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 Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast

By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Monastic WisdomI often read the book Monastic Wisdom, which is a collection of letters Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller and Hesychast of blessed memory sent to monks, hesychasts, hermits and laypeople, and I find it of great spiritual benefit. This book is comparable to the classics of ascetic literature, and its repeated reprints in Greece show the interest it holds for those who love the monastic way of life, but also how beneficial it is for our fellow Christians, monks and laypeople.

I did not have the special honour and blessing of knowing Elder Joseph of blessed memory, but I have come to know and love him through the texts published in Monastic Wisdom, through the life of his spiritual children and the stories I have heard about him from monks who knew him at first hand. I also have the testimony of Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, the great Elder of blessed memory, who knew him on the Holy Mountain when he (Elder Sophrony) was living as an ascetic in Karoulia and Elder Joseph was an ascetic living in caves.

 It is not easy to record in full my thoughts on reading this most spiritual of books, Monastic Wisdom, because when we approach the writings of experienced holy Fathers we feel really helpless, as we are actually drawing near to a land of fire or a colossal nuclear reactor, in which all conventional thermometers shatter. We can only express ourselves appropriately if we share the same perspective as the ever-memorable Elder, hermit and hesychast, or if our life bears some resemblance to his own life in the Holy Spirit. I shall simply attempt, by the prayers of the Elder, to set down a few of my thoughts, while urging the reader not to be content with them, but to go on and read the wonderful letters of Elder Joseph of blessed memory.

 1. When we read the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast, we sense that they exude a fragrance of theology, and that they are theological texts. Unfortunately we have formed the impression that theology means high-flown theories, academic theological analyses, comprehending theological terms, quoting historical theological events and so on. True Orthodox theology, however, is experience. It is the knowledge of God given to the person whose heart and nous have been purified and illuminated. Theologians, according to the teaching of St Gregory the Theologian, are those who “are past masters in theoria”, and according to St Gregory Palamas they are primarily those who behold God. In the New Testament theology is identified with prophecy, and the theologian with the prophet, who receives glorification and shares in the glory of God.

 It is clear from the book we are considering, that Elder Joseph of blessed memory is a theologian in this sense. He knows God by experience and unerringly leads people to this knowledge, which is also man’s communion with God. He says something particularly significant: when someone prays noetically, grace comes in abundance, “like a subtle breeze, like a mighty gust of fragrant wind. It overflows throughout the body, and the prayer [i.e. the Jesus Prayer] stops; the bodily members cease to move, and only the nous is in theoria within an extraordinary light. A union of God and man occurs. Man is unable to distinguish himself. It is just like iron: before it is thrown into the fire it is called iron, but once it ignites and becomes red-hot, it is one with the fire.”

Elder Joseph the HesycahstElder Joseph’s whole being is theological, as is evident from every word and phrase he uses. Having being reborn spiritually himself, he sees the renewal of the whole of creation. As the empirical theologian he is, he sees even creation speaking theology, because with his pure heart he beholds the principles (logoi) of beings, their spiritual essences, the uncreated energy of God bestowing being and life on creation, as St Maximos the Confessor analyses so wonderfully. A brief passage from one of Elder Joseph’s letters is typical: Come now, even if for only one day, to talk about God and to theologize; to enjoy what you yearn for; to listen to the rough crags, those mystical and silent theologians, which expound deep thoughts and guide the heart and nous towards the Creator. After spring it is beautiful here – from Holy Pascha until the Panagia’s day in August. The beautiful rocks theologize like voiceless theologians, as does all of nature. He sees the rugged rocks as mystical theologians, in the way an iconographer portrays them, showing them illuminated by Christ, Who is at the centre of the icon. 

2. A theological atmosphere, and the fact that his very existence speaks theology, permeate the letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast from the great gift of grace that he possesses: the gift of discerning spirits. Indeed, the principal characteristic of empirical theology is the ascetic’s ability to distinguish between what is created and what is uncreated, to tell the difference between demonic energies and the energy of divine grace, and to test the spirits. Here we see a discerning monk, theologian and Father. This is important on two accounts. Firstly, because theology is primarily prayer and the theoria of God. Someone who does not pray cannot theologise, even if he writes theological treatises. Secondly, because the spiritual father who is also a theologian is able to identify the spiritual illnesses of his spiritual children, and to cure them through his wise and experienced guidance, with the Christian remaining, of course, within the sacramental and ascetic life of the Church. This discerning pastoral guidance offered by spiritual fathers who are also theologians is clearly evident in the Gerontikon (Sayings of the Desert Fathers). Every word uttered by the great Abbas was theological and healed the spiritual ailments of Christians, because their sayings were the energy of God.

There are many examples that we could use from the writings of the great Elder Joseph of blessed memory. In one letter he writes, “The grace of the priesthood is one thing, the grace of the great schema is another, the grace of the Mysteries is different, and the action of grace in ascesis is also different. They all spring from the same source, but each one differs from the other in eminence and glory.” He recognises the differences between people, as “there are great differences from man to man and monk to monk, so each one must be dealt with differently.
Elder Joseph of blessed memory knew personally all the subtle inner processes, so he is an experienced teacher of the spiritual life. He is very familiar with the changes that take place in the soul and body during the spiritual struggle. When the Elder analyses the subject of delusion he makes the surprising statement that a person falls into delusion mainly by overemphasising one spiritual gift, such as fasting, vigil, tears, prayer, hesychia or the monastic schema. He goes so far as to write: “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…So then, above all we need spiritual discernment, and we must arduously seek it from God.”
Elder_Joseph3. The book of the great and ever-memorable Elder Joseph the Hesychast is an important and brilliant summary of the Philokalia of the Holy Neptic Fathers of the Church, and can be classified as “Philokalic” literature. It could be emphasised that it is the best introduction to interpreting the Philokalia. I remember that from the first times I read this book I realised how valuable it was for understanding the vocabulary of the patristic and neptic tradition. In his texts Elder Joseph explains terms with amazing aptitude and unusual ease, in a way that shows he has completely assimilated them. For instance, he explains what “contrary to nature”, “according to nature” and “above nature” mean; what praxis and theoria are; what noetic prayer is, and how it differs from rational prayer; and what we mean when we speak of God’s purifying, illuminating and deifying energy. Exalted concepts become easy to understand, and these moving texts actually lead the reader to experience such concepts within the furnace of longing and love for God.
I should like to cite a wonderful, divinely inspired passage: “The spiritual life is divided into three stages, and grace acts in a person accordingly. The first stage is called purification, during which a person is cleansed. What you have now is called the grace of purification. This form of grace leads one to repentance…The second form of grace is called the grace of illumination. During this stage, one receives the light of knowledge and is raised to the vision of God. This does not mean seeing lights, fantasies, and images, but it means clarity of the nous, clearness of thoughts, and depth of cognition…The third stage – when grace overshadows is the grace of perfection, truly a great gift. I shall not write to you about this now, since it is unnecessary.”
Elder Joseph knows that the energy of God is one, but according to the effects that it has on each person it is called by different names. Sometimes it purifies, sometimes it illumines and sometimes it makes perfect and deifies, and so it takes the corresponding names. The Elder is plainly aware of which state the recipient of his letter is in. On the one hand he puts the spiritual life in perspective for him, without restricting him to low spiritual levels, because otherwise he would just be moralising. On the other hand, he shows him what to do in his present state, without explaining the exalted spiritual states to him “since it is unnecessary”.

Elder Joseph the HesychastOften in his writings he speaks about noetic prayer, the circular prayer within the heart, which is superior to rational prayer but inferior to theoria. When the ascetic attains to theoria of God, noetic prayer ceases. Elder Joseph writes with profound theology and discernment: “Illumination is followed by interruptions in the prayer and frequent theorias, rapture of the nous, cessation of the senses, profound silence of the bodily members, and union of God and man into one.”
It would need many words to analyse this profound theology in its simplicity, which refers to the teaching of the holy Fathers on the state that deifies man. The words of saints, however, cannot be analysed by inexperienced people, but must be studied from the perspective of prayer and in a prayerful atmosphere.
4. In addition to all this, it is clear from the writings of Elder Joseph contained in the book Monastic Wisdom that he possesses a sensitive heart full of paternal affection and love, a love that melts even the hardest and coarsest of hearts.
In one letter he writes: “Love of my soul, my son whom I begot through the Holy Spirit: I received your letter, my beloved son. When I saw your news I wept bitterly…”
In another letter he writes, “Come, my child, come let us make peace, so you can come to your senses. Like a physician, I am able to cure your passion of agitation andgrief which now has laid a strong hold of you. Come and see that I shall change the tune. We shall chant plagal of the first tone which is joyous. I shall slay the fatted calf and we shall make merry. I am full of love and forgiveness. As a loving father, I shall receive you in my arms, like the son in the parable ,..”
In another letter we again see the affectionate Father confessing, “My soul grieves and a heavy cloud covers my heart. My mind stops; my tongue is silent, and my hand grows numb for you…Oh, my child, if you could only see my pain and the tears that I shed for you! How much I worry until I hear that you have risen and slapped the adversary!… So take courage, my child, and rise from your fall…Don’t despair. These things happen to everyone. It is a war of the tempter that will pass.”
Because his love is boundless, he takes upon himself the problems of his spiritual children: “As for me, I am constantly ill. I am like a paralytic. I can’t take ten steps. Because of this and everything else, I am dead tired. Please, I ask that you pray for me, because I have many souls that seek my help. And believe me, my fathers and brethren, for every single soul that is helped, I go through the warfare he has. This is also why your elder is constantly ill.”
Someone has this kind of spiritual heart when his character has become like God’s, when he has acquired a heart full of mercy and consolation, has been united with God and acquired His love for the whole world. Then he is able to tread the path to Gethsemane, Golgotha, and even the Cross. Only someone who has received from God the same grace as the Martyrs can have such a compassionate heart and sacrificial love.
However many analyses are made of the wonderful book by Elder Joseph the Hesychast, they cannot adequately describe its great value for the spiritual life, because it shows the heights of divine vision, but also the many-sided struggle needed to ascend eagerly the ladder leading up to God. It can help all categories of monks and Christians engaged in this struggle. It points out to monks what genuine monastic life means, which is essential in our day, when we see the monastic way of life being distorted. To laypeople living in the world it demonstrates the great love of God expressed in many different ways, and offers them comfort and encouragement to go through the stages of spiritual healing and perfection, as far as they are able.

Elder Joseph Hesychast and Synodia

Elder Joseph attained a high degree of perfection. He knew God by experience, and he passes on this knowledge in an easily digestible form to his spiritual children, who love him and ask him for words of eternal life that they may be saved. He conveys the tradition and experience of revelation to the spiritual children whom he has brought to new birth in the Christian life. This spiritual maturity of his, however, was not something that happened by chance, nor was it the outcome of an imaginary state or moralistic practices. It was the fruit of spiritual struggle and collaboration. He fought hard, he waged war on the devil, he practised asceticism with implacable hatred for the devil and the “old man”, as we see from all his writings. I should like, however, to draw attention to Letter 37 as a particularly telling example. In it we see the prerequisites for his overshadowing and empowerment by divine grace.

St John Climacus, author of the Ladder, gives the definition of a monk as follows: “A monk is he who strictly controls his nature and unceasingly watches over his senses. A monk is he who keeps his body in chastity, his mouth pure and his nous illumined. A monk is a mourning soul that both asleep and awake is unceasingly occupied with the remembrance of death.

Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller and Hesychast was such a monk and his book Monastic Wisdom is the distillation of his spiritual experience. Its title in Greek is An Expression of Monastic Experience, but it could equally well be entitled An Expression of Prophetic or Apostolic or Martyric or Patristic or Hesychastic or Philokalic Experience.

Met. Hierotheos6I finished writing these thoughts of mine a few hours after midnight, during those hours when Elder Joseph would pray insatiably to God with a pure nous and shed blood in his sacrificial prayer for mankind. Now that he is in heaven, where there is neither day nor night, I ask for his intercessions, that God may change the night into day and constantly inspire us “until the day dawn, and the day star arise in [our] hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19)

Orthodox Monasticism