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Letter 4
St Theophan the Recluse



Worldly life deprives one of freedom and holds in cruel slavery those devoted to the world. Hypocrisy and egoism as persistent qualities of worldly life.

Last time I did not talk about anything you had touched upon in your letter, and so I am sending you an addition. You say, “Another thing I see is how everyone rushes around in a huff, in pursuit of something which no one ever manages to catch. When I happen to pass through some crowded street or place, what a fuss and bustle I see! But then I look — it is the same thing in their homes, and it is probably in their souls, too. I am at a loss — is it really possible to live this way? Another thing I see is how they bind, constrain and tyrannize each other; no one has his own will or any freedom. You do not dare dress as you would like to dress, you do not dare act as you would like to act, you cannot say what you would like to say — you cannot do anything as you would like to do it. Everything they do is subject to some law that was written by no one knows who. It binds everyone, but no one knows how to break its hold. It is in this way that they tyrannize each other. You do not dare listen to anyone — that is unfortunate. I, for example, sing. When you want to sing, it is really paradise; it is pleasant for me and for the listeners. But there are times when you sing whether you want to or not. It is considered very polite to do this; to refuse would be considered against the ‘law.’ And so you sing. The burden is unbearable for me — your chest almost collapses, but you thrust it out to show that you are singing with, all your heart. I have noticed this in others, too. There is your freedom for you! Looking from the outside, everyone seems a freeman. A freeman, who gets all tangled up in his arms and legs! It was in regard to this that I began to examine closely whether people do things from the heart. And what of it? Maybe I am mistaken, but I have not seen anything that could be from the soul. There are empty caresses, a readiness to do things for each other, and also mutual admiration. Everything is superficial. Beneath the outward appearance that is elegant and smooth is concealed an entirely different spirit, which, if it were to be brought to light, would be found to be neither elegant nor even tolerable. So, it turns out that when we gather together, we are a collection of hypocritical actors and actresses. What a comedy! Furthermore, what I find most astonishing is the coldness coming from everyone. How could this be?! Indeed, everyone seems to be everyone else’s friend, ready to give them the shirt off their back, but there is an underlying coldness.”

You are quite right. There is nothing more to add to your description. All this has long since been observed and mentioned to forewarn us. Long ago, Macarios the Great described this bustle of life with its futile pursuit, a little of which you have experienced. “The children of this age have become like wheat poured into the sieve of this earth, and then scattered among the inconstant dreams of this world, in the presence of the unending turmoil of earthly cares, desires and maze of material concepts. Satan shakes the souls, and with the sieve, that is, the earthly cares, scatters the entire sinful human race. From the time of the Fall, when Adam transgressed the law and came under the prince of darkness who gained power over him, with the unending seductive and turbulent thoughts of all the sons of this age, he has led them to conflict in this sieve of the earth. The more the wheat in the sieve is shaken about, turned over and cast up, the more the prince of darkness takes over all people with their earthly cares: he shakes them, agitates them and alarms them, forcing them to flee to vain thoughts, unclean desires, earthly and worldly bonds, and constantly enticing the sinful race of Adam.

“The Lord foretold to the Apostles the future coming of temptation over them: Satan hath desired to have you, that he might sift you like wheat: but I have prayed to My Father that thy faith fail not (Luke 22:31,32). The pronouncement and decision spoken by the Creator to Cain is clear: Thou shalt be groaning and trembling on the earth (Genesis 4:12). This sentence serves as a secret image and likeness to all sinners, because Adam’s race, having transgressed the commandment and fallen into sin, secretly took upon itself these likenesses. People are led into uncertainty by inconstant thoughts of fear, terror, every kind of confusion, desire, and all kinds of pleasures. The prince of this world disturbs every soul which is not born from God, and he disturbs human ideas, which are like wheat constantly being shaken in the sieve, leading everyone into uncertainty, and ensnaring them with worldly seductions, pleasures of the flesh, terrors and confusions.” (Homily 5:1,2)

There is the summary of your observation! You noticed the way things are, and St. Makarios indicated both the reason for this and the origin. It is impossible to begin to speak of this view of the matter in this way if one does not begin to acquire this manner of speaking about things. I therefore ask you to adopt this view and always keep it in mind. It expresses the essence of the matter, and, once you have accepted it with conviction, it will serve for you as a restraint from the charm of worldly life. In order to be able to think about this more and to get more familiar with this manner of thought, try to read the entire Fifth Homily of St. Makarios. I lent this book to your mother, and she wanted to acquire it.

For my part, I would just add that this futile pursuit and general discontent with everything goes back to the very thing of which I wrote last time. That is, the fact that not every aspect or need of human nature can be nourished by this way of life. An unsatisfied aspect such as hunger demands nourishment in the gratification of its need and drives man to seek such. So man runs to seek gratification, but as he moves around in that very circle, unsatisfied with respect to hunger, no gratification occurs, and hunger does not cease. But neither does the need for nourishment cease, nor does the pursuit of it. And it will never cease for those who live in the spirit of this world. Because the enemy blinds them, they do not notice their error: they have taken the wrong path and are headed in the wrong direction; in this darkness he torments and stifles these poor souls. So the enemy has blinded them, and there is no one to tell them of their error. Thus they roar like ferocious beasts. Isn’t this the roar of the lion who goes about everywhere, seeking whom he may devour?

As for the other aspects of worldly life which you noted, I would just say that it cannot be any other way. For such a life is the life of the fallen man, whose primary characteristic is pride or egoism, which presents itself as the primary goal, while everyone and everything else are the means. Thus, everyone’s goal is to impose his desires on someone else, or to bind him by them; you have quite accurately called this “tyranny.” No matter how well someone conceals his desires, behind them stands egoism, which desires to twist you to its needs, or to use you as its means, So the goal is one of deception; essentially, it uses the strained contrivance of concealing one’s faults without correcting them. Otherwise, one’s influence on others and manipulation of them would be stopped. That is the reason that everyone exudes such coldness: everyone shuts himself up in his own shell and is unable to produce any warmth.

It is true that you will probably meet a few people with a kind heart; they flatter and touch the heart deeply and directly. Such a disposition is a vestige of the feeling of kinship with others with which man is endowed, but this is at the service of egoism, which uses it as the most expedient means for achieving its ends. I know one such person. It is better to be an outright egoist than such a flatterer. Although it is possible to make out what these flatterers are leading up to, it is a rare person who is able to do so.

While it is true that you almost continually come across good deeds, these are done only to obligate you ten times over for the one good deed. You will say, “How can this be? Everyone is always striving for honesty, and if you show dishonesty in something, you ruin yourself.” It is true that this is so, but this honesty is the mask of egoism; the main thing is not to besmirch oneself and lose face, and for this reason the most disgusting deeds are allowed, as many as one can get away with and conceal from others. You will even hear, or have already heard, someone condemned as being an egoist. Do not think that those who speak like this are themselves above egoism. No, they condemn those who do not allow themselves to be exploited or used as a means to the egoistical ends of those who so judge them. Consequently, the latter are to be exposed as the real egoists. I have heard that such individuals even reproach monks for egoism; they say that monks live selfishly by themselves. Poor monks! They do not eat, drink or sleep; they are on their feet day and night, in obedience, not having their own will or way-and somehow they have become egoists! By this alone, you may judge of what value in general these accusations of egoism are, such as you hear or will hear among worldly people. They mean they have met their match!

In looking over what I have written, I see that I have judged worldly life very bluntly, but I will not take back a single word. Maybe I would not have written what I have, except that I wanted you yourself to take notice of the rather dark stain on the world. I took a fancy to singing in this particular key, and I do not think it will warp you in any way, considering what you yourself have said. But I expect you to ask, “Just how is one to be?” This is what we will be trying to answer for the rest of our correspondence. For now I will just say that, for you to shun everyone is, of course, impossible; but refuse as much as possible to enter into this circle of worldly life. When it does pull you against your will, act as if you were not there; look, but do not see; listen, but do not hear. Let what you see pass by your eyes, and what you hear pass by your ears. Outwardly behave like everyone else, be straightforward and sincere; but guard your heart from sympathies and attractions. The main thing is to guard the heart, then you will be there in body only, but not in soul, faithfully carrying out the commandment of the Apostle: Be as… they that use this world, (but) don’t abuse it (I Cor. 7:31). “World” here refers to worldly life. You will be using the world, that is, you will have a need to come into contact with worldly life; but when you keep your heart at a distance, then you will not be abusing that life; that is, you will not be participating in it out of sympathy and desire, but Out of being obliged by your present circumstances.

I have worn you out by my long letter, but you compelled me to do it. I ask that you carefully peruse what I have written, especially the last lines.