Discernment, Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi, Elder Joseph of Vatopedi, Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller, Elder Joseph the Hesychast, Empirical Dogmatics, Epitimia, Heresies and Councils, Hesychasm, Logismoi, Logismon, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Patristic Theology, Protopresbyter George Metallinos, Protopresbyter John Romanides, Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Spiritual Guidance, St. Isaac of Syria, St. Isaac the Syrian, St. Mark the Ascetic, The Spiritual Law, Theoria
1. On Sanctification and Dispassion
We have already said how difficult it is to describe spiritual figures. We repeat this once again, adding that it is a very bold undertaking to try to enter into the depths and breadth of illumined minds and spirit-bearing beings. But this attempt becomes even harder when the person undertaking it is ignorant and inadequate to the task. We have therefore ‘cast our anxiety upon the Lord’ (1 Peter 5:7) in order that ‘in the riches of His kindness’ (Rom. 2:4) He may make known to the hearts of our readers ‘what is the breadth and depth and height’ (Eph. 3:18) of the spiritual realm into which ‘all who are led by the Spirit of God’ (Rom. 8:14) enter and and in which they move, becoming and remaining sons of God. ‘For to all who received Him… He gave power to become children of God’ (Jn 1:12).
In the spiritual sphere, the human rules of ordinary logic do not apply. This is why St Paul frees spiritual people from obligations, saying, ‘the law is not laid down for the just’ (1 Tim. 1:9). But during the course of the struggle, which is the realm of becoming, there are deficiencies which are evident. Called from ignorance to knowledge – and therefore to faith and repentance – we human beings enter upon a cycle of learning and progress in which the further we advance, the further we reduce the void of our previous deficiency. We see in part, we make progress in part, we are perfected in part: and this by the grace and mercy of God. In this partial progress which is according to nature it is to be expected that deficiencies should appear, which are not due to our right intention bending or giving way, nor to a deviation ‘to the left’. Rather, it is analogous to something that happens with the sun: when the sun has not yet reached its height, its rays do not light up the back of a body so as to bathe the whole body in light. In other words, the spiritual warrior has not yet arrived directly under the fullness of grace, and for that reason he still has some points which are unillumined and, consequently, some deficiencies: but even so, fullness and perfection are his life-long aim.
An almost total lack of practical experience in the spiritual life leads modern man to ask many questions, which we hear constantly in our daily encounters and conversations. Sanctification, in other words perfection in God, and its real meaning are almost always wrongly interpreted by those who are far from true experience. In fear and modesty, let me mention some of the things the Fathers have said on the subject, so as to interpret the meaning and significance of sanctification according to the patristic spirit. In presenting and commenting on some of the sayings of the chief Fathers we shall speak about what is meant by ‘sanctification’: where it begins, where it leads and how it is achieved, in order to help provide some sort of orientation.
It is possible for anyone to taste a partial form of sanctification, because the struggle and journey towards complete sanctification passes progressively through several stages. Each person, some less and some more, can and should attain to one or another of these stages. The road that leads to sanctification and perfection in Christ is repentance, since we ‘all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). As one ascends the ladder of repentance, so one encounters the gradations ofsanctification. This is the definition of true repentance, when man regains the divine grace that was lost through sin, or of which he was deprived by living far from faith and knowledge of God. The regaining of grace is not something partial but the totality of adoption, which Christ grants to the faithful through His Church. If they desire, the faithful are able to attain to perfection insofar as is possible, which the Fathers divide into three states: those of purification, illumination and perfection. The third state is called perfection, or dispassion, or divine knowledge, or love for God. It is also called keeping the Sabbath and rest, when man rests from the works of repentance, just as God rests from His works on the seventh day.
The great Maximus the Confessor refers to three more general states commonly found in monks, which characterise those who are approaching sanctification . The first consists in ‘not sinning at all in action’: this is the stage of purification and the spiritual warrior, after ‘lawful striving’ (2 Tim. 2:5), goes beyond the unnatural state. The second is when ‘the soul does not dally with impassioned thoughts’: this is the state of illumination, characterised chiefly by the capacity to receive divine illumination, so that the intellect controls impassioned thoughts. The third state, that of perfection, is when we can ‘envision dispassionately in the mind the forms of women and those who have given us offence’: in this state the soul succeeds in coming near to freedom, because even if impassioned conceptual images are still present they cannot stir the intellect to be ravished by them, and this more or less is the principal aim of spiritual life. The right use of conceptual images follows the right use of things and thus evil in general is done away with, because if one does not first sin in the mind one will never sin in action, as the Fathers say.
Faith, divine fear, the fervour that results from these things and strict obedience to the commandments mortify the passible part of the soul, which is thus turned in its entirety towards God because, in the words of the Apostle, ‘what is mortal is swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor. 5:4). The senses then function according to the law of need alone; they are obedient to self-control, and thus produce mourning and awareness of our sinfulness.
Even though perfection extends to the levels we have spoken of, it is nevertheless possible to participate partially in dispassion. In these three states, even though man is not yet totally perfected, he has nevertheless come to know the law of freedom albeit partially, and acquired experience of sanctification. The same person is in a position to describe both positions exactly: those of grace and of error, of virtue and of vice, of struggle and of defeat and, generally, the mysteries of the unseen war.
At another point, St Maximus distinguishes four gradations of dispassion : the first type is abstention from the body’s impulse towards the commission of sin. The second is complete expulsion from the soul of impassioned thoughts. The third is the complete quiescence of passionate desire. The fourth is the complete exclusion from the mind of all sensible images. And St Paul, too, recognises two kinds of perfection, considering himself both perfect and not perfect. He says, ‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect’ and immediately afterwards, ‘Let those of us who are perfect be thus minded’ (Phil. 3:12, 15).
But we consider that the following patristic passages from the Philokalia will help us to a fuller understanding of the terms sanctification and dispassion. According to Maximus the Great, ‘Sanctification is the total complete cessation and mortification of desire in the senses,’ and ‘dispassion is a peaceful condition of the soul in which the soul is not easily moved towards evil.’ According to Abba Thalassios, ‘The person who is not affected either by material things, or by his memories of them, has attained perfect dispassion’ . Diadochos, Bishop of Photiki, says that ‘dispassion is not freedom from attack by demons… but it is to remain undefeated when they do attack’ ; and elsewhere he gives the definition, ‘it is not only to cease from evil that brings purity, but actively to destroy evil by pursuing what is good.’ And Abba Isaac the Syrian says, ‘Dispassion is not that we do not experience the passions, but that we do not accept them. For through the many and various virtues that we have acquired, both hidden and manifest, the passions have grown weak within us and cannot easily rebel against the soul, and the intellect does not always need to pay attention to them.’ And again Mark the Ascetic says, ‘An intellect which by God’s grace accomplishes acts of virtue and has come near to knowledge feels little from the evil and senseless part of the soul. For its spiritual knowledge snatches it up on high and makes it a stranger to everything that is in the world.’ St Ephrem the Syrian also says that ‘those who are dispassionate, stretching insatiably towards the ultimate attainable, make perfection endless, because there is no end to the eternal good things’.
These definitions, which are not the only ones, describe as far as is possible for human beings the perfection which in fact remains without end because – as the Apostle says – ‘here we see in part and we know in part’; and only when in the future the final perfection comes, ‘then the partial will pass away’ (1 Cor. 13:10).
This much is the duty of all humans as rational beings, in which nature requires them to stand firm. Infringing these terms reduces rationality to the position of the irrational and unnatural. For man not to sin and to act righteously is a law of nature, and in consequence a duty. The laws of grace begin from here on: they are on the one hand a continuation of what has gone before, but are not prescribed for all people, being hard to achieve and rare especially under the conditions of life in society. When our Lord was asked what one must do to be saved, He initially cited the keeping of the commandments, as did the great Forerunner as the preacher of repentance. Only to those seeking the highest perfection did He command renunciation, and to follow Him with exactitude (Mt 19:21).
Standing firm at the first position, the keeping of the commandments, the righteous from all ages were called pure and blameless. Paul often calls them ‘saints’. In the second letter to the Corinthians he refers to all the saints who were in Achaea, while in the letter to the Romans there are several passages where he refers to ministering to the saints who were in Jerusalem, and so forth. Luke mentions that the parents of John the Baptist were ‘both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless’ (Lk 1:6).
But the coming of God the Word and the assumption by His Godlike majesty of our own nature raised man to the fullness of his perfection, to his original destiny. To be ‘in the image and likeness’, as the basis of personhood, was now given to man as his inheritance. From that time on noble beings, Godlike intentions, purposes divine in form – with our Lord Jesus as the prototype – have surpassed the law of duty, the ‘law of commandments’ (Eph. 2:15), and entered into the dogma of love, having received from the Prototype the grace and power to ‘do greater works than this’ (Jn 14:12), ruled and guided by Him. The noble rivalry to enter within the innermost veil where Jesus, the focus of their love, has entered, has become and remained their chief concern. Detached from the causes and occasions by means of which our fallen nature is led astray, they continue this incomparable struggle and – according to Abba Isaac – ‘wander about in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground, being ordered in the midst of unruliness.’ On the basis of a comprehensive self-denial, these lovers of God bound for heaven did not only deny the world and everything to do with it, but even their own souls. And thus, naked of anything of their own ‘whether within, or without, or around them,’ they are given over totally to the grace of the Lord and to ‘lawful striving’, under the guardianship of their teachers in God. During this life-long contest of their sojourn here they keep ‘their loins girded and their lamps burning’ (Lk 12:35), according to the Lord’s command, and await ‘power from on high’ and the promise of the Father (Lk 24:49). ‘Santify them in the truth; Thy word is truth’ (Jn 17:17). ‘I in them and Thou in me… that the love with which Thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them’ (Jn 17:23, 26).
2. On Discovering the Will of God
Our life with the Elder had the character of childhood rather than a mature state. Our effort, in basic terms, was directed towards the monastic tradition, and we exerted ourselves as forcibly as possible in the obligations of our rule. What we lacked, essentially, was the discernment of an experience in discrimination so as to evaluate the situation, so that the spiritual scope of the Elder did not elude us in its depth and breadth and height. But is it perhaps usual and inevitable for disciples to discover their teacher ‘when he is taken from them’? (cf. Lk 24:31). Untiringly, the Elder made a constant effort to pass on to us everything that is spiritual and he did not fail in his aim, because ‘the wise man has his eyes in his head’ (Eccl. 2:14). It is true, however, that ‘for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter’ (Eccl. 3:1).
At a mature age, when the Elder was no longer with us, we understood the depth of his words and his actions even down to the details, whereas while he lived they seemed, to our inexperience, riddles that made no sense. We put all our meagre powers into our effort to be obedient and not to grieve the Elder. But we had virtually no comprehension of the meaning and main aim of the spiritual law which the Elder passed on to us with such fervour. I will not go into biographical details again, but I want to comment a little on the aforementioned subject of the spiritual law, which is what chiefly governs human beings.
We observed that the Elder never embarked on anything without first praying. We would ask him about something in the future or for the next day, and his reply was that he would tell us tomorrow. The object was so that he could pray first.
Our desire focussed on knowledge of the divine will: how should one recognise the divine will? He would say, ‘Are you asking about this, boys, when it is the most basic thing?’ We would encourage him with increased curiosity, ‘But, Elder, isn’t God’s will known in general terms through the Scriptures and the whole of divine revelation? Since everything in our life is regulated – what other question should we monks have?’ And the Elder replied, ‘May God give you “understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). St Nilus the Calabrian prayed that he might be granted “to think and speak according to the divine will.”
In general terms, to do good and every other commandment is the will of God, but the detail which governs it is unknown. “For who has known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:34); and again, “the judgements of the Lord are a great abyss” (Ps. 36:6). The divine will is not differentiated only by time, but also by place, persons, and things, as also by quantity, manner and circumstance. And is that all? Man himself, when he changes his disposition, also changes the divine decision in many ways. So it is not enough to know the general expression of the divine will; one needs to know the specific verdict on the subject of concern, whether yes or no, and only thus is success assured. The chief aim of the divine will is the expression and manifestation of divine love, because the driving force of all our actions is precisely the fullness of His love. If “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:8), as St Paul says, then, however much the will we are seeking seems to be personal to us or to someone close to us, its centre of gravity is the Divine Person, for whose sake “we live and move and have our being” (cf. Acts 17:28). Have you forgotten the Lord’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, “if it be possible let it pass from me, nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt!” (Mt 26:39)? Any expression of obedience towards the venerable divine will that does not have love for Him as its basis risks remaining a human action – or, to put it better, a human failing. If, as St Paul says, we have to “subordinate every thought to obedience to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) because “we are not our own” (1 Cor. 6:19), how is this to be implemented in the conscience of the person who gives his obedience if he does not know precisely what the divine will is for this circumstance? Besides, the ensuing divine blessing and grace, towards which we hasten, is revealed only in perfect obedience.
‘So when you want to find out the will of God, abandon your own will completely together with every other thought or plan, and with great humility ask for this knowledge in prayer. And whatever takes shape or carries weight in your heart, do it, and it will be according to God’s will. Those who have greater boldness and practice in praying for this will hear a clearer assurance within them, and will become more careful in their lives not to do anything without divine assurance.
‘There is also another way of discovering the will of God which the Church uses generally, and that is advice through spiritual fathers or confessors. The great blessing of obedience which beneficently overshadows those who esteem it becomes for them knowledge where they are ignorant and protection and strength to carry out the advice or commandment, because God is revealed to those who are obedient in His character as a father. The perfection of obedience, as the consummate virtue, puts its followers on a level with the Son of God, who became “obedient… unto a cross” (Phil. 2:8). And as our Jesus was given all power (Mt 28:18) and all the good pleasure of the Father, so the obedient are given assurance of the divine will and the grace to carry it out successfully and to the full.
‘Those who ask spiritual people in order to discover the divine will should be aware of this point: the will of God is not revealed magically, nor does it hold a position of relativity, since it is not contained within the narrow confines of human reason. In His consummate goodness God condescends to human weakness and gives man sure knowledge. But man must firstly believe absolutely, and secondly humble himself by thirsting ardently for this assurance and being disposed to carry it out. This is why he receives with faith and gratitude the first word of the spiritual father who is advising him. When, however, these requirements of faith, obedience and humility do not coexist – and it is a sign of this when someone objects or counters with other questions, or worst of all has a mind to keep asking for second opinions – then the will of God is hidden, like the sun behind a passing cloud. This is a delicate matter, and requires great care. Abba Mark says, “A man gives advice to his neighbour according to what he knows; but God works in the hearer according to his faith.” An essential requirement in seeking the divine will is that the person who is asking should make himself receptive to this revelation, because, as I have said before, the divine will with its transcendent character is not magically contained within positions or places or instruments, but is revealed only to those who are worthy of this divine condescension.’
I can also recall now what happened with us, when we asked the Elder to tell us the will of God. We had got into the habit from previous experience and received as absolute his first word, without contradiction; and indeed everything happened just as we would have wished, even in cases where the thing did not seem to make good sense humanly speaking. We knew that if we put forward some sort of objection on pretexts that were reasonable according to our own judgement, the Elder would give way to us, saying, ‘Do as you think best’; but the mysterious power and protection of success would be lost to us. Therefore it was the ‘first word’ from the spiritual father, received with faith and obedience, that expressed the divine will. In its general form this subject is complex and obscure because, as we know, the divine will is not always known even to the perfect, particularly when someone wants to discover it within a limited time-frame. At other times a difficulty also arises from the state of the person who is interested, depending on how far he is free from impassioned tendencies and appetites under the influence of which he acts and makes decisions, in which case patience is also required.
I myself have heard from a spiritual man, someone altogether reliable, that he besought God to reveal His will on a question in his own personal life and received the answer he had asked for forty-two years later! I in my slothfulness was quite alarmed, wondering at his cast iron patience.
The general conclusion is that discernment of the divine will is one of the most delicate and complex matters in our lives. Especially for those who try to discover it through prayer – even though this is required, according to the saying ‘knock, seek, ask and it will be given you’ (Mt 7:7) – it must is nevertheless be preceded by patient endurance, trials and tribulations and experience so as to remove the passions and the individual will, which the exceeding subtlety and sensitivity of divine grace abhors. Anyway, whether it is arduous or whether it requires patient endurance, the method of prayer remains a requirement as the only means whereby we communicate with God, and by which we shall also know His divine will.
3. On Regime and Disorder
Among the duties which the ever-memorable Elder taught us during the first days of our life under him was that of good order and keeping to a regime, while he described disorder to us in the blackest of colours. He often quoted to us the saying of St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Those who have no guidance fall like leaves’ – which signifies, as he told us, the lack of any regime. He was also in the habit of referring to various incidents in the lives of more recent Elders and particularly of the Elder Theophylact from the hermitage of St Artemios, who was renowned for his virtue and spiritual gifts.
The Elder Theophylact lived his whole life as an ascetic and hesychast, keeping a strict fast: he did not even eat oil. At one time he accepted a disciple, the future Father Arsenios, and told him laconically – because this blessed father was temperate even in his speech – ‘Listen, my boy: if you are going to stay will me, I want you to have order and regime in your life, because without these you will never become a monk. Look round at our things as I show them to you. There’s our jug, there’s the cup, there are the bowls, there are the rusks and so forth, as you can see. I want them always to be in those places. If you happen to make a mistake, the first time I’ll remind you of their proper place according to our rule, but I won’t tolerate it the second time. If you continue this disorder a third time, I shall ask you to take your things and go so that at the least you won’t trouble me, even if you youself don’t want to profit at all.’
The ever-memorable Elder told us that he had heard of the Elder Theophylact that he was a man of watchfulness, and his intellect was often caught up into visions because of the purity of his mind and his spiritual state. ‘Once,’ he told us, ‘I heard that the demons seized him and took him out of his cell in winter time when it was snowing. They dragged him about naked in the snow all night long till morning, and then returned him safe home. That day other Fathers brought back some of his clothes, which they had found where the evil spirits had flung them. Perhaps they had done it to interrupt his nous in its theoria, as they often used to do with earlier Fathers.’.
Once, it is said, a roebuck came to the Elder Theophylact’s cell at night and knocked on the door. When the Elder answered the door, it showed him its leg which was broken, and he bandaged it up and told it to come back in eight days, which it did, at the same hour. The Elder changed the dressing, rebandaged the roebuck’s leg and repeated his instruction to come again in eight days’ time. When it came back the next time, the Elder saw that its leg was healed and told the roebuck not to come again, and it obeyed!
One of the main characteristics of these blessed spiritual warriors was their strictness in keeping their rule of life. We could see this also in our own Elder, and he demanded the same of us. He told us that the beginning of acquiring character and personhood lies in insistence on following an ordered and systematic way of life. By making the decision to maintain an invariable regime, man acquires resolve and bravery, something very important and essential in our life since our contest is a struggle and, indeed, a fierce one. The serpent who ‘prowls round like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8) – and not just to injure somewhat – can be confronted only with bravery and strength of resolve.
There is another equally imperative reason for order in keeping to a regime: the mutability of man’s unstable character since the fall of Adam. And the general sinfulness which each of us carries with us also dulls our courage and resolve. Equally inexperience, ignorance, the unknown form of the invisible war and the inequality of this struggle naturally increase one’s discouragement. No other human factor is such an aid to success as our firm and steady resolve and a carefully worked out regime.
Particularly characteristic in the lives of the Fathers is their insistence on order and the typikon as the principal elements in their way of life. Our Elder was particularly attached to the book of St Isaac the Syrian, which he used almost as a manual. He would recite whole chapters to us by heart, particularly those concerning order and rule in our monastic life, from introductory ‘action’ to theoria even of perfection itself as far as is possible for man. I remember how many things he reminded us of from the seventh discourse, On order among beginners, and their state, and what pertains to these. The main thing, which I still remember now is this noteworthy sentence: ‘Wherever you are, consider yourself less than your brethren, and their servant.’
From the beginning the Elder had inclined towards the life of hesychasm and isolation, and it was only natural that this should dictate a generally more austere manner of living. This is of course commonplace in those who live permanently as hesychasts, whose situation and manner and the means they use are different from those of the common coenobitic form of life pursued by most monks. Even in earlier days, as the Fathers write, people of this sort always seemed austere at first sight. As a result, mildness in behaviour is not in their character; this probably comes about without their noticing, as a result of being isolated and somewhat antisocial. I remember something of the kind in the Life of Abba Palamon, to whom St Pachomius, later to become great in virtue and the founder of systematic coenobitic monasticism, went as a novice.
We asked the Elder a few times about the austerity of his own regime, and he responded with positive examples from the lives of the ancient Fathers. Those ancient Fathers were in no way unaware of the duty of loving one’s neighbour, yet they gave priority to love for God and the form of their particular watchfulness in the hesychastic way of life. Since we were making our way towards the same end, he often quoted to us the words of Abba Isaac, that the essential precondition for the monk to make progress is ‘to collect himself in one place and to fast always.’
I paid more attention, however, to another point of orderliness, which though it may seem elementary held great significance for our first beginnings. This was the help afforded by precise observance of the typikon, which we maintained wherever we were, regardless of place. By not contravening the typikon at all, our fervour was not decreased, nor our ardour, nor our prayer, nor our (generally) inspired state. But when it happened that we did contravene our usual rule, whether of diet or of silence or of being on our guard in general, then everything was thrown into turmoil and we had great difficulty holding onto our usual practice. After a number of mishaps, this finally became a clear lesson to us.
From time to time, in our childish naivete we overstepped the bounds of propriety and on one occasion we asked the Elder, ‘Since in character you aren’t strict with other people, but very sympathetic, how is it that you seem so harsh in the regime of our typikon, which creates an obstacle for people?’ He smiled and said to me, ‘I never expected you to have the face to ask me that, but I’ll tell you. Testing and experience have convinced me to act in this way: otherwise, I would not be able to continue what God has led me to. St Paul says, “If I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission”’ (1 Cor. 9:17). The Elder told us this with some effort, but he firmly believed that his dedication to his hesychastic regime was not fortuitous, but a vocation from on high.
As he told us, ‘To accept people’s demands with no restrictions is the common path of the all the Fathers, and this, by the grace of God, is abundant in this sacred place. Anyone can easily find a response anywhere. But our duty of serving as hesychasts in the sacred tradition of stillness is not known to all nor attainable by all. While St Gregory Palamas was concerning himself with stillness during his days here on Athos, he would run away and hide and dig holes in the ground, and do everything he could to achieve isolation. Whom did he receive then, or whom did he meet? It is incontrovertible proof that regulation in life is the main factor in spiritual progress. This is the purpose of the laws and commandments which have been given to human life since most ancient times, whether by God or by men. The disturbance in the integrity of our character following the Fall of our first parents called for legislation to restore equilibrium to the faculties of soul and body which had been split apart. And when are law and commandments and regulation not necessary? Answer: when man regains his personhood through divine grace and “the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54) in St Paul’s words, and what is mortal is swallowed up – so to speak – by life (2 Cor. 5:4). Then, and then indeed, “no law is laid down for the just”’ (1 Tim 1:9).
4. On Trials and the Spiritual Law
The Fathers’ saying ‘spill your blood and receive the spirit’ could be described as the ever-memorable Elder’s permanent motto. Intrepid and courageous as he was, he left no room for queries or doubts in his life. But his ardent faith also contributed to this excellent combination, and so the results were always positive. Resolve and daring are the chief characteristics of man’s freedom which manifest his will, and with faith in God – which is all that is asked of our rational nature – they arouse and bring down upon us the divine energy which heals what is infirm and completes what is wanting.
With God’s help and with the above preconditions, to the Elder nothing was considered impossible; but by those unable to attain to this state, he was misunderstood and regarded as deficient or extreme. To everything that seemed difficult or complex, the Elder had a ready answer: ‘Where is God?’ – which for him meant that without fail, God will solve the problem. Such an attitude was a basic principle of his, grounded not just in a very profound faith – what the Fathers call ‘faith of theoria’ – but also in the guardianship of the spiritual law, on which he based everything throughout his life. Whatever happened in general, he always judged it on the basis of the spiritual law; and in particular he judged our own personal affairs in this way, when they preoccupied us.
At the beginning of our stay with him, we usually paid quite frequent visits to him so that he could give us advice and see how we were getting on. Naturally, whether or not we told him what was on our minds, he would explain the meaning of events in detail, beginning from the results and analysing what had led up to them, right back to the initial provocation. He would explain where these things came from, and why they came and to what extent, with such precision that we were astounded at the place the ‘law of the spirit of life’ (Rom. 8:2) held within him. Once when we made a mistake (and how many mistakes are not caused by inexperience!) he gave me as an epitimia the pointless labour of a long journey. Because I knew that he never did anything without a reason, I did not ask any questions, but he told me of his own accord, ‘If we do not arouse a corresponding pain through arduous asceticism along with our repentance, we do not satisfy the judgement of the spiritual law, and it is possible that we may get some trial which we do not know how it will turn out.’ I can say that across the whole range of our actions and affairs, both general and particular, the basis and criterion was the spiritual law. And Abba Mark says, ‘real knowledge is patiently to accept affliction and not to blame others for our own misfortunes’ .
The Elder was also in the habit of referring frequently to the significance of trials, both as the totality of the various ills by which mankind is tested, and as events concerning individuals. On the basis of the spiritual law as the intellect of God’s comprehensive providence, he accepted ‘educative episodes’ as appropriate instruments for our correction, and called them trials. Even though he knew in depth the importance of the benefit derived from these and repeated the patristic saying ‘take away trials, and no one would be saved’ and the statement that they were ‘sure to come’ (Lk 17:1), he would examine with minute accuracy the causes and occasions which prompt them, and taught us how to avoid them as far as possible. His experience centred on this double duty, as he called it: to deal wisely with the causes and occasions of trials so as to forestall them on the one hand, and on the other – whenever they do occur – to confront them bravely, with faith and in hope of the ensuing benefit. ‘Unexpected trials are sent by God to teach us to practise the ascetic life, and they lead us to repentance even when we are reluctant.’ And again, ‘The afflictions that come upon us are the result of our own sins.’ With these sayings the Elder reminded us of the ‘professor of the spiritual law’, as he called him, Abba Mark the Ascetic.
The practical aspect of the life in Christ conceals the most complex mystery in human life. Two titanic forces linked together by man create an immense and unbreakable tug-of-war with man in the middle, each frantically pulling him towards itself in order to win him over. Two loves, standing in opposition and turned towards opposite poles, form the motive power of these two forces: love towards God and love of this world. The victim, man, is not always in a position consciously to discern his own preferences, and this gives rise to retrospective changes. The occasions and causes which serve to awaken human beings who are entangled in these forces are known as trials. Are we to describe them? ‘If I would count them,’ as the Psalmist says, ‘they are more than the sand’ (Ps. 139:18). But we should relate just a very little from the experiences of the Elder, who had the capacity to analyse trials with exceptionally subtle discernment.
In general he considered every trial benefial (cf. Jas 1:2), but he ascribed greater seriousness to them when explaining the particular temptations of negligence and self-conceit, which he described as devastating. Assuredly, God wills and calls all to follow Him, but not everyone accepts His call. Yet those who have accepted this calling are tested sorely, to the degree that He ordains and in proportion to the knowledge which He has given them. The negative side, which conspires against those called by God, is the love of this world which ‘is in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5:19), which in its crafty and hypocritical way manages to deceive some; as for the others who are not convinced by its deceit, it attempts to stifle their will with open and unconcealed force. The merciless pressure of the ‘changes’ brought about by this evil neighbour of ours does not leave our good intention and good start intact.
There are many causes, known in detail to our Fathers, which give rise to changes: they may be natural, stemming from needs of ours which are not reprehensible, or they may be acquired, stemming from passions and demons. But whether they come from the one cause or the other, the reality is that they conspire against our will.
In this uninterrupted tug-of-war trials are constantly present. None of those who sail this stormy sea of life remains untouched by the struggle with them. Inexperience, ignorance, weakness, the weight of our flesh of clay, our evil past, the passions, our habits and in addition the devil – all these evils change and check our right intention and vitiate our good purpose. ‘The law of sin which dwells in our members’ (Rom. 7:23), which is ‘the imagination of our heart which is evil from our youth’ (Gen. 8:21) slackens our progress along the good course marked out by our calling from God and the nobility of our intention. There is now no other way of waking us up and pushing us forward except for ‘contractual afflictions’, which are properly called trials.
5. The Differences between the Trials
Trials (peirasmoi) are so called because they engender experience (peira), since in the unseen war they do indeed afford spiritual knowledge to those who are attentive. Anything is called a trial if it is in opposition to our struggle for faith and true piety while we are pressing on towards submission to God, but they are subdivided into various kinds, according to the understanding of the Fathers. There are the trials of those taking part in the struggle, so that they may make additional gains and progress in their struggle. There are the trials of the slothful and unwilling, to make them beware of things that are harmful and dangerous. There are the trials of those who are drowsy or sleeping, in order to wake them up. Then again there are the trials of those who have distanced themselves and gone astray, to make them draw near to God. Different again are the trials of the righteous and friends of God, so that they may inherit the promise. There are also trials of the perfect, which God permits in order to bring them forward in the Church for the strengthening of the faithful and as an example to be emulated. There is also another kind of trial, again of the perfect, such as those endured by our Lord and the Apostles, who fulfilled the law of communion with the world by taking up the trials which are ours.
Spiritual Fathers also participate in this law of ‘communion’ by bearing the burdens and the weaknesses of their spiritual children through prayers and other struggles which supplement what is lacking in others. There is also another way, according to the Fathers, in which one person may be a sharer in someone else’s trials, and this is as follows: the accuser shares in the trials of the accused, the slanderer in those of the slandered, the wrongdoer in those of the wronged – especially when those who are wronged endure the harm done to them without a murmur.
We shall speak at this point of the trials of those who are making progress as a result of their attentiveness and willingness to struggle, which – again in the judgement of our Fathers – are usually the following: indolence, heaviness of body, languor of the limbs, listlessness, confusion of the mind, suspicion of bodily sickness – faintheartedness, in other words – darkening of the thoughts, being abandoned by human help, constriction in their external needs and the like. All these things, when – by God’s consent – they befall participants in the struggle, give rise to a sense of dereliction. Their faith then begins to be waver, as if the hope which had given them heart up till then had been cut off. But secretly grace consoles them so that they do not change their regime, because it convinces them that the trial has not come from themselves, since everything testifies that they have not abandoned their consistent good practice. After facing this difficulty and receiving the mystical consolation of grace, they turn with faith and yearning towards God who has power to save them, and fall down in humility asking His salvation, which is the end to which they have endured these trials. Such, according to the Fathers, are the trials of those who are advanced and making progress in spiritual matters.
In those who chance to neglect their duties or, which is the most terrible, fall into self-conceit and pride, the trials are different and harsher, in the same way as surgical operations and excisions are called for in cases of serious illness. The demons at first make war on them openly and quite shamelessly and insistently, and beyond their strength (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13). They experience a darkening of the intellect so that they lose the power of discrimination altogether, and imbecility and idiotic thoughts abound; an intense war of the flesh, pressing their will to go contrary to nature; anger for no reason and intractability in whatever concerns their own will; quarrelling on the spur of the moment and rebuking people at random; blasphemous thoughts against God; a loss of courage in the heart; being mocked by the demons, secretly and openly; lack of restraint in idle talk and, in general, a desire for the world and for idle vanities. After that, trials which are severe and hard to dispel: strange and unaccustomed symptoms of illness and painful wounds, a poverty and dereliction that is unaccustomed and defies consolation and everything else that is impossible and insoluble, which gives rise to despair and fear because the heart is devoid of hope. All these things are consequences mainly of pride, and come upon the person who has been led astray into believing in himself; and all these are the medicines for his healing, to make him sober up and humble himself and vomit out the bile of this devastating perversion.
As in matters of grace there are means of assistance which augment our progress both in time and in quantity, so also on the side of error there are factors which contribute to its fluctuation. On the side of grace, when by the grace of Christ someone treads the strait and narrow way (Mt 7:14) of the commandments according to the measure of his understanding, he increases the aid and illumination given by grace if he also acquires humility and sympathy in the service of love. Something comparable happens on the side of error. If impatience and grumbling are added to it, one’s cross becomes twice as heavy if not more. Faintheartedness and lack of hope are the most excruciating horrors of the unseen war, and are reserved for hard and unhumbled characters as the harshest lesson, which is a taste of hell itself and of punishment, a palpable sign of desertion and dereliction. Here it takes the prayers of saints and the intervention of a miracle for the heart to be softened. Many prayers and tears are needed for this sick soul to be reunited with grace and so be healed: otherwise it is inevitable that error will conquer, and that way lies madness and destruction.
O blessed humility and gratitude! Who is wise and will keep thy ways and understand thy statutes, that he may win thee totally and have thee as his intimate companion: that thou mayest go before him and follow him in all his ways, until thou presentest him to thy Master and King, who has taken thee as His delight and sharer of His throne and has revealed thee to us! For he says, ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart’ (and not just in appearance) ‘and you will find rest for your souls’! (Mt 11:29).
It was not our intention to repeat so many problems and explanations well known from our Fathers; we were carried away by our train of thought, since almost unintentionally we found ourselves amidst the whirlwinds of trials to which we so often fall victim through our many deficiencies and lapses in attention.
The ever-memorable Elder never stopped explaining to us at every stage of our life, in his own delightful way, the aim and purpose of these ‘contractual afflictions’. We saw the movement and functioning of these afflictions constantly within the framework of the spiritual law which regulated everything in our lives in detail. Indeed, how much wisdom is concealed here in those who have understanding in the science of the spiritual life, when they chart their course over this ocean of life using nothing but this lodestone of the spiritual law, ‘the law of the spirit of life’! (Rom. 8:2).
6. The Law of Changes in Our Practical Life
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 an epitimia 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.’
7. Negligence, the Unsleeping Danger for the Orthodox Christian
Negligence is a terrible conspirator against our lives and has wronged us many times, and we must never cease to regard it as our most implacable enemy. The Elder’s fervour in protecting us from it and his profound experience of the crafty and intricate ways in which it confuses and entangles its victims makes it imperative for us to say something about this enemy of ours.
In the language of the Fathers this is called listlessness (akidia) as well as negligence and sloth, which all mean the same thing—spiritual death. We shall not go into what the Fathers have said about this pestilence, except that it is included among the eight evil thoughts as a comprehensive vice. We shall simply give helpful extracts from the Elder’s experience, which are of particular use in our own generation.
When we asked about the chief cause of man’s failure in his spiritual purpose, he would reply that it was negligence. On one occasion I asked him how it was that the Fathers give self-esteem as the reason, and he replied, “Yes, that conspires against us too; but not all of us, only those it deceives. And again it affects only a few, because self-esteem corrupts treasures that have been amassed, while negligence does not even let you collect them. Negligence is like a drought in which nothing grows. Self-esteem damages those who have fruit, who have made some progress; whereas negligence harms everyone, because it impedes those who want to make a start, it stops those who have advanced, it does not allow the ignorant to learn, it prevents those who have gone astray from returning, it does not permit the fallen to get up—in general, negligence spells destruction for all those it holds captive.”
“Using the pretext of physical needs and weariness from the struggle, this deceiver makes itself credible; and like a conductive material, listlessness transmits us and hands us over to self-love, the more general enemy. Only a courageous soul grounded in faith and hope in God can overthrow this conspiracy Otherwise, it is difficult for someone inexperienced to escape from these nets. This is a great ordeal for those who live alone and for everyone who avoids a regulated life, whereas it is unable to harm those who are under obedience and have tasks to perform.”
“Listlessness begins with despondency and faintheartedness and the prolonged withdrawal of grace. It starts off with the application of economy towards some supposed infirmity or weakness, and ends in total disbelief and shamelessness and ingratitude. For those who live alone as hesychasts, it starts from neglect of the rule and order of their lives, and grows if not attended to in good time. But in those who live with others, it begins with idle talk and backbiting.”
As a cure for negligence, the Elder recommended eschatological meditation in ascending and descending form: reward and punishment, the Kingdom of heaven and hell; and also calling to mind the honorable memory of those who have taken part in the struggle. The means of grace against negligence are prayer, tears and faith. Again, the Elder would recount many examples from the lives of earlier spiritual warriors who happened to be led astray by negligence and lost the record of spiritual progress which they had gained through great fervour and ascetic labour. The Elder would say, “In my opinion, the other passions into which spiritual warriors are led astray are complications of indifference, because this erodes our attention and so opens the way to related and connected passions, and these take men captive.”
To wake us up in the morning he would always shout to us, “Don’t be negligent, boys, lest you fall into the hands of thieves.” He even regarded a pointless occupation as negligence, because he believed that this too could lead to the same bondage. As David says, “Let not thy foot be moved, and He who keeps thee will not slumber (Ps. 120:3);” and again, “If Thy law had not been my meditation, I should have perished in my humiliation (Ps. 118:92).”
Monastic Wisdom: The Letters of Elder Joseph the Hesychast
By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
I 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’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.”
3. 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”.
Often 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.
The 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.“
The 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.
I 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)