Self will and obedience (On the feast day of St Euthymios) – Part I

20 January 2016

          Reading about the life and deeds of two great Fathers, St Pachomios and St Euthymios the Great, offered us the opportunity to touch on some issues which relate to our practical duty. I would like to remind you that the Holy Mountain is linked with St Euthymios and with the brotherhood at St Savva Monastery. The Stoudiou monastery established its spiritual regime based on the regime at the St Savva monastery. The same regime was copied by St Athanasios, the founder of the coenobitic way of life, when he moved to Athos and is being practiced to this day.

          It is vital to note that both Saints attach great importance on the strict observance of one’s conscience (ακρίβεια συνειδήσεως) and the strict observance of the practical regime with special emphasis on the need to relinquish our ‘self will’ (ίδιον θέλημα).

          One may operate according to his self will in many ways, but the following two are the most crucial: A) for seemingly good reasons e.g. one follows his will on the excuse that it is the devout thing to do. B) For sinful reasons e.g. one follows his will for selfish reasons. Both ways are devastating. But the most dangerous one is the first. The second way is obvious. He who operates according to his self will to satisfy his desires is met with shame. He, however, who operates according to his self will for a seemingly good reason, has almost no cure, since it is impossible to convince him that he errs, because he boasts that he is devout and is struggling spiritually. Did you notice the monk who was acting according to his self will for seemingly good reasons in the biography of St Pachomios?

          What does it mean ‘doing what we want for seemingly good reasons’? It means that we may gain our salvation as a reward for our own efforts.  However, as we have stressed so many times, our salvation is not a matter of transaction. The Lord is not a Despot who wishes to take something from his subordinates and disinherits them if they do not deliver. Even to think of this is ludicrous and blasphemous.

          God’s relationship with us is Fatherly and we are related to Him as His children. It is an absolute Father-Child relationship. Therefore, we are not saved by our deeds. What saves us is the love of Father-God, which flows out to His beloved children provided they practically demonstrate with their lives that they cherish their relationship with Him as His children. Our entire effort to comply with God’s will has this aim. We do not act in order to accumulate advantages which will force the Lord to give us what belongs to us. These beliefs are only espoused by western heretics and Jews.

          You have noticed that the monk in the story was struggling fiercely, was showing self control and was intensifying his struggle. He ought to have been given more trophies. Yet, the Lord did not see it this way. Instead of gaining more Grace, as he thought he would, he was demonized. Saint Pachomios set him free with his prayers.

          We encounter a similar case in the life of St Euthymios. One of his disciples was a strong and able man. The coenobium needed him to carry the heavy supplies to the monastery. Since he was a farmer, he was experienced on manual tasks and was seen as the proper man for the job. The Saint called him and informed him of this decision. The monk reacted negatively and was finding excuses saying: ‘I cannot do this, Elder. If you appoint me to this job, I will be going here and there, I will be neglecting my regime and the church services and I will not be able to keep up with my spiritual duties’. He was using his own flawed reasoning, the reasoning of the ‘transaction’ and not of faith.

St Euthymios consoled him: ‘No, child. This will not happen to you. We, who have elected you to this post, know what we are doing. We will be praying and your fears will not materialize. On the contrary, you will derive a lot of benefit from this service’. The monk did not wish to obey, insisting on his own flawed reasoning; namely that if he was not able to follow the line of the holy fathers in avoiding many and varied responsibilities, he was going to ‘lose his soul’. Finally the Saint warned him: ‘we have advised you to do what will benefit you, child. Since, however, you follow your self will do not blame us when you reap what you sowed’. As soon as the Elder spoke the devil entered the monk’s soul. He threw him on the floor and the monk started freaking out and frothing at the mouth and doing all those things the devil awards his servants with. At the instigation of the other monks, the Saint healed him. As soon as he recovered, he took upon him the responsibilities he was given and excelled at those tasks.

[To Be Continued]