On the Spiritual Life

vladika-averkyAbp. Averky of Syracuse 1906-1976

Now it should be clear what the spiritual life consists of, in contrast to the life of the soul and body. The spiritual life consists of satisfying the needs of the spirit, and the needs of the spirit consist of a person’s striving towards God, seeking for living communion with Him, and the desire to live according to God’s will. (The Struggle for Virtue: Asceticism in a Modern Secular Society, p. 25. Holy Trinity Publications. Kindle Edition)

On Common Prayer

Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov

Since the times of the Early Church, Christians have been very discriminate about their prayer and in whose company they choose to pray. Already in the Apostolic Canons (Canon 65, for example), a document arguably dating back to the end of the second century, both lay people and clergy are prohibited from praying with heretics under the threat of excommunication. Apostolic Canon 45 mandates: “Let any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon that merely joins in prayer with heretics be suspended…” Similarly, Canon 33 of the Council of Laodicea (ca. 363-364 A.D.) says that “one must not join in prayer with heretics and schismatics.” Yet common prayer is one of the central goals of the contemporary ecumenical movement, including the ecumenical dialogue between Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. Seemingly in defiance of the ancient canons, Catholic and Orthodox hierarchs have routinely joined each other in prayer, to the joy of the proponents of such practices and to the dismay of opponents.

Those working to make common prayer more common argue that the belief in one true God unites the different branches of Christianity and even those outside of the larger Christian community, thus all prayers ascend to the same divine destinations. Opponents often assert that heretics do not pray to the same God, but to the devil instead (cf. John 8:44). Thus, joint prayer is viewed as impossible (cf. 2 Cor. 6:15) or having the risk of accidentally addressing the wrong “authority”.

There is another point of view: if prayer is viewed not simply as locution or interlocution, but as an experience that is transformative for the devotee, even as a way or a mode of life, then it becomes easier to understand why those who doubt each other’s orthodoxy are so cautious about praying together. It is not the risk of accidentally addressing the “wrong” god that becomes central to warnings against praying with heretics, but the risk of being influenced by a way and a mode of life with which one may disagree, in other words, it is the risk to one’s spiritual health. (Imagine That… : Mental Imagery in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Private Devotion, Introduction)

On Praying Before Icons

Icon of the Mother of God “The Unexpected Joy” from oca.org

St. Ignaty Brianchaninov 1807-1867

The Holy Icons are accepted by the Holy Church for the purpose of arousing pious memories and feelings, but not all for arousing imagination. Standing before an icon of the Savior, stand as if before the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, Who is invisibly everywhere present and by His icon in that place, where the icon is. Standing before an icon of the Mother of God, stand as if before the Most-Holy Virgin herself; but keep your mind without images: there is a great difference between being in the presence of the Lord or standing before the Lord and imagining the Lord. (Sobraniye 2004, 1:76. excerpted from Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov, Imagine That…)

On the Full Knowledge of God II

St. Symeon the New Theologian ca. 949-1022

Brothers, if full knowledge of the true wisdom and knowledge of God were going to be given us through letters and formal study, what need would there be then for faith, or for divine Baptism, or even communion in the Mysteries? Obviously, none whatever. (On the Mystical Life, The Ethical Discourses. Vol. 3: Life, Times, and Theology, p. 117)

On the Virgins and the Bridegroom

St. John of Kronstadt 1829-1908

[T]he ten virgins, of which five were wise and five foolish, symbolize us Christians. Some of us are wise because of our faith, our virtuous life, and because we are prepared for our death; others are foolish due to their unbelief or cold indifference to the faith, their impure carnal life, and their being unprepared for their death and the judgment that will immediately follow it, for it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment (Heb 9:27). The foolish ones, it is said, took their lamps but did not take oil with them. What do the lamps and the oil for the lamps mean? The the Saviour’s words: the lamp of the body is the eye (Matt 6:22), by “eye” He means the heart of man, or soul. The oil symbolizes alms, according to St John Chrysostom’s interpretation, or good deeds in general. Therefore, the foolish Christians, going out to meet the bridegroom, did not prepare for their souls good deeds, which could have supported their spiritual life. The wise ones, it is said, took oil in their vessels with their lamps, meaning that they stocked up on good deeds in order to worthily meet the bridegroom. Who is the bridegroom? Jesus Christ. When and how do we go out to meet Him? Our entire lives must be since their beginning a preparation for our personal meeting with Him, because every soul after its death must appear and answer before Him, as to the Author of our life. Throughout our lives we must take care to acquire and preserve in our hearts a living faith and an ardent love for God, so that after our deaths standing before the terrible throne of the Lord of glory will neither be shameful nor to our condemnation. We will go out for the general meeting with Him during our resurrection from the dead, when all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth— those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:28–29). The bridegroom, that is, Jesus Christ, is in no hurry to cut our lives short with death, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9), and is equally delaying His glorious, and dreadful, second coming so that the sons of the kingdom may multiply more and more.

Meanwhile, people, temporarily seduced by the sweetness of sin, by its impunity, and seeing that the world remains stable, think it will remain as such forever, and they themselves, enjoying robust health and other material goods, immerse themselves in spiritual slumber, not caring for their correction, and thus sleep the sleep of sin. However, precisely at the midnight of their sinful sleep, when none among the sinners thinks about the grave dangers in which they find themselves, a loud voice is heard: behold, the bridegroom comes, go out to meet Him. Then all will tremble and light their lamps, that is, will exert spiritual attention. At that time it will be good for the wise Christians: their souls will ignite with the sweetest love for God; but for the foolish, it will be bad. Their souls, like lamps without oil, will die out, that is, they will grow dark and cold from the lack of love for God, the source of love, and will start to taste the torments of hell. They will ask the wise Christians for oil, that is, for good deeds, but those will not give it to them, so that they also may not be opportunities to do them, however, precisely at this time when they wish to do good deeds, the bridegroom will come, death will catch them by surprise, and will place them before the heavenly Judge without any virtues whatsoever, reeking of the filth of their own lawlessness. They will desire to go inside the bridal chamber of the heavenly kingdom, which all of us from birth are destined to enter, the reason for which we live. Their Lord will not allow them to enter, and will say to them: I do not know you. Watch therefore, the Lord concludes the parable, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

Now all of us understand the church hymn: “Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that servant,” that is, every Christian, “whom He shall find watching, and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless (sleeping the sleep of sin). Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep (that is, do not be weighed down with the sleep of sin), lest you be given up to (eternal) death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God, through the Theotokos have mercy on us.” Amen. (Season of Repentance, Lenten Homilies of St. John of Kronstadt: Homily 30, On the Hymn “Behold, the Bridegroom Comes at Midnight”)

On the Riches We Can Keep

Elder Barsanuphius of Optina 1845-1913

Everyone knows the story about the young man in the Gospels. He approaches Christ and asks how he can inherit eternal life. The Lord replies, do thus and thus. “All this I have fulfilled,” says the young man. “Then if you wish to be perfect,” says Christ, “sell your possessions and give everything to the poor.” This commandment of Christ has profound meaning. The possessions which it necessary for us to give away are those things which we have received from the world. We must take them out of our heart and give them away, so that there will be nothing worldly there, so that Christ alone will be there. I earnestly entreat you — preserve your heart; let it belong entirely to the Lord. Don’t let anyone within it besides your spiritual father, and perhaps also a friend in the Lord.

There are possessions which one need not give away. The well-known and comprehensively educated physician, Professor Prigorov, was possessed of great erudition, and made use of it to the glory of God. When he was asked how he could combine the fulfillment of all the rites and dictates of the Orthodox Church with his enormous practice, he replied, “The Lord helps me, since I use my knowledge to the glory of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Such riches, that is, such knowledge, one need not renounce. (Elder Barsanuphius of Optina, p. 648)

On Striving for Exalted States Prematurely

icon by Christopher Klitou

St. Ignaty Brianchininov 1807-1867

In the chapter on Obedience [St. John of the Ladder says], “Scan the mind of inexperienced novices, and there you will find distracted thought: a desire for solitude, for the strictest fast, for uninterrupted prayer, for absolute freedom from vanity, for unbroken remembrance of death, for continual compunction, for perfect absence of anger, for profound silence, for surpassing purity. And if by divine providence they lack these in the beginning, they rush in vain to another life and are deceived. For the enemy urges them to seek these perfections before the time, so that they may not persevere and in due time attain them. But to those living in solitude the fraud extols hospitality, service, brotherly love, community life, visiting the sick. And the deceiver’s aim is to make the latter as impatient as the former.”

The fallen angel tries to deceive monks and drag them to perdition by suggesting to them not only sin in its various forms but also the most exalted virtues unsuited to their condition. Do not trust your thoughts, opinions, dreams, impulses, or inclinations, even though they offer you or put before you in an attractive guise the most holy monastic life. If the monastery in which you are residing gives you the possibility of living a life according to the commandments of the Gospel and unless you are exposed to temptations to mortal sin, do not leave your monastery. Endure courageously its defects, both spiritual and material. Do not think you can find a sphere of activity not given by God to our time. (The Arena: Guidelines for Spiritual and Monastic Life [kindle version])

On the Idol of Caring What People Think

icon from Damascene Gallery

St. Ephrem the Syrian ca. 306-373

I have made shame an idol for myself…

A man’s neighbor has become his god: every moment he seeks to please him;

if he does wrong, he feels shame before him, if he does him an injury, he is afraid;

or if he does him some good, then he has spoiled that good by his thirst for praise.

Such a man has become an abject slave in all these ways.

The Good One gave us freedom, but we have reduced this to slavery.

May we exchange, for Your lordship, this overlord we have made for ourselves! (Hymns on Paradise, Hymn VII.31)

On Rigor Mortis of the Church

Fr. Daniel Sysoev 1974-2009

I think that one of the most important problems facing the Orthodox Church in Russia, and even beyond its borders, is the ideological rigor mortis of the Church. The Church is considered as a kind of dead body; it is thought to be frozen and that nothing should be changed in it. It is understandable that we should not change dogmatics and Church Tradition — no one argues with that. However, the problem is that people try to preserve superstitions and false ideology, and, what is worse, they try to hang onto bad remnants of the Soviet period. I have traveled throughout the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, and I see one and the same picture everywhere. People do not know God or how salvation takes place; and all of their time is taken up with completely unimportant matters such as the minutiae of this or that rite, the details of this or that church policy, or one regional view or another.

In my opinion, it is an enormous misfortune that people have lost their Christ-centeredness. People have forgotten about the fact that we are, first of all, Christians, the children of God the Father and of Christ, and that we must move toward holiness and salvation. As a part of this, one sees a controversy over the frequent reception of Holy Communion, which unites us with the Lord. Some people think that it’s not that important, that one can somehow “earn” one’s salvation. However, they do not realize that this is the heresy of Pelagius — that one can earn one’s salvation by one’s own effort.

On the other hand, the standard of church life that they expound is sinful, pure and simple; it is a distortion of the real Church Tradition. For instance, one hears that Russians, because they are Russian, are already Orthodox. In one article that I read, I saw the assertion that even atheists are truly Orthodox, if they are part of the Russian culture. This is the replacement of faith with culture. Orthodoxy is God’s revelation, preserved in pure form since the times of the Apostles. One now sees efforts by some to replace the New Testament with national myths, including old ones that the Church has always fought against.

…Paganism often disguises itself in the Church under the appearance of Christianity — not in overt exterior manifestations, but hidden under a facade of pietism. People forget that their goal is to reach sanctity. Some of them believe it is a sin even to think of such a possibility, that they could reach sanctity, even though it is a fulfillment of a direct commandment of the Lord. We should spare no effort to overcome this problem. To overcome this, we must issue a new call for people to return to holiness. For this, it is necessary that we revive catechesis throughout the entire Church. Even those who are already baptized should study the Faith. People must know in Whom they believe, and what they should do in order to approach Him. People coming to church see it as an assembly line of spiritual services. They are not offered any spiritual growth; therefore, they go to the sectarians.

People think, in error, that sects are easier than the Orthodox. Recently, I had a chance to associate with Pentecostals. I learned that it is their practice to pray five hours during the day. What Orthodox Christian prays five hours a day? Sectarianism is the consequence of the Church not informing people of the commandments of the Lord, commandments that our Lord expects us to fulfill. The Gospel is seen as nothing but a collection of pious sayings; it is not seen as a means of real contact with God. We so fear being seduced by the world that we end up doing nothing. This is a terrible spiritual problem. If we do not overcome it, very many Christians will be ruined. It is an ideology of rigor mortis. It is not conservatism; rather, it is the murder of the Church. (The Orthodox Word No. 268, 2009, pp. 213-215)  

On the Savor of Orthodoxy

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose 1934-1982

We must keep up the living contact with the older…clergy, even if some of them may seem to us a little too liberal, otherwise we will become lost in the zealot jungle which is growing up around us.

…We who wish to remain in the true tradition of Orthodoxy will have to be zealous and firm in our Orthodoxy without being fanatics, and without presuming to teach our bishops what they should do. Above all, we must strive to preserve the true fragrance of Orthodoxy, being at least a little “not of this world,” detached from all cares and politics even of the Church, nourishing ourselves on the otherworldly food the Church gives us in abundance. Elder Macarius well says in a letter: “Fanaticism limits a man’s way of thinking, but true faith gives freedom. This freedom is revealed by the firmness of a man in all possible cases of happiness and unhappiness.” That freedom is a sign of our Orthodoxy… But to see this one must have the savor of Orthodoxy. Let us not lose it! (Letters from Father Seraphim pp. 167-168, Third Day of Trinity 1976)

On Being Hot, Cold or Lukewarm

Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron

As it says in the Book of Revelation: “I wish you were cold or hot. But because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of My mouth” (Rev 3:16- 17). Dostoyevsky is hot. So he says, ‘…I believe in Christ, and if it turns out that Christ is outside the truth, I want Christ, not the truth’.

Another person, for example, who is not lukewarm but cold is Nietzche. He does not write about Christ, but the Antichrist. However, since he is honest, once he found a single book by Dostoyevsky, which was Notes from the Underground, and not knowing who the author of that title was, he opened it in the bookstore and said, ‘This one is mine.’  So, a true encounter occurs between the Christ of Dostoyevsky and the Antichrist Nietzsche, because they are both true in their respective domains, hot and cold; neither of them was lukewarm. This is a testimony of true Orthodoxy which unites opposites. Orthodoxy is not lukewarm. Lukewarm things are the ones that man can make of his own accord through his human reasoning and sophistry. So, Orthodoxy is not easy, it leads us to the heaven of freedom and unification of opposites, but the ones that are true. (The Thunderbolt of Ever-Living Fire: American Conversations with an Athonite Elder, [kindle version])

On the Ultimate Fate of the Passionate Soul

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

[I]f the soul, as I have said, uses its own powers properly, and if, consistent with God’s purpose, it passes through the sensible world by way of the spiritual principles that exist within it, so that with understanding it arrives at God. If, however, it makes the wrong or mistaken use of these powers, delving into the world in a manner contrary to what is proper, it is obvious that it will succumb to dishonorable passions, and in the coming life will rightly be cast away from the presence of the divine glory, receiving the dreadful condemnation of being estranged from relation with God for infinite ages, a sentence so distressing that the soul will not be able to contest it, for it will have as a perpetually relentless accuser its own disposition, which created for it a mode of existence that in fact did not exist. (Ambigua to John, Ambiguum 21)

On Love for Enemies

St. Silouan the Athonite 1886-1938

[H]e who will not love his enemies cannot come to know the Lord and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches us to love our enemies, so that the soul pities them as if they were her own children.

There are people who desire the destruction, the torment in hell-fire of their enemies, or the enemies of the Church. They think like this because they have not learnt divine love from the Holy Spirit, for he who has learned the love of God will shed tears for the whole world.

You say that So-and-so is an evil-doer and may he burn in hell-fire. But I ask you — supposing God were to give you a fair place in paradise, and you saw burning in the fire the man on whom you had wished the tortures of hell, even then would you really not feel pity for him, whoever he might be, an enemy of the Church even? Or is it that you have a heart of steel? But there is no place for steel in paradise. Paradise has need of humility and the love of Christ, which pities all men.

The grace of God is not in the man who does not love his enemies. O merciful Lord, by Thy Holy Spirit teach us to love our enemies, and pray for them with tears. (St Silouan the Athonite by Archimandrite Sophrony, pp. 275-276)

On Love Uncontainable

St. Paisios the Hagiorite 1924-1994

When the heart is entirely given to God, then, naturally, it is also shared with the whole world, and then love is deified. This great divine love of Christ cannot be shut up within the heart, or walled up within some house or organization, or enclosed within barbed wires or borders, for Christ is not bound. If there are barbed wires on the borders of Orthodox Christians, it reveals our thorny spiritual state; we merely bear the name of Christ and, in essence, are not Christians — we only retain the name of Christ and not Christ Himself, Who is uncontainable. (Epistles, p. 203. Fifth Epistle, On Chastity and Love)

On the Benefits of Knowing Holy Scripture

St. Theophan the Recluse ca. 1815-1894

Psalm 118:16 On Thy statutes will I meditate; I will not forget Thy words.

St. Basil the Great bears witness that in his time children were made to memorize some psalms and parables. Do we do anything like that now? Is anything like that done by those who have taken up the yoke of asceticism? Yes, in many ways we have fallen behind the salutary practices of old. This, however, does not diminish the value of what is described in this verse. It means the following: Memorize verses of Scripture considered in the preceding text, and repeat what was memorized whenever the mind and speech are free. The Hebrew word corresponding to will meditate means “to turn over with delight in the mind and on the tongue” — as one might a piece of candy, for instance. Such an occupation could be offered to all who sincerely seek to please God in all.

Among us, amy of those living ascetic lives read the Psalter at home in their cells. This partly fulfills the lesson of our verse. And perhaps home prayers, personal and monastic, could be regarded as this type of activity. But more directly it means: to intentionally choose passages of the Holy Scriptures for memorizing and then repeating them in our minds.

Through this last practice, the commandments, having already occupied all the faculties of the soul, shall occupy the memory and sanctify it. The blessing from this is indescribable! …The same thing happens to the soul as to poor fruit when it is sugared. The sugar penetrates its pores, making it sweeter and protecting it from spoiling. Similarly the soul, saturated with memorized words of God, rejects the corruption of shameless and empty thoughts and is filled to sweetness with the memory of things divine.

…If we accept this, then here is a rule for beginners as to how to deal with evil thoughts. Memorize as many passages of the Scriptures as possible, in particular the words of and deeds of Christ the Savior, and repeat them often. (Psalm 118, A Commentary by St. Theophan the Recluse, pp. 47-48)

On Pity for the Reprobate

St. Silouan the Athonite 1886-1938

If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit. (Saint Silouan the Athonite, p. 352)

On Vainglory and Holy Orders

St. John Cassian ca. 360-435

[S]ometimes [vainglory] creates a wish to take holy orders, and a desire for the priesthood or diaconate. And it represents that if a man has even against his will received this office, he will fulfil it with such sanctity and strictness that he will be able to set an example of saintliness even to other priests; and that he will win over many people, not only by his manner of life, but also by his teaching and preaching. It makes a man, even when alone and sitting in his cell, to go round in mind and imagination to the dwellings and monasteries of others, and to make many conversions under the inducements of imaginary exultation.

And so the miserable soul is affected by such vanity–as if it were deluded by a profound slumber–that it is often led away by the pleasure of such thoughts, and filled with such imaginations, so that it cannot even look at things present, or the brethren, while it enjoys dwelling upon these things, of which with its wandering thoughts it has waking dreams, as if they were true.

I remember an elder, when I was staying in the desert of Scete, who went to the cell of a certain brother to pay him a visit, and when he had reached the door heard him muttering inside, and stood still for a little while, wanting to know what it was that he was reading from the Bible or repeating by heart (as is customary) while he was at work. And when this most excellent eavesdropper diligently applied his ear and listened with some curiosity, he found that the man was induced by an attack of this spirit to fancy that he was delivering a stirring sermon to the people. And when the elder, as he stood still, heard him finish his discourse and return again to his office, and give out the dismissal of the catechumens, as the deacon does, then at last he knocked at the door, and the man came out, and met the elder with the customary reverence, and brought him in and (for his knowledge of what had been his thoughts made him uneasy) asked him when he had arrived, for fear lest he might have taken some harm from standing too long at the door: and the old man joking pleasantly replied, “I only got here while you were giving out the dismissal of the catechumens.” (Institutes Bk. 11. 14-16)

On Suffering Orthodoxy

St. Nikolai Velimirovich 1880-1956

It is written, “Whom God loves, He also rebukes. And beats.” That is how it is written. Merciful God beats him whom He loves. He beats him in the earthly kingdom so He can glorify him all the more in the heavenly. He beats him so he won’t attach himself to the corruption of this world, to the vain idols of human power, skill and wealth, to the passing shadows of ill scandals.

Without great beatings, Orthodoxy would not have carried God’s truth throughout the generations and darkness of ages and ages, and it would not have passed such a long obstacle track, preserving the truth and sanctity in purity. Without suffering, Orthodoxy would not have preserved its purity for even a hundred years. In the nineteen centuries of its existence, it never had one whole century of peace and freedom, without persecutions, without whippings, without enslavement, fire, fear and horror. Other faiths cannot comprehend this. Heretics don’t understand this. There is no nation in the world who has chosen the kingdom of this world as their ideal of happiness, that can now understand or comprehend what is happening… Only the clairvoyant understand this, those who ever look to the eternal and immortal Kingdom of Christ as the reality. But clairvoyance is also the daughter of suffering. (Missionary Letters: Letter 25)

On Self-Knowledge

Elder Joseph the Hesychast 1897-1959

[F]rom the beginning of creation [God] separated men into three classes: He gave five talents to one, two to another, and one to another. 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, 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.” (LXX 24:18) 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 other’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 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. (cf. LXX Ps. 103:24) (Monastic Wisdom pp. 49-50, Third Letter)

On What Books to Read

Elder Paisios the Athonite 1924-1994

[D]o not read rebellious books or pamphlets that mention Church matters if you wish to be calm, since you are not responsible for such serious affairs. You have need of books that will assist in your repentance. If you want to help the Church, correct yourself, and immediately amendment is made to a small part of the Church. Naturally, if everyone did this, then the Church would be put in order.

Therefore, limit yourself to the Patristic writings I mentioned and avoid sappy and superficial books by contemporary writers, who use long titles to provoke spiritual interests. One gets tired only by reading them, just like the cow, when its stall is full of straw, tires of chewing and ruminating its food all day long, and in the end does not produce even one glass of milk. (First Epistle: For Beginners)

On Smoking

St. Ambrose of Optina 1812-1891

You can’t stop smoking tobacco? What is impossible for man is possible with God’s help. Just firmly decide to quit, realizing how harmful it is for the soul and the body, since tobacco weakens the soul, and increases and strengthens the passions, darkens the mind, and destroys physical health with a slow death. (Living Without Hypocrisy: Spiritual Counsels of the Holy Elders of Optina pg. 70)

On the Purpose of Canons and Penances

Council in Trullo 692

It behooves those who have received from God the power to loose and bind, to consider the quality of the sin and the readiness of the sinner for conversion, and to apply medicine suitable for the disease, lest if he is injudicious in each of these respects he should fail in regard to the healing of the sick man. For the disease of sin is not simple, but various and multiform, and it germinates many mischievous offshoots, from which much evil is diffused, and it proceeds further until it is checked by the power of the physician. Wherefore he who professes the science of spiritual medicine ought first of all to consider the disposition of him who has sinned, and to see whether he tends to health or (on the contrary) provokes to himself disease by his own behavior, and to look how he can care for his manner of life during the interval. And if he does not resist the physician, and if the ulcer of the soul is increased by the application of the imposed medicaments, then let him mete out mercy to him according as he is worthy of it. For the whole account is between God and him to whom the pastoral rule has been delivered, to lead back the wandering sheep and to cure that which is wounded by the serpent; and that he may neither cast them down into the precipices of despair, nor loosen the bridle towards dissolution or contempt of life; but in some way or other, either by means of sternness and astringency, or by greater softness and mild medicines, to resist this sickness and exert himself for the healing of the ulcer, now examining the fruits of his repentance and wisely managing the man who is called to higher illumination. For we ought to know two things, to wit, the things which belong to strictness and those which belong to custom, and to follow the traditional form in the case of those who are not fitted for the highest things, as holy Basil teaches us. (Canon 102)

On Censuring Others

Bede the Venerable 673-735

When anyone censures those who are apostates and shows that they are worthy of condemnation, he ought to act with fear, lest perhaps something of this sort happen to him or those close to him whom he loves; and, also anyone who chastises another and snatches him from the fire of his vices ought to look to himself, for fear he himself also may be tempted; And anyone who has mercy on a neighbor who repents, in his own case also, he ought of necessity to act circumspectly, lest he be perhaps either severe or more devoted than is just. (Commentary on Jude, 25)

On Man

St. Justin the Philosopher ca. 103-165

For what is man, if not consisting of a soul and body as a rational living thing? Therefore, is the soul in and of itself man? No, the soul is not man. Would you call the body man? No, but it is called the body of man. Therefore, neither one of the two is in of itself man, but the union of the two is indeed called man. (Fragments)

On the Resurrection Body

St. Ephrem the Syrian ca. 306-373

Consider the man in whom there dwelt a legion of all kinds of devils (Mk. 5:9): they were there though they were not recognized, for their army is of stuff finer and more subtle than the soul itself. That whole army dwelt in a single body.

A hundred times finer and more subtle is the body of the just when they are risen at the resurrection: it resembles a thought that is able, if it wills, to stretch out and expand, or, should it wish, to contract and shrink; if it shrinks, it is somewhere, if it expands, it is everywhere.

The spiritual beings [in Paradise]…are so refined in substance that even thoughts cannot touch them! (The Harp of the Spirit: Eighteen Poems of Saint Ephrem)

On Humility and Distress

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

Humility and distress free man from every sin, the former by cutting out the passions of the soul, the latter those of the body. The blessed David shows that he did this in one of his prayers to God, “Look upon my humility and my trouble and forgive all my sins.” (Ps. 24:18) (The Four Hundred Chapters on Love: First Century 76)

On the Wrathful Love of God

Archbishop Theophan of Poltava 1874-1940

In essence the wrath of God is one of the manifestations of the love of God, but of the love of God in its relation to the moral evil in the heart of rational creatures in general, and in the heart of man in particular. (On the Redemption)

On Spiritual Gifts

St. Macarius of Optina 1788-1860

[T]he holy God-bearing Fathers wrote about great spiritual gifts not so that anyone might strive indiscriminately to receive them, but so that those who do not have them, hearing about such exalted gifts and revelations which were received by those who were worthy, might acknowledge their own profound infirmity and great insufficiency, and might involuntarily be inclined to humility, which is more necessary for those seeking salvation than all other works and virtues. (Letters to Monks, Moscow, 1862, pg. 370).

On What to Read

St. Ambrose of Optina 1812-1891

Reading spiritual books without instruction, you fear how not to fall into some incorrect thoughts or incorrect opinions. Your fear is well justified. Therefore, if you do not wish to suffer such a spiritual affliction, do not indiscriminately read all manner of new works, even if they are of spiritual content, but are written by those who have not confirmed their teaching by holiness of life; but rather read such works of the Fathers as have been recognized by the Orthodox Church as being fully well-known and doubtlessly edifying and soul-saving.

Source: http://thoughtsintrusive.wordpress.com/2013/04/08/st-ambrose-of-optina/

A Holy Father on a Founding Father

Elder Barsanuphius of Optina 1845-1913

The life of any Christian person can be depicted graphically in the form of an uninterruptedly ascending line. But the Lord does not allow a man to see this ascent; He conceals it, knowing human weakness, knowing that by observing his own improvement it would not take a man long to become prideful, and where there is pride, there too is a fall into the abyss. [Benjamin] Franklin thought up a horrible thing, proposing that people, on special little boards, make note of their successes of the day, of the week, and so on. In this way one can reach a state of terrible prelest, and tumble down into the abyss of destruction.

No, ours is a different path. We must all strive towards God, towards heaven, towards the East; but we must see our sins and weaknesses, confessing ourselves to be the first among sinners, seeing ourselves as beneath all, and all others as above us. However, this is a difficult thing; we all try to take notice of others—he’s weak in this, but I’m not; I’m a good boy, better than him. One must struggle against this trait. This is a tough struggle, but without it it’s impossible to see God. (Letter: April 11, 1911)

Source: http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/elderbars_talks1.aspx

On Justice and Temperance

St. Gregory the Dialogist ca. 540-604

[V]ery often justice, if it knows no bounds, falls into cruelty. Therefore, justice itself is truly justice which restrains itself with the rein of temperance in order that every man may also be temperate in the zeal with which he burns: lest if he be more zealous he lose justice, the bounds of which he ignores. (Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel, Homily 3.8)

On Diverse Weights and Measures

St. Gregory the Dialogist ca. 540-604

For many are the sins which we commit; but they do not, therefore, seem grave to us because, loving ourselves with privy love, with our eyes closed, we delude ourselves in our deception. Hence, it very often happens that we adjudge our own grave sins minor and the petty transgressions of others as major. Indeed, it written: “Men shall be lovers of themselves” (2 Tim. 3:2). And we know that self-love firmly closes the eye of the heart. So it happens that what we do and ajudge trivial is very often done by a neighbor and seems to us only too abominable. But why does this which seemed to us trifling, yet appear grave to us in our neighbor, unless because we do not scrutinize ourselves as we do our neighbor, nor our neighbor as ourselves? For, if we were to look upon ourselves as on a neighbor, we should see our transgressions strictly. And, again, if we were to look on our neighbor as ourselves, his deed would never appear intolerable to us, who perhaps did such things and did not imagine that he had committed an offense intolerable to our neighbor. Moses sought to correct our inconsistent mental judgment by the provisions of the Law, when he said that a bushel must be just and the sextary equal. Solomon says: “Diverse weights and diverse measures, both are abominable before God” (Prov. 20:10). For we know that one thing may be heavier, another lighter, in the false weight of tradesmen. For they have one weight for what they weigh for themselves, and another for what they weigh for their neighbor. For they prepare lighter weights for giving, but heavier weights for receiving. Therefore, every man who weighs with one measure for the things of his neighbor, yet another for his own, has diverse weights. Therefore, both are abominable before God, because if a man were to love his neighbor as himself, he would love him in his good deeds as himself. And if he were to scrutinize himself as his neighbor, he would judge himself in his sins as if he were his neighbor. (Homilies on the Book of Ezekiel, Homily 4.9)

On Being Orthodox but Not Christian

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose 1934-1982

Sometimes one’s zeal for “Orthodoxy” can be so excessive that it produces a situation similar to that which caused an old Russian woman to remark of an enthusiastic American convert “Well, he’s certainly Orthodox all right — but is he a Christian?”

To be “Orthodox but not Christian” is a state that has a particular name in Christian language: it means to be a pharisee, to be so bogged down in the letter of the Church’s laws that one loses the spirit that gives them life, the spirit of true Christianity. In saying this my aim is not to be critical or to point to anyone in particular — we all suffer from this — but only to point out a pitfall which can cause one to fail to take advantage of the riches which the Orthodox Church provides for our salvation, even in these evil times. (Orthodoxy in America )

On the Souls of Animals

St. Gregory Palamas ca. 1296-1359

The soul of each animal not imbued with intelligence is the life of the body that it animates; it does not possess life as essence, but as activity, since here life is relative and not something in itself. Indeed, the soul of animals consists of nothing except that which is actuated by the body. Thus when the body dissolves, the soul inevitably dissolves as well. Their soul is no less mortal than their body, since everything that it is relates and refers to what is mortal. So when the body dies the soul also dies. (Topics of Natural and Theological Science and on the Moral and Ascetic Life: One Hundred and Fifty Texts, 31)

On Correctness and Self-Esteem

New Martyr St. Barlaam 1878-1942

We are not justified by correcting ourselves, not by good deeds; all this is undermined by our common sinfulness, and in any case we are obliged to do it by our God-like nature. But we are justified by humility and repentance: A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a hear that is contrite and humble God will not despise. You will find this somewhere in the letters of Optina Elder Macarius. Therefore, it is good that you have failings and weaknesses; with repentance and contrition they will lead you into Paradise. But if you do not have any, then a trust in your own correctness can hinder you greatly through secret self-esteem and a pharasaical trust in the labors and virtues you have borne: “I have earned it — pay me!”

We are all insane over self-esteem, and therefore when we correct ourselves a little in some way or other, we at once give value to ourselves and unnoticeably become refined pharisees: we praise ourselves for what grace has done, according to God’s mercy, and not because of our achievements. Therefore, in spiritual matters correctness can do us more harm than incorrectness with a feeling of repentance. You will say: “With correctness one can also repent.” Repent of what, if we see ourselves as correct? It is just a step away from deception. True correctness cannot exist. Therefore, the Holy Fathers teach that deeds do not justify us, even if we are obliged to do good deeds (by the power of God), as a bird is obliged to sing, for that is why it is created. We are created to do good deeds; such is our nature. It would be silly to become proud that we have to arms and two legs — such is our nature. And if we do not do good deeds, then we err severley against our nature and God’s will. Therefore, it is good to the deeds, but not in order to boast in our struggles and achievements, but in order to acquire a greater degree of humility and repentance. He who fasts and prays not to acquire humility and repentance, but for pleasing God and self-justification — is quite mistaken. (Russia’s Catacomb Saints pp. 277, 280-281)

On the Delights of the Body and the Soul

St. Gregory the Dialogist ca. 540-604

There is this difference, Dearly Beloved Brethren, between the delights of the body and those of the soul, that the delights of the body, when we do not possess them, awaken in us a great desire for them; but when we possess them and enjoy them to the full they straight-away awaken in us a feeling of aversion. But spiritual delights work in the opposite way. While we do not possess them we regard them with dislike and aversion; but once we partake of them, the more do we hunger for them….For spiritual delights, when they fill the soul, increase in us the desire of them; and the more we savor them, the more we come to know what we should eagerly love.

And so we do not know these delights, because we have not come to savor them. For who can love what he does not know? Because of this the Psalmist speaks to us, and exhorts us, saying: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good‘ (Ps. 33: 9)! (Homily on Luke 14:16-24: The Supper of God and the Soul)

St. Macarius on the Appearance of the Soul

St. Macarius the Great ca. 300-391

Question: Does the soul have any form?

Answer: It has a form and image similar to that of an angel. For as angels have an image and form and as the outer man has his image so also the inner man has image that is similar both to that of angel and that of the exterior man. (The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 7.7)

On Condemning Oneself

Prov. 18:17 LXX A righteous man accuses himself at the beginning of his speech, but when he has entered upon the attack, the adversary is reproved.

Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky 1863-1936

Once, someone was talking to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk and could not find any words with which to oppose his arguments about the faith, so he struck the saint in the face. Then St. Tikhon himself fell at his feet and asked forgiveness for not warning him against such a sin as striking one of God’s bishops in the face. Readiness to condemn oneself and not others is a great virtue, which not only exalts people in the eyes of God, but also attracts the hearts of men. (Confession Chap. 9: Self-Justification)

On the Depth of the Human Heart

St. Macarius the Great ca. 4th cent.

…[T]he heart itself is but a small vessel, yet there also are dragons and there are lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. And there are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices. But there also is God, also the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and Apostles, the treasures of grace — there are all things. (The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 43.7)

On Forgiveness

Abba Sisoes the Great ca. 4th-5th cent.

A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, ‘My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.’ The old man pleaded with him saying, ‘No, my child, leave vengeance to God.’ He said to him, ‘I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.’ The old man said, ‘Brother, let us pray.’ Then the old man stood up and said, ‘God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we do justice for ourselves.’ Hearing these words, the brothers fell at the old man’s feet, saying, ‘I will no longer seek justice from my brother; forgive me abba.’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Abba Sisoes 1)

St. John Moschos ca. 550-619

Once when I was in the Holy City a prson who loved Christ came to me and said: ‘There had been a small altercation between my brother and me and he will not be reconciled with me. You go speak to him and reason with him.’ I received this commission joyfully. I called the brother and spoke to him of those things which tend to love and peace, and it seemed as though he was coming round to my point of view. At last, he said to me: ‘I cannot be reconciled with him because I swore on the Cross.’ I said to him with a smile: ‘Your oath was equivalent to saying: “Oh Christ, by the honorable Cross, I will not keep your commandments, but I will do the will of your enemy the devil.” We ought not only to put a halt to what we have set in motion, but also (and even more so) to repent and lament for what we have wrongly instigated to our own hurt. As the divinely inspired Basil says: ‘If Herod had repented and not kept his oath, he would not have committed that heinous sin of beheading John the Forerunner of Christ.’ Finally I brought out the opinion of Saint Basil which he took from the Gospel: that when Christ wanted to wash the feet of Saint Peter, although [the Apostle] obstinately refused at first, he afterwards changed his mind. When he heard this, he was reconciled with his brother. (The Spiritual Meadow, 216)

On Arrogance

St. John of Kronstadt 1829-1908 

“A proud man, at the time when other people are speaking of any other person’s virtues, is wickedly afraid lest this person should be superior to him in virtues, and should eclipse him, for the proud man considers himself above all, and does not think it possible to find similar or higher virtues in others. The rivalry of others is a great misfortune to him.” My Life in Christ p.138 

How to Speak Humbly

St. Barsanuphius ca. 6th cent.

To say something with humility does not mean to speak like a teacher, but rather, just as you have heard it from the Abba and the Fathers. If it profitable to say something to a brother, and vainglory inspires you to enjoy this — then know that the enemy wishes to hinder you from doing something of profit to your brother. If you will listen to vainglory, your brother will never receive profit through you. But overthrow vainglory and disdain it, and when you say what is necessary to your brother, repent before God, saying: “Forgive me, O Lord, that I spoke out of vainglory.” (Guidance Toward Spiritual Life 287)

On Anger

St. Macarius the Great ca. 300-390

Abba Macarius said, “If you reprove someone, you yourself get carried away by anger and you are satisfying your own passion; do not lose yourself, therefore in order to save another.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: Macarius 17)

On True Blessedness

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

The world has many poor in spirit, but not in the right way; and many who mourn, but over money matters and loss of children; and many who are meek, but in the face of impure passions; and many who hunger and thirst, but to rob another’s goods and to profit unjustly. And there are many who are merciful, but to the body and to its comforts; and clean of heart, but out of vanity; and peacemakers, but who subject the soul to the flesh; and many who suffer persecution, but because they are disorderly; many who are reproached, but for shameful sins. Instead, only those are blessed who do and suffer these things for Christ and following his example. For what reason? “Because theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and “they shall see God,” and so forth. So that it is not because they do and suffer these things that they are blessed (since those just mentioned do the same), but because they do and suffer them for Christ and following his example. (Four Hundred Chapters on Love: Third Century, 47)

The Outrageous Spiritual Condition of Contemporary Man

Blessed Elder Paisios the Athonite 1924-1994

The things that take place…, so many grave sins. Not even the Holy Fathers had forseen such sins in the Sacred Canons. It’s like Sodom and Gomorrah when God had said, “I don’t believe that such sins exist; I should go and see for myself.”

Source: http://frjosiah.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/the-outrageous-spiritual-condition-of-contemporary-man/

On Carnal and Spiritual Zeal

Rom. 10:2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.

St. Ignaty Brianchininov 1807-1867

A monk must be extremely cautious of carnal and animal zeal, which outwardly appears pious but in reality is foolish and harmful to the soul.

Worldly people and many living the monastic life, through ignorance and inexperience, often praise such zeal without understanding that it springs from conceit and pride.  They extol this zeal as zeal for the faith, for piety, for the Church, for God.  It consists in a more or less harsh condemnation and criticism of one’s neighbours[…]  Deceived by a wrong conception of zeal, these imprudent zealots think that by yielding themselves to it they are imitating the holy fathers and holy martyrs, forgetting that they – the zealots – are not saints, but sinners.

[…] Divine zeal is a fire, but it does not heat the blood.  It cools it and reduces it to a calm state.  The zeal of the carnal mind is always accompanied by heating of the blood, and by an invasion of swarms of thoughts and fancies.  The consequences of blind and ignorant zeal, if our neighbour opposes it, are usually displeasure with him resentment, or vengeance in various forms; while, if he submits, our heart is filled with vainglorious self-satisfaction, excitement and an increase of our pride and presumption. (The Arena)

Source: http://andreasblom.wordpress.com/

St. Chrysostom on Inner Strength

St. John Chrysostom 349-407

Sin makes man a coward; but a life in the Truth of Christ makes Him bold.
(On the Statues, VIII.2)

On Affliction and Preparing the Soul

Saint John of Kronstadt

Sometimes in affliction of your soul you wish to die. It is easy to die, and does not take long;  but are you prepared for death? Remember that after death the judgement of your whole life will follow. You are not prepared for death, and if it were to come to you, you would shudder all over. Therefore do not waste words in vain. Do not say,  “It is better to die,” but say, How can I prepare for death in a Christian manner?” By means of faith, by means of good works, and by bravely bearing the miseries and sorrows that happen to you, so as to be able to meet death fearlessly, peacefully and without shame, not as a rigorous law of nature, but as a fatherly call of the eternal, heavenly, holy, and blessed Father unto all the everlasting Kingdom. My Life in Christ, p. 18