a legacy of parasitic phenomena which came in after the Fall: the rupture of our personality, marks of corruption, the constituent elements of death and death itself Included among these manifestations of corruption and flux are to be found the ‘changes and alterations’, as the fathers call them. It is the results of these changes that give rise to the irregularities referred to above. These now innate states in which the self is altered have become our most inseparable companions and betrayers, and can cause a tremendous amount of harm if we are not alert to their opposition.
These states too, according to the judgement of the Fathers, may be either natural or ‘acquired’ from outside; and those which are acquired belong to two categories, one much worse than the other. The natural states are those which are always present in man’s character whether he wants them or not, even if he guards against them with all his might; as we have said, these are a hereditary affliction since the Fall. ‘Acquired’ changes depend on causes and occasions. One class, the more innocent, arise from the natural influences of sickness, diet, climate and evil demons; the other class comprises those for which we are personally culpable. When man stirs up his conscience against him, for the many reasons that this can happen, his disposition then undergoes change and is altered regardless of his will.
In the first case, that of the natural changes which are so frequent, there is no other means of dealing with them apart from faith. Since, in the words of St Paul, we walk ‘by faith and not by sight’, we do not look for evidence of a miracle, nor do we pay attention to emotions, and we are indifferent to what happens. We pay no attention to what we feel in the heat of the day or the cold of the night; our sole concern is to bear, willingly and without complaint, the weight of our cross, the law of the commandment and the imposition of our duty, according to the saying ‘they go forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing’ (Ps. 126:6). It is right that consolation should accompany the labourers of the commandments who are ‘weary and heavy laden’ (cf Mt. 11:28). But in this vale of tears where we serve out our exile the spurious growths of changes interrupt the regular sequence, in the same way as different weather conditions occur in the atmosphere. Here, however, there is a different mystery. The all-saving providence of God has enlisted the natural occurrence of changes as a saving means of education, for the formation and perfecting of His children. When God calls a soul to knowledge of Himself and obedience to Him, He bestows His grace upon it as a free gift, in the form of fervour and faith and dedication and other joyful manifestations of His own gift. Once the agreements are signed and official service in His army and obedience begin, the Giver then withdraws His grace by stages and leaves the soldier alone in order to test his faith: will he stay fighting and working, or will he turn back? It is precisely during these progressive intermissions in grace that the changes appear, which means that their place in our lives has now taken on a purpose. Glory to the love for mankind of our good Master, who has grafted the parasitic outgrowths of corruption and death into the training and formation of His children!
In the second case, however, where the prevailing changes are not the natural ones, and where grace does not withdraw of its own accord in order to test us, but it is our own actions that are responsible for its withdrawal — here care is needed to correct the fault before any more damage is done. In this case, the error is to be found in these main areas: it results either from negligence, when we have been remiss in our duties, or from self-conceit which has opened the way to pride. Then it requires humiliation and labour, and fasting, and vigil, and extensive prayer with deepest humility, according to the words of the Psalm, ‘consider my humiliation and my trouble and forgive all my sins’ (Ps. 25:18), and again, ‘when I was humbled, the Lord saved me’ (Ps. 115:6).
The presence of grace in the soul, which is the crowning of our whole purpose, requires of man Christlike behaviour and quite literally nobility, in as much as we are ‘those who belong to Christ’ (Gal. 5:24), in St Paul’s words. Any deviation from this position is considered a betrayal of the good confession (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12), and as a result grace withdraws. On this account we must take care to keep it within us and, if it departs for any reason, we must call it back by sincere repentance.
I recall how on one occasion I did something wrong, I think through inexperience. Once I had confessed my fault to the Elder — not that he had been unaware of it before — and after sincere repentance on my part, he said to me, ‘I want you to perform an additional labour in order to satisfy grace which you have grieved by your inattentiveness’; and he sent me on a long journey from our huts at Little St Anne as far as Karyes, coming back by the north side through the Lavra and Kavsokalyvia. Ostensibly it was on some errand, but in reality it was a penance to produce pain through ascetic labour, which is the practical condition of repentance. In this way these spiritual elders knew how to reconcile human differences with divine justice, because they believed in the words of the Psalm, ‘Before I was humbled I went astray; therefore have I kept Thy word’ (Ps. 119:67) and ‘If I had not been humbled, then Thou hadst humbled me, that I might learn Thy commandments’ (cf. Ps. 119:71). After this saving lesson through which I regained my place in the providence of our Christ’s love for mankind, I sang songs of triumph: ‘Let those who fear Thee turn to me, and those that know Thy testimonies’ (Ps. 119:79, LXX) and ‘It is good for me that Thou didst humble me, that I might learn Thy commandments’ (Ps. 119:71).
Every occasion provided by the events of our lives was a pretext for the elders to expound the all-saving providence of God, a page in the universal governance of all things through the most infinite fatherly care of our God and Father, our helmsman. As we have said elsewhere, what the blessed Elder was trying to do was to ‘habituate’ us to the correct stance — the movement and dependence of all things upon the unsleeping eye of the divine wisdom and justice of Him ‘through whom all things were made, and without Him was nothing made that was made’ (Jn 1:3). He would tell us, ‘If you make this your consciousness, you will arrive without effort at a state in your lives where movement is stilled, bringing about lasting peace — because in this way you do not blame or condemn anyone for anything, not even Satan himself. Learn to regard self-accusation as the most basic means to progress, and learn to look directly to the starting-point of the fault, since, as Abba Mark says, ‘everything involuntary has its cause in what is voluntary, and man has no greater enemy than himself.’