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Entering Spiritual Combat—Holy Elder Joseph the Cave-Dweller and Hesychast

Elder Joseph the Hesychast

To a monk entering the arena of combat.

 Rejoice in the Lord, beloved child, whom the grace of my Jesus has enlightened and delivered from the world; who has flown to the wilderness and dwelt in a monastery with a holy synodia, and now glorifies and thanks God with all his soul.

 Divine grace, my child, is like bait which enters the soul and without coercion attracts a person toward higher and superior things. It knows how to catch us rational fish and to pull us out of the sea of the world. But then what?

Once God takes the monastic aspirant out of the world and brings him to the wilderness, He doesn’t immediately show him his passions and the temptations, until he becomes a monk and Christ binds him with His fear. Then the trial, the struggle, and the fight begin.

If a novice exerts himself from the beginning and lights his torch of asceticism with his struggles before it is too late, it will not go out when grace withdraws and temptations come. Otherwise, when grace does withdraw, he will return to his previous state. Then, corresponding to the passions he had in the world, temptations will arise and will revive his former habits which used to enslave him because he used to cater to them.

First of all, my child, know that there are great differences from man to man and monk to monk. There are souls with a soft character that are very easily persuaded. There are also souls with a tough character that are not subordinated so easily. They are as different as cotton is from iron. Cotton needs only to be rubbed with words, but iron requires fire and a furnace of temptations to be worked. Such a soul must be patient during temptations to be purified. When a monk does not have patience, he is like a lamp without oil: soon it will bum out.

So, when a person with a nature harder than iron comes to be a monk, as soon as he enters the arena, he rebels against obedience. Immediately he breaks his promises and gives up the battle. Then you see that as soon as grace withdraws a little to test his intentions and patience, at once he throws away his weapons and starts regretting that he came to be a monk. Then he passes his days full of disobedience and bitterness, always talking back arrogantly.

Then, through the prayers of his elder, grace disperses the clouds of temptations somewhat so that he comes to his senses a little and mends his ways. But soon afterwards he returns once more to his own will, to disobedience, agitation, and annoyance.

You write about the brother you see there and are amazed that although he works so hard at hisdiakonema, * his ego within still overcomes him. But do you think it is easy for man to conquer a passion?

Good deeds and almsgiving and all other external good things do not subdue the haughtiness of one’s heart. But mental work, the pain of repentance, contrition, and humility are what humble the unsubmissive spirit. An insubordinate person is unbearable and toilsome to deal with. Only with utter patience can he be handled. Only with utter patience on behalf of the elders and with the forbearance and love of the brethren can stiff-necked disciples come to their senses. But behold: many times they, too, are as useful as your right hand. Almost always such people, who are in some way more gifted than the others humble themselves with difficulty. They think highly of the selves d look down on others.

So a great deal of hard work and patience are needed until this old foundation of pride is dug up, and another foundation is set with Christ’s humility and obedience. But the Lord, seeing their efforts and good intentions, allows another trial to come upon them which counteracts their passion, and by His mercy, He “Who will have all men to be saved”! saves them too. As for you, emulate whomever you want.

It would be wonderful if everyone had a good character, humility, and obedience. But if one’s nature happens to be tougher than iron, he should not despair. He needs to struggle, and by the grace of God he can win. God is not unjust in His expectations. He seeks repayment according to the gifts He has given.

For from the beginning of creation He separated men into three classes: He gave five talents to one, two to another, and one to the other. The first one has the highest gifts: he has greater mental capacity and is called “taught by God,” because he receives teachings from God without a teacher, just like St. Anthony the Great, St. Onouphrios, St. Mary of Egypt, Cyril Phileotes, Luke of Steirion, and thousands of others in the old days who became perfect without a guide. The second type of person has to be taught what is good in order to do it. And the third one, even if he hears, even if he learns, he hides it in the ground: he doesn’t do anything.

So that is why there is such a big difference among the people and monks that you see. And that is why first and foremost you must “know thyself.” That is, know who you really are in truth, and not what you imagine you are. With this knowledge you become the wisest man. With this kind of awareness, you reach humility and receive grace from the Lord. However, if you don’t obtain self-knowledge, but consider only your toil, know that you will always remain far from the path. The prophet does not say, “Behold, O Lord, my toil,” but says, “Behold my humility and my toil.”2 Toil is for the body, and humility is for the soul. Moreover, the two together, toil and humility, are for the whole man.

Who has conquered the devil? He. who knows his own weaknesses, passions, and shortcomings. Whoever is afraid of knowing himself remains far from knowledge, and he doesn’t love anything else except seeing faults in others and judging them. He doesn’t see gifts in other people, but only shortcomings. And he doesn’t see his own shortcomings, but only his gifts. This is truly the sickness that plagues us men of the eighth millennium:* we fail to recognize one another’s gifts. One person may lack many things, but many people together have everything. What one person lacks, another person has. If we acknowledged this, we would have a great deal of humility, because God, Who adorned men in many ways and showed inequality in all of his creations, is honored and glorified; not as the unbelievers say, who toil trying to bring equality by overturning the divine creation. God made all things in wisdom.

Therefore, my child, now that it is still the beginning, see to it that you know yourself well, so that you set humility as a firm foundation. See to it that you learn obedience and acquire the prayer.

May “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!,” be your breath.

Do not leave your mind idle, so that you aren’t taught evil things. Don’t let yourself look at the faults of others, because without knowing it, you will become the evil one’s partner without any progress in virtue. Do not out of ignorance ally yourself with the enemy of your soul.

The cunning enemy knows very well how to hide behind passions and weaknesses. So in order to strike him, you must fight and mortify yourself-all your passions, that is. When the “old man” dies, the strength of your hostile enemy is abolished.

We are not battling with a man, whom you can kill in many ways, but with the powers and rulers of darkness. They are not fought with sweets and marshmallows, but with streams of tears, with pain of soul until death, with utter humility, and with great patience. Blood must flow from over-exhaustion in saying the prayer. You have to collapse from exhaustion for weeks as if gravely ill. And you must not give up the fight, until the demons are beaten and withdraw. Then you will receive freedom from the passions.

And so, my child, force yourself from the beginning to enter the narrow gate, because only it leads to the spaciousness of paradise. Cut off your own will every day and hour, and seek no other path besides this one. This is the path that the feet of the Holy Fathers trod. Reveal your path unto the Lord and He will guide you, too. Reveal your thoughts to your elder, and he will heal you. Never hide a thought, because the devil conceals his cunning within it: as soon as you confess it he disappears. Do not reveal another person’s fault to justify yourself, because at once grace, which had covered you until that point, will reveal your own faults. The more you cover your brother with love, the more grace warms you and guards you from the false accusation of men.

As for the other brother you mentioned, it seems that he has some unconfessed sins, because he is ashamed to tell them to the elder. And this is why that temptation takes place. But he must correct this improper behavior, for without frank confession, one cannot be purified. It is a shame to be ridiculed by the demons. Deep down his ego is hiding. May the Lord enlighten him to come to his senses. And you should pray and love him as well as everyone; yet guard yourself from all.

In any case, now that you have entered the arena, you will undergo many kinds of temptations, so prepare yourself to be patient. Say the prayer constantly, and the Lord will help you with His grace. Temptations are never stronger than grace.

Elder Joseph Hesychast and Synodia

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