Letter to a nun
Beloved of God.
You write that anger is getting you down and 'you have no peace and comfort'. If we do not toil and labour over our heart, there will be no peace and comfort. After all, one has to take hold of oneself and not live in an off-hand way! For the violent ravish the Kingdom of Heaven [Matt. 11:12]. Anthony the Great said to his disciple: 'I will have no mercy on you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort. The spiritual life is like a tree: the bodily struggle is its foliage and the work of the soul is the fruit.'
Scripture says: 'Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire' [Matt. 3:10]. Of course bodily labour is needed, for without it there will be no fruits either. However, realize that no bodily work is a virtue; it is a means towards virtue. Many have done a great deal of work and received no fruits, for their work was external, killing the spirit: 'Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch' [Col. 2:21]. St John of the Ladder says: The present generation is seriously corrupt and all full of pride and hypocrisy. In bodily labours it perhaps reaches the level of our ancient Fathers, but it is not graced with their gifts, though I think nature never had such need of spiritual gifts as now. And we have got what we deserve. For God is manifested not in labours but in simplicity and humility' [26,52].
St Isaac the Syrian says: 'If you labour at any fine virtue and do not find success, or fruit, do
not be surprised, for the Lord gives his gifts not for labours, but for humility.'23 The holy martyr St Maximos said: 'Give your body a little exercise, but put all your efforts on inner work'.24 St Barsanuphius said: 'If inner godly work does not help a man, his outward labour is in vain'. St Anthony said: 'When I was visiting an abbot, a virgin came and said to the old man: "Abba, I spend my life fasting; I eat once a week and study the Old and New Testaments every day." The old man answered: "Have poverty and plenty become a matter of indifference to you?" "No", she said. "Disgrace and praise?" "No", she said. 'Enemies and friends?" "No", she said. Then the wise old man said: "Go and work, you have achieved nothing."
Her struggle had been terrific: eating once a week, and surely no delicacies even then, and now suddenly she heard from an experienced staretz: 'You have achieved nothing'. She had studied Holy Scripture too, but had not understood the essence of what it taught, and all her piety was purely external and did not make her worthy of receiving spiritual fruits. And the five foolish virgins achieved the great, supernatural feat of virginity, but as they had no good deeds (Gal. 5:22) they remained outside the doors to the heavenly palace. And the Pharisees knew Holy Scripture inside out, but they did not live by it, and so could not understand the truth - they crucified the Lord.
Yes, the spiritual life, the science of sciences, requires spiritual judgement which in turn conies from humility. Among the Egyptian startsi if some virtue was disclosed, it was not regarded as a virtue, but a sin. See how the saints feared vanity! The holy archbishop Theophilos visited Mount Nitria and the abbot of the mount said to him, 'According to your knowledge from experience, what is the highest virtue on the monastic path?' The staretz answered: 'Obedience and constant self-reproach'. The archbishop said: 'There is no other path than this'. St Barsanuphius the Great said: 'If you fulfil three conditions, wherever you live you will be at peace. The first is to leave your little will behind you; the second is to reproach yourself; and the third is to regard yourself as worse than everyone else.'
'O blessed obedience, whoever bends his head under thy yoke will always have peace and joy.'
The fruits are comforting, but they do require great labour. The Holy Fathers even compared obedience to martyrdom. Give your blood and receive the spirit. True obedience gives birth to humility, dispassion and even insight — do not be surprised — it is truly so. I shall not write you examples of obedience; I assume that you have read them yourselves and know them.
And here is another thing: in our inattentive living we do not examine ourselves, but others; and we demand that should reform while we ourselves remain unreformed - sometimes there is even slander, with its sad consequences. Let me give you an example. This happened in the south in a convent where 400 nuns were working out —fir salvation. A tailor was passing and met a novice somewhere outside the convent. He said: 'Have you some work for me?' She answered: 'No, we do our own work'. This meeting and exchange of words was seen by another novice, and after some time she had a quarrel with this sister and in the heat of anger she went and slandered her about this meeting. The slandered sister could not endure -.he disgrace and threw herself into the Nile and drowned. The slanderer, realizing that she had maligned her for nothing and destroyed her, hanged herself. What a sad story. In the same convent God's fool Isidora was working out her salvation, and St Pitirim came to her. When her spiritual exploit was revealed, she, because of her humility, could not bear human fame and secretly left and nobody knows where she lived and how she died.
' Blessed art thou, Isidora, pray to God for us sinners!'
This convent was on the river Nile, and on the other side of the river were ten monasteries with a thousand monks in each. All the monasteries were directed by St Pachomius. Each monastery had an igumen. In the convent the services were celebrated by a priest-monk from the monastery of Pachomius. He forbade prayers for the novices who had perished, and any others who spoke slander he excluded from Communion for seven years. Lord, deliver me from human slander and teach me to do thy will.
And another thing: in the same country and at the same time two brothers, one twelve years old, the other fifteen, were living in a monastery. The igumen sent them to take food to a hermit. They took it and on the way back they encountered a poisonous snake. The younger brother took the snake, wrapped it in his cloak and took it to the monastery, not without conceit, of course. The monks gathered round the boys, were astonished, and praised them as saints.
The igumen led a spiritual life and had good sense. He birched the boys and said: 'You took credit for God's miracle. It is better to have an uneasy conscience than virtue with conceit.' For he knew that miracles are harmful to saints.
No, on earth there is no perfection or constancy. There have been cases in which ascetics have been ravished and seen the glory of the saints 'and then fallen and led a shameful life and become a laughing-stock. There was such an ascetic living with St Makarios the Great, and he was so filled with grace that he healed the sick by the laying on of hands, but when he fancied himself to be a saint he was lost, led a shameful life and so ended his days. The holy prophet Ezekiel says that if a righteous man turns away from the path, the Lord will not remember his righteousness, and if a sinner reforms, the Lord will not remember his sins [Ezek. 18].
No, we must not trust ourselves before we are lying in our graves, and whether we persevere in virtue depends not on us, but on the grace of God. The Lord preserves the humble; in so far as a man humbles himself, he flourishes in the spiritual life. Ours it is to labour over self-will, but success depends on grace. So it is that we must pray and ask. help from the Lord. The chief work in the spiritual life e prayer, and prayer requires attentiveness and sobriety. I suppose that you have read about prayer. All the same, I will tell you, briefly of course; it is difficult to write in detail about prayer.
Prayer has three degrees: oral prayer, prayer of the mind and mental prayer of the heart. The first, oral prayer, is pronounced with the lips, but the mind strays; in the second, mental prayer, the mind must be enclosed in the words of the prayer. The heart should not be pressed with attention; if attention is on the upper chest, the heart will feel it too. The third, prayer of the mind in the heart, is possessed by very few and is a reward for the deepest humility. A passionate person should not presume to approach this prayer, says St Gregory of Sinai. One should not strive for tender feeling and tears, but when they come of themselves, tenderness and warmth of heart, stop and wait until they have passed. But you must not think that you have received something great. It is a natural result of concentration, but it is no demonic deception either. I will say this too just in case: if the warmth spreads over your whole body, it is not due to the blood; it is spiritual. Then tears begin to pour in streams and people seem simply angelic. At such a moment one's legs no longer hold up, and one has to lie or sit down. If it happens in church you have to go out quickly, because others, not having known or experienced such phenomena in prayer, will think it is demonic deception. It is nothing of the sort, but the visit of a heavenly guest.
Work hard at prayer; the Lord will give prayer to him who prays. Amen.
23 Mystical Treatises, ch. 58, p. 274.
24 Four Centuries on Love, 4,63. Early Fathers from the Philokalia, p.341. "
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