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Prologue

By St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite from the 1783 edition of The Evergetinos

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite

He Who transcends all understanding, and so remains unintelligible, is nonetheless believed to exist among things intelligible. Now, because He, the pre-eternal and supra-essential Mind [νοῦς,Eds.], is by nature the author of all good things (having created the universe out of nothingness, and bringing it into completion through reason and perfecting it through His life-giving Spirit), He has willed to set boundaries by means of certain limits and laws. Thus, in His supreme goodness, He governs the most sublime noetic beings by otherworldly laws, and according to these laws the attainable effulgences move in Divine harmony and proportion: the higher beings take part directly in the attainable effulgences, whereas the lesser beings receive these effulgences only proportionately to the agency of the higher ones. He has implanted certain vital forces in bodies in this material world; these forces are generally called “physical laws.” Motivated by and in accordance with such laws, these bodies carry out their appropriate actions. The term “cosmos” truly suits this condition of things. In man, He has planted the seeds of a rational faculty which is inherently critical, and as a further aid He has bestowed upon him, as it were, a command which is called moral law. Consequently, man, being directed by such law towards an unmistakable standard, vigorously sets himself apart from all evil—since evil is a deviation from the rectitude of moral law—and rationally pursues every good and every virtue; for this, indeed, is the object of moral philosophy: namely, the good.

What then does that Mind [νοῦς] which engendered the world wish from these things? He desires to secure for Himself glory according to the universal laws of orderly and all-harmonious motion; for what is created, whether good or bad, will in any event either glorify or disgrace the Creator, as the Holy Scripture in one place states: “The heavens declare the glory of God” [Psalm 18:2—Eds.]. As for man, it is said, “…that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in Heaven” [St. Matthew 5:16—Eds.]. To be sure, all other things (with certain exceptions), in heeding the commands of the Creator, have remained within their boundaries—as it is said: “…for thou hast set a bound that they shall not pass over” [Psalm 103:9—Eds.]—and in harmony, indeed in voices without words, they have glorified God; but man, on the other hand, …man! How can I continue speaking without shedding tears? For of all things on earth, man alone was given to partake of the faculty of free will and, tempted by the malice of the Devil, waxed arrogant toward his Creator, deviating from the straightness of the right reason firmly planted in him and violating the moral laws given to him at various times; forgetting all virtue and every good, he became—alas!—the artificer of passions, leading to an immense number of sins. As a consequence, he denied God even the glory appropriate to man [as a creature of God—Trans.] and dishonored his own share of God’s glory.

The Only-Begotten Son of God, God and Logos, took pity on this corpse afflicted with many misfortunes, and becoming man at an appointed time, He restored the original moral laws mentioned above. Indeed, He embellished in a surpassingly beautiful fashion the moral philosophy of the Gospel with rules and conditions more general and even more perfect than the previous ones. He was the first to fulfill this philosophy through His own works, and He glorified God on earth through these works. In so doing, He has handed down to us this moral philosophy, so that, following in His footsteps, we might prove to practice every kind of virtue and, in turn, glorify the Creator. For only thus can we return to that originally intended by God. Furthermore, He has commanded the greater part of humanity to abide by this moral philosophy steadfastly and to cling to it in practice. And as for those who are able to advance further, He has allowed them even to add to this whatever texts they might emulate out of their love for God. He intimated this unambiguously when, referring to “castration” as the mystery of virginity, He said: “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it” [St. Matthew 19:12—Eds.]; secondly, when He spoke about the two denarii, signifying, I believe, the Old and New Testaments alike; and lastly, when He said, “…and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee” [St. Luke 10:35—Eds.].

The whole of the moral philosophy of the Gospels summons all men to itself. There are those who concern themselves in this or that way with certain other types of philosophy; and of these persons, some spend all of their days studying, say, mathematics or physics, while others concentrate on metaphysics and more general subjects. Yet they entirely neglect moral philosophy, even though it is both the paramount and most necessary of all types of philosophy. These men study the harmony and order of the heavens, and earth, and all other matters. But because they do not know, as they ought, that the investigation of ourselves is distinctly superior to that of alien matters and, moreover, because they do not know that knowledge on its own — that is, being bereft of practical application — has no substance and does not differ from fantasy, as the holy Maximos notes, precious few of these men address the question of how to bring themselves into harmony with the beauty of moral life, or how to learn true virtues through experience. Now, I ask you: What is the good of materialistic philosophy, when the soul has a philosophy of its own, yet is crudely beset by passions? I, for one, see no good. Surely we must apply ourselves to moral philosophy, or risk being found wanting in relation to our higher aspect.

Such as these former things much concern the majority of people. The God-fearing Fathers, however, determined that their most holy system was superior, sensing with the more percipient eyes of the νοῦς how truly beneficial is this moral type of philosophy and how readily they might advance to the other kinds of philosophy if they should first become facile in the system in question. Yet, because they well knew that moral life is contemporaneous with man, as has been said already, and, furthermore, that it takes precedence over all other types of philosophy, owing to its antiquity, they did not pay attention to the remaining types. Instead, they concentrated exclusively on moral philosophy. And so, isolating themselves in the “deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” [Hebrews 11:38—Eds.], to quote St. Paul, and having chosen unbroken silence, they set themselves to the task of uncovering, in a positive, exact fashion, the original causes of the passions and eradicating them. Moreover, it was not sufficient for them to acquire merely a disposition to virtue, or perchance to experience virtue haphazardly — for this anyone can do. Through force of habit, which became second nature, as it were, they had to become fully integrated and develop in these virtues. These men, through sweat and prolonged ascetic labor, developed these virtues. That is, they adopted the Gospel’s more general laws about virtue as the supreme principles of their individual philosophies, putting them into practice day and night. In time, they came to distinguish categories of virtues falling under each law. Though assailed by manifold temptations, both human and demonic, though emaciated through great feats of abstinence and other physical rigors, after running all the courses of an arduous race, they achieved all virtues and attained a “scientific” knowledge thereof. They made an addendum to the Gospel which is especially noteworthy for those with spiritual knowledge, and through the eagerness of their free choice, they surpassed the commandments given by God to man.

Indeed, having by their virtues paid back to their Lord with interest that demanded of them, the Fathers glorified God (which, as has been said, was God’s main intention for man). Furthermore, through their writings, they conveyed to us, as though we were good investors, a share of their “scientific knowledge” of the virtues, so that, following their examples, we might also rise, as far as possible, to the accomplishment of perfection by virtue. Let me illustrate my point. Just as those interested in physiology determine bodily properties by means of countless instruments and after numerous experiments, chemical analyses, and multifarious tests, in similar fashion these men of God experienced countless temptations, carried out trials and experiments over numerous years (for it could take these men up to fifty years to test a single principle), and discovered, by the illuminating guidance of the Holy Spirit, the depths of moral philosophy, refining these virtues out of their respective excesses and deficiencies. In this fashion, these men still teach us with redoubled accuracy, fourfold passionlessness, obedience leading to perfection, all-virtuous humility, God-reflecting spiritual discretion, pleasant hospitality, God-imitating compassion, the soul-saving giving of alms, ceaseless prayer, utter contrition, truthful confession, and the rest of the golden chain of virtues.

What is more, these men teach us which virtues are bodily, which are spiritual, and which noetic; and how and to what extent and why, if put into practice, they are welcome or not. They teach us which passions are general or specific, which in turn are bodily, spiritual, or noetic, and how one might readily be rid of these. In short, these men set forth the man in Christ. Indeed, it is extraordinary that the sayings of these blessed desert Elders, though couched in a simple, colloquial style, nonetheless greatly enrich us with their immediacy, so that they influence nearly all those who read them. Many may dispute about various interpretations of a text without being able to convince one another, while a single argument—the very deeds of these wise Fathers—immediately convinces and draws hearers and readers alike to agreement. According also to the wise ancients, the tool of ethics is argumentation from probability; however, the arguments of the Fathers in a way entail, as well, a convincing force coupled with this probability, since they bear in all that they do the mark of truth. The popular [though misguided—Trans.] aphorism, “If you see a young man rushing off reckessly [to the desert—Trans.], it is because an Elder has duped him,” confirms this very point [i.e., the persuasive power of the Fathers—Trans.] surely, whoever calls the words of these Divine Fathers the criteria, foundations, and laws of moral philosophy will be speaking the truth.

Now, Paul, the most holy among monks—erstwhile founder of the sacred Monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos, which was also called the Monastery of the Evergetis [Benefactress—Trans.], whence Paul’s nick-name, “Evergetinos” — knew that these narratives, though scattered here and there, were generally helpful; so he classified them under various headings, according to subject-matter, and divided this material into :?ur books, thereby creating a single corpus. This work, thoroughly appreciated and very useful as it was to all experts, was nevertheless only ulable to a mere handful of persons, on account of the difficulty and sreat cost of copying. Consequently, the work was never published and remains entirely unknown to non-experts. Someone, therefore, had to rublish it for the general good and to entrust this pure and reasonable r.ece of silver to knowledgeable investors. One such man was Ioannes Kannas [a Christian from Smyrna—Trans.], a man excellent in all aspects, most pious and noble; his soul loved God, his manner imitated Christ, and he was kind to the poor and tolerant in his outlook — two brilliant and illustrious qualities. One might say that moral virtues had agreed to inhabit his soul.

Taking part in all seemly exertions, this man did not shy away from pursuing the first prize. Indeed, he left no stone unturned (as the verb has it), not contenting himself with lesser awards. Being a man active in all affairs promoting the common good, as though having danced upon a windfall and breathing an ardent zeal for the sake of his fellows, and, indeed, being inspired by Grace from above, he of his own volition left all for this undertaking, being wholly adorned with the moral virtues appropriate to familiarizing oneself with this moral Bible. And thus, having snatched this all-brilliant light of moral life and this lamp on high from an earlier obscurity, as though hidden under a bushel, and having raised it, at his own expense, to the lofty tower of the printed word, he has permitted its light to shine bountifully and freely, becoming known to virtually the entire inhabited world, into which the word of salvation has spread. In doing this, he has become a promoter of the glory of God, rousing all to the practice of virtue and, through this, to the vision of God’s glory; and since it is universally confessed that to promote the glory of God is a glory beyond all other glories, one can see how sublime is the honor which this man, himself, has thus gained.

Now that this precise rule of virtue, this teacher of the passionless-ness of the νοῦς of the ancient and wise Fathers, this venerable account of aged counsels — in one word, this treasury gathering together all of moral worth — has been brought to light, …let the Solons be silent; let the Lycurguses pass away; let the Socrateses be buried in forgetfulness; let the Aristotles and the Platos hide themselves; and with these, all the other philosophers who now or in the past have written on matters concerning moral virtue. For they strayed away from the true aim of moral life (that is, from what is in essence good), since they had not God, the summit of all good and by Whom all virtue directed toward Him is rewarded, as the aim of their philosophy, but natural and temporal good. Thus, having failed in their aim, it is clear that the virtues which they teach are not true ones either, if, as it is said, every aspect of behavior is determined by its goal.

And all of you who are partakers of the heavenly Orthodox calling, who, looking to God alone, desire to adorn your souls with every kind of virtue: put forth your arms like two golden stanchions and receive and store up this harvest; or, in the words of Scripture, receive this sacred embrace and with much joy press it close to your breast. As you constantly read it, gather from it the sweetest fruits of edification and desist not, I beg you, from interceding before the Lord for him who planted this harvest at his own cost and for him who worked together with him to water it. Thus you will show forth a disposition to gratitude, that, in your love for the Fathers, whom “the Lord chose to love” [Deuteronomy 10:15—Eds.], you might everyday seek their counsel, ordering your life according to their wise, time-tested, and God-given instructions, as it has been commanded: “Ask thy Father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee” [Deuteronomy 32:7—Eds.]; and that you might, in so ordering your life, become practitioners of moral virtue and, in practicing the virtues, give glory to your Father Who is in Heaven, together with His Only-Begotten Son and His Life-Giving Spirit, the one God of all, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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